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  • by Blaine Helwig

Why Does Failure Continue?

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

I find the title of this blog interesting because as humans – I would hope that when folks perform poorly at some manageable task or condition, they would forensically investigate, adjust, and with more effort, significantly improve. Yet, in public education, we do not get better with additional years of practice. We achieve the same academic results regardless of school year. However, to be completely fair, there may be more here that meets the eye. Maybe what some people classify as a failure, other equally rational people may not consider it as failing.

Let’s investigate failure, or a lack of success, more deeply in a comparative analysis.

In December of 1903 at Kittyhawk, North Carolina, Orville Wright flew their biplane ‘The Wright Flyer’ for 12 seconds and a total distance of about 150 feet. Now, to me, that is an amazing feat! That is what I would call a successful undertaking. But, perhaps not everyone would agree. Maybe other people would think and say, “12 seconds? That is all? Well, that is a failure. Now, if Orville would have flown for over 1 minute, then it would have been deemed a success!”

Of course, it is frequently a matter of opinion on what is defined as a success or failure in almost any human event of circumstance. However, from that mere 12 second flight at Kitty Hawk, the aeronautic industry was born and immediately began to evolve and innovate. Based on Orville Wright’s 12 seconds at Kitty Hawk, aeronautical scientific experimentation produced a singular event to this day that remains the most remarkable happening of my lifetime.

On July 20, 1969, two men landed safely on the moon – approximately 240,000 miles from Earth, and walked on the lunar surface. Then, the two astronauts returned to their landing vehicle, the ‘Eagle,’ and lifted off the Moon’s surface, hooked up with the orbiting space craft and flew safely back to Earth. To recap this event, Orville Wright’s very short 12 second flight in 1903 propelled an industry that eventually conducted a manned moon landing in a little under seventy (70) years. Thus, regardless if a sane and rational person thinks that Orville Wright’s 12 second flight was successful or not successful based on a very short flight time, the improvements that followed his flight were many. In the years that followed, others discovered the means for longer aircraft flight times, plane speeds and altitude records that eventually culminated with successful Moon shots. These accomplishments, by any standard, are an absolute definition of innovation.

In that same time frame of seven (7) decades, public education has not improved its processes to yield significant academic improvement in its schools. Again, other rational adults may say, “We are doing well in public education academics. We have not failed. We are faced with impossible barriers.”

In contrast to that statement, approximately 65% of our fourth graders in the United States do NOT read on grade level. The United States ranks 31st out of 79 industrialized countries in the latest mathematics comparative rankings. Thus, maybe like the Orville Wright’s 12 second airplane flight and in the ensuing years of longer and longer aircraft flights, most rational people would assume we have a serious public education problem. Many may go as far to call our lack of progress, a failure.

However, if we can mostly agree that there is a problem in the public schools, then that acknowledgement alone opens the door to further analysis. Before beginning, money must be considered. Maybe the root cause of public education’s poor performance is due to a shortage of money. Nope! Schools receive a tremendous amount of tax dollars and funding sources every school year. In fact in the author's professional experience for the last three (3) decades, the public school system has more money than it needs. Simply put, it just does not allocate and use the monies they receive productively well. In the end, lack of money is not the issue!

With finances dismissed as the root cause, let’s begin by asking three (3) queries that encapsulate public education stagnation.

1.) Why are schools continuing to fail year after year?

2.) With continued practice each school year, why do schools not steadily improve?

3.) Is there disagreement on the reasons our schools are failing?

Again, these three questions sum up the majority of the potential failure permutations in this countries’ public schools. Let’s examine these three questions in more detail and compare contemporary public education thinking to the aeronautics industry’s approach to improvement and performance.

In the aeronautics industry, data driven analysis is the rule of the day. What works is used and pursued. When there is failure or unexpected results, the reasons for a lack of performance are evaluated. There are no sacred cows. If it is not working, it is not working. The methodology or system is either adjusted or wholly abandoned for a replacement that does produce desired results. Thus, in the aeronautics industry (as well as many other industries), engineers and pilots strive for viable and pragmatic solutions. They address the issues at hand, isolate and discretely problem solve. In fairness, that industry has an adverse advantage that public education does not. When there is serious material failure or pilot error, the event is frequently catastrophic. In short, a plane falls out of the sky. At that point there is no person in the aeronautic industry, or the general public that can deny that something terrible happened that was not planned, and unfortunately, there is usually loss of human life.

The obvious disaster of a downed plane falling from the sky due to unknown circumstances is not the case in the world of public education. First, an aircraft crash will be thoroughly investigated regardless if the airplane struck land or water. Second, in public education, the same academic results are achieved at the same campuses within a five (5) percent band from the previous school year’s results. The illiterate or innumerate public education ‘plane’ is crashing everywhere at once every school year. However, to be equally fair, when public education does not yield equitable academic student outcomes, there is significant loss of economic opportunity for the affected children at some point in their life.

How can the student outcomes remain chronic and constant each school year?

The first two questions presented above can be addressed simultaneously, “Why are we continuing to fail year after year?” and “With continued practice each school year, why do we do not improve?

The academic results are chronically poor since the campuses and school districts implement the same curricular programs over and over regardless of prior outcomes. School personnel do not change or overhaul their core programs when they do not produce. They readily engage in ideologically data driven thinking as opposed to the commonly employed data driven methods by the aeronautic industry and all other professional fields. Educators frequently allow their belief systems to blind them of the reality of students’ academic needs.

Another factor for repeated poor performance is that far too many educators and campus administrators are unsure of precisely what must be changed to increase student achievement, or more simply put, they do not understand what academic problem they are trying to solve. Hence, they simply do the only thing they know – over and over – regardless of its effectiveness. Consequently, Title 1 schools have become nothing more than physical plants where students arrive each day and waste their day away on semi-effective pedagogy. In these schools, the educational philosophy is, “If the student gets it, they get it. If they don’t, they don’t!”

Additionally, there is not any real oversight or accountability; therefore, few educators or administrators are terminated due to a lack of performance. They may be removed from their position, but administrators are usually provided employment elsewhere in the school district while maintaining their prior annual salary. If the educator is a campus administrator, a central office administrator or a superintendent and they are officially terminated, they invariably land a similar position at a different school district for approximately the same salary. As one would expect in this situation, there is not really much fear in a lack of performance or dramatically raising student achievement. Furthermore, the schools practice each school year, but they do NOT improve. This situation may seem odd to a public education outsider, but not to the insider. The author has seen the same philosophy and thinking implemented in different forms for the last three decades.

Once more, since there is no real accountability, there is not a lot of fear of academic nonperformance. Based on empiricism of the general public’s reaction to chronically poor performance of Title 1 public schools since I have been alive, the public either ignores, acquiesces or is indifferent to low-income students’ constant poor academic plight.

Hence, the first two questions have been addressed. But, what about the last of the three queries, ‘Is there disagreement on the reasons our schools are failing?’ In the author’s opinion, much of the above reasoning for the first two questions above is also applicable here. However, the lack of accountability factors in more to this query than the other two. It is ever so easy to create excuses to poor performance. As a matter of fact, these invented causes or reasons that low-income Title 1 public schools are failing provides much cover for many school district administrators, advocates, consultants, hangers-on and education college professors.

As expected, these educators creative 'reasons' for the continued failure are always external to their efforts and work. It is a poverty issue, money shortage problem, inequitable assessments, teacher training failure, social justice and equity disparity, uninvolved parents, unwilling students, etc., etc., etc.

Again, regardless of the excuse, it is always external to the work and philosophy of the very educators making and influencing the pedagogy, methodology and curriculum implemented in the public schools. It is also paramount to understand that positive changes within the public education system cannot be at the expense of curriculum administrators and college education professors – at least in their personal and professional perspective of innovation. From a self-preservation standpoint, if dramatic innovation clearly demonstrates heightened outcomes and those two groups’ influence or positions are limited in that change, they will fight, resist and discredit any such innovation so that the status quo continues above all else.

Finally, if a campus administrator goes rogue and implements curriculum that is effective and addresses low-income children’s academic needs, as long as they do not advertise their success and remain silent, many times they will be left alone. Although, it is highly likely they will be ‘silently’ discredited by the administrative establishment within their own school system. Now, if the successful rogue administrator elects to go full-on rebel and publicly advertise their methodologies and systems, their ability to be promoted to higher salaried positions outside their campus principal role is greatly reduced.

Generally speaking, humans are about innovation and improvement in most aspects of their life. In my lifetime, we have seen the rise of digital technology that has occurred at a breathtaking pace. Similarly, medical breakthroughs are frequent, and the latest advances in vaccine development using CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat) will revolutionize global responses to future pandemics. The advancement and improvement in the aeronautics industry and other professions is normal in human endeavors.

In comparison to other industries, public education is an innovation anomaly. It does not get better with time and more practice. In fact, a lack of improvement is one of the staples of constancy in the industry. But as noted above, since there is little to no accountability and the general public as a whole appears apathetic to its internal workings, there is little chance of realistic change or improvement in the public schools – especially at the low-income campuses.

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