It’s Not Too Late to Engineer Public Schools For Educational Excellence

Accountability. There is no buzzier buzzword in education reform. The concept—that taxpayers make a massive investment in education and get working schools in return, as evidenced by strong student outcomes—is in sharp focus right now. Congress and special interest groups are currently waving an elephantine policy hatchet and threatening to surgically remove the teeth from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Their biggest targets are provisions requiring data gathering that make education accountable to the public. There’s a “right now” feeling to these battles, but they are old as baseball. The complications of education specialization, the increased role of schools in communities and the uncontainable expansion of educational bureaucracy have—rightfully—increased public scrutiny and expectations. Add to those pressures several milestones that also increased tensions: like the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and 70s, the jarring findings of A Nation At Risk in the 1980s,  globalization in the 1990s, and post-Bush II era recessionary malaise which generates cynicism about government’s trustworthiness with money. The embedded question in all this activity and these tensions asks how we make schooling effective and efficient rather than a quickening treadmill with nothing to show for itself but escalating costs.

An Option

In 1971 Leon M. Lessinger, a Georgia State University professor of education, proposed engineering methodology as a tool to improve outcomes in public education. He started with a valid, but arguably disputable, assumption.
Knowledge exists of better ways to accomplish measurable gains in learning for disadvantaged children. Half a decade and billions of federal dollars in fragment, almost random research and development in elementary and secondary education have produced a variety of insights, techniques, materials and validated practices in the intellectual, social and vocational ares of education.
The problem was (and is) fragmentation. Good practice in education was not systemic, but sporadic. That’s still our reality today. For Lessinger, fixing that problem was a task appropriately assigned to engineering. His reasoning: “engineering is an accountable profession and applying it’s discipline to schools could lead to the “advent of accountability for results in education.” He said “there is about engineering at its best, a delightful lack of guile.” The word “guile” is instructive to me because education thinking feels lost in the political questions, stuck in a bewildering array of intoxicating non sequiturs. We all say we want the goal of educational equity, but competing policy agendas leave that claim in dispute. Too often the focus is on who gets paid, how they advance in or out of the system, what rights they have, how we can conceptualize a job as “property” and employment as entitlement, and other artless questions about crude workplace mechanics, rather than how a disjointed system of education can be fashioned with a modular construction to produce a desired effect—the most desirable effect being educated, capable, responsible, moral and literate people. Many in the education space are missing the bus. Only our most sober technologists are acting on the fact that building better schools is apolitical, irreligious and studiously logical. Which is why bumping into Lessinger’s analysis has been centering for me. He says engineering is a “can do” endeavor, one that dispenses with the “dead weight of precedent or unexamined beliefs” and pivots to a discrete set of questions:
  1. What is the problem?
  2. What are the specifications for alternative “best” solutions?
  3. What technology is available to solve such a class of problems?
  4. What resources can be committed?
  5. What are the time constraints?
  6. When can the program start?
Those questions—which, by the way, are the questions asked and answered by the paradigm-shifting schools that “beat the odds”—are more likely to return our public education investment with dividends than the political questions we labor over in tortuous national shout downs. Lessinger says engineering produces schools that put the right frame on the problem and helps systems leaders understand their roles and responsibility:
Educational engineering starts with the assumption that all children can succeed, that with an adequate technology of instruction interested and enlightened adults can help them toward competence and a certified sense of accomplishment. The end product of educational engineering is not a program or a machine or a report, but rather a capability—as, for example, a child’s ability to read, and the gleam in his eye.
And it produces schools that keeps the system transparent and focused on results.
When a program in the schools is well engineered, it will meet several tests: it will require educational planners to specify, in measurable terms, what they are trying to accomplish. It will provide for an independent audit of results. It will allow taxpayers and their representatives to judge the educational payoff of a given appropriation.

The Proposal

Lessinger’s global concept is benign. If we are going to have a thing called an education “system” it should be uncontroversial to say it must be engineered well. But, the details of his proposal leave more room for debate. He says local education authorities should set aside funds from its operating budget to support continuous innovation. They should hire a third-party manager to be a “catalyst” for new programs and to manage everyone involved in the “process of change”; form “knowledge industry collectives to work together on meeting the instructional needs of students (as articulated by the school board); and create performance contracts with independent auditors who provide reports about the educational engineering process to the public. I’m parsing here. Read his paper for your own takeaway. For me, his proposal sounds similar to what some high-performing schools and striving school districts are doing today. But the cardinal problem, that of systemic fragmentation, is untouched. We are roaming, far afield, lost in politics only capable of moving policies in minor, meaningless directions. My assumption is our leaders are not qualified designers in education. If true, that is not an insignificant mismatch between problem and problem-solver. We need engineers that understand dynamic systems, but, instead, we seem to make do with elected and unelected surgeons who can only tinker at the margins of real change. Lessinger was right decades ago to believe we have all we need to engineer our way out of misfiring schools for America’s low income youth. But we have no evidence to believe the political class will be liberated from the emotive, self-interested motivations of countless political factions and get reacquainted with the science of systems and learning.
An earlier version of this post appeared on Chris Stewart's own blog, Citizen Stewart.

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