What is the One Thing You Would Change to "Fix" Education?

I have been working full-time in education for a grand total of 102 days.

And as actual education experts can probably empathize with, I am (already) immediately asked two questions every time I tell someone from “the outside” that I now work in education:

“What is the one thing you would change that would fix all of this? Is there a silver bullet?”

I smile, I look around at the cake and dancing (because I am inevitably at a wedding reception during this conversation), and I shake my head.

The Supply Chain

Let me confess something here. I am a supply-chain-logistics nerd.

My intro course to Supply Chain Management in college was the first time I had ever looked around the classroom and been one of the 5% of students not sleeping, day-dreaming, or actively hating the fact that they came to class that day. I related to the process-oriented thinking that Supply Chain required. It was not enough to look at a scenario and only act upon what we saw.

For example, it was not enough to look at the price tag on a bag of potato chips and dismiss it as a marketing promotion. Rather, we would research what was happening with packaging material prices.

What was the transportation system like to get the chips to the store? Had energy prices recently gone up, leading to higher trucking fuel costs? How about labor at the factory where these chips were made? Was there a recent union measure to raise salaries? Was there a potato shortage from our supplier, driving raw materials prices up?

It was all a process; it was all a supply chain.

I came to see everything in life as a supply chain system. Everything was connected, and there was always more to life than met the eye. The situations I dealt with personally and professionally always had a rich context and a system of causes that created the effects in front of me.

Maybe it stemmed from my belief in the interconnected nature of the world. Maybe it was the Socrates in me, always inquiring, why? Why are things the way they are: what all had to happen for my plane to land at exactly 4:16 PM? Why do I prefer basketball over baseball? How many processes did this spinach go through before landing in front of me at the freezing-cold Kroger produce section?

Back to the Wedding

At first, I’m inclined to give the answer that would actually appease the questioner. “Teacher quality and support, and early intervention before kids get to public school.” To be fair, I really do believe these are two areas that can seriously impact a child’s learning. But even at 102 days in this field, I know it doesn’t start or stop there.

At this point, I consider my fellow wedding guest. How can I explain, in the few minutes before The Cupid Shuffle takes us onto the dance floor, the immense complexity and connectedness of the entire educational landscape to someone who may not be familiar with it?

I try to connect with them on a business level. On a supply-chain level.

I swallow my last bite of cake and attempt to answer their question.

The Business Perspective

(Disclaimer: I know that kids aren’t widgets in a factory. They’re not materials being shipped around the world. Metaphors have limitations! )

Consider an old factory floor, owned by a struggling business:

  • There are raw materials for a widget at one end.
  • There are 12 rusty machines lined up, each meant to add on a component of the widget.
  • The building is falling apart around the assembly line.
  • Management hasn’t looked in on production in years.
  • Demand for the widget is low; sales are low.
  • State legislature has enacted policies that make it hard for the business to adapt. The assembly line is understaffed with under-qualified employees.

Now, a team of consultants is hired to fix the entire system. They are tasked with finding the silver bullet.

What do they do?

Do they fix three of the machines? Six? Can they fix all 12?

Do they go to the government and fight for healthier manufacturing policies? Do they ratchet up the marketing campaign so people will value and demand the widget?

Do they ask management to increase funding and focus on the general environment around the factory? Do they hire better people to manage and run the operation?

These are real, legitimate business decisions. During my tenure in business consulting, I have seen leaders grapple with these, and similar, dilemmas. CEOs and Presidents have to make the right calls to increase profit, appease shareholders, and become more efficient.

Here’s the key, though: business leaders understand that they will not reach their goal unless each of these factors is addressed.

Imagine that the consultants decide to focus their limited resources on fixing the first three machines, increasing the marketing budget, and putting together a lobby to head to the Capitol. What happens after the widget makes it through the first three machines? What if the consultants decided to develop the last five machines, as they are the ones that put the attractive, shiny, and easily-visible components of the widget together? The process wouldn’t even get off the ground. What if they hired the best and brightest engineers and assembly-line workers to oversee the process? Does that alone solve the problem?

In Education, It Takes a Village

Children are not widgets being sold for profit. Forgive my bleeding heart, but I believe providing equitable opportunity for all children is a more important goal than business profit (and I have the utmost respect for businesses), and the stakes are higher. There is a heavy societal and moral responsibility to get our work right. Furthermore, the process is not as clean-cut and linear as a factory assembly line.

Can we really expect a silver bullet for such a complex issue?

  • If we gave our full attention and directed resources only at improving teacher quality, development, and support, what in our communities outside school are we failing to address?
  • If we focus our energy only on providing early intervention for underserved children so they enter public school on the same cognitive and socio-emotional level as their peers from well-off families, what happens when they don’t have that kind of support throughout public school?
  • If we only refurbish facilities and provide state-of-the-art technology to low-income neighborhood schools, can we ensure the quality of learning inside those walls and with those tools?

My take is: no. There is no one, singular solution. It will take a collective effort.

School Districts. Charter schools. Nonprofit organizations. Faith-based organizations. Businesses. Politicians. Philanthropists. Teachers. Families. Students. Everyone HAS to contribute, and we HAVE to work as links on the same chain.

This is not the quick-trigger solution we wish for. It is daunting. It requires tremendous coordination and planning. It requires that we revisit our strategies to support and fund initiatives. It requires that we introspect and understand that we each play a small, but key, role in the greater collective. And, it honestly requires that we reconsider the idea that there is a silver bullet.

We’re a Team

I know, the reality of the situation can be disheartening. It is something I struggle with constantly. But there are smart, capable, passionate people working alongside us. Great teachers, great administrators, great analysts, great students, great community leaders, great visionaries.

There is evidence that “collective impact” is more than just a buzz phrase; that it is working in communities around the country. It is important to keep this positive perspective when dealing with the formidable complexity of education. Frankly, in addition to all of those requirements stated above, taking on this work requires one more thing: optimism.  

Oh hey, here comes the Cupid Shuffle. Finish your wedding cake – it’s been through a lot to get on this table.

 

Want to get off the dance floor and get involved? Help lead important work in education this summer with the EP Fellowship. Learn more and apply today!

Om Chitale Om Chitale became an Education Pioneers Fellow in 2015 because he wants to dedicate his career to closing the opportunity gap in education. Prior to the Fellowship, he worked as a Consultant with Deloitte, focusing on process improvement, supply chain technology implementation, and project management. Om is from Houston, Texas, and studied Supply Chain Management at Texas A&M University.

 

Comments

I work for MCPS in MD. Your approach certainly seems it could greatly impact our failing system. However, until we get away from testing, create a tough love policy and truly have the entire village involved, our biggest challenge, our valiant ships of caring school staff, will continue to drift and some will sink. The dropout rate of new teachers in the first five years is now 40-50% according to NPR. On top of that some administrators feel so much pressure that they drum good teachers out of the job. Yes, we need more than a village, we need everyone.

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