Gov. Christie, “Failure Factories” and other Follies in the Debate on Education

You and others are correct to reject the arguments of politicians like Christie and the many so-called business gurus who advocate privatization of education, vouchers, and reliance on testing to assess both student and teacher performance and who blame teachers and their unions for the problems with education in America. Critics of these initiatives are wrong, however, to cite them as examples of the danger in applying business principles to problems in our schools. These proposals have nothing to do with business principles.

These same critics are also wrong to defend the state of education in America as something less than a crisis. Administrators, educational researchers, and policymakers are poorly positioned to judge the performance of public education.

If you wish to know the truth about the quality of education in America, ask the employer who is struggling to hire people who can read, write, and enumerate with any level of sophistication. Ask test administrators like myself, who see only minimal improvements in the number of young people, over the past decade, who can earn the minimum score on the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) to gain eligibility for entry in to the Armed Services of the United States. Ask the middle school and high school teachers of our urban public schools who devote so much time to dealing with behavior issues in their classrooms that teaching has become problematic.

Draw your own conclusions when you examine the results of the performance of American children, as documented by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), when compared to children of other developed and developing nations.

Our systems of education in America derive no benefit when their advocates lash out at critics and pull their heads inside their shells while claiming that everything is getting better.

The crisis in education in America is real and we stumble along making the same mistakes that we’ve been making for generations and offering up the same excuses. It is poverty, they say as if the acknowledgement somehow absolves them of their responsibility.

The problem is not poverty and it is not racial discrimination or segregation; it is not bad teachers and schools; and it is not fractured families living in deteriorating urban and rural communities. I suggest an alternate hypothesis that the relationship between poverty and the failure of our educational systems, along with deteriorating urban communities, is not causal, rather that they are all symptoms of the same pathology. It is our unwillingness to challenge the conventional wisdom about theses systemic issues that blinds us from the real truth.

When we look at the problem and study the children who are failing we are looking through the wrong end of the microscope and we are asking all the wrong questions. There is only one question that we need to ask and the answer to that one question will tell us everything we need to know to solve the problems of education in America, which, by the way, will lead to the solutions of poverty, and deteriorating communities. What is that one question?
That question is not “why do children fail?” rather it is: “what do children who succeed have in common with one another?” Or, re-phrased, what is the one characteristic shared by almost every single successful American primary and secondary education student?

We will be surprised to discover that it is not affluence because just as there are poor children who excel academically, there are affluent students who fail as badly as some of their economically disadvantaged classmates.
It is not race, because the list of the academically excellent includes white children, and black children, and children with skins that span all of the hues and colors in between.

It is not fractured families because there are children who excel in school who live in single-parent homes or with families that are otherwise distressed just as there are children from intact families who fail, miserably.
It is not bad neighborhoods because there are children from the most dreadful surroundings who somehow perform well in school just as there are children at the other end of the performance continuum who live in the best neighborhoods in America.

Finally, it is not bad schools populated by bad teachers, because students from both ends of the performance continuum can be found in our best and in our worst schools.

The one single characteristic that most links our best students, wherever we find them, is that they are supported by one or more parent(s) or guardian(s) who are determined that their children will get the best possible education and who consider themselves to be partners, sharing responsibility for the education of their children with teachers and principals.

Think for a moment, about how this one distinguishing characteristics of successful school children changes, profoundly, everything we think we know about the educational process.

The problem with education in America is that we have a burgeoning population of American mothers and fathers who live under a stifling blanket of hopelessness and powerlessness. These men and women are effectively disenfranchised and no longer believe in the American Dream for themselves or for their children. As a result, they do not stress the importance of education to their children and they make little if any effort to prepare their children for learning; they offer no support to the educators of their children and, in fact, view their children’s teachers and principals as adversaries; and, finally, more often than not, they have lost control over their children and can no longer claim status as the guiding influence in the daily lives of their sons and daughters.

We have two challenges if we wish to secure any semblance of a competitive advantage for the U.S. as we proceed through the balance of the Twenty-first Century.

1. The first is that we must utilize every resource at our disposal to pull parents into the process as fully participating partners in the education of their sons and daughters. It is the absence of this partnership that results in the lowest level of motivation to learn on the part American children in generations.
2. The second is that we must be willing to admit that our current educational process is poorly structured to get the results we so desperately need to achieve. It is a system that is focused on failure and that sets the overwhelming majority of students up for failure and humiliation simply because it sets all children out on the same academic path, regardless of the cavernous disparity in the preparation they bring to their first day of school, and it judges their performance against that of their classmates.

The first challenge is formidable because it demands that we strive to change the culture of American society to one in which the American dream is real and achievable, if not for every man and woman in the nation, at least for their children.

The second challenge offers no excuses for failure because each and every school corporation in America has the authority to change the educational process by decree. That we choose to continue our practice of stumbling around in the dark is nothing short of malpractice and it places our entire future as a society in jeopardy.

I invite you and your readers to check out my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge of Twenty-First Century America. What you will find is a different approach to the challenge of identifying and then rectifying the problems with education. We offer a business approach but not in the way you might think.

What businesses do not do is rush headlong into the fray implementing unproven solutions to their most challenging problems. With their focus on customer satisfaction, businesses seek practical solutions to real life problems, aggressively but not recklessly. If we are not getting the outcomes we seek, we search for alternate solutions. To paraphrase the wisdom of Zig Ziglar, if “you keep doing what you’ve been doing you’re going to keep getting what you’ve been getting.”

Businesses also understand that we must structure our production processes to get the outcomes we seek. Tinkering with a dysfunctional process will create nothing but disappointing outcomes. What is needed is a systems-thinking approach in which we examine the educational process as an integral whole, identify what it is we want to accomplish, and then re-design or, if you will, reinvent the process to produce the desired outcomes.

In Reinventing Education, Hope and the American Dream I walk the reader through this systems-thinking process, systematically.

I also invite you and your readers to visit my blog THE LEADer (Thinking Exponentially: Leadership, Education, and the America Dream). This blog was created to explore the cultural challenges we face as we strive to re-instill faith and home in the American dream.

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