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Are American Schools the Newest “Black Swan?”

By Alex Terego

Not everyone is aware of all the specifics, but there is a good chance that you are one of the majority of Americans that believe schools in the USA are not living up to their potential.

You also might not be aware that American student’s psychological engagement with their education, especially in high school, is alarmingly low at 44%.

Given that schools are underperforming, and that less than half of all high school students are engaged at school, it makes sense that increasing student engagement should be a priority since it would have a profound effect.

  • My purpose in this editorial is to explore the root causes of high school student’s lack of ownership in their own education.
  • And to propose a grass-roots solution designed to help classroom teachers to encourage individual student buy-in (psychological engagement) with their ‘job’ thus achieving mass customization.


In 2007 Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book that, according to the New York Times, is one of the 12 most influential books since WWII. Its name is the Black Swan. 

Black Swan is an unpredictable, rare, but nevertheless high impact event. Taleb used this historic term because once-upon-a-time everybody thought there was no such thing as a black swan, until someone discovered one.

In this editorial I hope to demonstrate that our education system is just such a rare, slow motion and high impact event. I hope to show that this Black Swan event, however, is predictable; so let’s call it a Gray Swan. Also I hope to show that by identifying our schools as a the next ominously colored swan and by getting to the root causes we can mitigate the extreme impact a failing school system inevitably will have on all aspects of society inside the USA’s borders and in relation to our natural competitors. Finally I will offer solutions.


A Black Swan has three properties.

  1. It is rare.
  2. Its impact is extreme.
  3. It has retrospective predictability.

A Black Swan is a rare million-to-one chance that with hindsight we should have seen coming. 9/11 for example. The enormous impact of 9/11, the Tsunami in Japan and the collapse of the stock markets in 2008 are still with us. The rise of ISIS in the past couple of years was, according to some pundits and scholars, unavoidable. In retrospect they were right.

Taleb maintains that failure to recognize and anticipate Black Swans is based on what he calls Ignorance Based Thinking. By that he means that most people are happy thinking about things they know. It takes a different kind of thinking to think about what we don’t know, but we must make the effort to discover.  We don’t know what we don’t know, and that can be deadly.

It is important to deliberate on things that are not in our common experience. And that is what I am trying to do with regard to our schools. An investigation of our own ignorance has merit; in fact it can help us leverage good Black Swans such as the Internet and avoid extremely bad Black Swans such as Global Warming.

After an event has wreaked havoc we will still try picking up the pieces and making promises to do a better job of seeing the next Black Swan coming. 20/20 hindsight is always helpful.

But what seems to be happening is that we are using a very different kind of Ignorance Based Thinking. We are choosing not to accept the evidence if it does not fit with our short term goals. If I am a coal magnate and in my eighties then warnings about global warming are just inconvenient. If I am the coal magnate’s infant great grandson facing a life expectancy of a century or so global warming is a vital issue.

Two simple questions will, when answered honestly by powerful elites or ordinary voters, identify a potential Black Swan.

  1. Am I thinking long term?
  2. Am I looking out for my own vested interests?


So, are you thinking long term when teaching, parenting, organizing or joining a union, administering, making policy or managing education?

Or are you looking out for your vested interests when teaching, parenting, organizing or joining a union, administering, making policy or managing education?

Before answering those questions, however, it makes sense for all the stakeholders to take a look at the purpose – the topmost goal – of education. And that goes for all stakeholders in our schools including those who no longer have children in school, or ever will, but who also pay taxes. In other words all American citizens, especially those with pensions and insurance that are dependent on a productive and growing America.

Jonathan Cohen, cofounder and president of the National School Climate Center writes, “I think that my view, and most people’s view, is that the purpose of education is to support children in developing the skills, the knowledge, and the dispositions that will allow them to be responsible, contributing members of their community—their democratically-informed community. Meaning, to be a good friend, to be a good mate, to be able to work, and to contribute to the well-being of the community.”

Others focus on the original purpose: schools were places to give every child the education they deserved and society needs them to possess regardless of their position in society. This way they and society both benefit; the students are prepared to inherit the future equipped with all the skills necessary, and each generation will prosper more than the one before. It is called perpetual progress and has been going on for a century and a half.

There are plenty of stakeholders in our school system, which is supposed to be a virtuous circle. Taxpayers, parents or not, pay taxes levied by local, state and federal authorities. The school authorities receive the tax money, after expenses, and some more from gambling, again after expenses. They then hire the necessary people, buy supplies, technology and buildings and get to work. The hope is that businesses in the area will then hire them.

Is This Strategy Working Out As Intended?

With the Millennials – those born between the early eighties and early 2000s and already the largest cohort in working America – the picture is mixed at best. A significant percentage of Millennials surveyed believed they are going to be better off than their parents. The evidence shows little statistical support for their optimism, however, with unemployment amongst Millennials at 15% compared to about 4.9% nationally and with almost half of those in their early twenties stuck in low wage jobs, it is difficult to come to any other conclusion than the one that would indicate the perpetual progress that has been in place for 150 years is grinding to a halt.


It will get worse for the working population for three reasons.

  • The student debt bubble is growing ($1.2 trillion and growing) and nothing is being done to avoid another bubble and burst.
  • Baby Boomers are delaying their retirement.
  • Baby Boomers, Gen-X and Millennials have all grown up in an education system that is seriously flawed and out of touch with the needs of business.

The student debt bubble and the postponing of retirement by Boomers are both serious issues, but they are ancillary to my argument that it is the schools we should focus on to mitigate the effects of more oncoming Swans – whether they are Black or Gray.


This is a sweeping statement – nevertheless it is obvious that schools are not playing their part in the virtuous circle and perpetual progress ideas that should underpin their role. Here are some statistics.

If schools were playing their part we would be getting the results that Finland regularly does since implementing reforms 40 years ago. And they deliver education the opposite of the way American schools.

In 2016 we are now 25th in reading, 36th in math, and 28th in science

A recent Gallup Research poll found that almost half of all students lack hope for the future. Read that sentence twice! They are your children! And half of them feel hopeless!

Half of all teachers leave within five years citing working conditions and lack of a voice or autonomy in the way they do their job.

Half of all Americans don’t consider today’s high school dropouts and graduates – most of the new people entering the workforce each year – to be ready for the world of work.


  1. Overemphasizing testing

The centrality of testing to our system should be shocking, but instead is somehow accepted as commonplace

This is a part of an open letter from a large group of New York City teachers. “This year in our school, as in schools across the country, we have seen the number of standardized tests we are required to administer grow sharply, from 25 to more than 50 (in grades 6-10). In the next six weeks alone, each of our sixth-graders will be required to take 18 days of tests: 3 days of state English tests, 3 days of state math tests, 4 days of new city English and math benchmark tests, and 8 days of new English, math, social studies and science city tests to evaluate teacher performance. Additionally, students who are learning English must spend 2-3 more days taking the NYSESLAT test for English Language Learners—a total of 21 days in just the next few weeks.”

It is true that a lot of other countries also teach to the tests. The fact is that, although we test at a prodigious rate, the 25 other OECD countries that also teach to the tests, test better than we do. In reading 16 countries test better, 36 test better in math, and 27 test better in science. Does that sound like a successful return on investment to you? Or does that sound more like the “unilateral intellectual disarmament” that President Ronald Reagan’s commission on education report claimed was happening in1983?

  1. Deemphasizing Thinking Skills

Our schools are more like a game show where answers are more valuable than questions. It should be the other way round. Our schools and our society is all about answers. Answers are all around us.

This is due to two factors: Search Engines and Optical Character Recognition.

Search engines have become so good that the world’s data is literally at our fingertips; we no longer have to be able to read a map or a book to get answers.

The effect of optical character recognition (OCR) has been more insidious. OCR itself is a Black Swan: an unpredictable, rare, but nevertheless high impact event. The law of unintended consequences applies to OCR in a big way. Let me explain. In the sixties OCR machines were deployed to recognize if an oval on a sheet of paper had been filled in or left blank. Voting machines in other words. Schools jumped on this. The cost savings of not having a teacher grade a paper were very attractive. But OCR was a binary technology: it could only recognize if an oval was blank or not. So tests had to be set or written in multiple choice format. “Which of the following options is true?” Schools began to realize that this was the best way to grade – cheap and accurate. So they modified the curriculum so that all knowledge was transmitted in a format that could be read and graded by an Optical Character Recognition reader.

Schools became the only institution in history to modify the way they operate to fit the limitations of technology. Imagine if you owned a business and a technology salesman told you that you had to modify the way you do business in order to utilize his machine!

The result? We have made Answers the Holy Grail of education, when in fact Questioning should be the Holy Grail of education. Generations of students have now been taught that memorization is the same as critical thinking. 

  1. C) Ignoring The Needs Of Employers – Businesses Especially.

Schools should provide an educated populace. Schools should produce people who have the values of a democracy. Schools should produce people who hold shared moral values, and who obey the law. That said, let’s face it schools are also the farm teams for industry, and as such should spend time listening to what business leaders demand. And they don’t.

If they did they would understand that businesses, and employers, are in a pickle. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is affecting us all and at the speed of light. No company, no employer, no institution or enterprise is immune from its influence. Not even bed and breakfasts or taxis, let alone manufacturing and transportation companies. Klaus Schwab, who coined the phrase ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ is the founder of the World Economic Foundation and writes, “Ubiquitous, mobile supercomputing. Intelligent robots. Self-driving cars. Neuro-technological brain enhancements. Genetic editing. The evidence of dramatic change is all around us.”

An issue of great concern to all schools and colleges is that the businesses and governments to which they feed employees are having a hard time forecasting a future that is coming at us ever faster. This makes it infinitely more important that schools respond to the needs of businesses so that the bargain between the two of perpetual process through a virtuous circle be maintained. 

Employers are also coping with the phenomena known as the “Knowledge Doubling Curve,” Identified by Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) he demonstrated that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every one hundred years. By the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today different types of knowledge have different rates of growth: in nanotechnology knowledge is doubling every two years and biological knowledge every 18 months. The consensus is that on average human knowledge is doubling every 13 months. According to IBM’s Research Labs, however, the blitz-scaling of the internet of systems and things – fridges connected to grocery stores in turn connected to drones and so on – will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours. Let’s assume that the world’s data base is 100 today. If it doubles every 12 hours, then a week later that number will be 1,638,400. And five days later that number will be over a billion.

Which brings me to Artificial Intelligence and its threat and promise for business and the graduates they employ. Benedict Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University, who published a seminal paper in 2013 on how susceptible jobs are to roboticisation, conclude that “Technology is leading to a situation, where fewer and fewer people have the necessary skills to work in the frontline of its advances. In the 1980s, 8.2% of the US workforce were employed in new technologies introduced in that decade. By the 1990s, it was 4.2%. For the 2000s, our estimate is that it’s just 0.5%. That tells us that, on the one hand, the potential for automation is expanding – but also that technology doesn’t create that many new jobs now compared to the past.”

Thanks to AI, shortly we will be talking to devices the way we talk to other people. That’s the kind of sea change that comes along once in a very long time, and with massive implications.

Schools, colleges, businesses, governments are experiencing Life in the Fast Lane.

If schools and the educators and administrators paid attention to all this they would know – to borrow a line from Buick – this it’s not your father’s economy. It’s not even your elder brother’s economy. It is an economy we have never seen before and it will probably change next week and be radically different next year.

Bill Gates made these pronouncements recently in an interview: “Artificial intelligence is on a faster learning curve than human intelligence.” “Artificial intelligence will lead to labor substitution (job losses) for the next twenty years.” “Innovation is the key to solving all problems.”

To make sure that graduates can actually get jobs in this new economy new skills are needed.

Business, the military, the civil service, the non-profit sector and especially schools and colleges need Cognitive Flexibility, Critical Thinking, Innovative Thinking, Problem Solving, Judgment and Decision Making, Active Listening and Working in Teams.

Quite literally none of these skills are being taught in our schools. The schools that feed industry are still teaching students to memorize facts because we have the technology to grade them on that skill. Meanwhile the gap between what businesses need and what schools supply widens, and that can only mean that America gets less and less competitive. Asymmetry between supply and demand never has a good outcome. 

  1. Stressing Individual Attainment

America is founded on the idea of rugged individualism. But all those rugged individuals share a secret – they all need other individuals, rugged or not, to accomplish anything. Schools have forgotten that collaboration got us to this point. They mostly teach lecture – didactic – style, assign test material and grade it all as if all individuals work in a vacuum.

This is the most diverse nation ever and we are hell-bent on homogenization, when we should be leveraging the diversity.

Teamwork is at the heart of all human endeavor. We would not exist as a species if not for a co-operative effort. Lions hunt in a pack. Ants survive through teamwork.

Perhaps the most profound reasoning for encouraging teamwork and relying less on lectures and homework comes from William Glasser, an internationally recognized psychiatrist, who after extensive, peer-reviewed research reported that, “We learn 10 percent of what we read; 20 percent of what we hear; 30 percent of what we see; 50 percent of what we both hear and see; 70 percent of what we discuss with others; 80 percent of what we experience personally and 90 percent of what we teach someone else.”

In a team we listen, we discuss, we experience and we teach – by voicing an opinion – other team members by using our powers of persuasion. This is the best argument for teaching group skills I know of, and it is a skill all business demand.

But! We can’t use a multiple choice test to evaluate how well a team works so we don’t do it. The students sit in rows, like they did during the first industrial revolution, and they listen. And then each individual is tested.

If there is a high tech hub or incubator in your area take your students there and have them ask what skills the entrepreneurs need – apart from coding – and you will hear teamwork, critical thinking, collective problem solving and clear communications; individual skills measured by an SAT score will be assumed. 

  1. Assuming Only Facts Count

Facts are important. But they are not the most important element of education. The vast majority of decisions we take in life must, wherever possible, utilize facts. It would be madness to ignore the facts involved in any decision. Here’s the problem. Most of the problems we face in life and in a career do not have a right or wrong answer. Facts are provable, demonstrable repeatable: objective truths in other words. Overwhelmingly the realities we will be faced with in life do not have an objective, right or wrong answer. We will face mostly subjective issues with no provable right or wrong answer such as: Is that the best business plan?

In the face of that reality the best we can do is to marshal all the facts pertaining to the subjective problem, and then use our reason to synthesize new ideas with known facts into a well thought-out opinion. Is that a skill that is being taught at our schools and colleges? If it is not then graduates will not have the skill to deal with the vast majority of the tasks they will face in life and in their career.   


I don’t think it is fair or accurate to attribute all of America’s social ills to our school system. That said it is hard not to see a correlation.

Finland and the USA are two of the 34 countries that make up the Organization For Economic Co-Operation and Development, whose mission is to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.

Finland is widely regarded as having one of the best education systems in the OECD. The USA has one of the worst performing education systems.

Finland imprisons  57 people for each 100,000,  persons The USA imprisons 698 people for each 100,000 of its population. The United States has about 5% of the world’s population yet it accounts for about 25% of the world’s prisoners

The Life Satisfaction Index (Happiness) in Finland is 9.4. On the same index the USA scores 7.3.

Infant mortality rates (deaths per 1000 live births) in Finland are 2.52. In the USA infant mortality rates are 5.87

Recidivism in Finland is falling. In the USA reoffending is a growing problem. 

According to a study conducted in late April 2016 by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read. That’s 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read. You have probably guessed it but here’s confirmation Finland is the most literate nation in the world.

Drop-out rates in Finland are 5%.  https://www.aneki.com/oecd_countries_high_school_graduation_rates.html In the USA the number is 18.6%.

With these kind of outcomes is it any wonder that in the USA we have a serious problem with Employee Engagement or rather the lack of it? Two thirds of all employees in America are “psychologically disengaged from their job.” 

It stems from the fact that people are not contributing, just following orders. They are not complicit in the outcomes they work for. They have no voice, so why not just go through the motions?

Student Engagement is a problem with the same root causes. Roughly 75 percent of elementary school students (grades 5 and 6) are actively involved and invested in school, compared with only 44 percent of high school students (grades 9 through 12), according to the 2012 Gallup Student Poll. That means that almost six out of ten high schoolers in the USA spend 180 days per year with the glazed look of the bored, unengaged and disinterested. Who wouldn’t if all they are being ordered to do is memorize facts for test after test? And this in the new day of social media!


If anyone were to take all of the above statistics and plot them on a graph – and I am praying someone will – and present them to parents and teachers in America there would be an outcry. Yet in listening to the current candidates for elective office one cannot help but notice the ominous silence on the issue. Is anything else, other than that other Black Swan global warming, as important to our future?

There is no one to blame. Black Swans happen; that’s their nature. Our response to this crisis, however, is how we will be judged by history. Is this the next black swan? We won’t know until it’s too late



I have a suggestion, and it involves teachers and anyone involved in education.

Make your students or children are complicit in their education. Get them to buy-in to their schooling and take ownership. Give them the tools to figure out why algebra, geography, history or reading is important to them. Before filling them with test prep factoids. Once they and their team mates have convinced themselves of the value of any academic subject they see reasons to engage with the material.

There are 50,000,000 students in K-12 in the USA. That means there are 50,000,000 reasons why Algebra, Geography, History or Reading is important…not one!

What if, instead of launching into the syllabus – “Open your text books at page 72” – you organize your students into groups and teach them how to have a structured self-directed study group, the purpose of which is for each student to contribute to a discussion on why algebra, history or geography or reading – or any academic subject or problem – is an important part of their education? Then step aside.

If Glasser was right then by lecturing students from the front of the classroom on the importance of a particular subject or issue, a teacher will reach twenty percent of her students. If an individual team member is asked to answer the question for him or herself, they will have to convince others of their position – which is good – more importantly as Glasser proved they would remember 90% of the subject matter in the process. They will convince themselves of the value of algebra and probably convince others in the process. The result! Buy into their education! Ownership of their reasons for learning.

Young children are curious and non-conformist. The older they get, the less curious and more conformist they become

Answers are the enemy of curiosity. Questions are its fuel. Empower students to ask questions and you will be teaching them the skills they need to for a fulfilled life: feed them answers and you will satisfy their appetite for a day.

Questions must be answered. Answers must be questioned.  Answer the question and then question the answer by asking several questions beginning with these six words – Who, What, Why, Where, When and How.


If people convince themselves of the need to learn the fire comes from within. Having their feet held to the fire has the opposite effect.

I firmly believe that if this one small step were taken by any and all teachers, the educational landscape would change for the better. The educational landscape will become better if students are more engaged. The goal is a zest for learning.

Pick a topic and start in the middle of the white board. The topic I chose was “THINKING.” What follows is a PowerPoint Movie on how self-directed teams of students can examine a topic with a view to encouraging each student’s “buy-in” to the discussion.

To see how watch the video below. Remember there is a PAUSE button. 

If you like what you see, please don’t keep it a secret.

Alex Terego  After 40 successful years in the hi-tech business, during which he participated in all phases of computing, beginning with IBM and culminating in selling his voice mail company, Alex became an early thought-leader in 21st Century skills development. He developed his Terego  Method™ when teaching Critical Thinking at the Thunderbird School of Global Management and the Eller Graduate School of Business at the University of Arizona.

The program is now available at no cost for schools. Click to see this video It is an investment of seven minutes of your time to discover how you can teach students to think for themselves and in teams. Follow me on Twitter @alex_terego


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