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Don’t Shoot the Messenger: A Critical Look at our U.S. School System


If a fact-based, realistic picture of our schools makes you uneasy, uncomfortable and disturbed or offends you in any way you probably should read no further. If you are a parent, educator, business person, politician or voter you might want to spend a few minutes digesting what follows. And then take action.

Here is my case! On August 26th, 1983 T. H. Bell, the Secretary of Education under President Reagan, presented the results of a two-year long report by a blue-ribbon panel commissioned by Reagan in one of the first acts of his tenure. The commission ominously titled their report A Nation at Risk.”  Here is what they wrote on the very first page right after thanking the president for the privilege of serving:

“If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it happens we have allowed this to happen to ourselves……we have in effect been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral intellectual disarmament.”

Nothing has changed.  In our new Fourth Industrial Revolution where intellect matters more than ever I think it is fair to say that the state of our schools represents a National Security Threat on a par with all the others: terror and climate change. The difference is the politicians refuse to talk about it; it’s not on their radar screen. It should be as I hope to explain.

A couple of pages later the panel wrote:

“Each generation of Americans has outstripped its parents in education, in literacy and in economic attainment. For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, and will not even approach those of their parents.”

The Current Condition –America’s Mood.

It has been 33 years – more than a generation – since those words were written by some of the most eminent women and men of the day. What would the authors think now after seeing that in in a study that only ranked 31 nations and that in 2015 US students are ranked 25th overall?

First, I think they would agree that by any measure, other than enormous military and economic power concentrated in specific industries, and a risk-taking entrepreneurial class, America is in a steady social decline! We are in effect continuing the act of unthinking, unilateral intellectual disarmament described to President Reagan, and the consequences are rippling through society.

So, of course, the mood in the Unites States of America is not good. We are divided along partisan, gender and racial divides; and especially along the income distribution gap.

As a result of our decline from Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hilltop,” we are all feeling a sense of loss and regret and, I believe, grief. Can we still claim American Exceptionalism in the face of worsening income disparity, a growing number of children living in poverty, a seemingly intractable racial divide – especially in our schools – and a statistically underperforming national education system? One phenomenon I have noticed is a tendency for some to watch the current situation and grieve for a rosier time when these disturbing trends were less prevalent. Nostalgia!

Unfortunately, that past we all view through rose-tinted spectacles has not existed for many generations. What is true, however, is that these specific measures of society’s progress and thus happiness (income disparity, poverty, racial divisions and our schools) are worse than at any time since the Great Depression, despite the fact that in the eight years since the Great Recession of 2008 the stock market has gone up from 7000 to 17,000, unemployment has been cut from over 10% to less than 5% and the growth rate of the American economy is the envy of the developed world.   

Here’s where grieving comes in. Over the past four decades, the overwhelming majority of Americans have seen their income eroded by productivity gains and the rearrangement of the tax system to favor the rich and the corporations they control. These are simply facts.

According to Scientific American, not exactly a partisan magazine, “The top 20% of US households own more than 84% of the wealth and the bottom 40% combined for a paltry 0.3%. The Walton family, for example, has more wealth than 42% of American families combined.”

Child poverty is a national embarrassment. And it is no better in Britain. Both countries, seen throughout the world as role models, actually rank 34th or 35th in child poverty rates amongst developed nations, above only Romania and below virtually all of Europe plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

Then there are the children who are “persistently poor,” which means living below the federal poverty level for at least half of their childhood. One in 10 American children falls into this category, although when viewed by race, black children suffer disproportionately, with about four out of 10 suffering lengthy bouts of poverty. Is this any way to run a country?

The US Department of Education reports its key findings in racial disparities in school are, “Not only well-documented among older students, but actually, begin during preschool, and lead to a school-to-prison pipeline,” according to then US Attorney General Eric Holder.

The Time to Arrest The Decline Is Now!

What is fascinating to me about these reports is that all the causes of educational disparity are seemingly not so tough to fix; they are not exactly moon-shots. Access to preschool is very limited in poorer and minority neighborhoods: an Act of Congress could fix that. Black students are suspended at a rate more than double other students: access to counseling could help with this. Black students are disproportionally denied access to advanced courses: only 57% have access, whilst 81% of Asian Americans and 71% of White American students have access, but it is shameful that less than half of Native American students have access. The availability of college counselors is also commensurately lower for black and other minority students. A class action lawsuit could fix these issues since they are unequal and biased and contradict the rights afforded by the US Constitution. 

Not only are these problems surmountable, the benefits that would accrue to all Americans from solving them is immense.

Take drop-out rates.  The economic costs of anyone dropping out of school and the benefits of staying in school are eye-watering.

  • Increasing minority students’ participation in college to the same percentage as that of white students would create an additional $231 billion in GDP and at least $80 billion in new tax revenues (Alliance for Excellent Education.)
  • 75% of America’s state prison inmates are high school dropouts (Harlow)
  • High school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely than high school graduates to be arrested in their lifetime (Alliance for Excellent Education.)
  • A 1% increase in high school graduation rates would save approximately $1.4 billion in incarceration costs, or about $2,100 per each male high school graduate (Alliance for Excellent Education.)
  • A one-year increase in average education levels would reduce arrest rates by 11% (Alliance for Excellent Education.)

Is it any wonder that anger is such a defining characteristic of this 2016 election cycle? If you are middle class and white the chances are very good that your income has eroded. If you are black or Latino, not only has your income declined, but you have also seen educational opportunities disappear, and the erosion of the nuclear family has hit African-Americans disproportionately, along with enormous incarceration rates. If you are anybody – male or female of any race – the street violence has left you feeling uneasy – at a minimum.

My Conclusion Is That Our Nation Is In Grief.

 I think the 5 stages of grief outlined by Dr. Kübler-Ross in 1969, and widely accepted as valid, to describe what happens after a huge loss – a death of a loved one or a divorce – apply to us as a nation.

Most of us seem to still be in Denial – the first stage – when we rationalize what’s going on, block out reality and hide from the facts? If American weren’t in denial we would be protesting the state of our schools in the halls of congress, state capitols and city halls. Some seem to be in the second stage – Anger – lashing out in preemptive strikes to defend vulnerabilities and being whipped-up to a fury by adventurous demagogues.

However, it does not seem like Americans are yet Bargaining – the third stage – and perhaps we should be. That’s the stage where we start to lament and regret missed opportunities that would have avoided the loss and its resultant negative emotions; we begin asking questions beginning with these words – ‘If only.’

Depression and acceptance are the final two stages of grief. Not many Americans seem to be anywhere near depression, and definitely not acceptance.

Many are in denial. Many are angry. But what if Americans started bargaining? That would show intellectual honesty. “If only we had had a fairer tax system?” “If only we made pre-school available to all children?” If only ………….?” You fill in your own blank.

My biggest bargaining question is this, and it is the point of this editorial: “If only we had voted down the ‘No Child Left Behind Act’ and instead reformed the education system from top to bottom?”

The Money Issue.

It’s not like we don’t have the money.  In 2011, the United States spent $11,841 per full-time-equivalent (FTE) student on elementary and secondary education, an amount 35 percent higher than the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) average of $8,789. But the OECD number includes Uganda and Kazakhstan and other developing nations. So a better comparison would be with Europe.

Ireland, for example, spends about $9500 but ranks 7th on the PISA rankings whereas the USA is 25th

The sobering arithmetic is that Ireland spends three-quarters of what the USA spends per student but is 18 places higher in the rankings.

Asian countries rank in the top five every time the PISA rankings come out: For 2015 Singapore is in the lead – again – followed by Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

Here is part of my theory. Money makes a difference. So does the amount of time a student spends in school and with homework. In South Korea, which regularly comes in the top three in PISA rankings it is not unusual for a student to spend 8 or 9 hours a day in school plus homework 

Our Command and Control Educational System.

Our school system is top-down and top-heavy. The results of our efforts at a command and control school system are, let’s face it, a global embarrassment. And business leaders are coming to the same conclusion about a command and control management style. Command and control systems failed spectacularly in the Soviet Union when the government told people what to do and what to think. Why would a command and control system work in education or business? Even armies are becoming more “bottom up.”

We as American are spending $600,000,000,000 per year on a system that is by any measure clearly failing our students, and inevitably the American businesses who depend on the schools for employees.

As one of the 145,000,000 taxpayers in America are you happy with your ROI (return on investment) on the 4000 pre-tax dollars you are contributing to education every year?

In 1921, H. G. Wells wrote, “Human history is a race between education and catastrophe.” His words ring truer than ever in this new millennium. It does not appear from the evidence I have presented in this editorial that we are moving away from catastrophe, so we must be moving further towards it. And that, my fellow Americans, is a national security issue.

A New Educational Model.

But Finland which spends $700 more than the USA per student, ranks sixth, after places like South Korea, Japan, Shanghai, is a different story and a model for the USA.

Why is this? They do not spend as much time in the classrooms as Asian nations or even Western nations. So, what are they doing differently?

I will let Finland speak for itself. Here are some excerpts from the Finnish Education official website you might find startling.

“Schools are managed by the teachers and staff. The local municipal authority largely leave the running of the school to the principal and his or her teachers. Finland used to have a central education inspectorate in charge of evaluating school performance, but this has been replaced by a National Evaluation Council. This council, however, differs from an education inspectorate in that it serves to evaluate national policies rather than individual school performance. Schools are only formally evaluated periodically, with an exam administered to a sample of students in grades 6 and 9. Teachers are expected to use professional judgment and discretion, take collective responsibility for the education of their students and be accountable to their peers.  Students may also take other, elective subjects at the upper secondary school level. While the curriculum guidelines are fairly sparse by the standards of many countries – just 10 pages are devoted to math – the national curriculum serves as a guide, rather than an explicit lesson plan. The curriculum outlines how teachers should focus on developing their students’ creativity, management and innovation skills; with teachers grasping these goals and selecting their own teaching materials and lesson plans, they have been successful in achieving the government’s goals.

Teachers are encouraged to assess their students regularly, and guidelines for assessment are provided in the national core curriculum. Currently, there is also a push for student self-assessment, so that students may understand their progress and help to design their own learning activities.

The only external testing in comprehensive schools is for monitoring (rather than accountability) purposes and is done on a sample basis in grades 6 and 9. 

Finnish classrooms emphasize the importance of learning through doing, and place particular emphasis on group work, creativity and problem-solving skills. From primary school onward, students are expected to work collaboratively on interdisciplinary projects. In many cases, students are expected to contribute to the design of these projects as well. In upper secondary school, students are expected to contribute to the design of their own course of study.”

Cultural Differences.

Here is another part of my theory. Asian countries reflect a more collectivist culture or society. In Western countries our culture is more individualistic. So the young woman in Seoul, South Korea is clearly working very hard; much harder than a boy in Boston or a student in Sacramento. But she is doing this because the pressure on her to succeed is coming from parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, teachers, and classmates. What she is studying and how she is graded is the same in South Korea as California. She is cramming for exams based on her ability to remember facts in science, technology, engineering, math and probably a foreign language. So obviously if she spends more time cramming, memorizing and going to extra classes – paid for by the family – on how to game the multiple-choice exam, of course she will outperform the boy in Sacramento who lives in a hyper-individualistic culture.

The pressure to cram and study for the SAT/ATC exams in the USA comes not so much from parents, it comes from within. If the boy in Sacramento feels like what he is doing is somehow irrelevant he will not do as well as the girl in South Korea. No wonder 55% of High School students are psychologically disengaged; a tragedy in the making.

In an individualistic “show-me-why-it-matters” culture like the USA convincing the individual student of the value of something is best done by giving the individual the information they need so they can make up their own mind. We do not do that! We simply order them to learn what the government has mandated, primarily through memorization and testing.

In an environment that emerged from the winner-takes-all culture of the Easter seaboard to the rugged individualism of the Mid-West to the wildness of the West, Americans do not take too kindly to being told what to do – unless they buy-in first. And that’s the key. Getting someone to buy-in to why they should do something is the key to all maturation, to learning and to making meaning, the topmost goal of education.

If you want proof look no further than the infamous ‘Freakanomics’ bribery experiment; it’s on Netflix. In conjunction with the University of Chicago the authors of ‘Freakonomics’ tried rewarding/bribing/paying students to do better on tests. There were ceremonies where substantial amounts of cash were handed out for slight improvement in grades. The experiment failed at the first hurdle. One of the boys, who had been an enthusiastic participant earlier, inadvertently made my point for me when he looked at the camera and said, “I don’t see the point.”

Of course, he did not see the point! This experiment in bribery, with more than a whiff of desperation, did not get him to see the value of American history or algebra or thinking to his personal growth. Why? Because only he can decide what is valuable to his future.

The job of educators is to put him in a position where he can gather all the facts and decide for himself what is important, and then by definition buy-in to the decision. In other words, he makes personal meaning. The Greeks knew that 2500 years ago.

How Can We Fix This?

Let me take a moment and explain how we can begin remedying the problem by encouraging student buy-in through Socratic Inquiry. It works in the inner-city or the affluent suburb because it is simple. I know. I have many wonderful testimonials from students and teachers in both socio-economic categories after I conducted seminars in my Terego Training Method  – The result is Mass Customization.

This is how it works. Before opening their textbooks on American history or Algebra and launching into a mostly one-way dialog with the sage on the stage doing most of the talking, and the audience being passive, why not arrange the students into a Socratic Circle first and task them with answering a simple question – Why is American History Important? Implicit in this exercise is the answer to the real question – Why is American History important to you? It also works for why Thinking, Algebra or Reading is important to an individual.

With the teacher, acting as a guide on the side, the students appoint a leader and then ask and answer as many questions as possible beginning with the words who, what, why, where, when and how. Once the answers are asked and answered, they collate the most popular answers, and all them agree – by vote – on a collective answer.   

Now the student(s) have bought-in to why American History, Thinking, Geography or Algebra – or anything else is important – in their lives. This individual ‘buy-in’ and the skills learned whilst doing the exercise is precisely what is missing in our schools. And it is exactly what businesses desperately need. They want people who can think critically in a group on a problem – almost always a subjective problem with no right or wrong answer – and clearly articulate an optimal solution. If employers only needed factual answers they would turn to software: and increasingly they are. Wetware has a different purpose – to grapple with problems to which there is no objective provable answer – just a well thought-out point of view or opinion or thesis.

HERE IS MY CALL TO ACTION. If we made this one small change – getting students to embark on a rules-driven exploration of a subject, or a problem, with the goal of making personal meaning and buy-in, BEFORE beginning the arduous but vital task of absorbing the facts needed to master the subject, or at least understand it more – then 50,000,000 minds would light up. There are 50,000,000 reasons why students believe they should study algebra or American history – not one!

Here is how it is done!

“Watching students use Terego’s methods is like seeing them finally find the light switch.” Nancy Clark, Teacher at Venice Middle School. “If you think like this method tells you to, the ideas will find you.” Joshua McDowell. 12th Grade Lakewood Ranch High School. “Your ideas and methods are revolutionary and extremely beneficial. Bravo!” Steven Sloan, 12th-grade student, Pineview School.  “The Critical Thinking seminar was phenomenal. I have learned an essential concept that has been lying under my nose for quite a bit. It was like igniting a fire. 12th grade Booker High School student Zabdi Saint-Cyr “This class/seminar was eye-opening. It gave me a new perspective.” 12th grade Booker High School student Alyssa Johnson. “Game changing. Makes me ask the right questions.” 12th grade Booker High School student Rafael de Lima. And best of all, Julie who simply asked me this, “Why has my school never taught me this?” This editorial is my answer.

AGAIN, I address this to all teachers, parents, thought-leaders, principals, superintendents and politicians, and anyone who wishes to help fix our schools. If you believe the testimonials I quoted, this one small step – getting buy-in from students first – will make a difference.

This narrated video is an investment of seven minutes of your time. 

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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