Education Ain’t Broken, So Stop Trying to ‘Fix’ It

John SenerBy John Sener

[Author’s note:  this article elaborates on an idea described in a previous article.]

Anyone who truly believes the common wisdom that our education system is “broken,” “failing,” and needs “fixing” should try answering these questions:

  • When did it break?
  • Who broke it?
  • Was it working just fine before that?
  • What did it look like then?
  • If it’s now “failing,” when in the past was it succeeding?
  • What did that look like, and what happened to change that?

When you ask these questions, the reality becomes apparent: education has never worked fine for everyone. It has always worked for some and not well at all for many others. The current system needs some repair work here and there, but to say that the entire education system is broken or failing and needs fixing to achieve “success” is at best misguided; at worst, it’s misleading, even pernicious nonsense.

This is so for three important reasons:

First, saying that education is “broken” and “failing” opens the door to would-be “fixers” of education who offer handy “solutions” that bring neither resolution nor success. Children’s author Richard Scarry created a character who helps us understand how this works. Mr. Fixit is “fix-it” incarnate — but as millions of children worldwide wisely know, Mr. Fixit has, shall we say, an inflated sense of his capabilities. He can fix some simple things, but most of his fixes go awry: a once-leaky boat that won’t ever leak (or float) again, a vacuum cleaner that only works on the ceiling, a talking doll that says “Dadda” instead of “Mamma.”  Would-be “fixers” of education produce results that are similarly dubious and often a lot more expensive.

This is especially important for educational technology practitioners to realize because many would-be fixers of education are fixated on using educational technologies to solve education’s “problems.” Low-cost online courses could stop higher education’s bubble from bursting; technology is a silver bullet which will transform education by substituting technology for labor (and break those nasty unions in the process); digital technologies will finally allow us to solve the problem of how to produce uniformly excellent results for every student. In other words, solutions that enable their promoters to “fix” education the way they want it fixed, which demonstrates what journalist Eric Sevareid noted some thirty years ago: “The chief cause of problems is solutions.”

Second, saying that education is broken and needs fixing belies a thoughtless lack of serious commitment. Think about what it really means to “fix” some of the items on which our daily lives depend — automobile engines, electricity, drainpipes, gutters, air conditioners. What do each of these have in common? We almost never think about them — except when they need fixing. In fact, they are explicitly designed for just that purpose, and they work effectively by fulfilling their promise to free us from having to think about them.

Education is nothing like that. Education is defined by ongoing commitment, engagement, and dialogue, not by its ability to function so smoothly that we can disengage and forget about it. Even at its best, education never gives us carefree maintenance. But too many would-be “fixers” treat education as if it is a puzzle to be solved and then done with. Even those would-be “fixers” who seem to be in it for the long haul tend toward imposing their particular form of enlightenment with little regard to the values or virtues that already reside within the culture of education. Fixing is usually a monologue; fixers don’t dialogue, negotiate or assimilate.

Other types of would-be “fixers” are even worse: the ones who wish to impose solutions that create dependency, the addictive type of “fix,” or the ones who want to “fix” the playing field for their permanent advantage, or the ones who seem to want to neuter education altogether, the way we “fix” our pets. Education doesn’t need these types of fixes either.

Third and most important, trying to “fix” a “failing” or “broken” education system diminishes its current successes and fails to appreciate the real challenge we face, which is far more serious than restoring a system to some previous levels of functioning or to reclaim some imaginary lost paradise. The challenge we face, should we actually choose to accept it, is an historic, massive, formidable, and worthy undertaking to create something that has never existed before in human history: an education system that works for everyone in a large, heterogeneous society. It involves building things that we don’t know how to build yet, and probably some things we don’t even know we need.

The best way to meet this challenge is not to seek a fix, but to seek massive improvement. This is not simply a semantic distinction, but it is a crucial one. Seeking fixes oversimplifies, looks backward, disrespects the task by trying to shrink it, and ultimately aims for disengagement. Seeking massive improvement engages and sustains; it recognizes the complexity of the situation and the awesomeness of the task; it opens possibilities and moves us forward. So use technology to improve education, not to fix it.

5 Responses

  1. The terms “fix” and “broken” are being used too glibly by too many people.

    Education has problems today that are serious. Some are relative. When compared with Singapore, South Korea, and Finland, we’re failing to keep up in science and math. We used to be up there at or near the top.

    Just to fixate on this single problem, you can see that we did not have a good system that is now broken. It’s hard to measure how much the K-12 education system has worn down and how much it just stagnated. I think both.

    K-12 education is very change-resistant. So, it tends to stagnate. It should be change-resistant. Were it not, it would be subject to every new education fad, and may even be in worse shape. This issue is one of balance.

    The wearing down has happened so gradually that many did not notice until lately. Budgets were cut. Teacher salaries were allowed to be traded for job security. In our culture, high income equals prestige. That’s wrong, in my opinion, but it seems undeniable. I live in a community now that few of its schools’ teachers can afford. They’re the “other,” living off in some low-rent area.

    As teachers’ salaries and prestige decline, fewer of the most qualified teaching candidates choose the profession, and the situation worsens. It’s a downward spiral, a vicious cycle, a positive feedback loop.

    We must attack this situation on all fronts. Despite the problems with recruiting and retaining teachers, many are capable if not exemplary. Putting better tools in the hands of the capable will improve learning in my opinion. Better outcomes will remove some of the tarnish on the teaching profession and restore some polish. I hope it’s enough to convince our politically minded to put some of our tax dollars back into education and, yes, to raise taxes to do so.

    When many claim that putting more money into the hands of “dead beat” teachers is just tossing down a rat’s hole, they miss the critical fact that we’re not talking about teachers here but about our children, and our country’s future.

    Stop blaming our teachers and start supporting our children. Technology, for me, represents a means to break the vicious cycle and renew education. Better outcomes will create more interest in the teaching profession and will enable higher salaries.

    It’s time to trade in high job security for high salaries for our teachers. This is not bonus pay for test results; it’s making firing non-performers easier. We have to be careful not to make the decision to fire into one of saving money by replacing high-paid experienced teachers with low-paid inexperienced ones.

    I’ve wandered a bit in my response. Whether education is broken and has to be fixed depends on your definitions of those words. Drop the connotations. Change “broken” into “functioning below expectations.” Change “fix” into “improve.” Now, revisit the diatribes on either side and see what it looks like. Amazing!

    • Harry,

      Sorry for the delayed response. Thanks for picking up on my point that the word labels we use have the power to deceive us. We may have differing opinions on the extent to which there is an attainment gap, but there most definitely is an expectations gap, and a need to pick up the pace of improvement.

      I actually find it a bit scary (pun intended?) the extent to which Mr. Fixit’s approach resembles that of would-be fixers of education…


  2. Darn.. I was just about to go to sleep and this article caught my eye. One of my favorite musicians is Dr. John. Here are a few of the lyrics that educators and people with ideas that don’t fit the current, past, or future ideas could sing.

    “Right Place, Wrong Time”

    He sings I was in the right place but it must have been the wrong time.. it’s a fun song, sadly

    sharing the problems of education.. theme based, problem based, unit method, open classrooms, team teaching , we all , those of us who are seasoned educators can sing a song of what we taught.. and then

    forgive the vernacular

    I been in the right place
    But it must have been the wrong time
    I’d of said the right thing
    But I must have used the wrong line
    I been in the right trip
    But I must have used the wrong car
    My head was in a bad place
    And I’m wondering what it’s good for

    I been the right place
    But it must have been the wrong time
    My head was in a place
    But I’m having such a good time
    I been running trying to get hung up in my mind
    Got to give myself a little talking to this time

    Just need a little brain salad surgery
    Got to cure this insecurity
    I been in the wrong place
    But it must have been the right time
    I been in the right place
    But it must have been the wrong song
    I been in the right vein
    But it seems like the wrong arm
    I been in the right world
    But it seems wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong

    In using ideas in education, first of all there are siloes. The PhD people have a network. The researchers have some influence in what we do.

    I sat at a National Academy of Science workshop and learned a lot, but it will be years before that knowledge is transformed to practice. I will probably be pushing up daisies instead of ideas.

    Today in the Washington Post, some seventy year old people reflected on the excellence of Dunbar High school.. when it was a power, when it was called the Harvard of DC for black students. Children going to the school now transformed by Rhee and in a lot of trouble could break our the song. right place , wrong time.

    D. C. Residents Rally Against School Violence
    WASHINGTON D.C.— Less talk, more action. Those were the sentiments at a recent community meeting held to address violence within Southeast D.C. high schools … some of the most problematic schools in D.C.: Ballou, Dunbar and Anacostia.

    Speaking of that, Brown vs the Board of Education was supposed to make schools better in urban and rural and poor communities. At one time at least the students had dedicated staff. but break out the song, because it is usable again..

    Right time , wrong place. I think that the efforts of minority teachers have been reduced to nothingness.

    When you see the panels of experts, they rarely reflect any national minority groups of any kinds.

    I have been mentored by a lot of wonderful people but, except for Gracie Beck of AAAS, and Phoebe Knipling , who made me love the out of doors ( I was a city kid) she was gender bent to make me love ecology, ..most were wonderful gusy who believed in broadening engagement but those following them.. well the teachers must be singing

    Right thoughts, wrong time. What must I do this time?

    I have so many points , Trainings in STEM education you would hardly believe it. But, NCLB made me sigh and sing..

    Right Place , wrong time

    Just need a little brain salad surgery
    Got to cure this insecurity
    I been in the wrong place
    But it must have been the right time

    Right thoughts, wrong place. If you listen to the song you might be tempted to make it a ring tone and call yourself in the middle of a stupid meeting where people talk who have never taught real children….

    What needs to be fixed the political winds od change that sweep through and negate whatever it was that the last Secretary of Education said.

    Written by a STEM teacher whose husband held her down while Margaret Spellings trashed science teaching. I was about to levitate.

    It waa in history, the wrong time to be a science teacher.

    Michelle Rhee told me that I was too old to give her ideas.

    Right place , wrong time for one of us.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    • Oops a few spelling errors. Got to stop posting whihe writing free form.

    • Hi Bonnie,

      Sorry for the delayed response. Well, that song will be stuck in my head for awhile! ;-)

      I have started to see stirrings of perhaps the beginnings of change in the air — too early to tell whether it’s naive optimism or something more efficacious — but in the meantime, plenty to do…

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