9.04.2006

What's Wrong With Standards

May I suggest a way we have gone astray?

Corporations were dying at an increasing rate from the seventies onward, the pace of change was picking up, and human knowledge was expanding exponentially. Everybody saw this long ago and understood that our system of public education appeared to be falling behind other nations in key areas.

Unfortunately, the changes made in the last twenty years have not been modeled on how the corporate survivors adapted. While it may not be entirely true to say that, it is true that successfully re-born corporations have been few and vastly different from one another.

Agility, or the ability to adapt rapidly to change in the environment is one characteristic of their success. A second is valuing knowledge as a core asset at levels other than management.

I think our quest should be examining the public management of education on the part of government.

My observation leads me to think that the style of management is what needs to change. There are plenty of works on the new corporation and how it works. There are not too many books on failure. The assumption is that when things become unstable, a business has the option to collapse and die. A public school, on the other hand, will continue to live in a state of turmoil.

As far as I can tell, all attempts to reform the public sector of K12 education are managed in a way that ensures failure. As standards are imposed, they cause greater rigidity. I believe this is one subject of Ken Bernstein's concern.

The other subject of concern is clarifying the goals of K12 education itself. I believe that NCLB is a de facto clarifying statement. The act is telling us that the Nation's fathers want a manufacturing paradigm to continue to produce "workers" of some undefined sort. In order that this be effective and that crime should be reduced, it is imperative that high school graduation rates be raised. In fact the Act can be viewed as a national dropout prevention program. But because the definition of worker is not clear, standards will merely cement a basic and self-limiting curriculum in place.

Private schools that have traditionally had the purpose of grooming the privileged experience no disorientation. In fact the disorientation period for them ran from the mid-seventies through the late eighties. Their goal is clear and inexpensive to gauge because it is understood by the student body and the parents to be higher education. (Aren't you glad I didn't say stakeholder and buy-in or *shudder* "own the process"?) Admission to an appropriate university and involvement in alumni activities is almost a spectator sport at those schools. It can be a desperate and bloody competition, but let me stress that it is a well defined goal.

John Adams' third generation is safe in their hands. But what of the children of the increasingly marginalized non-wealthy classes? NCLB seems to be designed to limit their horizons. Proponents will say that nothing could be further from the truth. However an unfunded NCLB guarantees it.

Who is surprised that the Gates' schools prosper with a budget of ten thousand dollars per pupil? Who is surprised that a private school is successful with a budget of over twenty thousand dollars per pupil? Finally who is surprised that high poverty schools fail with a budget of less than five thousand dollars per pupil?

So I leave you with two things. Agility and funding.

Funding is obvious except that the legislative bodies insist that an unsuccessful system that funds at a rate one fifth that of the most successful institutions is in fact adequately funded.

Agility is what comes from rapid, effective communication and rapid deployment of systems in such a way that explicit goals are achieved in a dynamic system. As evidenced by the rapid die-off of corporations, this is difficult to achieve. We will not achieve it by creating a system of activities that stipulate the level of professional behavior teachers must exhibit. It is not because this would be bad. It is because this is just a small part of a complex part of life.


Analysts are proposing that we fix piece here, and a piece there. The nation is asking that we gather up all these scraps and create a whole and healthy student.


Frankly I do not see that the civic will exists for such a venture.

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