Education reform: What's the big idea? Lots of little ones

  • Article by: TED KOLDERIE
  • Updated: August 8, 2014 - 6:03 PM

We need to redesign how we’re going about change. We need to allow innovations to come from those closest to the action.


To reach any goal, the key question is always: How?

How? was the question during World War II. Roosevelt and Churchill had their grand strategy — to supply Britain from factories in North America, to bomb Germany night and day, to open a second front in western Europe. But early 1943 was a dark time. Ships were being sunk, bombers shot down at unsustainable rates. Winning would depend on figuring out how to get ships safely past the U-boats, how to provide fighter cover for the bombers over Germany, how to land an army on a hostile defended shore.

How? is the question, too, for education policy. It’s fine to say we’ll close achievement gaps, make graduates college-ready, raise standards, enforce accountability and draw top candidates into teaching. But stating objectives does not make things happen. There has to be a How. And education policy is still searching.


In “Engineers of Victory,” Yale historian Paul Kennedy tells how the answers were found in World War II:

• Canadian engineers replaced a bomb bay with an additional fuel tank, greatly extending the range of B-24s patrolling for submarines.

• Physicists in Britain figured out how to miniaturize radar to fit in a nose cone.

• Ronnie Harker, a Rolls-Royce test pilot, suggested putting the Spitfire engine into the American P-51, producing a fighter — the Mustang — able to accompany the B-17s to Berlin.

• Army engineers at Aberdeen Proving Ground turned the Russian T-34 into a tank that drove the German panzers out of Russia.

But what was “the how of the how”? It was, Kennedy says, leadership’s “creation of a climate of encouragement for innovation.”

Answers couldn’t be found from the top. They came from people close to the action.

“The successful systems,” Kennedy writes, “stimulated initiative, innovation and ingenuity and encouraged problem solvers to tackle large, apparently intractable problems.”

He concludes: “The winning of great wars requires people [to] run organizations … in a fashion that will allow outsiders to feed fresh ideas into the pursuit of victory. None of this can be done by the chiefs alone. … There has to be a support system, a culture of encouragement, efficient feedback loops and a capacity to learn from setbacks.”

The lesson, he believes, can be applied in other fields. We need to apply it now to education policy.

During World War II, the How was found in 18 months. America has been fumbling around with its education problem for almost 40 years.

The standard theory for educational change has been to move from what we have to The Way Everything Should Be, through a comprehensive transformation, politically engineered.

That has not been a successful theory. Inevitable disagreements block consensus. Even were there consensus on a new model, it could not be imposed, given our system of local control. Frustrated, even commissioners of education sometimes — privately — say: Blow it up and start over. But that won’t happen, either.

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