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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Big Cost of Little Vision in Education

There is a very large school industry in the United States.  (One genius of the industry is making everyone who owns property pay dearly to fund it.)

But despite the enormous shared burden, there is very little shared vision for the goals of the school industry. There is no collective mandate for change or even agreement on managing metrics. (Without oversight, the school industry has generously provided their metrics, primarily around more students consuming more school hours.)  There are few articulated vision for how education should or even could look in a few years.  People are often more united in what they want to move from than what they want to move towards.

There are, apparently instead, four pockets where there are mini-visions.
  • Top Students (a very different group than smartest students or most productive students, btw).
  • S.T.E.M.
  • Special Needs
  • At Risk
("Sports" may be a fifth targeted group in many schools.)

These groups cover, roughly, 30% of all students, but get a disproportionate amount of attention.  That then leaves most students feeling like middle children, the Jan and Peter Brady's of the system (against the Greg and Marcia's Top Students and STEM and the Cindy and Bobby's Special Needs and At Risk).  Many of today's homeschoolers likely draw from that lost and ignored 70%.  (Moreover, the irony should be lost on no one that, while Obama's vision of education is as a "pathway to the middle class"  the middle class of students is mostly treated as a pool from which to prop up the success of those at the top and subsidize the blunting of the liability of those at the bottom.  

Where there are no visions, people default to (and argue passionately over) management strategies.  As much as schools have no consensus on vision, there are a tremendous amount of belief in the concept of "rigor".  It doesn't matter what we are doing or towards what end, but let's do it with a greater focus on adherence to statistical norms with the goal of reducing variability.  So yes, in the era of automobiles, the horse and buggy vendors want to be six sigma black belts.

It is with this context that I listened to this archive Slate Magazine Political Gabfest.

First, I am a huge fan of the Political Gabfest and would hate to miss an episode.  On the other hand, listening to Slate Magazine discuss education is cringe-worthy (it is as painful as hearing the equally great and unmissable Culture Gabfest talk about clothing and fashion).  Where the Political Gabfest team is so sure-footed and intellectually robust around issues of politics and law, masterfully tying tactics to strategies, they represent the deer-in-the-headlights groping-in-the-dark responses when it comes to education.  If education does evolve, the types of statements regularly made by this team will seem incredibly dated (for example, presenting polling numbers that reflexively conflate well-educated with time spent in school programs

So, grab the current Gabfest here: http://ec.libsyn.com/p/1/0/a/10acc2782eec16f5/SPG12091401_Gabfest.mp3?d13a76d516d9dec20c3d276ce028ed5089ab1ce3dae902ea1d01cc8031d2ca5efe48&c_id=4942034

The story, on the strike in Chicago, starts at 25:50.  Most Gabfest conversations attempt to discuss the reality of the situation, and then the optics.  Here instead, during the ten minutes, the conversation rambles from Obama vs. unions, to the hiring of laid-off teacher in charter schools, to the evolution of unions in general, to the bland critics of bad teachers as the reasons school under-perform and the equally bland praise for generic good teachers as people who "close performance gaps and improve test scores."  It is finally around time 32:58 where there is an attempt to put the conversation into some less-permeable context with a broad challenge of the influence of standardized tests, which is soon cut off and spun into the meh-ish "I can see both sides".

Again, I don't mean to pick on The Political Gabfest.  But if the same level of flailing about was evident on any other subject, I suspect someone would get fired.  Instead, this all appears to be par for the course.

This lack of vision is so prevalent that it is not even recognized as the problem it is.  Perhaps schools themselves have been so successful as scuttling any new big ideas that we all are first trying to figure out if we can change schools at all.   But I disagree with that tactic.  Until we can be clear about the what schools are supposed to accomplish (FYI, my vision is here), we cannot reward real leadership.  We can only to continue to promote management.

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