The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Corollary

Among the very first things that a young engineering student learns is a fundamental principle that will guide his or her work—understand the problem first, then attempt to craft a solution. Another way of saying this is “If you don’t understand the problem, there is no hope of crafting a viable solution.”

In the world of politics and public discourse, there's a corollary to this fundamental principle—“If you refuse to recognize the problem, or if you understand it, but are hesitant to state it clearly, you have little hope of crafting a viable solution.” It seems that this corollary is applicable to decisions by both Republicans and Democrats of the past generation. I’ll explore this in a number of posts in coming months. A good place to start is with the nation's current obsession with our “failures” in education.

Over the past 40 years, the federal government has poured almost $1 trillion dollars into a variety of different attempts to improve our schools, and more recently, to improve our teachers. The sad reality is that the overall average achievement of students has not improved appreciably over the intervening four decades. Some students excel and move on to do great things, while others can’t seem to progress to a level that politicians have arbitrarily set.

The political class and the media define the problem in this way: “Our schools provide out-dated technology, poor facilities, and teachers who are less than effective. That’s why students test scores don’t improve.”

Unfortunately, this is an example of the corollary I mentioned earlier. It purposely misstates the problem, and as a consequence, calls for more comprehensive testing, attempts to blame teachers for the failings of their students, and the wasteful expenditure of taxpayer money (think: half a billion dollars spent on one LA school complex).

Just this morning, NBC’s Today Show did an “expose” on the state of education in the U.S. In breathless tones, the reporter asked how we as a country could stay competitive with India and China when our education system is “failing.” She noted that Bill Gates (CEO, Microsoft) and Mark Zuckerberg (CEO, Facebook) were donating hundreds of millions to improve our schools. Typically, she failed to see the irony in the fact that our “failing” education system had produced the likes of Gates and Zuckerberg as well a millions of other accomplished scientists, engineers, artists, composers, doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs of every type and kind. She failed to see that the USA leads the world in start-up companies. How can that be?

The Today Show report is typical of hundreds that follow the “failed education system” narrative. They all exemplify the corollary by refusing to recognize the real problem, or if the real problem is understood, bowing at the alter of political correctness and refusing to state the problem clearly.

And what is the problem? Like almost everything in real-world, it’s multifaceted, but at its foundation we have far too many families that do not emphasize the importance of education, far too many parents who are either too lazy or too ill-informed to encourage their children to learn, too many children who have never seen a book (physical or electronic) in their homes, far too many communities that are all too willing to play the victim, but never seem willing to do the hard work to reform themselves. Sure, schools deserve improved resources, and teaching techniques can always be improved, but those are secondary issues.

The real problem has to do with family and culture. Sadly, big government is not the solution, so it purposely misstates the problem to look like it's doing something important. All the while, it denigrates teachers and suggests that rewards based on “testing” is the solution.

Judging the effectiveness of a school or an education system based on test scores is like judging the “livability” of a city based on the number of miles of streets. Educational effectiveness, like livability, is measured by dozens of parameters, but if you’re unwilling to state them, much less measure them, your results will be meaningless.

Until politicians are willing to state the problem and encourage community-based solutions to it (including different paths for different students), all the money, all the testing, and all hand-wringing in the world won’t improve the lot of those who are being left behind.