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Topic: Education's biggest design flaw
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Education's biggest design flaw
Posted: Aug 10, 2012 10:07 PM
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From The Washington Post / The Answer Sheet by
Valerie Strauss, Sunday, July 29, 2012. See
Education's biggest design flaw

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Marion Brady, veteran
teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and

By Marion Brady

I live on the west bank of the Indian River
Lagoon on Florida's East Coast. Across the
Lagoon, in the distance, is Kennedy Space Center.
For years, I walked out on my dock and watched
space shuttle launches.

On a clear, cold January day in 1986, a little
before noon, the space shuttle Challenger lifted
off the pad. Seventy-three seconds later it
exploded, leading to the death of its seven crew
members. There was almost no wind, so the white
smoke plumes from the engines, then the explosion
and burning debris, brightly lit by sunlight,
hung in the sky for a very long time.

The disaster resulted from failure of an O-ring,
a rubberlike seal in the right solid fuel booster
rocket. Brittle from the cold, it allowed hot gas
to leak and eat away hardware until it burned
through the external fuel tank and ignited its

Small design problem. Big consequence.

American education has a problem, and, left
unaddressed, its consequences will be
catastrophic. The problem is an appalling,
embarrassing, inexcusable rate of childhood
poverty, one of the worst in the developed world.
Compare our 22.4 % rate with Sweden at 2.6%.
Poverty being the single best predictor of test
scores, that's pretty far from a level playing
field for America's educators.

The poverty situation is so dire it almost seems
inappropriate to call attention to a second, very
different problem. I do so, first, because I
believe the problem is far too serious to
continue to ignore; second, because I want to
toss a wrench into the corporate gears now
grinding out destructive, market-based school
reform policies. I'd like to think that the
amateurs promoting today's simplistic reform
policies are smart enough to realize they're in
over their heads, that American education has
problems they've never even thought about.

Call this one a design problem. It may seem
small, but its consequences are huge. Solve the
poverty problem, and America's scores on
international tests will once more be at or near
the top. But leave the design problem in place,
and the scores of none of the top performers will
mean what they could and should mean.

The design problem? Traditional instruction is
dumping poorly organized information on the
young, and they can't process it. The problem
isn't the amount of information - the brain isn't
a bucket that can overflow. The problem is the
information's incoherence.

That the organization of information is important
is taken for granted. That's what school subjects
do-organize information about chemistry,
economics, the Renaissance, geology, physiology,
Elizabethan literature, geometry, and so on. And
on and on.

Teachers have it easy. They only have to deal
with the organization of information in their
specialization. But kids have it impossibly hard.
They're expected to deal with five or six
different knowledge organizing schemes, switching
from one to another as their daily schedules

And they can't do it.

Don't dismiss this as an esoteric or marginal
matter. The kids who seem to be coping, are not,
are instead relying primarily on the fleeting
benefits of short-term memory. The rest are
turning off, forgetting, parroting, stressing,
resisting, rebelling, acting out, disengaging,
dropping out.

Every one of those reactions screams SYSTEM
problem, but today's reformers insist that poor
performance is a PEOPLE problem, that all would
be well if teachers could just be bribed, scared,
or otherwise pressured into doing better work.
Better yet, they should quit and be replaced by
electronic talking heads on learner laptops.

Reneé Descartes, writing in 1628, summarized the design problem:

"If, therefore, anyone wishes to search out the
truth of things in serious earnest, he ought not
to select one special science; for all the
sciences are connected to each other and

Rigor advocates notwithstanding, kids love
searching out the truth of things in serious
earnest. They can't help it. It's human nature.
They turn off, forget, parrot, stress, resist,
rebel, act out, disengage, and drop out because,
overwhelmed by random, abstract, disconnected
information, they can't pull it together and make
enough sense of it to find satisfying truths.

This is at the top of my list of reasons for
opposing the current corporately driven education
reform juggernaut. Its dedication to the
curricular status quo - the Common Core State
Standards - makes addressing the design problem
impossible. Got that? Impossible.

The problem of information organization can be
solved, and rather easily, by making use of
systems theory, but it won't get done by Bill
Gates, Arne Duncan, Jeb Bush, Michelle Rhee,
big-city mayors, syndicated columnists, hedge
fund managers, Congress, state governors, testing
companies, or any of the rest of those now
running the show.

Their misdiagnoses of the causes of poor
performance are leading us down one expensive,
counterproductive path after another.

If there's ever a real winner in the
international education competition, it will be
the country whose education policymakers see the
applicability to education of the ancient story
of the blind men and the elephant.

That country won't be the United States. The
super-hyped Common Core Standards, created by
subject-matter specialists who don't talk to each
other about the whole of which their
specializations are parts, will see to that.
Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and other test
manufacturers, knowing they don't know how to
test the connections and interdependencies that
make information make sense, will help. They'll
hire more lobbyists, expand their public
relations departments, increase their political
campaign contributions - whatever is necessary to
keep the Common Core Standards in place.
Contracts for the newly popular end-of-course
standardized exams will shovel money from
taxpayers into corporate coffers so fast it will
be only a blur as it passes through local school

Meanwhile, the kids will continue to choke on
unorganized and disorganized information. They'll
study Standards for the Study of Tusks, Standards
for the Study of Trunks, Standards for the Study
of Ears, Standards for the Study of Legs,
Standards for the Study of Flanks, Standards for
the Study of Tails.

Elephant? What elephant?
PHOTO SIDEBAR: The space shuttle Challenger
explodes shortly after lifting off from Kennedy
Space Center on Jan. 28, 1986. (BRUCE WEAVER/AP)
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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