Monday, September 5, 2011


Just published, "THAT USED TO BE US:  HOW AMERICA FELL BEHIND IN THE WORLD IT INVENTED," by Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum (Amazon).  Not particularly surprising, in referencing the "five pillars" to getting the U.S. back on track, the number one item is, "education."  None of the contents may surprise most of you.  Let's see, the goal of education is to equip our population to actually read for effect, and think, not score a hazy state "grade" based on multiple-choice tests?

For a perceptive assessment of our K-12 education issues and cures, by international management expert and columnist (Forbes), Steve Denning, see:

If your classroom, or the school feedback from your progeny has a strong aroma of "them versus us," this reflection by long time educator and author, Alfie Kohn, may resonate: 

U.S. K-12 math education is still being hammered, partially by misplaced and even destructive present standardized testing, but some places claiming progress merit a look:

In Montgomery County Maryland, a place that pushes the envelope, education change and invention are in process.  A refreshing contrast to the DC strategy? Worth a look:

A tech company is going to build a 20-square-mile replica of an American city in New Mexico -- think petri dish -- that will be a ghost town, but will permit experiments with all forms of infrastructure innovations.  Perhaps we need the initiative to create the one-square-mile petri dish of inventive K-12 school infrastructures, to seriously test for better arrangements than present?

The September 3 issue of the world journal The Economist contains its "Technology Quarterly."  Coupled with a technology review from MIT that issues periodically, and similar long time clues from the journals Science and Nature, something that's a cause for optimism (at least guardedly) is coming down the pike. That is a pool of technology building, heavily still American in origin, that promises to reverse some of the vectors described in the referenced Friedman and Mandlebum book.  The catch is, will an extremist political position that witlessly parodies science, and seeks to massacre its funding, ever wake up to the reality that the technology described, along with an educated work force that can use it, may be our only avenue to America's getting back its groove?

If there are reasons that public K-12 is treading water rather than stroking to win, this vignette provides hints.  Dr. George Wood, now Superintendent of Federal Hocking Local Schools in Stewart, Ohio, and executive director of an educators' interest group, has historically been a voice of reason on our public school systems.  Valerie Strauss, who manages "The Answer Sheet" blogs appearing in the Washington Post, has frequently featured Dr. Wood's short essays.  They have been followed and generally applauded.

Ms Strauss on September 8 featured his blog titled, "Keep paddling,"  Its message, basically, public education should dismiss its critics, and essentially "keep paddling."  Perhaps Dr. Wood's recent transition from high school principal to superintendent has penetrated his persona, turning rational advocate into political correctness?  Seems to be the character of the genre for public education human resources frequently exhibiting neither the discipline, creativity nor leadership to manage complex enterprises in K-12 education, and especially their turn-arounds -- the long time management "Peter Principle" in action?

To avoid an essay on why I think he is dead wrong, I'll simply use the same metaphor he employed to try to make his case, paddling a water craft. Paddling with one oar in the water is precisely what K-12 public education has been doing, launching the criticisms and perhaps even more dysfunctional attempted cures; paddling even harder with that one oar isn't likely to make your GPS register progress or get you to a safe harbor.

Lastly, while public education is being hammered by alleged reform, and viral waves of NCLB, RttT, and standardized testing, there is a surprising lack of candor in the debates.  Pointedly, those reforming remain coy about precisely how public K-12 function is failing?  Related, virtually never asked is another question:  There are 98,700 U.S. public schools (versus systems) with 49MM students; but there are also 36,500 U.S. private and Catholic schools, plus home schooling, accounting for almost 10MM students.  Our public systems, rather than cursing the darkness and reform, may want to grab a torch and illuminate why the latter education appears to be succeeding and they are struggling?

Add another question:  Average district public school per pupil expenditure in 2010 was $12,744; average comparable charter per pupil expenditure was $8,001; average private school tuition was $8,549; average Catholic school tuition was $6,018.  There may be issues of comparability, or of tasks superimposed on public K-12 missing in the alternatives, but was public education operating with the same total delivery cost per pupil as private sector education, the tab for U.S. public K-12 education annually would drop by roughly $220 billion.

Finally, does any superintendent you can identify merit a salary 3.2X the average teacher?

For your own probes:


Ron Willett

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