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Talking Real Education Reform

Putting children first should not be a difficult political choice.

Brooks, Brooks, Brooks, and Howard

It is Labor Day. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I have no math classroom this semester. Could it be that my job-interviewing skills are so flawed that nobody wants to hire me? Could it be that Almighty God wants me to drive a school bus? Does The Lord really want me working in a union shop with Teamsters?

Maybe I am not the guy to fix our school system. Or, rather, maybe I am just a person to state some truths that need to be addressed, and other people will go about the serious business of fixing the fundamental flaws in our American system of education.

…it takes a set of simple principles to guide and shape the system.

Well, I was listening to news/talk radio a couple of weeks ago and the “top-of-the-hour news” reported that Johnson County schools here in Kansas were beginning the 2016-2017 school year with a lack of bus drivers. There simply were not enough licensed school bus drivers to get all of the kids to school on time. In fact, school bus companies were fetching drivers from Minnesota, where schools begin after Labor Day, just to have enough drivers to transport the Kansan children safely to school. “Local bus companies are desperately looking for drivers,” the news announcer proclaimed.

So, not yet having a math classroom for this new school year, and seeking a bit of part-time employment to augment my four part-time jobs, I sat in my American Toyota Tacoma (built in Texas) and filled out an application to First Student (the bus company for Shawnee Mission Schools in Johnson County, Kansas) and sent it from my smartphone. Three days later the bus company called me for an interview. Two days after that I was employed as a school bus driver. I trained last week and passed my state tests for endorsements on my Commercial Driver’s License: the Passenger Endorsement and the School Bus Endorsement. I passed each exam on my first attempt.

My first priority, however, is to help make schools work virtually as well for children of poor citizens as they work for children of affluent citizens. Then I will retire to a mathematics classroom.

Maybe I’ll retire to both a classroom and a bus route.

Can this math-teacher-and-school-bus-driver help fix the fundamental flaws in our system? I think so.

There is much to piece together to make “the system” work better for children of folks who struggle with modern life. To that end, please watch this interview with David Brooks, on Charlie Rose. There is much to consider here:

David Brooks on Charlie Rose

The interview with Rose and Brooks in its entirety consumes the better part of an hour. It is a dandy interview with Charlie Rose and David Brooks and it is assuredly worth your time. You might save it for another time; it’s that good. Please make time for it soon; pencil in a time this week to watch it. Trust me.

The most egregious flaw in our educational system is the lie — yes, THE LIE — that says all teachers have to go through the toll booth of a College of Education to be a teacher. This is our most serious flaw, and it is quite fixable. The problem is not that we have colleges that cater to schools or help instructors to become better; the problem is that we turn good people away simply because they have not matriculated through the toll booth.

This lie (that says you simply cannot teach a lick until somebody tells you how to do it) hurts poor kids the most. It turns out that thousands of capable would-be instructors are turned away every week. In every state you have to be a “member of the club,” so to speak. This must stop. Now, people within THE SYSTEM will tell you that it is perfectly fine to start teaching with some type of provisional license or certificate — AS LONG AS YOU PROMISE TO GO THROUGH THE TOLL BOOTH. It turns out, teacher licensure is not so much about getting the better teachers; it is about maintaining streams of money to perpetuate a flawed system that is actually quite devastating to our less affluent families.

You do not have to matriculate at a teachers’ college to be a great teacher. Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles offers the perfect parody. With apologies for a couple of “bad words,” just change “Gov. William J. LePetomane” to “Teacher Licensure” and you get the picture:

Additionally, I want to write briefly about the difference between complexity and complication. To be complicated is different from being complex, as both Arthur Brooks (not David Brooks) and my friend Philip K. Howard detail in their books. Teaching is complex, but it certainly is not complicated. The design and manufacture of a school bus is complicated, but not especially complex.

Philip K. Howard writes in The Rule of Nobody: “Canadian management professor Brenda Zimmerman makes the distinction between activities that are complicated, such as surgery or sending a rocket to the moon, and those that are complex, such as raising a child or running a health care system. Complicated activities often require detailed organizational mechanisms, such as blueprints and checklists. Complex activities, by contrast, have “thousands of parts and players, all of whom must act in a fluid, unpredictable environment. To run a system that’s complex… it takes a set of simple principles to guide and shape the system.”

In The Conservative Heart, Arthur Brooks writes about President Johnson’s futile attempt to build the “Great Society” with a “War on Poverty:”

LBJ’s intentions were certainly good, and the goals he envisioned were noble ones. The fatal problem was his methods. They were rooted in a profound misunderstanding of what government could and could not do. The failure of Johnson’s policies to achieve his stated ends stemmed from a failure to recognize a crucial distinction: the difference between complicated problems and complex problems.

Complicated problems are extremely difficult to understand, but they can be resolved with sufficient money and brainpower. And once you find the solution, the problem is permanently solved. You can replicate the solution over and over with a high degree of success. Designing a jet engine is a complicated problem. Figuring out how to build the first jet engine took sophisticated tools, computing ability, and expert engineers. But once engineers figured out how to do it-and designed a jet engine that worked-they could replicate the process and make jet engines routinely.

Complex problems are very different. They initially seem simpler to understand but can actually never be “solved” once and for all. One example is a football game. You know exactly what success looks like — it’s when your team wins. (In my case, it’s when the Seattle Seahawks win.) But there are so many trillions of combinations of things that can happen on the playing field, so many variables and ambiguities, that even the best data and strategies are dwarfed by the uncertainty that remains.

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