Monday, December 01, 2008

Continuous Revolution

Former IBM Chair Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. successfully turned IBM around between 1993 and 2002. One of his passions over the past four decades has been K-12 school reform. However, Gerstner admits in this WSJ op-ed that he has experienced far less success in this endeavor than he had in re-inventing IBM. He laments:
“We must start with the recognition that, despite decade after decade of reform efforts, our public K-12 schools have not improved. We can point to individual schools and some entire districts that have advanced, but the system as a whole is still failing. High school and college graduation rates, test scores, the number of graduates majoring in science and engineering all are flat or down over the past two decades. Disappointingly, the relative performance of our students has suffered compared to those of other nations. As a former CEO, I am worried about what this will mean for our future workforce.”
Gerstner seems genuinely puzzled as to “why after millions of pages, in thousands of reports, from hundreds of commissions and task forces, financed by billions of dollars, have we failed to achieve any significant progress?” He says that “Answering this question correctly is the key to finally remaking our public schools.” He then goes on, I believe, to answer the question quite incorrectly.

Despite all his confusion and lack of success after 40 years of continuous educational reform (inspiring minimal trust), Gerstner offers his blueprint for one more round of reform that is sure to finally tackle the problems in our public education system. He rehearses the results everyone knows we want to achieve and then amazingly suggests (with one exception) that we do more of what we have been doing that has produced continuous decline.

Gerstner’s overriding thesis is to do away with local involvement in public education and centralize everything in 70 massive school districts under one huge centralized bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. The problem, as he sees it, is not a failure of centralized planning, but a failure of the local buffoons to defer to the all powerful brain trust inside the D.C. beltway. It’s not that Soviet style central planning has failed; it’s that we’re not doing enough of it.

In addition to a centrally planned curriculum, Gerstner says we need “a National Skills Day on which every third, sixth, ninth and 12th-grader would be tested against the national standards.” This would apparently be superior to the national testing we’re already doing. How so? It would eliminate local involvement in determining standards and testing methodologies. We already spend so much time testing our kids that we detract from the time we have to educate them.

The one bright spot Gerstner offers is merit pay for superior teachers. With the educator unions staunchly opposed to true merit pay, this would be an uphill battle. Gerstner couples this provision with more centralized planning: a national standard for teachers. We local idiots are apparently too stupid to know a good teacher when we see one.

Finally, Gerstner says our kids are simply not spending enough time in government run schools. He suggests lengthening the school day and extending the school year by 20 days. Gerstner seems conveniently oblivious to the fact that the last time we did this our educational outcomes got worse.

When we increased the amount of classroom time two decades ago, we actually decreased the amount of classroom time spent on productive activities — at least as far as activities that could actually improve outcomes in the hard core subjects. We substantially increased time spent on soft, less measurable activities. What we really achieved was increasing the amount of time government directly controls our children, allowing parents more time to pursue employment and other activities that require increased child care. In essence, our schools somewhat shifted focus more to providing child care and somewhat away from providing education.

Like most Americans and almost everyone involved in public education, Gerstner ignores the main problem in our public education system: that it is a government run public service. There are many that would be willing to fight to the death to protect their view that this is not the problem, but that does not change the fact that it is the central (no pun intended) problem.

This 10-minute video discusses the push to destroy our largely private preschool system in favor of universal preschool provided by our failing public school system.

One of the commentators in the video notes that our preschools and colleges actually perform very well, and that the only place in education that is failing is K-12, where government has a monopoly. I take some exception with that claim. I have discussed the dumbing down of college curricula, largely thanks to public subsidies of higher education and the push to get increasing numbers of people to attend college. Still, it’s not as bad as K-12 education, where no substantive competition exists.

Utahns overwhelmingly support public education and believe that private education should be reserved for the wealthy. This sentiment is very widespread throughout the nation, with the exception of some inner city areas where public education is simply deplorable. Private education has much broader acceptance among low income populations in these areas.

The fact is that many of the problems we are experiencing in our K-12 education system are inseparable from the educational bureaucratic system. That is, they cannot be resolved without altering the nature of the system itself. Since little public support exists for this kind of thing, we are stuck with having to control the damage done by the system.

To be blunt, many of Gerstner’s suggestions would exacerbate rather than reduce bureaucratic harm. Education is one of the life elements that touch each of us very individually. We are a very diverse nation. Haven’t we learned yet that one-size-fits-all centralized planning is not the answer? Freedom and choice are the answer, but far too many fear what that might entail.


David said...


This post was downright depressing. Not because you were wrong, but because it is Gerstner and not you who has a national audience for his views.

Why is it that everyone with the means to conduct a big research project on our educational issues has a vested interest in solving the problem with more of the same failing strategies? This is the same type of mindless action that is driving our equally successful bailout strategies in the economy right now.

Reach Upward said...

People like Gerstner are used to directing people to do things and then having them snap to and say, "Yes, Sir!" They are used to big, top-down approaches. They have seen stuff like that work in business arenas.

What they don't understand is that a political structure differs from a business structure due to freedom of association. If you don't agree with a boss's direction, you can go elsewhere. This tempers what a boss does and how he/she can accomplish things.

If you don't agree with a political entity's direction, you cannot pick up and go elsewhere without serious personal upheaval. So you support opposing candidates and lobbying efforts to get things done differently. This also tempers what a political entity can accomplish, but steady expansion of the entity's powers tends to rule the day regardless of its policy meanderings.

The people with political clout believe in top-down approaches. They tend not to believe in the power of free individuals to create 'unplanned' order. I believe that both approaches are necessary to the development of an orderly society. However, it is essential to know when and how each approach should be applied. People like Gerstner believe the centralized approach can be applied to everything.

Frank Staheli said...

It is so tantalizing to realize that a committee of the few can make decisions much more quickly than the people and their representatives. I'm not sure how Gerstner and so many others, though, have not noticed that committees of the few invariably make bad decisions.