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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.

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