Why Systemic Change Will Fail If Philosophy Differences Cannot Be Bridged

Last week I wrote an extensive reply to an Education Week commentary authored by Al Ramirez, a distinguished professor of education at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, as well as a former Chief State School officer from the state of Iowa.  Clearly, this gentleman has considerable experience in the public school system, and I respect his credentials immensely.  While my years of education experience do not even come close to his, I have a great many years analyzing strategy and understanding organizational behavior.  So from a strategic perspective, I feel quite qualifified in questioning Mr. Ramirez’s conclusions about how to implement mass reform in our education system.  In addition, I felt it fair game to have Mr. Ramirez look in his backyard in Colorado before making sweeping ascertions aoout whether or not our country’s efforts are on the right track.  Here lies the paradox in Mr. Ramierez’s op-ed piece:  don’t complain about public policy when your own state is in disarray!  Let me explain.

When I spoke at the Immersive Education Summit, I met a principal of a very poor elementary school in rural Colorado.  The school’s student base is 70% Latino, and nearly 50% of the students are on the Free Lunch Program.  And, to my astonishment, the school does NOT, I repeat, does NOT qualify for Title I funds and thus is shut out of a great deal of stimulus money.  To my amazement, an extremely upscale community in the Denver metro area has only 15% Free Lunch Program students, yet they are eligible for Title I.  How is this possible?  Two words:  local control.

This situation is probably not as uncommon as one might think in this great country of ours.  But it tore at my heart, because here was a situation where an administrator truly cared about the well-being of her students and was willing to take the necessary risks with education pedagogy, yet had absolutely no financial flexibility to effect change.  I was angry, and I was determined to use every ounce of my resources and intellectual capital to be a part of the solution.

It has become increasingly clear to me that what the federal government is doing is typical of corporations trying to effect massive change on a mature organization:  they overcompensate.  The Obama Administration is trying to solve the problems, but in some respects, they have overextended their influence into what appears by many to be a heavy-handed, top-down, “ends justifies the means” approach. 

First, let the record show that I am supportive of centralization of certain pieces of our education system.  I believe the federal government must introduce some consistency in not only standards, but also in how it doles out federal dollars to the schools in our country.  On the state side, I believe unequivocally that states must centralize far more of the infrastructure than they currently do.  Standards and eligibility criteria cannot be vastly  different from district to district.  Redundancies in the infrastructure must be eliminated because from a business perspective, there is far too much “waste” in the operating structure.  We need a better return on our educational investments, and while we may incur the highest expenditures per pupil in the world, our achievement levels are dwarfed by developing countries such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea.  Teachers should be given far more autonomy in how they teach to the standards, and their compensation and evaluation systems must reflect both qualitiative and quantitative factors. 

Just as government intervention is overcompensating, we are now overcompensating with teacher pay.  Some states such as my own state of Georgia are requesting that as much as 50% of teacher’s pay be determined by test scores!  Should a teacher’s livelihood be based on a student’s one-day performance or the integrity of a certain examination?  Again, we have overcompensated.  Scores should matter, but should be part of the overall picture.  If this in fact were the case with SAT scores, I can assure you that I would NEVER have been accepted to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Solving our nation’s education problems is certainly not easy.  And unfortunately, there will always be an inherent clash between Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian philosophies about how a nation should be governed.  But I would like to a collaborative approach, one that blends both philosophies:

  • Federal control over standards and criteria to allocate federal dollars
  • Federal incentives that provide the ideal conditions for a collaborative “education innovation ecosystem” where all stakeholders, including venture capital firms, private industry, academia and philanthopic organizations are all incentivized towards a common goal.
  • States to have autonomy on how standards are met, and state and local funding be revamped and standardized so that inconsistencies are eliminated
  • States to create a fair and balanced teacher performance and compensation system; teachers unions and adminstrators to focus on interests, not positions, anc negotiate “win-win” solutions.

 

I have many more suggestions but this is a start.  Now Mr. Ramirez may choose to refute my assertions and will claim that I lack the experience in education to understand what happens in education.  But he is wrong.  I watched my mother teach in public schools for over 25 years.  She was one of well-educated teachers, and one who truly cared about each and every student.  And I saw how hard she worked; it was NOT a 9-5 job by any means! 

This week’s Time magazine was a special issue:  The 100 Most Influential Thinkers in the World   It was a fabulous read, because each of the people were nominated by a prominent supporter, and these supporters were the writers behind each of the segments.  I was struck by one piece, written by NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.  His piece was about two legal icons: David Boies and Theodore Olsen.  For those of you not familiar with these household names in legal circles, they were the chief legal minds behind the Gore vs. Bush trial that determined the 2000 Presidential Election.  David, on the left, and Ted, on the right.  You’d think these two would be bitter enemies, but they’re not.  Far from it.  Instead, they have become great friends.  To quote Mr. Klein, “In today’s debates, polarization and personal attacks have replaced civility and excellence. It says a lot about Boies and Olson that they can disagree profoundly about legal issues without losing respect for each other. They remind us that the ideas binding us together in our constitutional democracy are far more important than those separating us.

How wise those words are.

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