Obama Education Reform Rant

As I woke up this morning, CNN was on in another room and there was a story about education reform. The story cited that the United States was 20th in science and 24th in math and Obama felt that something needed to be done. The story went on to say that Obama’s position was that we needed to increase teacher responsibility and a few other things.

Then some “expert” came on and further opined that we should look at “year round school” and “online education” as further measures to improve our ranking.

My message to Barack Obama is to stop listening to his “experts” and actually talk to some teachers because the approach that was attributed to him and what the follow-on expert in the story said are exactly the cause of the situation where the United States is so far behind in abstract/technical teaching – and unless radical change is made, it will get worse not better.

What Barack cannot see is that these same “experts” have been reforming education for about the last 20 years – and the mess we have is the result of the basic tenants of their reform. Why then is your “brilliant, new” plan just to do more of the same and not to try something different?

Lets explore and explode some of the tenants of their “expert” position:
(a) Teaching is like manufacturing with an assembly line They think that teachers are simply “bolting on some knowledge” as the child moves by on a carefully designed and highly intricate assembly line (complex curriculum) and by analyzing learning so precisely and by letting experts break down learning into tiny isolated steps in a way that none of the workers need to understand the “whole”, we can pretty much put anyone in as a worker irregardless of skill and yet the product at the end is consistent and produced in a time-bounded manner.

(b) No child left behind If the general approach to K12 curriculum is heavily influenced by the automobile assembly line, “no child left behind” is the education equivalent of “Statistical Quality Management” which is the universal solution to the reduction of quality that inevitably comes when workers are not longer allowed to apply creativity and instead told to “just do their job” whether they are happy or sad, motivated or unmotivated. Statistical quality management catches and exposes those aspects of the system where folks have stopped caring about quality. The saddest thing is that the “industrial revolution”/”assembly line” approach to teaching is likely the most probable cause of the lack of engagement on the part of both students and teachers. They are forced to cede responsibility to “the system”.

(c) We need increasing teacher accountability – This is code for the fact that for statistical quality management to work, it needs more data so some top level people can peer at daily spreadsheets of progress towards learning objectives. Measurement experts always say, “You cannot change what you cannot measure”. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle elegantly describes the limitations of measurement. In a system where there are multiple factors at play – the moment that you have successfully measured one thing – the other factors are no longer measurable. As we tell teachers to spend increasing fractions of their day being accountants and producing finely detailed reports of microscopic daily progress toward curriculum-imposed teaching objectives, they spend less and less time thinking about how to best teach their students and how perhaps each student is at a different place and needs something slightly different on that particular day. If the only clever ideas the education reformers come up with is “more accountability” – then lets just hire accountants instead of teachers – because if we add much more accountability – there won’t be any need for teaching skill as all the teacher’s time will be taken up filling out paperwork and spreadsheets and online forms.

(d) Students need more time in the classroom – Again this treats students like an assembly process and we figure that if we just add another “shift” things will get better. Our bloated curriculum is so full of unneeded cruft that we need more time to get through it. My feeling is that students need less time in the classroom and more time to think and learn. At my high school, the day starts at 7:35 AM – that means that 1/5 of the students in our district have math as their first class before most people’s brains have even gotten started. This time was fine when we were all farmers with no electricity and so we got up at dawn, ate a hearty breakfast, and went and worked doing mindless labor until sundown at which time we ate another meal and fell fast asleep at 8PM. This schedule is not about peak mental achievement – it is about maximizing the daylight – and since it was manual labor – folks had no trouble going to sleep early.

The further reason for the 7:35 AM time is the cost of busing – the elementary school starts at 9AM (a great time for folks to be ready to learn) and then the start times work backwards through middle school, junior high, and high school to the point where kids are up at 6:30 and on a bus at 7:00 and in class at 7:35 – and most of them still asleep with their ipods in their ears to get a bit of peace and quiet when they should be sleeping. Contrast this with College – most students avoid classes before 9:30 AM if they can help it – they are in class 12-15 hours per week and yet they learn *far more* in community college or four year colleges using the “less time in class” approach. Of course maturity is a factor and by the time folks are in community college at least the bottom 50% have fallen away because they just learned to hate education. I am not saying that K12 needs the same flexibility of schedule as college – but there does need some gaps in the day and an allowance for letting students have some time to get ready for learning with some free time to let their mind relax before difficult or challenging classes.

(e) Teachers are the problem – Put simply – no. Administrators and experts are the problem. There are poor teachers – and we should find ways to evaluate them and re-allocate their talents. But most teachers love to teach and want to teach and chose their professions because they believed that they wanted to apply their skills and talent to make the world a better place. Sadly when they arrive it is all about paperwork and some administrator who went to their latest conference and got a head full of “industrial revolution thinking” from these lousy experts in the field. The administrator implements the newfangled policies and demands that all teachers jump in the new direction wasting time and distracting from the time and energy spent teaching and understanding where students need the most help.

(f) We need a more detailed curriculum and more assessment – again – no. What is needed is a less-detailed curriculum and more of a focus on the overall learning objectives for a student’s education. We need to stop providing developmentally grounded assessments and bring in assessments that repeatedly gauge overall progress to the overall set of learning objectives for their entire K12 education. My feeling that that developmentally anchored assessments are good up to and including 6th grade. From that point forward we might as well just have the students taking the SAT or ACT math test. This what the parents of “gifted and talented” students do – they have their student take the SAT/ACT from 7th grade on – this tells the parents how well their student is progressing toward the ultimate goals and learning objectives. It allows the parents to check every six months or so whether their child is developing gaps in any of the parts of their learning objectives. It also helps the student to be reminded regularly of the overall objectives and keeps them from getting stuck if their current teacher is off on an irrelevant curriculum-inspired tangent for a few weeks or months.

(g) We need more regular assessment – Yes and no. As I said above regular assessment that measures progress toward real learning objectives is a great idea and the ACT/SAT are wonderful tools to measure this progress with statistical confidence. Unfortunately the education experts insist on making their own assessments and forcing the students to take these (I am at a loss to describe these tests using family-friendly words). In Michigan we have an abomination called the MEAP – The Michigan Educational Assistance program. These are given every few years and are developmentally anchored and even worse – they are anchored to the curriculum rather than the learning objectives (like the SAT and ACT). The MEAP tests are prepared by the same idiots that made the curriculum in the first place – so the questions are gerrymandered to test how well the teachers followed the curriculum – not how much the teachers moved their students toward the overall learning objectives. The only way to increase MEAP scores for students is to teach separately for the MEAP – this of course is seen as a triumph by the idiots who made they curriculum – in reality this is a failure which wastes time and takes away precious focus on actually teaching the subject at hand. I am heartened to find that some of the MEAP tests are being replaced by the ACT given at earlier grades – this is a wonderful trend – it needs to continue until there is no more MEAP for math. I would accept a more custom/curriculum oriented assessment approach in K-5 – but ACT all the way from 6-12 and beyond.

(h) We need to find low-performing teachers – This is obvious and trivial with a few easy steps. I will focus on math. (1) Reduce the entire 6-12 math curriculum down to about five pages – don’t focus on how all the learning modules are intricately linked – simply describe the subset of overall math learning objectives that we are most interested in for each grade. (2) Give the ACT at the beginning, middle, and end of each school year. (3) Give teachers the detailed data about student skill level on the first day of class and then give the data to the teacher at the halfway point to see how far things have progressed based on the gaps and goals that the students and teachers have jointly set, (4) use the difference between the skill level at the beginning of the year and end of the year as the primary measure of the teacher’s effectiveness, (5) oh and by the way – eliminate all the wasted daily / weekly reporting of student progress. Use incentives to communicate to both the students and teachers that their entire purpose during this particular year of school is or make progress toward the overall objectives rather than run like rats through the curriculum maze. Of course, if this were to happen on a large scale, ACT and SAT could easily produce more focused assessment vehicles that measured all the learning objectives but did more fine-grain assessment on the objectives for the particular year (6, 7, 8, 9) Again – these need to keep students eye on the long-term learning goals but give a little more detailed breakdown on the learning objectives that are roughly slated for a particular grade.

(i) Lets do online courses – This sounds great on the surface – but as implemented by the “experts” it is likely to be a disaster. Given that the experts believe that learning is an inherently industrial process like an assembly line where statistical measurement is the way to increase the quality of the resulting product, an online course is the perfect vehicle to implement the most perfect instance of assembly line teaching. We eliminate uneven paint coverage on cars by using robots to paint the car 100% consistently and use statistical process control to figure out when a robot has a worn bearing that causes paint droplets to happen in the rear quarter panel. This would be a great idea if our overall goal was to give all of our children a really nice paint job with no drips or runs. Another advantage of robots is that they operate 24 hours per day and they do not belong to unions and never complain – when one wears our – you just bring in another one and scrap the old one. Sadly we build structures that try to turn teachers into robots and then are sad when all creativity leaves the classroom.

But online courses have great and wonderful potential to help students if they are properly designed. The design goals for a good online course are as follows: (a) the online course needs to be for remedial work – it is the “no child left behind” (b) the teacher is very much involved in the process – the student never spends more than 1 hour of time online without interaction with their “human” teacher, (c) the parents are very much involved in the remedial learning – they have access to all of the remedial material as well as the pre- and post assessment for each “1 hour topic”. The key here is the “one hour rule”. Too often once wonderful online resources like Pearson’s MyMathLab are assembled, teachers abdicate involvement in the learning process – it is too easy to say “by next week do all 10 sections of chapter 1 and do 50 problems in each section!”. Since the teacher does not have any consequences related to the effort level it is far to easy to over-assign online materials and then walk away taking no responsibility for student success. The one hour rule means that teachers must craft the online experiences to accomplish something using a finite amount of the student’s time. Also once the student has invested some time in learning the material – the teacher must also invest some time – this keeps the teacher from inadvertently overloading the student and keeps the student engaged. Again, parents can be a wonderful help in this situation as long as the amount of time invested is bounded and their time results in learning. Parents must see all the materials, see the pre-assessment, and see the post-assessment results. Also the assessments must always serve as teachable moments – there should be help and assistance at every question – the score is less about how many right or wrong – but how much help the student needed – remember this is remedial learning – grades are not important here – quickly catching up is what is important.

I actually am teaching remedial math to my son Brent right now using the popular Pearson MyMathLab materials. These materials have the potential to be wonderful or horrible – depending on the way it is used by the teacher. If it is used (as it was by one of my daughter’s teachers) as a way to assign hundreds of problems per week – that the computer grades – leaving the teacher more spare time – that is horrible. The teacher is not part of the learning experience and ends up causing great pain to their students and never seeing the problems they cause – because they simply see nice little reports each week. In my opinion – this is abdicating the role of teacher and reprehensible.

My approach to MyMathLab for remedial learning is to think in terms of 1-2 hour blocks that follow this basic steps for each piece of the material: (1) do a very short pre-test 10-15 minutes with ample hints – if the student self-assesses that they “get” the material move forward, (2) if the pre-test leaves the student uncomfortable regarding their mastery of the material – watch the Pearson-provided video lecture covering the material and let the student again decide if they feel comfortable with the material – if not, move to the textbook and read the textbook, if the student still is uncomfortable with the material the teacher gets involved and works through the material one on one. They key to this is that the student is making a lot of the choices in their learning and if none of the materials get it to click for the student – the human teacher becomes involved.

The key here is that I am talking about using online materials for remedial learning here – the student may have to review common denominators 10 times over the course of the year as new topic are encountered – each time it should take an hour or less – and perhaps the first few times the student “barely” gets it enough to get through the material at hand – but over the course of the year and several years – using the same remedial material over and over – eventually fractions and common denominators will stick for that particular student at the moment when their mind is ready for it.

Remember that an overall goal in my system is for them to master common denominators before they graduate from High School – I honestly do not care if they finally mastered it in 6th, 9th or even one day before they graduate from High School.


Since this is a rant and I need to go get another cup of coffee for now I will close. Somehow my entire family is teachers. I teach at the University of Michigan and formerly taught at Michigan State University and Lansing Community College. One of my younger brothers teaches at Jackson Community College and my other brother teaches High School Math. My sister Shawn taught at Washtenaw Community College. My daughter is about ready to graduate from Michigan State University with a degree in Special Education and my son Brent wants to be a history teacher when he grows up.

Having a whole family of teachers – it makes conversations at Thanksgiving really interesting – because we can see across a wide swath of how education works. I honestly think that the part of Education in the United States that functions the best are Community Colleges like Lansing Community College and Jackson Community College – I think that both schools do wonderful work – they make up for a K12 system that is about to go intellectually bankrupt under poor management of education experts and the US Department of Education and the collective state departments of education.

The public schools (even the wealthy suburb schools like Holt where my children went) are a wasteland when it comes to technical and abstract teaching and thinking. It is not the fault of the teachers, students or parents in Holt – it is the fault of the system and the “experts”. I really wish I had not bothered to put Brent in a “college prep” curriculum in Holt – because the math, chemistry, and physics classes were effectively useless. On the other hand the history, writing, social science, and general science classes were quite wonderful and well taught. The football coach taught a great programming class – his approach was relaxed and the kids all found their way through the materials at their own pace – I guess the curriculum experts have not decided to “improve” programming classes. As a result the teacher had sufficient flexibility and freedom to teach the material based on a combination of that particular teacher’s skill and experience as well as the students particular skill and experience. The teacher provides the students with a set of goals, some good learning materials, simple assessments to insure progress, and then allowed the students to proceed at their own pace and acted as a mentor to those students. Brent also took a Photoshop class that was similarly well taught in High School.

If I had it to do over – I would have had Brent take Photography, Graphic Arts, Painting, and Video Production in High School instead of Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus, and Statistics. Sadly the right approach is not even to try these subjects in High School and then just learn them in Community College when the teachers are not subject to the proscriptive curriculum and mis-guided assessments that ruin K-12’s ability to teach abstract material. I am quite sure that the only reason that History, General Science, and Photoshop are still terrific courses in High School are because they are “below the radar” of those “so called experts” in how to teach.

For my children I made a conscious choice to treat much of high school as a “throw away” from an educational perspective. I felt that attending a nice public school is about friends, fun, learning to write, and personal growth. As such, my children were not ready for a four-year school right after High School – so they spent/are spending time at Lansing Community College where I have them focus on building competencies in technical / abstract material in a more friendly environment. Everyone in our family who has went to LCC came in with terrible math skills and left with a solid understanding of calculus – and went on to complete their four-year degree with solid abilities to learn and understand both abstract and non-abstract knowledge.

Other parents who want their children to go straight into a four-year program must take a different approach to compensate for the K-12 system’s inability to teach abstract math/science concepts to the typical student. There are roughly three approaches that work: (a) continuously berate your student to get straight A’s and use every possible carrot and stick to keep them at the grindstone regardless of how painful it is, (b) home-school your child to teach them everything they need to know and then reassure them when their school teacher does some silly curriculum-inspired module that is completely illogical, or (c) put your child in an innovative private or charter school that ignores the experts guidance as to how to turn teaching into an assembly line and instead treats the children as individual learners and give both the students and teachers time and space to find the joy in learning.

For me, I did not like (c) because high-school is the one place where we really interact with the most diverse set of people we will ever meet – after High School graduation – we tend to increasingly spend time in our own “tribe”. I feel that while children who are in a private school, get a far better education, we risk strengthening the divide between classes and races rather than improving it. So my approach for my children has been a little of (a) and a little of (b) – but at the end of the day making sure that they understood that their K-12 experience was fun and one where they made a lot of friends and were involved in lots of activities.

I should make it very clear that it is not my intent to criticize any teacher – at Holt School or otherwise. Teachers are special people and sadly work under pretty harsh conditions. Also while I am critical of school administrators – the curriculum is a small part of what administrators do overall – they also have a very difficult and complex job to do in creating a space where we can all get together and learn together. In general the staff of K12 schools from top to bottom is pretty wonderful. Where I am unhappy is where the administrators are implementing the recommendations of outside experts. Sadly – they have little choice in the matter and so to a high degree school administrators are also victims of a hyperactive system of “experts”.

The problem for Barack is that the pool of experts that you have to draw from are those people who like the current situation because they created it. It is a large group of people who all agree with and support the “assembly line” / “Statistical quality management” dogma. Because the leadership of education is of one mind on the right way to teach and not open to any new ideas – people who might change things and have innovative ideas – choose not to attempt to become part of the “circle of experts” because they will instantly be a a tiny minority view and the established structure will rub them out.

So innovative ideas never get a foothold and never get a chance to even be tried in an experiment because the overwhelming expertise is dead-set against it. You have pulled your “experts” from this pool of “clone thinkers” and so it is not surprising that your “new approach” is just “the old approach”. I assure you that there are lots of folks (way smarter than me) that have ideas about how to improve things – the problem is how you will ever talk to anyone who is not an “expert” and the problem is that the people who know how to fix things are all afraid to challenge the experts – because the experts hold all the power.

I will stop for now and get my second cup of coffee – perhaps if folks care – I can go further along this thought process and write about some more tangible ideas. Or perhaps since my youngest has survived High School and is now in community college – I can just sit back – secure in the knowledge that the dismal performance of our K12 schools in teaching abstract and technical knowledge, is no longer my personal cross to bear.