Public Education: A Sector Redesign Challenge
11.1 Sources of Mediocrity in Public Education
America’s public education sector is responsible for schooling most of our nation’s children. The tradition of public education from K – 12 is part of our history and the engine by which our nation gathered up immigrants and became a powerhouse. Without denying its accomplishments, this sector badly underperforms. Its graduates haven’t the powerful skills the nation needs from them. Its yield losses, especially among children of poverty, are a deep embarrassment. It suffers from all the symptoms of old paradigm fatigue. Its expectations are too low, its methods dated, its roles static, and its culture insufficiently ambitious. Worse yet, even its reformers lack a persuasive vision of genuine success. We haven’t the core principles we need; we haven’t forged a compelling worldview; our success standards are deficient; our solutions are wanting.
It is time to build a stronger framework for understanding our situation, time to bring our directional worldview into sharper focus.
Education: A World of Rules
“Education.” It’s a marvelous word, but what is it? Taken as a standalone term, it’s an inspirational idea, richly suggestive, implying discovery and knowledge and curiosity and competence.
Now apply it as a label to the nation’s school districts. “Education” acquires a rather different meaning. The world of Public Education is a world of rules, rules, and more rules. As our son once said, “On the first day of school, they always read us the rules.” Not the mission statement. The rules. Schools of education instruct their students in the proper doctrines of the day. Government takes a bureaucratically prescriptive approach to education, passing laws and writing regulations filled with Do’s and Don’ts. School district central offices lay down rules to cover every imaginable issue. Schools are governed by rules that spell out the subjects to be taught, the kinds of children to be served, the salary schedules for teachers, the length of the student’s school day, the length of the teacher’s work day, the proper way to handle disciplinary issues – on and on. One survives as a teacher in public education by accepting the inevitability of rules. It is amazing, given the weight of the culture, that teachers function in their classrooms with any originality at all.
Given the nature of its rule-bound existence, it is little wonder that public education produces so few genuine trailblazers. How much innovation can anyone expect from such a culture? Nor is that the whole of the problem. One must also note the tendency of school systems to create their own cultures of self-satisfaction.
The Praise Culture in Public School Systems
Listen carefully to the language of school system administrators. One hears a litany of stock phrases, both in local schools and in school district central offices. “Our teachers work so hard.” “They really care about the children.” “They deserve our appreciation.” “We can’t thank them enough.” And of course all this is true. Teachers care about children, they work hard, they do deserve our appreciation, and we can never thank them enough.
It is quite the mantra. And beneath the mantra, listen for the subtext, so subtle as to be initially undetectable. Then one begins to appreciate its force. “Because our teachers work so hard, and deserve so much appreciation, it would be rude indeed to criticize the school system.” Peel this message back and it becomes even more blunt. “You are not entitled to criticize our efforts. And we are not obligated to listen.”
There is a bottom line. “We deserve praise. You owe us praise. Everything else is out of bounds.” These are the House Rules. Obey or else.
Welcome to the Praise Culture, a coercive social code that makes it very difficult for anyone inside or outside the system to hold it accountable. By the silent code of the Praise Culture, it is rude to challenge the established order. Critical feedback is subtly out of bounds. The Praise Culture creates a bubble of self-satisfaction within which mediocrity is protected and originality is discouraged. If we allow the Praise Culture to influence our directional worldview, our success standards for public schools will be set much too low.
There are those who would have us believe that the nation’s superintendents and their senior staffs are largely on the right track, that our schools would perform better if only the teachers’ unions would allow school systems to release incompetent teachrs regardless of seniority. It is a legitimate observation; unions too can fall prey to the self-congratulatory temptations of the Praise Culture. But it is a mistake to let America’s superintendents off the hook. The cultural problems in public education begin at the top.
(For an especially pointed critique of unionism gone wrong, see former Chancellor Joel Klein's article about New York City schools in The Atlantic, June 2011.)
Flawed Leadership, Flawed Consequences
Let’s expand our descriptive worldview by yet another notch. Think of public education as a vast sector with little engines of replication spread across every neighborhood in America. Its mission is to engage, inspire, and educate; when it fails to achieve its mission, as it so often does, the consequences are far-reaching. Even its graduates are not as well-educated as their counterparts in many other countries. And far too many young people drop out – especially those from high poverty neighborhoods. Consider the numbers. Nearly 50 million children are enrolled in the nation’s public schools. In a typical year, 3.7 million children are eighth-graders, only four years away from graduation. Four years later, will our public schools graduate 3.7 million children? They will not. By the time commencement arrives, seven hundred thousand will have disappeared and only 3 million will receive high school diplomas.
We are a curious nation. America's factory managers pay more attention to yield loss than America's educators. In the days before Six Sigma, the factory floor suffered from the stresses of chronic failure. Rework costs, scrap costs, warranty costs – they were an every day reality. Then Total Quality and Six Sigma came along – powerful success standards backed by powerful new solutions – and factories became much more competent. Rework, scrap, and warranty rates shrank dramatically.
Public schools experience very similar yield losses and impose on society a very similar set of costs. Remedial reading is the educator’s name for rework; a dropout is the educator’s name for scrap; a youngster who ends up in jail or on welfare is the school system’s version of a warranty cost.
State superintendents and district superintendents have long realized that their yield losses are too high, but they have not responded with the missionary spirit that drives Six Sigma leadership in the private sector. Instead they have taken the path of misreporting their results in order to hide the truth.
Imagine an urban school district that enrolls four thousand children as eighth graders each year. Four years later it graduates only two thousand children. That school district’s true yield loss is fifty percent. What will the district report as its dropout rate? Odds are it will report a dropout rate of twelve percent or less.
An honestly constructed dropout rate reports yield losses cohort by cohort. Four thousand children in the cohort, of whom two thousand drop out.
The tradition in public education is intentionally evasive. By the peculiar counting rules of public education, superintendents permit themselves to divide one cohort’s worth of dropouts by four (or six) cohorts’ of enrolled students. When I first began to look hard at the way dropout calculations were constructed, Maryland divided one cohort’s worth of dropouts by four cohorts of enrolled students; Washington, D.C. and Virginia divided one cohort’s worth of dropouts by six cohorts of enrolled students. This was the national norm. Superintendents everywhere quoted dropout rates that reflected but a fraction of their yield loss. Had Andrew Grove’s Intel been as self-deceptive with yield losses on the manufacture of computer chips, Intel would have put itself out of business years ago. What a nation we are. We measure yield losses honestly for computer chips but not for children. Are America’s computer chips of greater value than our children?
Current news on this front is modestly less bleak. Thanks to significant criticism from outside, public education is creeping toward greater accuracy in its measurement of its graduation rates and its dropout rates. At least in this one small area, public schools won’t be as deceptive in the future as they have in the past. Consequences will at least be reported with a bit more honesty. Will this induce Superintendents and their staffs to accept greater Moral Responsibility? We don’t know yet. Will sector Behaviors improve? That depends.
School Reform That Doesn’t Reach Far Enough
For all the new emphasis on school reform, the nation is still struggling to find its footing. A number of strategies vie for attention and support. Performance measurement and accountability. One strategy measures school system performance. If schools fail, they are to be thrown into a form of receivership. School districts that do especially well become eligible for funding bonuses. National learning standards. Another reform program calls for high national standards for what schools are to teach their students. Charter schools. Yet another set of reformers believe that charter schools are essential to the nation’s educational future. Charter schools offer great educators more freedom to reshape the way children are taught. And they offer parents an alternative to public schools that cannot get the job done. Put the mayor in charge. In a high profile move, New York City put its mayor and his handpicked chancellor in charge of the school system. Washington, D.C. gave similar power to Mayor Adrian Fenty, though with Fenty’s electoral defeat the future of the strong mayor model in Washington is uncertain. Hold teachers accountable. Many reformers want to make teachers more accountable for their performance in the classroom. Low performers should lose their jobs; high performers should receive higher pay. Comprehensive school reform packages. In the late 1980s, reformers promoted the creation of new models for school management. More than two dozen programs were created, and many bragged of their turnaround success with schools that had engaged their services. Cheer on our superintendents. The default strategy is to let superintendents and their school boards retain full authority and do the best they can.
Most of these scenarios share a common emphasis on rewriting the rules. Let’s have new rules for measuring schools and putting bad schools into receivership. Let’s have new rules for measuring teacher performance. Let’s have new rules for creating charter schools.
This is the crux of the issue. Do we prove our competence in public education by accepting the dominance of the rules-based culture and simply reworking some of its rules? Is this the directional worldview we should live by? Or do we establish our competence in public education by focusing on children, and what it takes to enlist them in learning?
One approach builds on the existing culture, for better or for worse. The second approach defines a challenging success standard, then works like crazy to figure out a solution strategy that achieves genuine success.
Do we work forward from what we know, even if it points us toward a suboptimal success standard? Or do we work backward from the Consequences we would truly like to have? Do we set our sights on genuine success, and then reverse engineer our educational methods till we finally figure out how to create schools that really do engage and educate every child? Which modus operandi takes America the furthest?
If we are to make headway on this question, we will want to know something of the nation’s most successful educators. What did they figure out first? What can everyone else learn from them? The following section highlights six Best Practice educators. Each is a creative individual; all have achieved successes from which the nation can learn. Not one of these pioneers worked within the rules they were handed. Each had a vision of a success standard in which all children learn. Each had an instinct for the success factors their schools needed so that every child would learn. One learns something about solution competence by studying those for whom it comes naturally.
 And these figures reflect only those reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. They are not adjusted for private school students who switch into public school at the beginning of ninth grade and who eventually become graduates.