Mike Klein Online

Can We Stop K-12 Education from Becoming General Motors?

Frederick Hess looks at American public education and he sees General Motors.  Not the nifty, new Chevrolet Camaro convertible version rescued by the federal government but the previous model when the world’s once premier automaker became so bloated that it virtually killed itself.

Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. His several books include newly released “The Same Thing Over and Over,” a passionate conversation about why American education will not improve by doing the same thing over and over again.

Hess delivered the keynote address at this year’s second annual education conference hosted by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.  About 150 educators and policy analysts met this past Friday in Macon.  They were treated to Hess’s rapid fire delivery and his strong suggestion American public education is outdated for its needs.

“General Motors had been hearing from consultants for three decades (about) what the problems were,” Hess said. “Before people bought cars online, it was useful to have tons of dealers (but) the world changed.  The way people bought cars changed.  The way people used technology changed.  GM did not change.  It still had the enormous dealer network, enormous compensation agreements, enormous health care costs and enormous pension obligations.

“GM’s successes had gotten baked into its DNA.  This is the problem with school reform,” Hess said.  “We live our whole lives in the world of K-12 and we think the whole world works that way.  I’ve got to tell you, if we try to fix K-12 the way we’ve always tried to fix K-12 we will be having this same boring conversation decades from now.”

Frederick Hess

Hess made the point that 50 years is the average lifespan for a Fortune 500 company but nearly every school district in the United States already existed 50 years ago, all 14,000 of them.  Most education still uses the model that students in a classroom will be taught the same content at the same pace for the same number of days before moving as a group to the next classroom.

This worked when most Americans received little beyond the education required for a lifetime of manual labor.  This worked when most Americans grew up on farms.  This worked when literacy was defined by the ability to write your own name.  This worked when classrooms were training assembly line students for jobs that did not require deductive reasoning and decision making.

“What we want kids to do and what we want schools to do is profoundly different than 50 years ago,” Hess said.  “The way we can organize and deliver schooling is profoundly different today from what it once was.”  This includes online learning, blended instruction and learning without borders in which students collaborate with instructors and other students located anywhere.

“We are holding onto a one size fits all notion,” Hess said.  “Public schooling is about educating our children both in their interests and in the interests of the nation.  Any idea which advances that strikes me as entirely consistent with public education.  Getting excited about steps on pay scales or the geography of school districts strikes me as profoundly missing the point.”

Hess pointed out that whereas 75% of parents might say attending the neighborhood school is a best first local option those same parents might also say they want more education choices, especially courses that are not offered by the local school because there is no teacher.

“The way to think about educational choice is to say, hey, if you would rather have your child learn online, or if you would rather have your child learn (a language course by) Rosetta Stone, we’re going to allow you to take a portion of the money we would have spent and you can use that money to purchase a service,” Hess said.  “We’re starting to say parents (should) have an option to how they spend the dollars.”

Hess has been a research associate at his alma mater Harvard University since 1998 but his teaching career began in a Baton Rouge, Louisiana public high school, years that he describes as “frustrating, mind-numbing tedium” under the “Kafkaesque theories” of education bureaucrats.

Hess is not a big fan of the word “innovation” as applied to education because he suggests that often means doing nearly the same thing but giving it a different name.  The world according to Hess preaches radical change to address new challenges that require new solutions.

“If the problem is that we need stronger role models and mentors for inner-city African-American and Latino children who are disaffected by grade seven then let’s talk about how do we get those people?  Let’s stop calling them teachers. Let’s say, what is the job that we want them to do?  What does that mentoring look like?

“If our funding arrangements and our job definitions don’t fit that role, let’s not try to retrofit the role to the mission,” Hess said.  “Let’s change what we expect people to do to fit what we need them to do.  It comes down to, what problem are we solving?  The key is not thinking about one-size-fits all solutions to multi-faceted problems, but think about how do we create opportunities, tools and resources so people can solve problems in ways that fit those students?”

The option, of course, is American public education could become General Motors.  Bad option.

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

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December 8, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , ,

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