The DeHavilland Blog

Friday, September 30, 2011

Hopes dashed, again (Vision for Public Education)

I just caught wind of a new project in Georgia called A Vision for Public Education and got excited: According to the chair of the Georgia School Boards Association, they have spent a great deal of time, with a great deal of community input, to create “a vision that looks at the entire system of public education in our state and how to move it forward.” So I dove in to learn more about their vision.

At first it seemed that they were hitting all the right marks. Community-based? Yes: the project was lead by the school boards association in partnership with the superintendents group, and solicited community input to fuel the project. Fiddling around the edges? No, at least at first glance. They make the following claim in the introduction to the full report:

We recognize the difference between optimizing the current system (i.e., improving its operations without drastically altering any of its basic structures) and transforming it (i.e., rethinking the delivery of curriculum and instruction, allocation of resources, and perhaps, many long-held assumptions about when and where education is delivered and who delivers it). Christensen, Horn, and Johnson (2008) distinguish between sustaining innovations that make incremental improvements to goods and services and disruptive innovations that completely transform an industry, sometimes in a relatively short period of time. A commonly cited example of a disruptive innovation is the personal computer, which in a period of years, transformed workplaces and led to the rise of new web-based businesses. Christensen et al. argue that existing organizations have great difficulty in undertaking disruptive innovations.

The purpose of this document is to offer a series of recommendations that, taken in total, implemented effectively over our state, and supported by the citizens of the state and policymakers, will transform public education in Georgia.

Wow – that’s inspiring. So it’s frustrating that the report failed to live up to its potential.

While the second chapter pays lip service to the question of why we educate, and offers a handful of vague bullet points to that end, the report fails to get specific as to what “the preparation of high school graduates for college, career, and life” actually means in specific terms. It is also the last time that student or community-based outcomes are referenced. The rest of the report focuses on improving processes in areas such as early childhood education, teaching and learning, the structure of public education, management, and (of course) financial resources.

This is a perfect example of the primary problem with public education: We continue to focus on process (ie, how we teach), and adamantly refuse to have a real conversation about outcomes (ie, why we teach). It’s like if we were to talk about revolutionizing archery, and after making a brief nod to the fact that yes, there is a target somewhere and we should aim in that direction, we then spent all our time focusing on the archer’s clothes, the bow, and the fletching on the arrows. If we don’t know what the target looks like, or where it is, then what point is there in talking about how we shoot?

In the Georgia report, they highlight the importance of early childhood education, but to what end? There are no goals listed; we cannot know what a successful early childhood education looks like. Should they be able to read, or do any math? Why?

They also don’t expound on any of their very-roughly-laid-out objectives at the beginning. Sure, we want students with civic awareness. But what does that mean? Tell me what a civically-aware graduate looks like, in concrete terms, so I can tell whether you’ve produced one.

The same goes for workforce preparedness. Yes, we want all kids prepared to enter the world of work. But what does that mean? Give me specifics. Do you expect every child to go to college, and if not are you proposing a tracking system? What does it mean, in concrete terms, to be prepared in this area?

I appreciate the impulse to re-vision public education; it’s something that desperately needs to happen. But please, can someone start a conversation on why we educate, and leave the “how” until after we figure out that primary subject?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Equity or excellence?

A new discussion is starting to emerge in the education world, and it’s refreshing to see it come around again. The subject: whether our schools should focus on equity or excellence.

We have bounced between the two for at least the past 60 years, not really doing either well since the 50s. This dialogue started after the Russians leapfrogged over the US in the space race by launching their Sputnik satellite: that created a mad dash to improve what is now known as STEM education. Lyndon Johnson shifted the focus to equity with his Great Society program in the 60s. Reagan had limited success in shifting back to excellence after his A Nation At Risk report. And of course George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind act, in which all students are supposed to meet basic proficiency requirements, is a pure equity play.

While we are still firmly entrenched in equity mode, some are starting to raise the issue again and to question whether a sole focus here is (a) sufficient to ensure the future of the country, and (b) smart strategy in maintaining a relevant and valued education system. Rick Hess has this; Greg Forster points to the work of Hess and others here.

Let me state clearly: I believe in closing the achievement gap. I think every kid should have access to a good education and be given an opportunity to reach their potential. If they start school behind their peers (as many disadvantaged students do), we should help them catch up, providing them with a platform to excel.

But focusing solely on closing the achievement gap – putting all our political and financial focus there – means we’re not focused at all on helping the rest of the student population meet their potential. Hess shares an anecdote about the decision at Berkeley High School to eliminate after-school science labs and five science teachers so those resources could be redirected to struggling students. And that’s tremendously short-sighted.

While it is noble and good to serve the students who are behind, we ignore the rest at our peril. By denying opportunities for advanced students to meet their potential, we shrink the talent pool of future entrepreneurs, scientists, and tech wizards, at a time when our original high-tech product – the Sputnik generation – is retiring. That spells very bad things for the future of the US in economic terms.

This, by the way, is one of the core mismatches I see between district-level partnership efforts and the interests of businesses. The vast majority of partnership “asks” are focused on equity – providing supplies, mentors, and programs for those students with the greatest need. It’s consistent with district focus, so you can’t blame the partnership folks for focusing here. But if you ask businesses, they’re much more interested in nurturing the future talent pool (see this DeHavilland survey). And when you think about it, shouldn’t the partnership function focus exactly on areas that are not being served well by primary district efforts?

We’ll see if this conversation continues and gains traction; it’s a discussion that’s been had quietly within the business community for some time, and it would be good to see it echoed within education. Regardless of whether ed policy wonks pick it up, however, it would be wise for those interested in community/school partnerships to listen and change their focus accordingly.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The easy fix is not the right fix

There was an op-ed in last week’s Los Angeles Times titled “Moving beyond ‘blame the teacher’” that addresses one of the core issues in education reform, namely that we’re focused on solving the wrong problem.

They write:

We see distressing parallels between this approach to quality in education and the approaches that failed so badly in U.S. manufacturing. Recall the reaction of domestic manufacturers in the 1970s as Japanese competitors began to take market share: Many managers and an army of experts blamed American workers. They denounced workers' "blue-collar blues," lackadaisical attitudes and union job protections as the chief impediments to higher quality, productivity and competitiveness.

It took nearly two decades for manufacturers to realize that this diagnosis was deeply flawed and that the recommendations that flowed from it were leading U.S. industry further into decline. Recall the success of Japanese-run auto transplants operating in this country during the 1980s: They reached world-class quality levels with a U.S. workforce, in some cases a unionized workforce, while domestic auto companies continued to blame American workers and saw their quality levels stagnate.

The parallel is largely (though not entirely) apt: The problems in K-12 education are primarily leadership and systems design problems, and we won’t be able to correct them by focusing solely on teaching. To blame the teacher in this situation is like blaming soldiers in a unit that have been given the wrong training, the wrong equipment, and told to charge the wrong hill. Certainly they could do an incrementally better job, but from what foundation, and to what end?

The authors miss the boat, however, on solutions, suggesting that the way forward is to involve teachers in collaborative reform and leaving it at that. That will no more solve the problem than would collaborating with auto workers in the 70s or collaborating with the soldiers charging up the wrong hill. Collaboration may make for better relations, but it won’t address the challenge they laid out. Instead, like in the 70s, the solution is to begin focusing on the right outcomes and the right processes.

One of education’s greatest challenges is that it is so insular, when it is supposed to reflect the aims and interests of the communities it serves. I remember an anecdote from an old Ries/Trout marketing book explaining why auto manufacturers made such big cars at a time when public tastes were shifting to smaller vehicles. Domestic car companies did market research, of course, but it was framed in terms guaranteed to get the answers they wanted: rather than ask people what kind of car they wanted, they would ask which big car they liked the most. They never really tried to find out what the public wanted, only what the public liked among the choices the car companies wanted to present. Similarly, education is not finding out what the public wants, only providing limited choices among the options it is amenable to providing.

So yes, let’s look at analogies to education that help us understand the problems we face; but by all means, let’s study them enough that we learn the right lessons. Improved worker/management relations is not the solution: instead, find out what the public wants and give it to them.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What’s the motivation?

Bellwether Partners recently released Pull and Push: Strengthening Demand for Innovation in Education, third in a series of reports on fostering innovation in the K-12 market. There’s lots of talk about creating the conditions for change and lots of references to market development (complete with the obligatory references to Moore’s Crossing the Chasm), but this report is all but useless when it comes to plotting a path forward to productive change.

The reason? While it offers a hat-tip to the numerous and substantial barriers in the system (such as the fact that there are several people in any decision-making process who are unable to say yes but have the power to say no), it completely ignores the idea of motivation.

Even if you were to make purchasing or adoption easier, why would anybody do it? You’re ensuring more work for yourself, and the risk/reward ratio is heavily tilted to the downside: If you succeed there’s no upside (more pay, promotion, etc.), and if you fail there’s plenty of downside.

Instead, the authors, like so many others before them, fall back on demands: policymakers must do x, we need to ensure that educators do y, and so on – completely avoiding the question of why anyone would pursue risky change when the system is completely focused on preventing change.

If you want to create innovation, focus first on motivation – in fact, creating a motivation system would be the most effective innovation you could develop in the K-12 space.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Beyond government

One of the soundest pieces of advice a businessperson can get is to not rely on a single source for all your revenue: that kind of total dependence can put you in a very vulnerable spot should fortunes change. To be sustainable and to grow, businesses need to actively develop a range of revenue streams from different sources.

Today, public education finds itself in just such a position, dependent upon just one source – government – for virtually all of its revenue. And, while that customer has grown steadily over time, it only takes a quick glance at recent headlines to see that circumstances have dramatically changed. And it only takes a bit more time with the underlying trends to realize those changes could well be permanent, leaving substantially less government funding available for public education going forward.

Schools’ sole customer is facing multiple challenges that severely impact its ability to pay now, and will limit its ability to rebuild to past funding levels for years – perhaps decades – to come. Property taxes, for example, which make up 30% or so of school revenues, are taking a severe hit as home values drop up to 50% from peak to. States are seeing dramatic revenue reductions due to decreases in income and sales taxes. Certainly the federal government’s stimulus package put off the pain of dealing with these shortfalls to an extent, but those funds are essentially spent, and not likely to reappear.

Will revenues recover? It’s possible – but as we wait for that to happen, other government expenses increase (particularly for Medicare, Social Security, pensions, and employee healthcare), and public schools see the numbers of students they serve grow from 49.8 million in 2008 to a projected 53.3 million in 2016. The bottom line: with less revenue, more expenses, and more kids to serve than ever before, it would be unrealistic to expect government funding to return to anything like recent levels. In fact, it’s a good bet that they’ll continue to slide further for at least the next few years before bottoming out.

To date, the way that schools have responded to their lone customer’s belt-tightening is to do some tightening of their own. Budgets, programs, and staff are all being cut in order to accommodate reduced revenues from the government. And over the past few decades, that’s been sufficient: batten down the hatches and wait for the next boom, because there’s always been an upturn behind each downturn.

But the days of such cycles could well be behind us – and to focus solely on cutting budgets hardly seems like the right answer. Considering the increased performance expectations put on public education in the elementary and middle grades, coupled with the need to produce qualified workers and college-ready students in the upper grades, it’s easy to see that dramatic budget reductions and a demand for improved outcomes are an unlikely fit.

Yes, schools have to reduce expenses; every organization does in a downturn. But schools and districts have been overlooking another option: increasing support from other sources.

Traditionally, non-governmental support has made up a very small part of total revenues, around 1% to 2% of the $500 billion we spend each year. That includes direct contributions as well as the value of goods and services, including contributions like volunteer time and the like. The good news is that there is tremendous upside here for those schools and districts willing to engage their communities.

To dramatically ramp up the levels of support from community members, educators must start to think outside the box (specifically, outside the classroom). Donations, volunteering programs, and mentoring initiatives, the traditional models of community support, are critical elements of any community engagement plan; however, they comprise only one band of what should be a wide spectrum of community support. For schools and districts to scale up they must look at alternate models, some of which may involve thinking differently about longstanding structures and processes.

Consider “Operation Excellence,” a partnership in Maryland between the Montgomery County Business Roundtable for Education and the Montgomery County School District. They put together teams of business and district leaders to analyze district operations (including management of finances, facilities, and technology) and identify opportunities for efficiencies and improvements. Their work yielded operational improvements, reduced hiring requirements, saved the district hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, and allowed saved funds to flow from operations into instruction.

Or think about the efforts of Simon Property Group, one of the largest mall developers and managers in the country. After noticing teens hanging out at their malls during school hours, company officials approached local school districts to see about setting up alternative school sites at the malls. Through their Simon Youth Foundation, they now have 25 such Education Resource Centers in 13 states: these sites are essentially free to their partner districts, and the foundation provides numerous other benefits to help improve graduation rates and post-secondary prospects.

There are partnerships like these in various forms all across the country, helping schools and districts ease financial hardships and improve student services and outcomes. As government funding falters, education leaders might wish to consider the full range of opportunities for working with businesses and community organizations to help them provide a great education despite these hard times.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Why do we do it?

I'm a big fan of education reform in theory - but in action, it's been pretty disappointing stuff. We spend all our energy debating the type and frequency assessments, how to impose standards, how to train teachers, how many and what kind of charter schools to allow, whether to make vouchers possible, and so, so much more.

But when is the last time you heard someone step back and ask, "Why do we educate?" It seems that if we could agree on a shared purpose - what we really want to accomplish as a society through the process of public education - it would be far easier to gain consensus on the path forward.

As Neil Postman wrote in “The End of Education” (1996),

In tracking what people have to say about schooling, I notice that most of the conversation is about means, rarely about ends. Should we privatize our schools? Should we have national standards of assessment? How should we use computers? What use can we make of television? How shall we teach reading? And so on. Some of these questions are interesting and some are not. But what they have in common is that they evade the issue of what schools are for. It is as if we are a nation of technicians, consumed by our expertise inhow something should be done, afraid or incapable of thinking about why.

If you want to know the root cause of our public disengagement in education, and the battles between educators and community leaders, this is it: We have different ideas about what public education is and what it is supposed to do. Fix that and you'll take a huge step forward.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Back to blogging

I remember my first blog post well: It was on September 10, 2005, just six days before I opened DeHavilland Associates. My older son was just three years old; my younger was a bun in the oven; my wife and I were just about to celebrate our 6th wedding anniversary; and I was both scared and excited about my new business.

In that first post, I laid out my reasoning for launching DHA – essentially to reconnect schools to the communities they serve. Over the past six years I’ve remained committed to that vision, trying numerous strategies to move the ball forward. In addition to consulting with companies and nonprofits individually I’ve held national conferences and webinars; published white papers, a newsletter, and a soon-to-be-announced book; hosted an online clearinghouse called the Business/Education Partnership Forum; and of course posted regularly to this blog for the first four years of the company’s existence.

I stopped blogging a couple of years ago, not because I didn’t enjoy it (I did), but because the time required to publish our newsletter, the K-12 Partnership Report, was so significant that I just didn’t have time to do both. Now that I’ve finally shuttered the newsletter (more on that in a separate post), I’m excited to be able to get back to posting here.

Check back often for new posts on all aspects of community/school partnerships; in the meantime, I would encourage you to explore previous posts and also go over to the KPR site to review old issues of the newsletter – you’ll find some great stuff in both places.