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Topic: [ncsm-members] Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
[ncsm-members] Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste
Posted: May 21, 2012 8:38 PM
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From Education Week [American Education's Newspaper of Record],
Wednesday, May 23, 2012, Volume 31, Issue 32, p. 24,28. See
-- our thanks to Michael Goldenberg for bringing this article to our

Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste

By Eli Broad

For one difficult year, I was an assistant professor at the Detroit
Institute of Technology. It was a year after I graduated from
Michigan State University and started my accounting practice. I
taught all the night courses that no one else wanted, like drugstore
accounting. I scoured lesson plans, textbooks, and teachers' guides
and tried to keep my students' attention. A lot of them were older
than I was, worked two jobs, or had just come back from fighting in
Korea. It was incredibly challenging work that left me with a
lifelong respect for teachers.

Now, nearly 60 years later, that early experience has become all the
more important because of my passionate involvement in philanthropic
work to improve America's public schools.

I am old enough to remember when America's K-12 public schools were
the best in the world. I am a proud graduate of them, and I credit
much of my success to what I learned in Detroit public schools and at
Michigan State. When I was in high school, not long after World War
II, the United States had the top graduation rate. Since then, we
have dropped behind 20 other industrialized nations. In less time
than you just spent reading the last paragraph, another American
student has dropped out of school.

American students today rank 31st in the world in mathematics and
23rd in science. If the academic rankings of our most precious
resource-our young people-reflected the rankings of our Olympic
athletes, it would be a source of major national embarrassment.

The most shameful part of the picture-the one I consider the civil
rights issue of our time-is the dramatically lower graduation rates
for poor and minority students. These students are far less likely to
have access to the best teachers.

By any measure, America's schools are in the grip of a profound crisis.

Frankly, I'm not sure how far I would get if I attended public school today.

It's not just that public schools aren't producing the results we
want-it's that we're not giving them what they need to help students
achieve at high levels. K-12 education in the United States is deeply
antiquated. Most schools still have a three-month summer vacation, a
practice that dates back to our agrarian past, when most Americans
lived on farms and children were required to help tend and harvest
crops. Most classrooms are still physically set up the way they were
then, with a teacher facing rows of students. Children of many
different backgrounds and learning styles are expected to learn the
same lesson taught in the same way. School district policies and
practices have not kept pace with student and teacher needs.

Although classrooms have stayed largely the same on the inside, the
world around them has changed radically. The sheer pace of economic
and societal forces as a result of the digital revolution far exceeds
the capacity of our schools, as they are currently structured, to
keep up. Technological advances have personalized every arena of our
lives, but very little has been done to harness the same power to
personalize learning for students with different needs.

Classrooms in China, India, Japan, and South Korea, meanwhile, have
advanced by leaps and bounds. They have elevated the teaching
profession, insisted on longer school days and years, promoted
education as a key value, created national ministries empowered to
set priorities and standards, and built school cultures designed to
help teachers uphold these high standards. They do all of this with
far less money than the United States spends on education. In the
past few decades, American taxpayer spending in real dollars has more
than doubled, with no associated increase in student achievement.
Efforts to spend more money may be well intentioned, but money alone
won't fix our schools.

The American middle class, once bolstered by well-paying jobs in the
manufacturing and construction sectors that didn't require a higher
education, now runs on service- and technology-sector jobs that
require a significantly greater level of educational attainment. But
too few young people are making it to college. Even when they do, the
monumental cost of higher education and the lack of sound K-12
preparation make the university track not just difficult, but also,
in the eyes of an increasing number, undesirable. Without a solid
education, these young people face higher rates of poverty,
unemployment, and crime. Lifetime income, taxes, productivity, and
health indicators all decline.

These are the kinds of problems-lack of opportunity now and cynicism
about the future-that contribute toward frustrations behind movements
like Occupy Wall Street. The protesters are right. We must do better.

SIDEBAR: "When external forces are changing your world, think about
what you can do to move with them, rather than reflexively hunkering
down and refusing to change."

Many talented and intelligent men and women have attempted to reform
education, and many have quit the effort because of the enormity of
the problem, the lack of progress, and the system's resistance to
change. I never shy from an unreasonable goal. And as President
Barack Obama's former chief of staff and now-Chicago Mayor Rahm
Emanuel once smartly told The New York Times, "Rule One: Never allow
a crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things."

That's a good rule for everyone to keep in mind, no matter the type
of crisis you find yourself confronting. When external forces are
changing your world, think about what you can do to move with them,
rather than reflexively hunkering down and refusing to change. Use
crises as chances to rethink everything, question your assumptions,
and start afresh. That's what we're trying to do in public education.

Entrenched bureaucracies, policies, and practices are no longer set
up in a way that helps teachers and students progress. Taxpayer
resources often don't make it to the classroom. Teachers are left to
fend for themselves without adequate real-time information about how
well their students are learning, access to best practices, or time
to collaborate. Because teachers' pay and expectations are, in most
cases, low, many talented Americans are dissuaded from entering the
profession at all.

How did public school districts get here? I suspect the reason is
because too few dared to ask the right "Why not?" question: Why not
redesign these districts? It's a simple matter of reframing basic
assumptions. Data show that the greatest positive outcomes for
students happen when entire school systems are either redesigned or
started anew.

The problem is immense. The solution must be big enough to match it.
But there is good news. It is possible to challenge the status quo
while honoring good teachers and defending public education. It is
possible to encourage innovative, creative, and new solutions to
tackle the challenges facing our public schools. And it is possible
to provide all of our children with equal access to a free, quality
public education, not just those lucky enough to live in an area with
a great school, like I did 70 years ago.
Eli Broad is the founder of two Fortune 500 companies, KB Home and
SunAmerica. With his wife, Edythe, he has founded The Broad
Foundations to advance entrepreneurship for the public good in
education, science, and the arts. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation
funds systemwide public school programs and policies. This Commentary
was adapted for Education Week from Mr. Broad's just-published book,
The Art of Being Unreasonable (Wiley).
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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