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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Gus the Truck: A Metaphor for an Outdated Education System

By Guest Blogger — May 19, 2014 4 min read
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Note: Tony Lewis and Amy Anderson with the Donnell-Kay Foundation are guest posting this week.

First, many thanks to Rick for the opportunity to take over the page for three posts--and to make the case for bold and thoughtful change to our educational system. While it’s impossible to be as witty as Rick, we’ll write these in our shorts and flips to channel his energy...

By way of quick introduction, we are Tony Lewis and Amy Anderson from the Donnell-Kay Foundation in Colorado. The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a private family foundation aiming to improve public education through research, policy, creative dialogue, and critical thinking. Today, we make the case for bold change in system design. Later on, we’ll speak to the strategy and work that underlies this foundational refresh, and in our last post we delve more deeply into the work we’ve begun and intend to pursue over the next several years.

In 1949, a Chevrolet light duty truck rolled off the assembly line. The truck was painted blue, carried up to a half-ton of weight, and could cruise the highways at a whopping 60mph (on a good day, downhill). Today, this truck has a new electronic ignition, new rear end, a rebuilt engine and suspension--and is my stalwart work truck, known affectionately around the house as “Gus the truck.” Gus can now carry closer to ¾ of a ton, get up to 75mph on the highway, and guzzles gas at a 10-12 mpg rate. And yet Gus, while reliable, will never compete with the trucks on the market today. He was designed in a different time, to accomplish different goals than today’s trucks.

Our belief is that today’s educational system, from early learning through postsecondary education, is like Gus. It is not broken--but it is terribly outdated. It was conceived in a time when schooling was akin to sorting and when very few students were expected to graduate and go to college. During this time, it was possible to enter the workforce with an 8th grade education. Today, the system is chronically underperforming and incapable of producing quality at scale with the diversity of students who need to be well educated, ready for opportunities in the work place, and capable of thinking and adapting to the wide range of situations they’ll encounter in their lives ahead.

It is a system that we’ve been tinkering with for decades. Just look at the litany of reforms that proponents have suggested would “fix” K-12 schools, such as: site-based management, block scheduling, small high schools, turnarounds, high stakes accountability. And yet, results continue to be lackluster, if not dismal. And why wouldn’t that be the case? You cannot radically improve a system with small tweaks--you can merely complicate it. While there are efforts that have produced clear and consistent results in our current system , such as high performing district and charter-run schools and networks, there is simply no place in the nation that has produced quality learning environments at any kind of scale, with any kind of lasting results. This is not a failure of hard work and intent. It is a failure to understand and act on the knowledge that the system design is wrong for this day and age.

And that’s not surprising. Today we have a public educational system that is nearly identical to the one most of us went through. It has the same governance and finance systems--and the upgraded accountability system has produced valuable data, without accompanying results. There’s more information, more stress, and a stunning lack of improvement. Remember these words from the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk”? “Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur--others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.”

In other words, our system of education is just like Gus the truck: built for another era, and any lasting improvement is going to come by rethinking the entire apparatus, not tinkering at the margins. On Wednesday we’ll talk more about the right response to this continuing crisis. But it is clear that more state statutes, rules, regulations, and tests--more federal involvement, mandates, and financial “races"--are a cause of problems, not solutions. Making education work is a state concern and one that requires a systemic overhaul. We cannot remain timid in the face of this challenge. Up next: the interstate highway system and its relation to education.

--Tony Lewis and Amy Anderson

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.