The DeHavilland Blog

Friday, December 29, 2006

The insular nature of education

I received the following anonymous comment to my last post:

I'm curious to know how much time you're able to devote to actual classroom experience? Do you get a chance to spend a lot of time there? Hearing more about your firsthand experiences (past and present) would be really helpful. How long did you teach before becoming a consultant? Do you monitor, sit-in, or volunteer in classrooms still? Is that how you develop your informed opinions?

Because I write about big-picture topics, and never about classroom-level issues, I have to assume the commenter believes that a background in teaching is needed to discuss the purpose and process of public education. Whether this person is trying to imply that my opinions as a non-educator don’t count, or whether s/he is honestly interested in learning my background, I don’t know (though I strongly suspect the former). But what I do know is that this line of thinking exemplifies one of the most fundamental problems in education today.

[Update: I heard back from my anonymous commenter, who noted that her inquiry was an honest request for more information. I'm leaving the post as is, since her inquiry, innocent as it may be, is still evidence of the mindset I wish to highlight.]

The commenter, like many others inside and outside the blogosphere, seems to assume that it’s only current/former teachers and other industry insiders (college professors, etc.) who are qualified to discuss and shape public education. They overlook the fact that public education is, in fact, a public enterprise: that the system belongs to the public, which not only funds it but has the absolute right and responsibility to determine its desired outcomes and manner of operation. The public does not exist to serve the educators; educators exist to serve the public as the public directs.

David Mathews, president of The Kettering Foundation and Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Ford Administration (back in the days before Education became its own department), touched on this in a book titled “Is There a Public for Public Education?” He highlights the disparity in thinking between schools and communities with the results of a 1992 survey, which state that nearly 60% of Americans thought that parents and other members of the community should have more say in allocating funds and deciding the curriculum, compared with only 15% of administrators and 26% of teachers who felt this way. He also says the following:

Efforts to involve citizens, though well intentioned and sincere, sometimes unwittingly treat the public as a means to ends that educators have in mind. In talking to people about public participation, I realized that some see this as a technique whose effectiveness is judged by how well it helps schools reach their objectives. The public schools really are the public’s schools, and the public’s involvement is not by sufferance of the educational authorities. Citizens belong in the schools’ hallways because they are their hallways. If they are given the impression that they are welcome to participate only if they can do something that educators think worthwhile, this puts the cart before the horse (i.e., treats citizens as means) and disconnects the public from the schools.

The public is not a means to the ends of educators, and people know it. They react adversely to many of the techniques used to involve them; though educators intend to empower, people feel manipulated. For example, the common practice of having the community discuss its needs, on the assumption that this will make people feel “involved” – while consultants and staff members develop curricular reforms based on long-held professional preferences – gives people the sense that educators are experimenting with their children and not listening to what they are saying. Researchers say practices like this have created a “legacy of mistrust.”

To imply that non-educators are not qualified to discuss education issues, much less assume positions of authority and make decisions on its goals and operations, is simply wrongheaded – and it further widens the gap between the public and its schools, which ultimately benefits neither the public nor educators.

Flipping the inference, I would also question whether having classroom experience particularly qualifies one to make decisions about the goals and operations of the education system.

Does it make someone more qualified to discuss classroom issues and teaching approaches? Absolutely – and I wouldn’t attempt to go toe-to-toe with someone on things like classroom management or differentiated reading instruction. But by questioning my teaching credentials, the commenter implies that only educators are qualified to discuss the bigger-picture issues (since that's what I write about on this blog), such as: What are we trying to accomplish with public education? What are the elements of a great organization, and what best practices should govern its operation? And if our current system doesn’t look like our ideal system, how do we get from here to there?

Clearly, being an educator or administrator by no means disqualifies one from participating in that discussion. But does it give you more authority or expertise? I don’t believe that it does. Identifying desired outcomes of public education is the public’s job; while educators can and should participate, it is not their role or right to direct the conversation. And as for determining the operating principles of education, I believe those should be based on what we know about successful organizations of any stripe – there’s plenty of data on the effective management of for-profit and nonprofit organizations for us to call on. In neither case does having classroom experience give you insight or an edge.

I would welcome the chance to hear more from this anonymous commenter on whether I’ve misread his/her questions. But until that happens, I’m taking these comments as just one more symptom of a critical problem that needs to be addressed in education today.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Education in 2006

USA Today highlights some of the top stories in education this year here; Andy Rotherham (aka EduWonk) highlights what wasn't reported, but should have been, here.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Thoughts on the petition to repeal NCLB

I've been meaning to follow up on a previous post (The NCLB “resistance movement”) about The Educator Roundtable's petition to repeal NCLB. Looks like Ken DeRosa has done the heavy lifting 0n this already - go here to read his post on the subject.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Cheetos-flavored lip balm?

This is a total aside from what I normally write about on this blog, but it was so interesting I had to share: BrandWeek magazine and TippingSprung (a communications agency) just released the results of their annual survey of best/worst product extensions, and while the items ranked highest are interesting (an American Red Cross emergency radio, anyone?), the worst ones are both fascinating and hilarious. Consider:

  • Cheetos-flavored lip balm
  • The Salvador Dali deodorant stick
  • Diesel Jeans wine
  • Chicken Soup for the Soul pet food
  • the Lamborghini laptop computer
  • Willie Nelson biodiesel fuel
  • Lance Armstrong "LiveStrong" mutual funds
  • Smackers Starburst Bath and Body Collection
  • Play-Doh perfume
  • Jeff Foxworthy beef jerky

I know it sounds like some of these came out of a random word generator, but they're all actual products - click here for the rest of the story.

I can't think of how this relates to education, except that whether you run a business or a school, you should know who you are - and who you aren't.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Much ado about nothing

As part of their Education and Workforce Initiative, the US Chamber recently came out with a survey on the business community’s opinions on education reform. It has a weighty title: “Education Reform: Insight into the Business Community’s Views About the U.S. Education System.” They’re touting this as a significant new piece of research, promoting it through external press releases, membership communications, and even a national conference call to highlight the results.

The problem is that it’s simply not valid research, and the Chamber should know better than to present it as such.

The 571 respondents were self-selected twice over, first opting in to the Chamber’s email lists (either as a US Chamber member or as someone interested in their education initiatives), and then opting in to participate in the survey from an email solicitation. This can hardly be called a representative sample: these are people with a demonstrated interest in Chamber representation as well as in education and workforce development, and hardly a cross-section of American businesspeople in general.

You can also review the respondent breakdown in the report to see how far apart we are demographically from having a representative group. Aside from the double-self selection mentioned above, consider that 68% of respondents are in organizations of 50 employees or less, and that the organizational breakdown indicates 52% of respondents are in small businesses and 20% are in chambers; large businesses didn’t make the top four, coming in less than 9% - below nonprofits, which shouldn’t be counted if the survey is supposed to gauge the thinking of businesspeople. Further, beyond these two questions, and one question each about job title and geographic region, there aren’t any other questions to help with analysis. How old are respondents? Do they have any children in school (public or private)? How knowledgeable are they about education issues? Do they have any experience working with public education? Just who are these people, and what is the basis for their opinions?

And we won’t get into the design of the questions itself – suffice it to say that they would have benefited from a round of focus groups before developing their questions.

As one of those 571 respondents, I have a problem with the US Chamber presenting these survey results as nationally representative of the business community’s thinking. The chamber is perfectly capable of performing a valid and representative report – they apparently chose to take a shortcut and perform a little sleight of hand instead.

This kind of survey may have had value as an internal research piece, helping the chamber find out what was on members’ minds as part of a larger focus group effort. But does it have value beyond that? It clearly does not – and I hope that in the future, the US Chamber uses its formidable resources and capabilities to produce valid and representative research that can advance the field of education reform.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Losing the high-end jobs

A survey on the latest trends in offshoring was published at the end of October by Booz Allen Hamilton and Duke University. Here’s the intro paragraph from the press release along with their key findings:

NEW YORK & DURHAM, N.C. (October 31, 2006) — Companies are increasingly moving sophisticated, mission-critical functions such as product design and research and development to China, India and other offshore locations primarily because these countries can provide highly skilled scientific and engineering workers who are in short supply in the U.S. and Europe, according to a new study by Duke University and management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

Key findings include:

  • The need to source talent globally is replacing low-skilled, low-cost labor as the decisive factor in companies' offshoring strategy.
  • Contrary to popular belief, offshoring high-value tasks does not lead to major job losses at home, but to more net new jobs globally.
  • Concerns about offshoring are shifting from external factors, such as political backlash, to internal factors, such as loss of managerial control and the impact on operating efficiency.
  • India remains the preferred destination for offshoring.
  • European firms perceive cultural differences as an offshoring risk, while U.S. firms are primarily concerned about service quality.
  • Small, entrepreneurial companies are more likely than large corporations to initiate offshoring of high-value functions.

To sum up: While offshoring was initially concentrated in areas of low skill – manufacturing, call centers, etc. – today it is also being used more and more to supplement or replace high skill tasks, ranging from accounting to engineering. Because we are not producing sufficient numbers of skilled workers, those jobs are going overseas.

I heard someone recount a story recently about the affluence of US workers – how a blue collar friend, whose wife hasn’t worked since they were married, asked his wife as she embarked on an expedition to the local mall – “What can you get there that you haven’t got two of already?”

That story, in my opinion, represents the past – a time when workers with limited education and skills could land a union-secured job with a manufacturing firm, earn $60-100K/year with benefits and a pension, and build a great life for themselves. Today, those jobs are being replaced by either technology or overseas workers, and as both of those become more sophisticated, the jobs they’re eliminating are more and more in the white collar arena.

Now, some are not worried about US competitiveness globally, and there are many reasons related to factors outside of education as to why that would be the case. But if the nature of the US business is changing – if it’s a shell of top management here, fueled or augmented by talent elsewhere – we’ll still end up with a polarized class model in which the middle class is significantly reduced, leaving us with two classes: an extremely affluent upper class (the entrepreneurs and business leaders managing enterprises) and a poor lower class unable to compete globally.

And what’s stunning to me – in the face of obvious trends such as this – is that we’re still stuck in first gear, unable to come to consensus on even basic issues. What’s the best way to teach reading? What’s the best way to teach math? How do we – or are we even allowed – to present fundamental scientific issues like evolution?

I don’t know what it will take to kick into gear and change things – it could be that we’re the metaphorical frog in the water that’s slowly being heated, not noticing the gradual change until it’s too late. But I do know that, fast or slow, dramatic change is coming, and if we don’t do something about it, ultimately we’ll be cooked.