Government Targets and Education: Why They are Destroying Our Future

Monday, June 8, 2009 by Tripp Babbitt
I just read Mark Miles "My View – Education recession threatens state’s future" in the Indianapolis Star Sunday (June 7th, 2009).  Mr. Miles may be restating the obvious when he points to the fact that our educational gap will no doubt lead to a loss of economic power and a permanent national recession (quoted from McKinsey and Company).  Surely the fact we have fallen behind the likes of Finland and Canada (in a large way) is frightening.  Especially considering the US is as far behind Finland in math as Mexico is behind the US.  But what really frightens me is that Mr. Miles and Dr. Bennett (State Superintendent of Public Instruction) are coming up with solutions that will not benefit our State or our Country.

Dr. Bennett without doubt is doing his best and in no way imply that there is malicious intent, just wrong theory.  His proposed answer is to set targets for things like the 180-day school year and graduation rates.  All plausible ideas but totally the wrong thing to do.  There is no guarantee if we hit the targets that we will be any more competitive than we are now.  Test scores can go up, graduation targets achieved and 180-day school years guarantee us nothing in assuring that we will be competitive in an international marketplace, hopefully our larger aim.

I have stated in other posts why targets become the defacto purpose of indivdual schools.  I have already heard evidence of kids ending the school year by having 5 days of recess to meet the 180-day school year target, how does that help prepare our kids for the future?  Checking that one off the list does not help us become more competitive on an international stage.

The same for test scores and graduation rates.  By these becoming targets we only promote cheating and manipulation, to what end? Five years from now pretend we have 100% graduation rates and better test scores and still can’t compete on an international basis, but we met our target.   We manipulated or gamed the system to get those test scores and graduation rates to not get paid attention to.  This is foolishness.

Mr. Miles wants to drive more dollars from administrative and capital budgets into the class room.  This I agree with.  I disagree with focusing on "issues like accountability and teacher quality."  Let me explain.  Teachers already have accountability, what has been taken away is the decision-making that is made from the administration and folks like Dr. Bennett.  Putting the decision-making back with the work will attract better quality teachers and liberate method (better teaching).  Having accountability without decision-making capabilities constrains method, a reason that we aren’t competitive or innovative in US businesses.  Teacher quality focuses too much on the individual and not enough on the broken system.  It was W. Edwards Deming that taught me that 95% of the performance of any system is attributable to the system (work design, purpose, measures that matter, government management thinking, regulations, etc.) and the individual is attributable to 5% of performance.

We have a disease in this country. Dr. Deming pointed it out with regards to the movement of Japan (in Post WWII) from command and control thinking (scientific management theory) to systems thinking.  The Japanese were motivated to learn a new way.  Having visited Europe on a number of occasions in the past 5 years, there are signs that they are understanding a change of thinking is in order (some more, some less).  How much further do we need to fall to change thinking?

I can only hope that Mr. Miles and Dr. Bennett learn sooner rather than later that it is the system and method and not the targets, accountability or individual teacher.  "World class educational attainment" requires new thinking.

Tripp Babbitt is a speaker, blogger and consultant to service industry (private and public).  His organization helps executives find a better way to make the work work.  Download free from "Understanding Your Organization as a System" and gain knowledge of systems thinking or contact us about our intervention services at [email protected].  Reach him on Twitter at

Comments for Government Targets and Education: Why They are Destroying Our Future

Tuesday, June 9, 2009 by Neil Philpott:
The situation is exactly the same here in UK. While literacy and numeracy levels continue to fall, the measurements used show the opposite. One result is that the grading system for academic achievement is now so discredited that universities and employers are having to find alternate ways to determine whether applicants are equipped with the necessary basic skills – and this takes the focus off the higher level skills. It’s dumbing down all round and it only leads in one direction…..

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