New Video: The Dickensian Duo

The beginning of June seems an odd time to hearken back to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but that’s where Dickens sets out a pair of conditions that I call “The Dickensian Duo.” In this video, I introduce them, consider the relationships between them, and discuss the importance of education in addressing them.

Let me know what you think!

Education-Related Stuff:
– Video: The Musashi-Heinlein School
– Text: Quality Education: Why It Matters, and How to Structure the System to Sustain It

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New Video: The Dimensions of Sphericity

A follow-up to last week’s video about “sphericity” as a metaphor for helping students grow and develop in multiple dimensions. What dimensions might we choose?

Let me know what you think!

Related Stuff:
– Last week’s Two-Dimensional Characters, and Education video
The Musashi-Heinlein School video
– And, for good measure, Quality Education: Why It Matters, and How to Structure the System to Sustain It

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New Video: Two-Dimensional Characters, and Education

In writing, we try to make sure our characters are realistic; rather than “flat” and two-dimensional, we want them to be lifelike. So too in education, we want students to grow and mature in multiple dimensions. But is “well-rounded” the best metaphor?

I’d already posted the video to YouTube when I caught an error in it, so this version includes a correction I inserted.

Hey, nobody’s perfect.

Related Stuff:
– As mentioned, The Musashi-Heinlein School video
– A lot of this derives from what I wrote in Quality Education: Why It Matters, and How to Structure the System to Sustain It

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Looking at Education as a System

Here’s a brief (5 minutes and change) video rundown of systems thinking and education, with a little take on why effectiveness is better than efficiency:

Do you think the education system near you is optimized to accomplish its overall goal, or do the internal components sometimes fight against each other to the detriment of the whole? Understanding how the pieces fit together is a good first step to getting the whole thing to work more effectively.

– I cover the idea of education as a series of transformative processes in chapter 1 of Quality Education: Why It Matters, and How to Structure the System to Sustain It
– The debut episode of “Between the Black & the White” presented The Musashi-Heinlein School
– “Between the Black & the White” Series Introduction (extra episode)
– “Between the Black & the White” Host Introduction(extra episode)

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So, I Started This Video Thing …

It’s been a long time since I made a video, and even longer since I attempted a series, but now seemed like as good a time as any!

I put together my last video series back when I was with the Industrial Extension Service at NC State University, and it was called the “Manufacturing Minute.” I made 44 videos in that series, and probably would’ve made more except that I left that job 3 years ago this month. Each of the “Manufacturing Minute” episodes was “about a minute, about manufacturing,” and even though they were targeted at a niche audience folks seemed to appreciate them. (They’re still available if you know where to look.)

My new series is something different — it will cover a variety of things, not just manufacturing, because I have a variety of interests. For instance, this first episode combines guidance from a samurai warrior and a science fiction Grand Master to arrive at what I call “The Musashi-Heinlein School”:

I hope you liked it! I intend to keep all the entries about as short as this one; right now I don’t envision any of them running much longer than about 5 minutes.

If you have any thoughts about this new venture, I’d love to hear them. Let me know if you have comments, questions, suggestions for improvement or suggestions for future episodes — for instance, if you’d like me to expand on “The Musashi-Heinlein School” by delving into the different things Heinlein listed.

Thanks for watching, and have a great day!

Related Items:
Series Introduction (extra episode)
Host Introduction (extra episode)
– I delve into some of the ideas from the video in my book, Quality Education: Why It Matters, and How to Structure the System to Sustain It

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What to Do With an Empty Mall?

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit a mall near my hometown. Here’s a picture of the inside of one of the stores:

An empty store in a nearly empty mall.

That wasn’t the only empty store, and I understand that mall properties in other places have also had difficulties due to the way online shopping has impacted anchor stores as well as smaller businesses. It was a little sad to walk through and see most of the big stores vacant and the remaining stores struggling.

Walking through the largely abandoned space, I wondered whether vacant malls might be ready-made infrastructure for expanding schools. A couple of years ago, not too far from where I live now, a new school was built in what was once a factory building — why couldn’t a local district purchase a declining mall and refit it into a school?

Could is the key word: of course they could, but that doesn’t mean it would be the smartest decision. In addition to up-front costs of purchase and refit, the long-term maintenance costs would have to be considered and compared to land and new construction. (Costs of a mall property might be particularly prohibitive in the out years, for instance, if the mall owners did not keep the physical plant healthy.) But schools have been built into malls before: e.g., in Joplin, Missouri, as a temporary measure after a tornado devastated the town in 2011.

For some areas, turning malls into schools may make reasonable economic sense. And mall properties are big enough that they might even provide the opportunity for collaborative educational enterprises, say between a school district, a community college, and a local business incubator. (I’m big on collaboration between schools and the wider world.*)

What do you think? Do you have a mall nearby that is fading into obscurity? What would you like to see done with it?

*I wrote a little bit about that in Quality Education: Why It Matters, and How to Structure the System to Sustain It.

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Zombie Blog Post: ‘Training’ is NOT a Bad Word

(Nothing horrific here: a “zombie” post only in the sense of coming back from the electronic dead.)

Here again I’m reprising an old blog post that I particularly like. It was published on this date in 2012 on the old NCSU-IES blog, which unfortunately no longer exists.

At the time, we had been having an internal debate over whether we provided “training” or “education” to our clients. There was a definite push by the unit leadership to say we were not trainers but instead were part of the “education” mission of the university.

Unsurprisingly (and perhaps unwisely), I pushed back:

The distinction between the two, as I understand it, is a matter of practicality. Training gives us skills and techniques we can practice, hopefully with enough knowledge to know when and where they will be useful. Education, meanwhile, gives us new knowledge and insights, and a better understanding of the world. When I taught CPR, I trained my students in how to apply the life-saving methods; when I taught leadership and management, I educated my students about different aspects of and approaches to the two.

[In 2011] one of my colleagues showed a tag cloud she made of comments from our clients and “training” was the largest word in the cloud (i.e., had been used by clients most often). Immediately, a discussion started about how we might change that perception and the relative worth of one versus the other. The discussions have been interesting. From what I’ve observed, on one side of the debate are folks who came from industry and say of course we provide training. On the other, folks who grew up in the academy tend to downplay the T-word in favor of education. In the middle, folks who have spent time in both camps lean one way or the other, depending on how deeply they’ve immersed themselves in the campus culture.

Color me unimpressed by the whole thing, and firmly on the side of training.

I admit, I started out with my share of the “we’re-the-university-so-of-course-we-educate” mindset. But recently I’ve been studying and refining a model of how we … should fit into the academic side of the university, and after thinking about it I’ve (to borrow a phrase) come to the dark side.

The way I see it, education and training are two sides of the same coin: teaching. Both imply the delivery of knowledge — or at least information — from a person who has it to a person who needs it. I’ve flipped that metaphorical coin a few times and come up with what I see as major differences between training courses and classroom education….

At this point the original post presented the differences in tabular form, but I’ve arranged them in a bulleted list for this “zombie” version:

  • In terms of Location, EDUCATION is mostly On-Campus, while TRAINING is mostly Off-Campus
  • In terms of Audience, EDUCATION is mostly aimed at Traditional Students, while TRAINING is mostly aimed at Nontraditional Students
  • In terms of Source Material, EDUCATION is primarily based on Theory, while TRAINING is primarily based on Practice
  • EDUCATION mostly delivers Facts & Ideas, while TRAINING mostly delivers Skills & Tactics
  • In terms of Desired Outcome, EDUCATION primarily emphasizes Thinking, while TRAINING primarily emphasizes Doing (but smartly)
  • EDUCATION is taught mostly by “Professors”, while TRAINING is taught mostly by “Practitioners”

Adult Students in Business Class
Whether education or training, it’s all teaching and learning. (Image: “Adult Students in Business Class,” by Newman University, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

As part of its transition to become the “Industry Expansion Services,” the staff deleted the finale of that old blog post (and the entire blog itself,* which I still think violated the rules for retaining official state records). A former co-worker recovered what was left of the blog and sent me the results, and that post ends right after the table with the enigmatic “From that p.”

However, thanks to the “Wayback Machine” Internet Archive, I found the remainder:

From that perspective, our … courses and services fit much more into “training” while the university’s more general offerings are clearly “educational.” And that’s okay! In the end, it’s all teaching.

Finally, on the Internet I found an interesting paper on the subject of education versus training, which included this amusing item:

Think of it this way. If your sixteen-year-old daughter told you that she was going to take a sex education course at high school, you might be pleased. What if she announced she was going to take part in some sex training at school? Would that elicit the same response? Training is doing. Training improves performance.

So I say: of course we train people (though, not in sex). And if we educate folks at the same time — and we often do — that’s a bonus.

My perspective on this hasn’t changed: Education and training are both good and useful things. It’s all teaching.

And if you’re involved in the business of teaching — wherever you do it and whatever you teach — my hat’s off to you.** Thanks, and keep up the good work!

* I can’t even provide a link to the old NCSU-IES blog, since they now redirect to the College of Engineering page for some reason. I find it ridiculous.
** For more on teaching and learning and organizing schools and systems for better teaching and learning, may I present Quality Education.

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A Quartet of Educators Sound Off on Those Unrealistic Goals

Last week I pointed out that the Wake County school board has instituted a deeply flawed goal: specifically, of achieving an annual 95% graduation rate by 2020. (That sounds like a good goal, doesn’t it? It would surely be a fine thing to achieve, but to set it as a goal was simply foolish.) After I wrote the post criticizing the goal and explaining why it’s misguided, I asked some of my educator friends what they thought when their management instituted goals that were unrealistic.

A middle school teacher in Hillsborough, NC, Samantha Dunaway Bryant, wrote:

After 21 years teaching, I no longer waste a second of my time thinking on such things (if indeed I ever did–I’m not sure I did). Education is not such an easily quantifiable thing. The moments that matter and change lives are about relationships and lasting influence, not about scores on a test or number of kids handed a diploma. Every attempt to make the process objective is an exercise in futility or a marketing ploy by amateurish and clumsy marketers.

“Amateurish and clumsy” — that’s a pretty apt description. But it’s good to remember an “amateur” is someone who does something out of love for it. The people who make goals like the “95% by 2020” goal are not doing so out of malice. They truly believe they are doing something that will help schools and the school system get better, that setting the goal will lead to achieving something awesome on behalf of the students. But their belief and their sincerity cannot make up for the clumsy nature of the untenable goal.

Angie Williamson Mills, who taught public middle school for 18 years and has spent the last 10 years in public school administration, said, “Having been in charge of collecting graduation rate data at a high school in SC for 6 years, that goal is ridiculous and definitely setting all up for failure. What is being done to prevent dropouts?” She also wrote:

The largest jump I have seen from year to year from any one school in graduation rate is 3-4%. I would love to know the formula used in NC for calculating graduation rate. How does NC handle special needs students who will not earn a state HS diploma (which in most high schools is between 3-6% annually)? How are students who drop out but earn a GED (which in most high schools is 4-8% annually) calculated into the graduation rate? How are 5th year graduates included in calculating graduation rate?

Excellent questions! And those questions get at the heart of why a simple, single numerical goal is a trap: because if the pressure is on, the easiest way to meet the goal is to change some definitions so that the numbers come out more favorably — in other words, to cheat.

I particularly like her reference to the year-over-year fluctuations in graduation rate. As the numbers of students coming into and leaving the system change over the years, and the makeup of the student population changes, it is only natural for the rate to change — sometimes only a little bit, sometimes more radically. Thus, if a 95% rate were achieved one year, would there be any guarantee of sustaining that 95% rate into the future? In a word, no, but the goal is to achieve the target rate annually.

Having a goal isn’t bad, but having a bad goal isn’t helpful. (Image: “Goals,” by Robert Degennaro, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


Beyond the Wake County district’s goal, though — which caught my eye because I live here — managers at higher levels of education impose unrealistic goals, too.

An English professor differentiated between how she treats goals from different levels of management. She explained that she and her colleagues meet regularly to discuss their classes and agree on the goals they intend to pursue, and in addition she takes her department chairperson’s goals very seriously. “I am more likely to ignore” goals from higher levels in the college, she said.

I roll my eyes. Usually the goals are broad and vague — “good customer service” is one. (No, really, we provide “signature service” like Time Warner Cable. Ugh). Management that hasn’t ever done my job, hasn’t been in the trenches a bit, but believes it knows how to do my job better than I do, is completely ignored — often with hostility.

She did, however, express her willingness to participate in meaningful projects and goal-setting exercises, a sentiment that I’ve heard from other teachers. “I’ll participate in the process,” she said, “because I firmly believe that if you don’t vote (semi-figuratively) then you don’t get to complain — and maybe you don’t get a say next time, either.” I find that to be rather common because teachers want to do well and want their students to do well — but giving them an arbitrary target to meet, without understanding what it entails or what resources might be needed to meet it, does not help them.

Finally, massage therapy instructor Danny Birt posed another set of excellent questions that we might wish management — whether college administrators or school board members or whoever — would consider:

The more nebulous the goal in day-to-day life, the less attention will be paid. While having a quantitative goal makes it more distinct (in this case, 95% graduation rate), what is a teacher going to do differently in their everyday school life? How does one teach, for example, six point five percent better than last year? Which students will a principal decide comprise the five percent which will not graduate? How does everyone coordinate which efforts must be made? Maybe if they have specific objectives which lead toward the overall goal they may come closer to achieving the desired result.

And that is the crux of the matter: setting the goal without understanding the system — the inputs to it, the influences on it, its capabilities and limitations — provides no guidance for meeting the goal. It would be far better to lay out a coherent, realistic plan of action (as Danny said, “specific objectives which lead to the overall goal”) and then figure out what gains that plan is likely to achieve.

What do you think of problematic goals in general, and education goals in particular? I’m grateful to everyone who contributed comments, and welcome more! Add a comment below, send me a message, or even stop me on the street somewhere and let’s talk about what needs to happen to provide students and teachers with the tools they need to succeed.

Thanks to all!

Some final notes:
– The post that led to this one is The Local School Board’s Deeply Flawed Goal.
– For a deeper look at the education system and how it can be improved, check out Quality Education: Why It Matters, and How to Structure the System to Sustain It.
– If you’ve read all the way to here, thanks very much! And I’d be pleased if you’d subscribe to my newsletter.

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The Local School Board’s Deeply Flawed Goal

Or, “Why I Didn’t Apply to Fill the Vacant School Board Position.”

Here in Wake County, North Carolina, one of the school board members passed away suddenly last year and left her seat vacant. Just before Christmas, the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) began taking applications to fill the seat, which represents District 7. The application period ended yesterday. As noted, I did not apply.

You might think that I would be interested in applying, having just released the new edition of Quality Education a few weeks ago. I admit it, I was interested, and I wouldn’t mind helping the school board if the opportunity arose. But I didn’t apply for two reasons.

First, and you might have seen this coming: I’m in the wrong district. So even if I applied, they’d toss my application automatically.

But that’s a technicality. Even before I found out I was in the wrong district, I had decided not to apply. Why? The application package required a “letter of interest outlining your background and listing three strategies for advancing the board’s strategic plan,” but I couldn’t bring myself to support the strategic plan’s primary goal.

At first blush, there’s a lot to like in the WCPSS strategic plan. Despite some questionable editorial choices here and there, I particularly appreciated a couple of their Core Beliefs, such as treating each student as “uniquely capable” and that they intend to “promote and support a culture of continuous improvement, risk-taking, and innovation.” That’s what Quality Education was about when it was first published, much less now.

Then I came to the “Goals” section. There’s only one goal: “By 2020, WCPSS will annually graduate at least 95% of its students ready for productive citizenship as well as higher education or a career.”

As Queen sang in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “No, no, no, no, no, no, no!”

Strategic Plan Template

(Image: “Strategic Plan Template,” by Scrum Alliance, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


Ignore for the moment the unclear verbiage (is it that 95% of the students graduate, or that 95% of the students will be ready?). The web page for the strategic plan clears that up when it says,

We’ve had many conversations about our goal to improve graduation rates to 95 percent. It is clearly ambitious. It is also a goal we must aspire to if we are going to provide students with the best possible future.

No, Wake County, it’s a goal you must aspire to if you are going to set yourselves and everyone in your school system up for failure.

Let’s ignore also that WCPSS asked people who want to serve on the school board to suggest strategies to advance the strategic plan — that sounds a bit redundant, but that’s what they asked for. Any such strategies should have been part of the plan when it was conceived and published. It seems a bit late to ask newcomers to the board to suggest them.

Instead, let’s concentrate on the goal itself. The strategic plan website offers no background into how this goal was developed, and frankly I’m not of a mind to dig through the minutes to find out what kind of discussion went into it. I feel comfortable in saying that it appears to be both historically ignorant and inherently flawed. It certainly fits the pattern of goals in industry, as noted in a recently-published book on improving education:

Production goals, cost goals, and even safety goals are usually set arbitrarily, with no knowledge of the system’s capabilities to reach the goals. Often the goals are simply numbers that are stated without any workable plan or program to meet them. As [W. Edwards] Deming has pointed out, this raises the following question: if you can meet this goal now, without a plan, why did you not meet the goal before now?

When I say the WCPSS goal is historically ignorant, I mean that it appears that the district either was unaware of the failed “National Educational Goals” from 1990, or chose to believe that they were an aberration and that Wake County will somehow succeed where previous efforts have failed.

My original edition of Quality Education predicted that those 1990 goals, which were targeted at the year 2000, would fail. I explained why, and was not surprised when my predictions proved accurate.

My new edition devotes an entire chapter to their failure. In this case, the relevant example is the second of the “Goals 2000” goals: “by the year 2000, the high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.”

Where did this arbitrary figure come from? Why not 99, or 99.99 percent? This is a classic example of an arbitrary numerical goal set by management without any idea of what the system was capable of. How would those 90 percent be kept in classes they hate, with teachers they despise and grading practices they fear? Education today, as it was at that time, is working to capacity in this regard; the system itself has to be changed before any significant improvements can be measured.

For this goal, we have actual statistical evidence of its not being met. On 15 December 2015, the U.S. Department of Education reported a “record” graduation rate for the nation, achieved in 2013–14. What was that record rate? Eighty-two percent.

The Wake County school board, then, has followed in the footsteps of the failed national goals by selecting both an arbitrary figure (95%) and an arbitrary date (2020). In addition, they did not take into account the system’s capabilities (87% graduation rate, as reported in 2016) or lay out a plan by which to implement improvements. As with the predictions I made a quarter century ago, I feel confident predicting that the WCPSS 95% goal will fail.

Again, from Quality Education:

… goals, in and of themselves, are not bad—every person and every organization needs goals to work toward, aims to achieve. The problem is that the goals are often set without reference to a plan of action to achieve the goals, then are used to measure performance. Goals that are rationally and responsibly set, and are used to provide focus rather than to measure incremental performance, are positive and necessary. All too often, however, the goals are poorly determined.

Choosing numerical goals arbitrarily without knowing what the system is capable of doing—in the sense of being able to make a confident prediction of the system’s capabilities—sets those in charge of managing the system up to fail. When the goals are not met, explanations are demanded and careers threatened. Even if the goals are met, no one will know why or how or whether the figures have been creatively manipulated to protect those responsible.

Back in 1992, when I was a panelist at a workshop at the University of Rhode Island, I rather audaciously claimed that I could increase the graduation rate to 100% today if pressed to do so. The audience was dubious, as you might expect.

But I pointed out that the graduation rate is a measure of efficiency, not a measure of effectiveness, and that maximizing it is absurdly simple: hand every student a diploma and send them out the door. Teach them? How quaint. Educate them? How noble. Graduate them, that’s what’s important. (Or, in this case, graduate 95% of them.)

My absurd example was meant to emphasize that what we need are schools that are effective, much more than schools that are merely efficient. And what we need are goals and plans that set students and teachers up for success, not ones doomed to failure. For that, we need leaders who can look beyond numbers on spreadsheets to the inner workings of schools in which real people teach and learn.

I hope Wake County can find such leaders among the candidates who did apply for the board.

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A Tale of Two Covers

Check out the stark difference between the covers of the old and new editions of Quality Education:

Left: The cover of the ASQC-Quality Press edition. Right: The cover of the new, self-published edition, designed by Christopher Rinehart. (Click to enlarge.)


I don’t think the original cover was all that bad, but the motif is a little dark.

The new edition, however, by virtue of its being completely overhauled — even though most of the content is the same, the new structure makes it feel to me like a completely different book — needed an updated, more interesting cover. I think the new cover works very well, and graphically represents that a lot of different elements go into making a sound educational cornerstone for society.

What do you think?


P.S. Obligatory shameless plug: If you or someone you know is a parent, teacher, or just an interested observer of the goings-on in our educational system, the new edition of Quality Education is available now on Amazon in both electronic (Kindle) and trade paperback formats. Earlier this week the Kindle version reached as high as 13th place on Amazon’s list of “Education Policy and Reform” bestsellers.

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