Chapter 4

Why Educational Reform Has Been So Difficult

Key Understanding: Total reliance on an out-dated, primitive structure of education with virtually no effective management capability makes significant educational reform impossible.

Why has education lagged behind while virtually all other organizations and institutions in our society have made quantum leaps in productivity? Why has education been stuck in 17th to 19th century methods while agriculture, medicine, physics, chemistry, transportation, telecommunications, engineering, business, and industry has leaped from one advancement to the next and are now moving excitedly into the 21st Century? Why have schools scarcely altered their instructional methods since John Amos Comenius (1592-1670) invented the primer and the textbook?

The main cause is our almost total reliance on an out-dated education structure and operations founded first on independent one-room school houses in which  individual teachers were given the responsibility to come up with appropriate instructional programs for the students assigned to them. This was followed some years later by an Industrial Age factory system that determined how students were to progress from one class to the next. Our schools are currently more or less organized as an assembly line (running at a set speed) and with each worker (teacher) at designated places (grade levels) on the assembly line performing pre-determined actions on products (students) considered to be somewhat generic (one-size-fits-all) and passive (waiting to be filled or formed to the desired shape). This is illustrated by our use of the term slow to refer to under-achieving students. They donít keep up with the pre-determined rate of the line and are therefore labeled as defective (needing remedial help). It is fortunate we donít use this same approach in helping children learn to walk or ride a bicycle. Can you imagine labeling a child as defective if he or she doesnít walk at 10 months of age, and starting remedial instruction?

It is also important to realize that our educational purposes have changed from one of intending to educate fully only a small percentage of qualified students while providing the majority of students only the basic skills needed for relatively unskilled work.  One hundred years ago, our current educational system may have been adequate to serve our perceived national needs. The system assumed that only a small percentage of students were capable of mastering the curriculum at an expert level (A and B students). During much of the 20th Century only about 10 to 20% of the work force was needed to operate at a level requiring high school or college mastery. Most other jobs required very little education and training beyond what could be offered on the job. The high failure rate of students achieving mastery (80 to 90%) was accepted as normal and excused by claiming that students differed in their innate abilities (intelligence), and therefore schools were simply sifting out the chaff from the grain. As the noted cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner pointed out in his book, The Relevance of Education in 1971:

My work on early education and social class Ö had convinced me that the educational system was in effect our way of maintaining a class system Ė a group at the bottom. It crippled the capacity of children in the lowest socioeconomic quarter of the population to participate at full power in society, and did so early and effectively. Ė p xi

Ö our practice of education , both in and out of school, assures uneven distribution not only of knowledge but also of competence to profit from knowledge. It does so by limiting and starving the capabilities of the children of the poor by leading them into failure until they are convinced that it is not worth their while to think about school-like things.

As a result, one of the main functions of schools throughout most of the 20th Century was thought to be directing students toward their appropriate places in our productive society. Evaluation was based on a normal distribution curve. Grades of Aís, Bís, Cís, Dís, and Fís were given to formally declare where a student was expected to take his or her future place as an adult. This was the paradigm or window through which we saw the world, and for the successful, at least, everything seemed right. But we now know otherwise. Research on intelligence and an ever increasing discovery and understanding of powerful learning principles has shown that not just a few, but most students can master the basic curriculum if given enough time, appropriate opportunities, and support. What was thought to be a problem of chaff has been found to be really the fault of the assembly line itself.

We now live in a different time with different needs. Instead of living in an Industrial Age requiring an abundance of unskilled workers, we have moved on to the Knowledge Age in which most of our workforce needs to be educated way beyond anything even dreamed of before. We simply cannot afford the old assembly line. We need a new, effective education system that can provide maximum learning and opportunities for all students.

To further understand why it has been so difficult for education to learn and grow like other institutions of our time, it would be helpful to review six critical obstacles that education has so far not overcome.

         First, the inability to progress from a primitive, fragmented approach to providing schooling for students to a proficient organization designed to maximize resources and efforts

         Second, the long period in which lack of competition and accountability delayed the motivation to provide the needed changes.

         Third, the lack of corrective feedback

         Fourth, the lack of comprehensive, strategic management to analyze needs, determine goals, and  the ability to design and implement systems to achieve them.

         Fifth, the lack of establishing education as a learning organization so it can learn and grow into what is needed to provide each student with optimum learning opportunities.

         Sixth, the inability to take full advantage of targeted research and technological innovations because of the fragmented nature of education today.

What is the Difference Between Primitive and Proficient Organizations?

A primitive organization may be defined as one in which the total work is pretty well divided among individuals or small groups who do pretty much the same general job using the tools and principles that are able to be applied by individual, separate workers. For example, letís pretend we live in a town called Primiville where firefighting is organized in a primitive manner. A certain percentage of Primiville citizens are given the job of firefighting. Each Primiville firefighter is given training for his job and a standard bucket. Fortunately, a good-sized stream runs right through the town so there is plenty of water available to use in putting out fires. When a fire occurs, each firefighter picks up his bucket, rushes to fill it from the stream, carries it to the building on fire, and throws it on the flames. He or she does this over and over until the fire is put out or the building has finished burning to the ground. Firefighting is hard, but important work.

Years ago, everyone seemed to appreciate the job the firefighters were doing, but lately as the community has grown from a few log cabins to a growing village, citizens have become critical of how many buildings are lost. Taking their job seriously, many firefighters tried to improve their ability to carry a bucket faster to a fire. They exercised and ran five miles each day to increase their stamina and running speed. They lifted weights and some even bought bigger buckets out of their own money. You might say, a number of firefighters made heroic efforts to be more efficient in putting out fires. Despite these extraordinary efforts, the number of houses burning to the ground increased each year. Some citizens pointed out this was understandable because the number of houses in Primiville increased every year and that they were built ever closer together, thus increasing the danger that a fire would spread from one building to another. They pointed out that the firefighters were doing as good a job as they ever did or even better.

So was there a crisis? The town debated back and forth whether the current firefighters were doing as good a job as firefighters in the past. Finally, after the mayorís house burned down, they decided to try to do something about it anyway. A town meeting was held and it was decided that the firefighters had to be held accountable to higher standards and a plan was drawn up to put pressure on them to do a better job of firefighting. If fewer than three houses burned down during a week, the firefighters would receive a pay bonus for that week. If more than three houses burned down that week, they would each receive a cut in pay. The firefighters worked harder and many of them slept with their buckets already filled by their beds.

Some firefighters started carrying two buckets. Other firefighters couldnít take the pressure and quit. But each year, a greater number of buildings burned down. In desperation, a systems consultant was called in to study the situation.  His report concluded that little could be done as long as Primiville continued their primitive organization. This was hard news! Primiville had always valued their primitive organization. How could they give it up?

It was finally decided to try an experiment. They would have the consultant design a way for them to increase their firefighting efficiency without too much of an investment in money or long-term changes. The consultant showed them how to use a bucket brigade to increase productivity. When the next fire occurred, the firefighters formed a line from the stream to the burning building. Instead of each firefighter carrying his or her own bucket and running back and forth from the fire to the stream, the firefighters stood their ground and passed the buckets from one to another. This was much more efficient because they eliminated having to carry their own weight back and forth from the stream to the fire. This savings in weight and energy more than doubled their productivity.

Wow! Primiville was now willing to learn, but it was hard for them to imagine their beloved firefighting system being different from what it always was. The systems consultant pointed out several proficient organizations right in their own town. He pointed out that their baseball team was not composed of nine generic ball players all with the same position description.  There were specialized positions at home plate, on the pitcherís mound, on each base, at shortstop and in right, center, and left field.  Nine genetic players, all with the same job description, could hardly compete with a team of specialists. The consultant next referred to their beloved Symphony Orchestra. What if all the musicians played the same instrument and the same part? What if they didnít work together as a unit? What if each musician had to write his or her own music, print it off, and then play it regardless of what the other musicians were playing? What if the symphony had no conductor? The citizens of Primiville were now beginning to understand.

The systems consultant taught them of the need for a central intelligence or comprehensive management function. It need not be authoritarian, but it needs to exist in order for a system to learn, grow, and direct coordinated efforts toward purposeful goals. The consultant pointed out what happens when a chickenís central intelligence or management system is chopped off!

It is also important to have coordinated specialization. In order to have a proficient organization, people need to specialize in order to fully master the concepts and skills needed for their position. Then, working together with other specialized workers as a coordinated whole, they are able to put powerful principles into action. It is this specialization and coordination that multiplies the power of the parts into an empowered whole. It also makes it possible for technology, the application of scientific knowledge and advances to desired purposes, to be discovered and applied to whatever goals they consider important. If Primiville kept their primitive organization where everyone has the same job, how could you introduce fire engines? Give each firefighter a fire engine? As specialized jobs requiring considerable training were discovered that could dramatically increase productivity, how could they be implemented? Would each firefighter be responsible for learning and doing every specialized job from beginning to end?

Just then an airplane flew over city hall and the systems consultant decided to use it as a teaching moment. Letís assume pilots were stuck in a primitive organization. Go back to Wilbur and Orville Wright. They wanted to design and build an airplane that could fly. They knew quite a bit about mechanics and making things, were great kite flyers, and were fascinated with the flight of birds and air currents. They were certainly out of the ordinary and were enthused and committed to discovering how to make a heavier-than-air machine fly. Among other things, they learned about Bernoulliís Principle that explained that the differential between air flowing over a curved surface and air flowing under a flat surface would cause lift. They decided to design a machine (or system) that would put this powerful principle into action. This is what is called technological innovation. They were successful! Their airplane flew for about 23 seconds. They showed the world it could be done! Now what? Could we then make much progress if everyone in aviation had the same job as pilots? What if each pilot had to design and build his own airplane? What if each pilot had to service it and keep the flight of his airplane in coordinated safety with all the other airplanes in the sky? If there were to be passengers, he or she would also have to service them and take care of their needs. How would new and better airplanes be built? Every pilot would have to do his own research and build his own better and better designs! It is no wonder that aviation did not choose a primitive organization on which to stake their future.

A school teacher, sitting near the back and seemingly lost in thought, suddenly stood up and with a loud voice shouted,

But that is where we are as teachers! We are stuck in a primitive organization. For all practical purposes, we all have the same job descriptions. Isolated and disconnected from one another, we are virtually totally responsible for the education of all our students, but we canít direct resources. We are not part of an integrated, whole system. There is no central intelligence or management function that can coordinate efforts of the whole to provide whatever our students need and continually discover and apply new scientific knowledge to the improvement of learning opportunities for everyone.

   Thatís when Primiville decided to include education in its discussions.

A Brief History of Why Education Started and Continued as a Primitive Organization

Education in the United States was never planned for the avowed purpose of making it a proficient organization. It developed more by chance than design. It should not be surprising, then, that the structure that resulted was primitive. Even today no individual or entity holds sufficient responsibility with commensurate authority to effectively redesign or re-engineer public education to make it a proficient organization.

This primitive structure seemed logical enough in colonial times.  The colonists believed that some of their children should be taught basic reading, writing, and math.  One-room schools under the direction of small boards made up from members of the community sprung up throughout the colonies. In colonial times, there were strong feelings against allowing public education to develop under the authority of a strong central government.  The colonists had bad memories of an oppressive King George. They were not about to turn public education to a central authority. 

It seemed perfectly logical to place public education under local community control. When the Bill of Rights in the tenth amendment left the responsibility for public education to the states, the states all declined to interfere with local control. Because the goals of learning were limited to basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, the school boards were not very interested in directing teaching techniques and applying learning theories. This was left to the individual teachers. What the school boards were interested in was the personal conduct of the teachers and whether they modeled good character. This left the responsibility for teaching and the direction of learning to independent teachers working in relative isolation from other teachers in their own separate classrooms. Educationís primitive organization was consistent in colonial times with what was going on elsewhere in society. We were mostly a nation of independent, small farmers and craftsmen.

Lack of Competition and Accountability

Almost all areas of our society have moved on from a primitive organization and made dramatic leaps forward in productivity. What happened to education? It may be that lack of competition and accountability allowed education to lag behind without sufficient cause to reform. In other areas of our society, competition declares winners and losers. The winners gain further access to production, and the losers fade out or disappear. As we start the 21st century, it seems that the need for better and better education to meet the needs of the Information Age has increased the pressure for accountability and competition in our educational systems. The word is out, backed up by mandatory standardized tests and carrot and stick approaches, to improve or stand aside!

Lack of Corrective Feedback

Closely connected to competition and accountability is the capacity to receive and use corrective feedback. Again, your own body is a good example of a system having excellent feedback capabilities. Cut off air for just a few seconds and your entire body starts to engage in corrective actions. While walking, the mechanism in your inner ear continually gives feedback triggering continuous corrective action to keep you upright. Your body does have some problems, however, when feedback is delayed or is not connected with immediate action. You may eat a little too much each day resulting after a period of time adding unwanted pounds. You may eat too many fat rich foods that eventually result in clogged arteries. For these results to be meaningful, we need to rely on research usually carried out by others. It then requires our central intelligence (our conscious mind) to become aware of this important information that has critical relevance to our well-being, interpret its meaning and value, make a decision to use or not use it, make plans accordingly, and then monitor purposeful action to its successful completion. In education, we do not have this capacity to act for the whole. It resides in hundreds of thousands of individual teachers who do not have the time to adequately deal with research in all areas important to education, are unable to move the necessary resources to design and fully implement the research, and are not part of an integrated infrastructure that is designed to successfully support what is necessary to carry it out.

Compare this with the medical profession.  Doctors do not have to do all their own research and development.  They are supported with the latest research conducted by teams of specialists and available to them in the form of the newest, most effective techniques and tools. Organized research monitors the effects (feedback) of one method as compared to other methods. Methods arenít just tried out by individual doctors who then from their limited number of cases decide whether the methods should be kept or not while hundreds of thousands of other individual doctors do the same. Research teams and institutions are engaged in organized research that step-by-step reveals a better and better understanding of the human body. Based on these advances, further research and testing is systematically directed to designing the most effective medical practices, medicines, equipment, tools, and procedures that can best ensure our health, well being, and the treatment of disease or injury. Nothing like that exists today in education.

Lacking the ability to apply organized research to the classroom, education has relied on selecting and evaluating programs based on fads and whether they fit currently popular concepts. Over and over again, teachers are pressured into one fad after another. Jeanne S. Chall in her 2000 book, The Academic Achievement Challenge, asks on page 3:

Why did so many intended reforms, undertaken with so much hope and enthusiasm, fail to fulfill their promise? And why did many result in even lower student achievement levels than those replaced?

What is particularly striking about educational innovations is that most were considered successes long before they were actually sufficiently tried and tested. Seldom were they presented together with a rationale based on educational theory and research. Nor had they been tried first in small pilot studies before being offered as solutions to serious national educational problems.

This is much like what happens in much of the popular health industry operating outside organized medical research. Fads come and go, often returning again, but never really contributing to continual and substantial progress in good health care. You canít build better and better systems based on fads; it must be securely based in research and accurate feedback of results.

A primitive system, due to uniform task assignments (everyone has the same basic job description) and the uncoordinated, separate efforts and actions of its members (because it lacks a central intelligence capabilityis unable to successfully direct research and learn from feedback for the system as a whole. In todayís situation, very little of what we currently know about learning is currently applied and is therefore unavailable to benefit most students. For example, research has discovered basic principles and strategies that can increase student memory retention dramatically, but how many teachers are aware of those principles and strategies and apply them in their learning activities? Does each teacher have to do all the required research in memory development and then on his or her own design learning activities for his or her own students? If so, what about the teacher next door? Does he or she have to do the same? No wonder that so little of what we know about learning gets applied. And then, even if it gets applied in some classrooms, how can it be improved? A teacher may discover a better way to increase student memory, but the only students who usually benefit from that better way are the ones in that solitary classroom.

Lack of Comprehensive, Strategic Management

A primitive system lacks the ability to design and redesign improvements for the system as a whole. An excellent book on this topic was written by Noble Prize winner Kenneth G. Wilson and Bennett Davis in 1994, entitled Redesigning Education. On page 22, the authors point out a major reason why education has lagged behind:

Ironically, U.S. education has remained in the grip of an outdated paradigm while for more than a century it has watched Ė and, to an extent, enabled Ė the triumph in science, technology, and industry of the process that could free it. For brevityís sake weíll call it the redesign process. The redesign process is the integration of research, development, dissemination, and refinement by which innovations and the procedures that create them are originated, improved, and made affordable. Ö In essence, the redesign process is an institutionalized method of strategic, systemic change that works unceasingly to enact a vision of excellence as well as to redefine excellence itself when changing conditions make it necessary. The processís absence from school is the ďmissing linkĒ in U.S. education reform, preventing reformers from integrating effective innovations and creating new ways to teach and learn that are rooted in a new, unifying vision of what it means to educate and be educated.

Early in the 20th century, we began to learn and apply the fantastic power of comprehensive, strategic management with the authority to direct resources to design better and better systems to achieve desired goals. The Moon Mission discussed in chapter two is a good example. We could make it a national mission to give everyone in our society the best learning opportunities possible and establish our k-12 students as first in the world.  But to use the same methods as that used in the Moon Mission would require a national authority that could dictate how education was to be implemented. So far, as a people, we have rejected giving the national government or even any of the state governments that much power to redesign education. But somehow, we need to solve how to retain personal and local freedom while tapping into the power of comprehensive, strategic management.

The Lack of Establishing Education as a Learning Organization

An inert system is one that is organized in a set way and is not able to reorganize itself to reach higher and higher levels of proficiency. Most animal life is relatively hard-wired to deal with their environments in fairly set ways. They are able to learn, but only to the degree their pre-determined organization allows. The human intelligence system, on the other hand, has the unique capability to reorganize at higher and higher levels of proficiency. Other life forms must go through the much slower process of evolution and can reorganize only after a series of generations have passed.  Human intelligence is uniquely different. Jean Piaget clearly demonstrated that human intelligence is only partly hard-wired. Much of it is constructed as a child, and later as an adult, reorganizes as it interacts with his or her environment. Piaget clearly demonstrated this in children as they progress from sensory-motor to pre-operational to concrete and then to formal thinking abilities.

As humans, we have a central intelligence capability that allows us to interact with our environment and learn from those interactions. We act in order to solve problems, reach goals, or even to gain knowledge of cause and effect and thus continually develop greater and greater power to survive and flourish. Over time, we have the potential to receive valuable feedback from our actions and may learn new or enriched uses for already acquired tools and concepts (assimilation), or we may modify some of our tools and concepts and even invent new ones (accommodation).  During times of relative balance, we are said to be in equilibrium and all seems at peace.  But at certain points in our growth process, we become so aware of gaps, inadequacies, inconsistencies, and contradictions in our knowledge base, or may have discovered potentially powerful new concepts or tools, or may face such difficulties in our interactions with the environment, that we enter a period of disequilibria.  This can be a period of great excitement and optimism, but it can also for a time be troubling with a sense of anxiety as we leave behind our past ways and reorganize at a higher level of organization and proficiency. An obstacle to dramatic improvements in education has been that although individual teachers have the capability of learning and reorganizing to higher and higher levels of proficiency within their own limited domains, education as a whole has lacked that capability.

An exciting development in recent years has been the introduction of the idea of learning organizations, led by Peter Senge and proposed in his 1990 groundbreaking book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. It answers the question of why individuals within an organization may have high intelligence, and yet the organization as a whole act with low intelligence and an extremely limited ability to learn. A learning organization has the ability to progress from one level of proficiency to another. It requires a central intelligence capability with a shared vision and mission valued by all its members and subsystems.  Each individual and subsystem is nurtured with the information and resources it needs and is empowered by being part of an infrastructure to efficiently contribute to the good of the whole.  Education has not yet been set up as a learning organization and this makes it unable to take full advantage of the power of the whole by organizing and reorganizing to higher and higher levels of proficiency.

The Inability to Apply Targeted Research and Technological Innovations

The lack of a capacity for organizing and reorganizing at higher and higher levels of proficiency have denied education the full advantage of the new relationship between technology and science, the emergence of systematic research and the new concept of planned technological innovations.

As management guru Peter Drucker wrote as early as 1958 in his book, Technology, Management, & Society:

"Technology is now science based Öand in a few decades remade man's way of life all over the globe. It has become the battering ram which breaks through even the stoutest ramparts of tradition and habit. p. 68.

"This overall change in the nature of technological work during this century has three separate though closely related aspects: (1) structural changes --  professionalization, specialization, and institutionalization of technological work: (2) changes in methods -- the new relationship between technology and science; the emergence of systematic research; and the new concept of innovation; and (3) the (systems approach). Each of these is an aspect of the same fundamental trend. Technology has become what it never was before: an organized and systematic discipline." p. 55.

Systematic research is organized research structured and carried out under the general direction of a central intelligence. Organized research goes beyond the small and isolated research projects commonly performed by graduate students or individual professors. While educational research has traditionally been evaluated favorably if it is published in a prestigious journal or is accepted by a certain number of believers, a favorable rating of modern organized research and technological innovation would depend on its application and the level of improvement in applying its findings to actual educational practice and student achievement.

Before technology can dramatically impact education, both structure and operations must be redesigned. Educational structure as it exists today violates fundamental principles of management and reduces the effective use of technology. A major reason technology has had a minimal impact on teaching and learning is that the structure and operations in our schools are little changed from traditional practices that came about more by chance than design. Until we correct these deficiencies, we can expect little more than the crisis management that characterizes current operations. Major problems will go unsolved; exciting possibilities will remain unachieved.

Piecemeal efforts wonít do the job. Interdependence and wholeness characterizes all genuine systems, whether mechanical such as the control of a missile, biological like a tree, or social like a business enterprise. The whole of a system is not necessarily improved if one particular function or part is improved or made more efficient. Left to outdated, inadequate methods, dollars will be continually drained at a prodigious rate and may actually delay the development and use of more promising solutions.

Many of the stories of King Arthur and Camelot were designed to teach us important lessons about life. For example, when Merlin the Magician was riding past a beggar sitting on the ground, he burst out laughing! That seemed an odd and insensitive reaction to that poor personís plight, but we are told the reason he laughed was because he could see that just within a few feet under the ground where that beggar sat was a rich vein of gold! Instead of enduring a life of hardship, the beggar could have, with very little effort, dug and become wealthy.

In a way, this is our situation with our current beggar bird education system. There is a wealth of resources available that could make us all educationally rich. It would take remarkably little effort and money to do so if we would only apply leverage, systems thinking, and knowledge of principles to maximize our interventions at key points in the learning cycle and the value-chain that supports it.


This is illustrated by what we might call the rudder and trim tab principle. It would take tremendous force to turn the front end of a large ship one direction or another, but the use of a rudder along with a trim tab makes it relatively easy. The rudder, by being turned into the oncoming water, compresses the water flow and creates a pressure differential. This pulls the stern in the opposite direction, thus making the turn of the ship relatively easy. 

This is exactly the same way an airplane flies. The design of the airplaneís wing creates a pressure differential and the airplane is literally sucked upward. We have all been amazed to observe jumbo jets flying in the sky using far less power than we would think would be needed. To make turning a large ship even easier, a small trim tab rudder is placed within the main rudder of a ship. Its function is to make it easier to turn the rudder, which then makes it easier to turn the ship. The large volume of water flowing around the rudder can make it difficult to turn, but the trim tab by being turned into the oncoming water, compresses the water flow and creates another pressure differential. This pulls the rudder in the opposite direction as the trim tab is turned, thus making it easier to turn the rudder. The beauty of systems is that something small can have tremendous results. A small seed of a tree, for example, does not contain a tree. It contains the plan for a tree, but with proper conditions and adequate nourishment, even though it begins small, the seed will fulfill its great potential. So it is with education.

We need a DNA plan for a powerful education system.

We need an education system capable of economically and effectively applying leverage and all the powerful learning principles we already know, and those we will learn in the future, to each and every interested person regardless of age or circumstances. It is time for education to take its rightful place in the 21st Century, but it cannot happen if we continue to rely on piecemeal attempts to fix out-dated methods. It will require a modern systems approach to truly organize and build the solid infrastructure that is needed. Just as pressuring horses to run faster did not bring about the revolutions we have seen in transportation and communication, harder working teachers are not an adequate answer to the great revolution that needs to take place in education. Almost all other areas of our productive society are reorganizing at higher and higher levels of proficiency. This same process needs to take place in education:

Over the last two decades, a virtual revolution has taken place in Americaís corporations and businesses as they have had to compete with new global competitors, find new ways to optimize and economize, and improve quality. They have had to reinvent themselves, restructure their organizations, reengineer their processes, and adopt and improve on techniques and technologies borrowed from their overseas competitors. The same type of revolution must take place in our schools if they are to effectively serve the needs of the future. Ė p ix Five Technologies px