Can We Really Blame Bush and Obama for the Problems in American Public Education?

In a recent post on Diane Ravitch’s blog a reader suggests that “It will take years, maybe decades to recover from the mess Bush and Obama have generated in our schools.”

To blame Bush and Obama for ruining education is like trying to blame the EPA for the polluted lake they were striving to clean up. What we have been doing for the last fifty years, both in terms of business as usual and also in terms of a half century’s worth of failed reforms, are the things that led us to our status as a second class educational system.  The way we should approach our current challenge is something that teachers, more than anyone, should understand. When something doesn’t work, we do not blame someone for trying rather we strive to understand how and why what they did failed to work. In other words, we need to learn from our mistakes.

Think of the scientific principle. We develop a hypothesis and then we test it. Based upon what we learn from the outcomes of our efforts we make adjustments in our hypothesis and then we try again, repeating the process until we are able to consistently predict the results of our efforts.

Imagine what the world would be like today if, throughout the history of mankind, we blamed people for their failures and chose to cling to past practices rather than trying something new. Had that been the protocol of historical man, we would now be living in an extended version of the stone age.

The reason why education as evolved into the a system where an unacceptable number of children fail is  because we have spent the last fifty years trying to make incremental improvements in a technology that has become obsolete. This is what educational professionals have done and this is what policy makers have been doing whether their backgrounds are in education or business.

If the reader will pardon another historical metaphor, imagine if we were still striving to make incremental improvements in horse-driven transportation technology.

I do not envision that privatizing education can get us where we need to be but that does not mean that business principles are irrelevant when addressing the problems of education in America. What happens in business is that the world in which our customers live and conduct business is undergoing relentless and often revolutionary change. For a supplier to be successful, they must take the time to understand what has changed in our customer’s business environment and find new solutions for them. More often than not this means replacing rather that re-working old technology. Failure to understand and effectively respond to ever-changing customer expectations means loss of market share followed by business failure.

What we must understand about this Twenty-first Century is that the playing field in which the United States must compete is undergoing relentless, radical, and transformational change. In response to these changes, our competitors are leaping into the future where they are finding new and innovative ways to respond to these changes. In the meantime, Americans trudge along, yearning for the good old days that are forever lost to us.

The reality in Twenty-first Century America is that our educational process is failing to produce the kind of results necessary to compete in the international marketplace and if we don’t figure out what to do about it right now, the golden era of the United States of America, once the richest, most innovate, and productive nation in the history of the world, will grind to a sudden and unpleasant halt.

I encourage the reader to check out my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America in order to understand how to utilize a systems-thinking approach. Only through such an approach will we be able to challenge our fundamental assumptions about the educational process and then re-engineer the system to do what we so desperately need it to do.

The one certainty facing us is that, should we fail to transform our systems of education, both public and private, in fifty years China and other developing nations of the world will be looking to the U.S. for their supply of cheap labor because that is all the American people will be qualified to provide.

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