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Monday, February 25, 2013

Education and the Postal Service: An Analogy Worth Considering

By Nelson Coulter

Can we fix a floundering educational system?

As an educator in public schools for over 30 years, with the benefit of some deep scars and lengthy hindsight, I am coming to an ever-clearer conclusion about the education of our nation’s children.

In a global economy, those who provide goods and services must do so in a way that is responsive to the marketplace.  Consumers want good products/services at a fair price, and they want variety and choice in their options.  They want those products/services right now!  And, they want those products/services to have a degree of customization and personalization.

When entities of any kind focus on their internal processes rather than on the customer’s desired outcomes, they essentially choose to make themselves irrelevant to current and potential clients (i.e., market share).

Many in the education profession will challenge my assertion that education is in a competitive marketplace.  I believe their challenge is premised on a flawed assumption.  Choice in education has always been an option, for some.  Historically, it has only been an option for the wealthy and/or highly educated.  Those bases always placed a premium on quality education (at least, on a diploma from selected institutions).  What the global economy is doing to education is the same thing it has done in the other marketplaces – it has provided variety, choice, customization, personalization, relevance, and affordability to those who previously did not have the option of “shopping.” 

Just as the U.S. Postal Service has evolved itself into a black fiscal hole (noble intentions notwithstanding), I believe public education has been working itself toward the same end. (I am not picking on the Postal Service out of some particular malice. There is a plethora of governmental entities that I could use to draw the same analogy).

Government does have a critical role to play in education.  Democratic ideals sustain best with an educated electorate.  The role of government (the more local, the better) is to ensure the availability of a quality school, to guarantee the accessibility of all students to that school, to insist that the school is staffed by appropriately credentialed teachers, to provide an agreed upon foundational curriculum, and to establish accreditation criteria that monitor all the elements listed above.

To quote former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill,  “All politics are local.”   His point was that local issues and local politicians were the real drivers behind regional, state, and national issues, not the other way around.  I would argue that the same is true of education, though we seem to have been engaged in a decades-long experiment of trying it the “other way around.”

Let me return to the analogy of the U.S. Postal Service.  It has found itself in an untenable position fundamentally because it failed to adapt to the changing needs and desires of its client base, preferring to continue with its model of service that was created for a different era.  The U.S. Postal Service got into this predicament precisely because it viewed itself as the only option for its client base.  I believe that public education (as we have known it) will fall (in fact, is falling) victim to the same demise by that very sort of contextual blindness.  If we, the public education sector, continue to act as if we have a captive audience and perform as if we need not be responsive to the needs of our current clientele (not the clientele that existed 10, 20, or 30 years ago), those customers SHOULD leave us.  (Recall the fall of Blockbuster and the evaporation of Polaroid, to state just two examples of death by adaptive paralysis).

So, back to my original question - Can we fix a floundering educational system?  My answer is a qualified “yes.”

Here’s where I think Education differs from the U.S. Postal Service.  It is not too late for us – Education - to remake ourselves.  The smart money is on local schools that adapt and deliver education that is relevant to the real world their students will live in.  It’s a messy and challenging process, but at Guthrie CSD we’re attempting to do just that.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Soft vs Hard Data (and Learning)

There is a vigorous debate (some would call it a battle) going on around the nation, and within the halls of the Texas Capitol.  Much of it has to do with what the future of education should look like, what "good" schooling should be, and how students/schools/teachers should be measured (and labeled). 

Academic prowess is a good thing and we are right to address it with zeal in our schools.  However, an equally important set of learning outcomes exists, and in my view, schools should be addressing those elements, too.  I would even argue that those "soft" skills and ways of thinking may be even more important to the lifelong success and happiness of our children than is academic acumen. 

Seligman (2002) has identified six commonly "virtues" valued across many and varied cultures:  Wisdom/Knowledge, Courage, Humanitarianism, Justice, Temperance, and Transcendence.  

Similarly, Costa and Kallick (2000) identified 16 "habits of mind" representative of these "soft skills" that not only support academic performance, but enhance interpersonal and intrapersonal effectiveness:  Persisting, Managing impulsivity, Listening with understanding and empathy,Thinking flexibly, Metacognition, Striving for accuracy, Questioning and posing problems, Applying past knowledge to new situations, Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision, Gathering data through all senses, Creating-imagining-innovating, Responding with wonderment and awe, Taking responsible risks, Finding humor, Thinking interdependently, and Remaining open to continuous learning. 

The SCANS Report for America (2000) identified five skills and competencies needed for success in the work place:  1) Ability to identify, organize, and allocate resources of all kinds, 2) Interpersonal skills needed to work effectively with others, 3) Ability to acquire and evaluate information, 4) Systems thinking acumen, and 5) Ability to work with multiple technologies.  

Goleman (1998) posits along the same lines, framing these proclivities as "emotional intelligences": 

Self-awareness – the ability to know one's emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, values and goals and recognize their impact on others while using gut feelings to guide decisions; 
Self-regulation – involves controlling or redirecting one's disruptive emotions and impulses and adapting to changing circumstances; 
Social skill – managing relationships to move people in the desired direction; 
Empathy - considering other people's feelings especially when making decisions; and 
Motivation - being driven to achieve for the sake of achievement. 
Goleman also provides measurement models for these dimensions.

Finally, Gardner (1983) describes the importance on diversified thinking in terms of "multiple intelligences" which he categorizes as: Logical-Mathematical, Spatial, Linguistic, Bodily-kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Naturalistic, and Existential. 

Many think of these skills and competencies as "soft."  However, as I reflect on the people I know personally as well as some of the widely known figures I admire and emulate, I find it is exactly these "soft" kinds of characteristics that generate my admiration for them, not their academic prowess.  Senge (1990) notes that the "soft" data is in many ways more important than the "hard" data, and that it is always more difficult to measure.  

We should not forsake considering some synthesis of these soft skills for inclusion as desirable outcomes pursued by schools simply because they are more ambigous and/or more difficult to measure.