The DeHavilland Blog

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.

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