The Problem in Education Is Not Expertise

Via Kevin Drum, Mark S. Tucker and Kevin Toch make the argument, if I understand it right, that school districts and state education organizations simply don't have the expertise or the capacity to handle the changes required to meet the standards that are being applied by efforts like NCLB (they also argue the tests themselves suck, but I am not going to address that issue).  By the way, you know I'm going to get worked up when the title of an article is "The secret to making Bush's school reform law work? More bureaucrats"

...we need a long-term solution, which can only lie in building
the capacity of the states, districts, and schools to reach the kinds
of goals contemplated by the framers of NCLB. This is not a simple
matter, but a vast, man-to-the-Moon kind of challenge. It means finding
people with the data management experience to build and administer the
very complex systems called for by the law. It means recruiting experts
who can help create truly world class curriculum standards so that
teachers will know what they are supposed to teach and students will be
able to reach the standards. It means identifying and training
thousands of educators who have succeeded in improving their schools to
provide on-site assistance at other failing schools, and recruiting
still others who can take those schools over if the current staff
cannot or will not rise to the challenge. It means creating and
expanding networks of talent-laden organizations--universities, think
tanks, for-profit and non-profit school companies--that have the skill,
experience, and management capacity to turn around individual schools
and entire districts. And it means greatly strengthening the
capabilities of the agencies that will coordinate this massive effort:
state departments of education.

Wow!  It's hard to even know where to start, but I guess my first thought is : What the f*ck have public schools been doing in the last 100 years?  Why, after an absolutely enormous spending growth over the last several decades, do districts still not have the ability to create world class curricula?  Why don't teachers know what they are supposed to teach?   Why is the system so talent poor, despite a huge increase in the number of administrators with various advanced education degrees at all levels of the system?  It's as if the highway department announced today that they didn't have the ability to design roads.

The first and last resort of every technocrat is to complain that the system is great, if only the right "smart" people could get put in charge.  These folks are making this same argument yet again.  Our public schools are fine, if we could just get the right experts in charge. 


The issue is not the lack of expertise.  The issue is one of incentives and senescence in the system itself.  In this context,  NCLB is completely off the mark.   I work with government employees all the time.  There is a very clear difference between the incentives they see and the incentives I see in the market.  For government employees, the biggest incentive is to avoid missing some bureaucratic check box.  They are much more concerned that they not be found later in some audit to have missed a procedure or a required approval authority than with actual performance or productivity.  NOT, I want to emphasize, because they are bad or misguided people, but because that is how their incentive system is set up.  Their actions are entirely rational in the context of their incentive structure, but the results are no less disastrous.

For example, government managers of recreation facilities get almost no credit for improving the customer experience, a metric my company lives and dies for.  I have seen a government park manager do a great job obtaining funds from private sources to add a new facility to their park that pleased guests, only to get criticized for having the slope of an access ramp be 1/4 degree off ADA standards and have a grievance filed by the union that park visitation had gone up, creating more work for the government employees.  I spent an evening having a beer with that manager, and you can bet they are never going to try to actually improve the customer experience again.  As another example, I went in to my government landlord last week and just blasted them for their lack of customer service focus, for the fact that they are blocking me from making improvements customers are begging for.  They yawned, gave me no response,  and handed me a notice that they were missing some of our water testing paperwork and please get it to them ASAP.

NCLB just gives government schools another government wammy to be managed and avoided.  The authors will probably get their wish, and huge bureaucracies will rise up to manage the numbers and reports without anything being done to really improve education.  The authors lament that the California state education department has "only" 1452 employees.  I have every confidence that this "problem" will soon get fixed by California, and the number will balloon up nicely, long before children see any better education.

A while back I wrote a plea to just let GM die.  I said:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of
various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and
human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as
"management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently
managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the
management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its
unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all
this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression
that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and
getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.
You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the
consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to
process to history to culture could better be called the corporate
DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking
brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an
upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I
don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the
DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you
still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system
and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or
knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I
could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from
Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over
Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to
shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.
Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their
experience may overtax their DNA....

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right
managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30
years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an
old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the
mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a
change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make
big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its
leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30
years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next

I would say the exact same thing is true of public schools: Their DNA is senescent.  Most are the equivalent of alcoholics who keep falling off the wagon and keep asking for more chances.  At some point, you just have to give up.  At some point, it is easier to just start from scratch.  After 30 years of trying, Sears still can't change itself so there is Wal-Mart.  After 30 years of trying, GM still can't change itself so there is Toyota.  After 30 years of trying, United Airlines still can't change itself so there is Southwest.

The only difference in education is that the government has to date suppressed the emergence of Toyota and Wal-Mart and Southwest because, well, because it can.  I am sure that United Airlines would have liked to ban competition from Southwest, but it does not have the coercive power of government.  Fortunately, in most industries other than education, the public gets a choice of offerings, and companies that customers don't prefer tend to die.

It's time to give school choice a chance, and radically shift the incentives for public schools in a way that the government can't with bureaucracy-based programs like NCLB.  Some public schools will thrive, and many will die in favor of private options, but our kids will be far better off either way.  It's time to stop doubling down on failure.  It's time to stop giving the alcoholic one more chance.

Postscript:  One of the reasons that competition is important is in the very definition of "expertise."  An expert is someone who presumably has been succesful at a certain activity when others have been less so.  We call Herb Kelleher an expert on airlines and customer service because he designed a model that kicked everyone else's butt.  But would you have called him an expert in 1972, before Southwest took off?  Probably not.  He was just one of many voices with diverse, untested opinions of what would make a better airline.  What eventually made him an expert, and the others less so, is he went out and applied his ideas and they were succesful.

So the author's want to send more "expertise" to the schools.  OK, who are the experts?  Nearly every public school is using the same version of the same failed model.  Some succeed more than others, but these differences tend to be incremental rather than radical, like the difference between Sears and Montgomery Ward rather than between Sears and Wal-Mart (or even  So how can you even know who the experts are within the same failed system, where no one is really allowed to go out and fully test their ideas in practice?  What happens, in reality, is that "experts" in education are the ones that can best enthrall academics and politicians and think tanks with grandiose or politically correct visions.  I would argue that as of this moment there are no experts in education in the US and we have no hope of identifying them until we let entrepreneurs go out and start testing various new models.

  • James Williams

    I agree with your comments about public education and GM. In my office I had a sign that said, "Bureaucracy is the enemy." I think Pournelle's Iron Law of bureaucracy was evident in government organizations I worked with. The Iron law says, "In any bureaucracy there are two kinds of people: those who work to further the goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization. The second type will eventually gain control of the organization and write the rules under which the organization functions." When I worked on the Apollo program, the first type were running things; now at NASA the second type are in charge. The results achieved by NASA then and now speak for themselves. Creative destruction is what makes capitalism perform better than socialism. But, it is hard to destroy any part of government, so the second type of people write the rules to perpetuate themselves, and the governments true goals such as educating children are no longer important, let alone met.

  • M. Hodak

    I just saw a sign on a billboard today:

    "$350 million new dollars for the education bureaucracy + accountability = real learning for our kids"

    I couldn't believe it. They actually used the words "bureaucracy" with a neutral connotation. Only in New York.

  • napablogger

    Great post, totally agree with your comments. Tucker and Toch are out of their minds. It is almost humourous the way that they are making this last ditch stand to defend something that is an abject failure, and has been an abject failure longer than most people have been alive.

    Half the people working in education in California are already in administration, how many more do we need? There are administrators at the local levels too, they seem to ignore that.

    My father was a high school teacher, and starting in 1972 he started telling me the schools were going downhill because they needed more money, and that I should vote for the millage (increased property tax for schools). I voted yes for ten years straight and the schools went steadily downhill anyway. He made a lot more money, which was good, for him anyway, but it did nothing to help the schools.

    I said screw that and have voted no ever since, but my point is that this deterioation has been going on since the late 60's if not sooner. That is more like forty years!

    The other point here is that schools used to be good, and why aren't we looking back to see what they did differently? We destroyed something good. It used to be that even the average students got a good education. Now they get almost nothing, while the 20% of kids that are the smartest have always done well and continue to do so because they can learn on their own.

    Its the kids at the bottom that we are continually screwing and doing nothing to help. For over forty years now.

  • steep

    I'm in Utah and am looking forward to vote to keep the voucher law that was recently passed here. I think it will help begin the path to a more competitive education market and improve the welfare of all of our students.
    I've been somewhat disappointed that the issue hasn't shown up more in the free-market blogosphere.