March 17, 2009


The administration's tentative rhetoric-heavy, action-light education policies aren't going to work.

Wishful thinking isn't going to make up the deficiencies.

The problem isn't necessarily that the Administration's policies are bad, though in this case most of them are. (The Bush Administration's policies weren't much better.)

And let's not forget that each state has the primary role in education anyway. That's federalism and it's usually a good thing. Mississippi's education needs are much different than Massachusetts'. Why should their education policies be the same? Moreover, no one has found the recipe for providing a good education for all students yet, so the need for experimentation remains. And, the more laboratories the better until one state finds a system that works and can be replicated.

To improve education, the Administration needs to take an important first step:

Admit defeat.

The current system simply doesn't work well for many children (and teachers). The incentives are all screwed up. There is not enough "choice" in the system, hence all the "wars." There is a "reading war" because some parents don't agree with the reading instruction services favored by some educators, yet have no choice when it comes to selecting those services. Educators should be able to choose what instructional services they offer and parents and students should be able to choose which educator's services they want to consume. There would be a market for both "progressive" education services and "traditional" education services.

Henry Ford used to offer his Model T automobile in any color the customer wanted provided they wanted black. Ford's competitors soon offered a choice of colors. Everybody was happy, except perhaps Henry. In education you're only happy if you like black. If you don't, you're at "war" with the system because you don't have a choice.

But I digress.

The first step to improve education has to be to admit defeat. We picked a bad system a century or so ago and it didn't deliver on its promises. We tried to educate the masses and we failed. We don't educate the masses; we educate the same small group of students that have always been easily educable. For the rest, we offer an expensive facsimile of education that fails to educate. We're good at claiming we've educated; not so good on delivering the education. We're good at shifting goal posts to make it appear that we're doing a good job, but few people are fooled.

Worse yet, the present system has attracted many powerful entrenched special interests whose best interest is to maintain the status quo. Those special interests are not students or teachers.

Instead of playing the blame game, it is more productive to say that the education incentives are not aligned. They need to be aligned for the system to work. Until they are aligned, no "reform" is going to work. There is lots of data proving this point.

To get the incentives aligned you need to take the right second step after you admit defeat. Admitting defeat provides the political will to take the second step. And, there's only one right second step. And that is to ...


The system needs to be rebooted.

We need a do over.

All the existing ties need to be severed. Then they can be rebuilt. The right way.

After the reboot what would have when the system comes back online?
  • A bunch of students with varying education needs.
  • A bunch of teachers with varying teaching abilities.
  • A bunch of administrators and support personnel with varying administrative capabilities.
  • A bunch of school buildings where education services and transportation services can be provided.
  • A lot of instructional material and many publishers willing to supply almost any instructional need.
  • Over $10k per student for operational expenses from existing tax revenue.
  • An information superhighway capable of providing all the information services needed for a transparent network linking parents, students, taxpayers, and educators.

That's more than enough to get us started on Education System 2.0 - 21st century edition.

Actually, you need to do one more thing. Throw out all the existing rules and regulations and institute a ten year moratorium on all education-specific rules, like we did with the Internet when it was opened up to consumers. When the reboot goes into effect, you want only a bare minimum of rules in place to bootstrap the new system.

Then its just a matter of realigning the incentives which is easy.

That'll be the next post.


palisadesk said...

Have you read Cathy Watkins' book yet? If not, hustle your way over here and buy it right now. It speaks to the problems you're addressing and the contingencies that need to be in place for an alternative outcome.

KDeRosa said...

Figures somebody had the idea before me.

Anonymous said...

Would that it were as simple as "rebooting." I understand that it's a metaphor, but as a metaphor, the term is as empty as "reform."

The assets you list are a good start. But there are also liabilities (bugs and viruses to extend the reboot metaphor.
--Faulty belief systems
--An expensive overhead of incompetent but well-entrenched "professional preparation" and "professional development" institutions and organizations.
--Special interests within the enterprise that are thriving on the status quo

I could list other liabilities but that's enough to convey the idea that a "do over" is wishful.

Then there is the reality of what is currently in motion.

$100 Billion is going to states with the contradictory directives to:
--spend it fast
--improve instruction
--account for expenditures categorically
--make sure investments are one-time and not self sustaining

Let's consider your advice.

"Admit defeat" National governments just don't admit defeat, and there's really no need to do so here.

It is necessary to acknowledge that the policy of "standards and accountability with standardized achievement tests" that has prevailed since 1989 is failed Federal education policy. But that's just a matter of looking at the record and not going deeper into that morrass.

"Choice." The fact of the matter is that the "wars won't be resolved in the manner you suggest. The "wars" have prevailed because there are no mechanisms for registering and regulating the instructional accomplishments of the el-hi enterprise.

"Throw out all existing rules and regulations."

That would be anarchy. The el-hi enterprise is not the Internet. The Internet works because it is was developed as a highly complex self-correcting system. The el-hi enterprise operates at the level of a hunter-gatherer culture overladen with complex federal and state mandates.

That said. The educational regulatory system does cry out for relaxation as much as the financial regulatory system cries out for tightening.

I'll look forward to your dropping the other shoe of "realigning the incentives."

You're "closing the gap." "Reboot" is a much more productive metaphor than "Reform."

Stephen Downes said...

Choice is good and is a lot easier to manage in a public school system where you can set up a range of alternatives. This is what school systems in places like Canada and Finland do.

Of course, this is the direction the Obama administration is moving toward, within the constraints of the current system, which is a mish-mash of conflicting agenda, private enterprise profiteering, and elitist enclaves. So it is rather premature for the admninistration - still sitting at something like 55 days into its mandate - to "admit it has failed".

Incentives are trickier. Here's a hint: ignore the economists, who have pretty much discredited their entire profession with their recent work.

Anonymous said...

Support voucher programs, charter schools, alternative credentialing and homeschooling.

These are our thin wedges.

KDeRosa said...

A few points Stephen.

This report suggests that Canada doesn't do any better educating its NAMs than does the US.

I'm not blaming the Obama admin for our present education system. Though I don't believe his policies will be an imporvement.

mmazenko said...

While I agree there is much that can be improved in the education system, it is rather extreme to claim we should "admit defeat. We picked a bad system a century or so ago and it didn't deliver on its promises. We tried to educate the masses and we failed." No nation has ever risen to the levels of excellence America has with a "failed education system." Granted, it's not the most efficient and it isn't overly egalitarian. However, America educates an incredibly large population to reasonably high levels to meet the demands of both the economy and the republic.

There are countless examples of excellent public schools that are accomplishing more today with their students than I ever could have fathomed as a student twenty years ago - about the same time as the publication of that dire education warning "A Nation at Risk." If you ask parents who send their children to Stevenson High School or New Trier High School in Chicago, Scarsdale High School in New York, Bellevue International School in Seattle, or Stanton College Prep in Jacksonville, Florida - not to mention others regularly ranked on Newsweek's list of the Best 100 Schools - you will find people who are extremely satisfied with public education.

Mort Zuckerman's column in U.S. News and World Reports noted that "education is another great American success story." According to Zuckerman, "nearly 90 percent of adults today complete high school compared with 33 percent in 1947." Additionally, nearly 30% of the American population today has a college degree compared with 5 percent in 1947. That seems like some rather impressive progress. It's hardly a ruined education system. While Americans regularly cite concerns about public schools, Gallup polls show seventy-five percent of Americans are "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with their children's school. An even greater percentage of Americans (85%) are satisfied with their own education.

Clearly, our education system is inequitable and inefficient. Interestingly, there is much to the argument that we attempt to over-educate too much of our population - a marked difference from every other industrialized nation in the world. However, the reason for that is noble, and it's devoted to offering opportunity to as many as possible.

Certainly, there are problems and inefficiencies. However, the existing system can be modified without radical overhaul.

Anonymous said...

It's sad that this administration just doesn't seem to get it on education. Their plan is a piecemeal group of separate policies that individually have their advantages and drawbacks. But the Administration has no comprehensive vision for where it wants to take the American education system other than a drive to beat the Chinese reminiscent of the cold war.


Tracy W said...

Stephen: Which economists are you referring to so we can know who you think we should be ignoring?

The recent crisis has disproved a number of macroecnomic theories, but I don't see how that's relevant to education. Have some education economists been found to have been inventing data?

KDeRosa said...

Mazenko, I don't mean to suggest that the U.S. system is inferior to any other school system. They are almost all government run monopolies with the same problems.

I'll grant you that our system isn't efficient, but I disagree that it's not egalitarian.

Also, I don't mean to suggest that there aren't some schools that aren't performing well. The ones in the affluent suburbs tend to do well. Though there is considerable strife even in these schools since parents aren't given any choices.

The high school graduation rates are an example of goalpost shifting. Those stats include alternate means of graduating like GEDS. Also, the stats are inflated due to the methodology employed. A fairer estimate is about 75% graduate from high school. Lastly, we now have social promotion which serves to inflate graduation rates. Performance on the 12th grade NAEP has remain flat since its inception.

Anonymous said...

"A bunch of school buildings of varying condition and variously conducive to learning where education services and transportation services can be provided."

TurbineGuy said...

Instead of rebooting, couldn't I just upgrade?

My local school district is pressing full steam with Everyday Math...

Not sure if I have the energy to raise a stink.

Easier to supplement.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Ken, but I'll go with Dick Schutz and Mazenko this time. I'm not sure that a "reboot" is possible in any meaningful sense, and if it is, I'm afraid Congress and the general public would think it prudent to put the "experts" in charge. That means ed school. And we think we have a mess now!

And I don't understand this "We picked a bad system a century or so ago". Are you saying that local control of local government schools is a bad idea? What alternatives should we consider?

Anonymous said...

"And I don't understand this "We picked a bad system a century or so ago". Are you saying that local control of local government schools is a bad idea? What alternatives should we consider?"

I didn't understand that either Brian. And to give Ken something more to chew on, I didn't understand the term "government monopoly."

Schools are financed with a combination of local, state, and federal funds. But that doesn't make them a "monopoly" any more than it does any other public service.

Functionally, schools are closer to anarchy than monopoly. You can find examples somewhere to support about any statement you'd like to make about them as a whole. But differences are almost entirely a function of idiopathic differences in personnel beliefs and in student selection by race/SES.

The chances of changing the federal arrangement are nil. The success of mandates from the federal government in getting any handle on instructional accomplishments has been null.

My contention is that the only thing that has failed has been the educational policy of the federal government since 1989.

That the system is robust can be attributed to the teachers who manage to teach and to the kid who manage to learn despite the ineptness at the top.

This is not in any way to defend or to support the status quo. We badly need educational "Change we can believe in." What we now have are the five ponies you've identified. But it's early in the game.

KDeRosa said...


I'm not sure that a "reboot" is possible in any meaningful sense, and if it is, I'm afraid Congress and the general public would think it prudent to put the "experts" in charge. That means ed school.

I'm certainly not suggesting that we put "experts" in charge, especially experts from ed school.

What I am suggesting is that we let parents and students decide on the educational services they want to consume. And, since we live in a country of busybodies, I expect that "government" will attempt to regulate the minimal requirements in which those services are rendered in FDA fashion, though such regulation, I'd argue, is largely superfluous in a transparent market.

Are you saying that local control of local government schools is a bad idea?

What I'm saying is government run schools is a bad idea. Government should be in the business of providing a well regulated market for education services and possibly ensuring that public funding is not squandered.

In my neck of the woods, the government can't even collect the trash efficiently so they had to contract it out. The local government is good at bossing the contractors around, not so good at providing the services themselves.

KDeRosa said...


Schools are financed with a combination of local, state, and federal funds. But that doesn't make them a "monopoly" any more than it does any other public service.

It has market power obtained by taxation. If you in district X your children must attend public school x. Unless, you want to pay twice and send them to private school.

At best, there is Thiebault competition, but that ain't much.

Catherine Johnson said...

It's funny--I hadn't seen that you were writing these posts.

Yet I've been walking around town thinking "Public education needs a reboot."

Dick Schutz said...

What is "Thiebault competition?" I couldn't turn up anything on Google.

My point was that public services like police security, fire department, trash, public health and social services are also "government monopoly X's," But that's not a pejorative as it is used in "government schools."

We now have some "government charter schools" and "government public schools" in the same school district. But we've had "magnet schools" since the 1960s and 'special schools" of one sort or another since the 1900's.

None of these changes in nomenclature has done any more than bring about superficial modifications. In the aggregate they've brought only personnel and student selection.

I advocate "Choice we can believe in, with consequential options for kids academic enablements. Setting up these takes more thought tand work than has yet been devoted to the matter.

KDeRosa said...

My bad, Dick, I meant Tiebout competition. -- voting with your feet.