This Ain’t Your Father’s Oldsmobile…

I was doing some blog browsing this morning and found some interesting connections between posts from Brett on the DeHavilland Blog and Brian Mull over at November Learning. Brett sparked my thinking with these thoughts:

I was rereading a classic marketing article—Marketing Myopia, by Theodore Levitt (found in this excellent book)—and came across the following:

In a sense [Henry] Ford was both the most brilliant and the most senseless marketer in American history. He was senseless because he refused to give the customer anything but a black car. He was brilliant because he fashioned a production system designed to fit market needs.

We habitually celebrate him for the wrong reason, his production genius. His real genius was marketing. We think he was able to cut his selling price and therefore sell millions of $500 cars because his invention of the assembly line had reduced the costs. Actually he invented the assembly line because he had concluded that at $500 he could sell millions of cars. Mass production was the result, not the cause, of his low prices.

This is a fantastic new take on a classic story (and apparently a true one, based on Ford’s writings). And it illustrates a critical difference between how most people fulfill a market need, and how a visionary like Henry Ford does.

Most people look at what they have, or what they do, and try to figure out where to sell it. Ford figured out what people wanted—in this case, an affordable car—and figured out how to give it to them. Hence, the invention of the assembly line, a means to an end which enabled him to provide that car affordably.

What if we applied this to public education? It seems as if the tremendous legacy system we have limits our vision, forcing us to think in terms of what the current system can do, and preventing us from thinking about what it is our customers need. What if we wiped the slate clean—forgot about all the buildings, the standard course of study, the bus schedules, the textbooks, the lunchroom, and everything else—and started from square one? What if we looked at what the customers of public education (students, parents, other stakeholders) really need, and how we can fill that need?

If we identified any of the following as a true want/need of education consumers, how would we retool the system to make them possible a la Henry Ford?

Brett’s questions are brilliant because the vision and purpose for public education has become muddled by the cacophony of voices trying to shape direction for our schools. Put 10 random adults in a room and ask them what their "true wants and needs for education" are and you’re quite likely to get ten different answers—not to mention a headache, high blood pressure and a darn good argument!

Consider this list of goals for schools compiled by a Superintendent in Missouri that Brian Mull found and recently shared with his readers:

America’s public schools can be traced back to the year 1640. The Massachusetts Puritans established schools to:

1. Teach basic reading, some writing, and arithmetic skills, and

2. Cultivate values that serve a democratic society (some history and civics).

From 1900 to 1910, we added nutrition – immunization – and health to the list of school responsibilities.

From 1910 to 1930, we added Physical Education, including organized athletics – the practical arts – vocational education, including home economics and agricultural education, and – school transportation began to be mandated.

In the 1940’s, we added business education – art and music – speech and drama – half day kindergarten, and – school lunch programs appeared (We take this for granted today. It was, however, a significant step to shift to the schools the job of feeding America’s 1/3 of their daily meals.)

In the 1950’s, we added expanded science and math education – safety education – driver’s education – expanded music and art education – foreign language requirements were strengthened, and – sex education was introduced (topics continue to escalate).

In the 1960’s, we added Advanced Placement programs – Head Start – Title I – adult education – career education – peace, leisure, and recreation education.

In the 1970’s, the breakup of the American family accelerated, and we added – special education (mandated by Federal Government – Title IX programs (greatly expanded athletic programs for female students) – drug and alcohol abuse education – parent education – behavior adjustment classes – character education – environmental education – school breakfast programs appeared (Now, some schools feed America’s children 2/3 of their daily meals.)

In the 1980’s, the flood gates opened, and we added keyboarding and computer education – global education – ethnic education – multicultural/non-sexist education – English-as-a-second-language, and bilingual education – Teen pregnancy awareness – Hispanic heritage education – Early childhood education – Jump Start, Early Start, Even Start, and Prime Start – full day Kindergarten – pre-school programs for children at-risk – after school programs for children of working parents – alternative education in all its forms – stranger/danger education – anti-smoking education – sexual abuse prevention education – health and psychological services were expanded, and – child abuse monitoring became a legal requirement for all teachers.

In the 1990’s, we added conflict resolution and peer mediation – HIV/AIDS education – CPR training – death education – expanded computer and Internet education – inclusion – Tech Prep and School to Work programs – gang prevention education (in urban centers) – bus safety, bicycle safety, gun safety, and water safety education.

In the first years of the 21st century, we have superimposed upon everything else a layer of high-stakes, standardized tests.

Whew! Is anyone surprised when teachers tell you that they’re exhausted by the daily demands of their work? Can we ever hope to succeed in a system swamped by a million different goals set by a million different special interest groups wanting to take us in a million different directions?  What’s more, do we have any chance of down-sizing expectations in a culture where "Biggie-Sizing" everything has become a national pastime?

What is it that we really want from schools?