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Sunday, September 28, 2008

How to Redeem the Time

Let's take inventory:
1. Education system locked in the past
2. Lack of competitive edge
3. Financial turmoil
4. Retirements at risk
5. Energy dependence
6. Crumbling infrastructure.
7. An ad hoc tax system
8. The money pit of war
9. Global warming
10, Loss of international prestige.
11. etc.

Everywhere you look, America is clearly in crisis. If we believe all the self-help books, a problem is nothing but an opportunity in disguise. If so, then America has a huge opportunity to rethink its very social foundations. Paramount among social foundations and joined at the hip are education and the economy.

Society is like a complicated tapestry. Pull one thread and it all begins to unravel. America is facing the unprecedented opportunity to reweave the tapestry into a sustainable pattern. Surely as the grass is green and the sky is blue, the warp and woof is education and the economy. We have ignored so many warnings and squandered so many past opportunities. We delayed taking one stitch and now we have a tear requiring at least nine stitches. We did not weigh the ounce of prevention, and now the pain of a pound of cure awaits us.

We must waste no more time reinventing America. We must to reshape our institutions, starting with education if America want to retain its position. The constant short-term approach to our collective national headaches must be abandoned. We can no longer take an aspirin (or require testing, or pass a bailout, or drill baby drill) and expect that everything will be fine in the morning. We must create a healthy America instead of constantly medicating a sick one. We need to stop looking for the next technological miracle. First things first. Technology cannot save us. Technology is the servant of education. Education, though not as sexy as some other issues, is the bedrock of all our institutions, including the economy

Henry Petroski, writing about engineering, said that failures appear to be inevitable in the wake of prolonged success.1 He joins the many others in a wide variety of fields who know that failures contribute more than success to sustainable design. I have written before that relational trust seems to be the one trait that best predicts academic achievement. Relational trust has been long lost. How can America begin to heal itself and rebuild relational trust? It is not by bemoaning and dwelling on the problems or waiting for the government. Each one of us must collaborate in becoming part of a societal tidal wave of demand. America's future depends on it.

Step 1: We must commit to making education the buzzword of the day. Each one of us must become a lobbyist (they are not all bad) pushing education to the raw edge of the American national conscience. We all have a stake in education whether we have children or not because we all have a stake in our future. We need to demand that the public media talk as much about education as they do the economy. We must not allow the media to sidetrack the issue with entertaining distractions like lipstick.

Step 2: Polya's problem solving plan starts with understanding the problem. We only think we understand the problem. But for the most part we have been addressing only superficial symptoms. The real problem with American education is systemic. We absolutely must examine education systemically.

Society has the education system it wants. Some elements of society are clearly benefiting from perpetuation of the status quo. Sociologists and psychologists tell us that dysfunction and negativity serve some purpose. We must identify those players who drag down the system and bring their motivations and activities into the light of day. For example, I have heard parents suspect that the reason some of their children never transition out of special education is because schools do not want to lose the extra federal funding they get for each special education child. I only bring this up as an example; I do not want to get sidetracked into defenses

Step 3: We must lead from our strengths. Every single strength can positively impact the societal tidal wave of demand to give every child access to a world class education.

Step 4: Using the catalog of America's strengths, we, each according to our individual gifts, can together brainstorm strategies to capitalize on those strengths.

Step 5: Then we can design tactics to implement those strategies. We already know how to provide high quality education. There are teachers succeeding every day.

Step 6: Design methods for evaluating our progress toward our goals, concentrating on methods that avoid unjustly burdening and punishing those with the smallest voice, the children.

Step 7: Then do it.

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