I clearly remember a conversation about education and student achievement that I had with one of my older brothers several years ago.
Steve was a really bright guy and very competitive, who went the private industry route. (Contrasted with myself and my other four brothers, all of whom went into education!) He was valedictorian of his senior class and attended General Motors Institute right out of high school. GMI was basically an engineering school operated by General Motors. It was geared to train engineers to work in the automotive field, in general, and at General Motors specifically. It was also an atypical school in that students attended classes for eight weeks and then worked in a GM factory for eight weeks. This pattern continued for the duration of the schooling. So Steve would be at GMI in Flint, Michigan, for eight weeks and then he’d be home for eight weeks, working full time at the General Motors plant in Massena, NY, about a forty-minute drive from our house.
Steve’s specialty when he graduated with his engineering degree was management of production. He was involved early on in the actual processes and machinery that were needed to produce automobile engine parts. This, as you expect, is a huge industry. There are countless businesses that make automobile engine parts; they contract with General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, etc. to make the parts needed for the auto production. Steve started out at General Motors, but he soon moved into the private businesses and, being an excellent manager, was sought after by such companies. He eventually ended up being a part owner and vice president of production for a business in Michigan that did hundreds of millions of dollars of business with the major automobile companies. He knew his stuff.
Another facet of providing parts to major auto industries, other than cost, of maintaining contracts was quality control. Imagine you are the head of production for Ford, and you’re purchasing many millions of dollars’ worth of water pump housings from a parts company. You need to be sure that every one of the water pumps that you purchase from another company will first fit the specifications required and the housings received and, when installed in the engine compartment, will work properly. You can’t have 10% of the product not fit or not work. You need 100% reliance on the parts, and, thus, on the company. This is the world in which Steve lived, operated, and believed.
So Steve and I were talking and he said that schools’ quality control was deficient. He maintained that, like in private business, society should expect a 100% success rate. He also believed that if we applied certain business models and practices to school operations we could achieve it. I, of course, passionately disagreed.
I think George Bush (the younger) must have had a conversation with him before crafting the No Child Left Behind legislation debacle. You may be familiar with this legislation. If not, it’s another great example of well-intentioned regulations that were unattainable. The key portion was that it required 100% of students to be proficient in math and English Language Arts by a specified date, the designated date is long past, which on its face is laughable. We are not manufacturing water pump housings, we cannot demand that the raw materials sent to us meet all of our specifications, we know that students possess a wide range of learning capabilities due to many factors, most of which are beyond our control. Expecting 100% success in any endeavor is asking for disappointment, and this is so obvious in any setting that involves humans.
Humans are imperfect beings and there is no level of expectation of educational preparedness that can be counted on in 100% of any human population. A sixth grade teacher has sitting in her classroom raw materials that are anything but alike in all specifications. How many of her students won’t be able to focus because they didn’t get sufficient sleep, or because they didn’t have a sufficient breakfast, or are upset because mom is mad at them, or are worried about their dad who they haven’t seen in a week, or feel they’re to blame for their parents’ separation, or believe they can’t do the work, or any of a number of other reasons that inhibit the acquisition of content and skills? Yet my brother, and many other non-educators including legislators and, more obviously our governor, fail to understand this.
I’m not making excuses for those educators who aren’t very effective at their jobs, even though the raw materials we work with are imperfect in many ways. But, our public schools are not failing, far from it. And the number of ineffective teachers is a lot smaller than the press, and our governor, would have you believe. No one should look at kids as perfect specimens who just need to be led in the right direction. I don’t mean that as a putdown, I mean that as an honest assessment. Kids are not perfect raw materials that are perfectly ready for the next step in the process of academic development. Think of your own kids, or nephews/nieces, cousins, etc. Put them in a room together and imagine what it would be like to move them all forward at the same pace so they are all at the same level of achievement at the same point in time…it just doesn’t happen so neatly.
Nope, private business models attending to inanimate materials won’t work with humans. Expecting them to transfer is folly.
And that’s my perspective.