New Harmony, IN is an oasis of calm in a frenzied world. Descending over the bridge from Illinoi sthe brilliant white contemporary visitor center designed by architect Richard Meier is an immediate cue that this is no ordinary town. Harmony, IN was founded by Rappists in the early nineteenth century as part of George Rapp’s apocalyptic vision that his followers would create three model towns at ten year intervals in preparation for the Biblical Rapture. His followers had already built and left Harmony, PA, devoted ten years to creating Harmony, IN as a model of industry and piety and then sold the entire town to utopian Robert Owen and naturalist William MacClure before returning to Pennsylvania to found their final community, Economy. Despite completing the requirements of George Rapp’s prophesy, the Rapture failed to occur, the Rappists died out, and we are all still here today.
Meanwhile, Owen and MacClure renamed their town New Harmony, and imported a boatload (literally) of intellectuals to realize their more cerebral and secular vision of Utopia. New Harmony floundered as a social dream; there were too many lofty thinkers and not enough basic farmers. Owen left after two years, but the town persevered and in time made traction as a center of scientific study, particularly in the natural sciences. If New Harmony was never the most prosperous farming community inIndiana, it was certainly the most intellectual.
Today 800 people live in this pristine town, amidst many of the original Rappist buildings, a granary that housed natural science labs through most of the nineteenth century and the oldest library in the State of Indiana. Capitalizing on its history as a place where intellectual and spiritual forces come together, New Harmony has added a number of contemporary elements that complement its heritage, including a conference center, landscaped meditation gardens, an open air chapel designed by architect Philip Johnson, and Meier’s Athenaeum. As an architect, I came to see the renowned buildings in New Harmony, but what captured my attention beyond the bricks and mortar and gleaming white metal was the intellectual curiosity that underpins the entire place.
The uncivil debates raging in Washington over our national debt seemed entirely removed from New Harmony’s thoughtful gentility. Walking amidst the well-proportioned Rappist dwellings and manicured gardens on a succulent August day, observing the townspeople puttering about their errands on golf carts, the persistent question pulsing beneath the sublime calm and generosity is, why can’t everywhere be like this? The answer lies in the roots of the place. It was conceived with a different set of values from the world around it; a small group of like-minded people with a zealous work ethic yet scant interest in personal gain. The Rappists succeeded in creating true harmony while they were here, a harmony so resilient that even as Owen’s Utopia failed and two centuries intervened, the initial intentions of the place endure.
New Harmony is so unique that it would be, well, utopian, to think that its essence could spread out over the entire country. It was not a democracy. George Rapp ruled, and even if the result was benevolent, it was still dictatorial. However, it is useful to understand the salient traits that converged to create such harmony – industry, faith, thrift, celibacy, and education. I’ve already discussed industry as a defining American characteristic and faith as I encountered it inMissouri. I will focus on thrift later, and will abstain from giving any credence to celibacy, that peculiar trait of Roman Catholic priests and select nineteenth century American religions. As I pedaled east out of the bucolic town, into equally inspirational farmland, I understood that the critical differentiator betweenNew Harmony and its surroundings was education. Not just that people inNew Harmony had more educational opportunities than their neighbors, but how highly they valued education’s worth.
The new school year surrounded me wherever I went in Indiana. I saw my first yellow buses carting rural children to class; the Evansville paper had a cover story about a snazzy new middle school, and Indiana University bumper stickers were ubiquitous. The school year buzz was heightened by the package of educational reforms that Governor Mitch Daniels recently won – restrictions on collective bargaining, merit-based pay raises for teachers, expanding charter schools, and the most generous tuition voucher program in the nation. The cumulative effect of these changes puts Indiana in the vanguard of making public schools competitive. Proponents argue that competition will make public schools better; detractors counter that the changes will relegate public education to a bottom-tier dustbin, the last resort for students who cannot go elsewhere. In late August of 2011 no one knew which side would prove correct; only time will tell the effects on the students of Indiana.
Primary and secondary education in Indiana is a big business. There are 1.12 million children in school; just over one million are in the public system, spread among 354 districts; and 115,000 children attend 742 private schools. The public schools have more than 130,000 staff of which almost 60,000 are classroom teachers, which means that more than half the employees are not in the classroom. (The source of this information, educationbug.org, does not provide staffing information on private schools.) Since ten percent of Indiana children already go to private school, tuition vouchers for private school education will siphon some resources from the public system for students eligible for credits off the top. But tuition vouchers also increase the likelihood that private school enrollment will grow, thus shifting more money away from the public system. Expanded charter schools will increase the total number of schools at the public trough, which will divide up the education pie into more chunks. Restrictions on collective bargaining will give public school teacher unions less clout, and merit-based pay raises will link teachers’ pay directly to their students’ performance.
What is prompting all this tinkering with our education system? The answer is simple. The system is failing.
For the past century the American public education system set the standard for the world. As recently as 1900 only about 5% of Americans went to high school, but through the first half of the twentieth century a collaboration of events – our increasing affluence that allowed children to defer entering the workforce, the need for a better educated populace, the correlation between education and higher earnings, and the concept of ‘teenage’ as a specific phase of life, conspired to make high school the norm rather than the exception. By 1950 80% of Americans graduated high school, and the term ‘drop-out’ became a derogatory for anyone who did not earn a high school diploma, even if she attended to her state’s minimum required age. At the same time, thanks mainly to the G.I. Bill for World War II veterans, college became attainable to many. By 1980 40% of American adults had two or four year college degrees. We led the world in the number of college graduates; we were the best educated nation on the planet.
Unfortunately, we have not significantly budged that percentage of college graduates in thirty years, while other countries have forged ahead. We are now ranked 12th in percent of population with college degrees among industrialized nations (Canada ranks first with 56%), while our high school graduation rate by 2010 had actually slipped to 75%, depressed in large part by graduation rates less than 65% for Black and Hispanic students. At a time when brainpower is the dominant muscle in determining a country’s well-being, we have proportionately less brainpower than we did thirty years ago while the rest of the world is generating more and more.
Our response to this, as evidenced by the recent laws in Indiana, has been to blame the system without necessarily looking at root causes. When we apply a guiding principles approach to designing a hospital with our clients, we often use Lean process improvement strategies to clarify our principles, establish parameters, and formulate success targets. One key Lean technique is a root cause analysis known as the Five Why’s. We describe a problem and ask why it occurs. The answer unveils a second why, and a third, and so on. Usually, within five whys we arrive at a root cause.
Why is our educational system failing? Our students are not acquiring the skills they need to succeed in the global marketplace. Why? Perhaps our standards are too lax, or our teaching methods are inappropriate, or our habit of passing students along creates lost learners. Why? Perhaps we are conflicted between the need for basic, testable skills and offering students’ variety and choice. Perhaps it is because our educational system is so decentralized students across the US get very different opportunities. Perhaps it is because students do not come to school prepared to learn. Why? Perhaps it is because our diversity obsessed culture cannot agree on a rudimentary knowledge base that all Americans should possess. Perhaps it is because students arrive at school without a proper night’s sleep, good nourishment, and parental guidance for their school efforts. Why? Because, at the most fundamental level, too many citizens do not value education, for themselves or their children; we do not embrace it as the primary building block of a competitive and vibrant society.
Almost any education system can achieve good results teaching well nourished, well behaved, prepared and inquisitive students; vouchers and merit raises and charter schools are irrelevant if motivated, capable students line up at the door. Similarly, a system that houses ill prepared and indifferent children from homes that do not instill a value of education will have poor outcomes. As most of us know from the working world, a good attitude more than compensates for a limited skill set. In the school setting where children are just developing their skills, a poor attitude is a non-starter. So the most fundamental issue is, how do we create an environment where learning is valued by all? In an ideal world, say, New Harmony Indiana in the 1840’s, human curiosity alone carried the day to encourage education. The town was filled with people for whom learning in and of itself was one of life’s great satisfactions. Unfortunately, we cannot depend on all people being so motivated, so we have to find ways to make education accessible and meaningful.
This begins with parents. It seems absurd to suggest we need to train mothers and fathers basic parental responsibilities, but we must acknowledge that twenty-first century America has a sizable portion of citizens who have grown up without witnessing any value to obtaining education, developing discipline, or establishing a work ethic. How can we fault young adults for not transmitting these essential values to their own children when they are foreign values to themselves? We have a collective responsibility to help our youth become the best possible members of society they can. Unfortunately, introducing a five year old from a household that does not foster learning into a classroom for six hours a day, five days a week is simply not enough time to provide the educational stimulus required to overcome his domestic disadvantages.
One encouraging possibility are the results of the KIPP-styled intensive education programs, where children spend ten to twelve hours a day at school, sometimes overnights, and Saturday sessions as well. It is a total immersion into a world of learning, with the carrot that all students who graduate will get admitted to college with scholarship. The MATCH Charter Public High School in Bostonhas been in operation since 2000, the student population is selected in a lottery from applications within the Boston Public Schools. More than ninety percent of the students are minorities, more than three quarters live below the poverty line, yet they have 100% pass rate on the state exam to graduate high school and 99% of their students go to four year colleges, the vast majority of them on full scholarship. I have great respect for the parents who release their children to these programs, because they tacitly admit, ‘I understand that education is important for my child, and I don’t know how to give it to her, so I am going to send her to this special place.’
Another program that is showing positive results with less intervention is the Kalamazoo Promise, in which a consortium of anonymous donors from Kalamazoo, MI pays four years of full time college tuition and fees to any Michigan state college or university to any student who graduates from the Kalamazoo Public Schools. Since the program began in 2006, college attendance has risen, last year 95% of eligible graduates entered college. Since students have up to ten years to use this benefit, the long term effects are not known, but they are trending positive.
These are only two examples of the myriad ways we could help instill higher value in education among all of our citizens. To any who say that such programs are too expensive to apply across the board, the ancient adage of an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure is apt. We spend between $25,000 and $50,000 per year to house a person in prison in this country. Costs vary by state and type of prison, but even the low end is much more than the cost to educate him at the MATCH Charter School. The cost argument is a non-starter; study after study shows that education pays untold dividends in a person’s life while enhancing her ability to contribute to society. The real issue is one of focus. MATCH receives support from numerous corporations, uses a corps of recent college graduates as energetic teachers and has individual tutoring affiliations with Boston’s top universities. Accessing those resources for every Boston Public School child, and not just the ones who win the lottery, would be a tall order.
But what could be applied in a wider context is the MATCH school’s guiding principle statement, “A culture of discipline and learning with rigorous academics,” and the demanding success targets that MATCH derives from these aspirations. Students from MATCH do not all graduate and attend college simply because they put in six years at MATCH. They graduate and attend college because MATCH has created an environment where learning is valued and enables each student the opportunity to develop the academic skills required to reach her highest potential.
While we need to raise everyone’s appreciation of education and support home environments that encourage success in school, we must also address the shortcomings of our system as it exists today. Two camps have developed around issues of education. I call one the big labor/big industry model. It promotes the use of public money only for public schools, strong teacher unions, and limited parental choice. The other is the free market model with a mix of public schools, charter schools, tuition vouchers, weak unions (if unions at all) and maximum parental choice. Stated this way most Americans would lean towards the free market model as the preferred option, it resonates with our guiding principle of ‘Life,Libertyand the Pursuit of Happiness.’ But when we try to maximize the benefit for the majority without causing undue harm to any individual, there is an inherent conflict between the two approaches.
In the ideal world, all students would go to public school, the public schools would engage and challenge children of all abilities and everyone would benefit from the inherent diversity. Strong public schools are the best way to achieve the societal goal of quality education for all. But that ideal world is not the current state at most public schools, where high achieving students are not fully stimulated, low achieving students flounder and the median results continue to decline. Given this reality the best educational choice for many individuals is to opt for charter, private, or even home schooling. As more students leave the public system, and in states like Indiana, take their public dollars with them, the public schools further deteriorate, exacerbating the downward spiral. The current situation creates a disturbing polarity between the societal goal of quality education for all versus the individual objective of each family wanting the best possible education for their own child. This conflict is not going to resolve any time soon, with the pendulum currently in full swing towards more individual choice. The days when ninety percent of American school children attend the public school in their neighborhood are gone, probably for good. Personal choice will continue to grow, in the public sphere through magnet programs, in the quasi-public world of charter schools, in private schools, and in increasing home schooling. This is consistent with the individualism branded to our national character, yet it obstructs the broader goal of equal educational opportunity for all.
How can we work towards an education system that provides opportunity for the full range of student’s needs yet achieves the broad desire to educate everyone?
First, the teachers and their unions need to acknowledge the failures of the public system, the reality of increased choice, and work positively to make the transition. An unappealing conflict within the teacher’s union (which is also found in nursing unions and other so-called professional unions) is that the definition of a professional is someone who acts on behalf of another, usually due to specialized expertise beyond the general population, while unions exist to improve the conditions of the worker. Legally, professionals are treated differently from tradesmen or manufacturers due to the judgment required in the more complex fields in which they operate. This conflict makes the term ‘professional union’ an oxymoron; one cannot simultaneously act to improve one’s own condition and act on behalf of another. In the case of teacher unions, when they promote the needs of teachers by establishing maximum classroom hours, restrictions on after school work, or increased benefits; the rest of us view these parameters as gains accrued to the teachers at the expense of the children. Teachers need to take a less union-focused and more professional view of their world to see how they can best support the children they are supposed to teach. With regards to merit-based pay, there is not a doctor, attorney, architect, engineer, or accountant in this country who is compensated solely by their tenure on the job. Their maturity is valued, but their individual contributions also factor into their compensation. Teachers argue they cannot be responsible for the progress of children who get assigned to them at random and who they teach in the classroom for only one year. The logical response to this is, ‘why not?’ The world is complex and every measure of merit has contributing factors, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot find ways to reward teachers on their success. Other professions do it. It is appropriate to introduce a level of competition among teaching, just as it is in any other work environment. The teacher unions would be better served developing fair measures of merit rather than trying to block the issue.
Second, we need to accept competition as the byproduct of individual choice offered by charter schools and private schools with tuition vouchers. Although our initial response to competition is always good, we must make sure that it occurs on a level playing field; charter and private schools must suffer the same rules as the public schools. If schools can be selective as to which students they accept, based on academic ability, special needs, race or creed, then they are not a true equivalent to a public school. It is not fair to allow high achieving students to transfer out of public schools, and take their monetary allocation with them, if the public schools are the only recourse for children with special needs or behavioral issues. Students who present a larger drain on the total educational system must have the same access to charter and private schools as the students any school would love to cherry pick. Schools that receive any public support, either directly or through vouchers, must be subject to whatever standards or tests a state requires. If schools want the public money, they need to meet public standards.
Which brings up all the wasted discussion about standards and tests. We need to have standards and we need to have tests. Students who graduate from our system, whether public, charter or private, need to be able to speak and write coherent English, perform basic math, have a background in history and civics, been exposed to at least some literature, music and art, and have a basic understanding of health and wellness. Call them standards if you like but if we graduate students who cannot function in our society, we have failed them. As to tests, they are part of life and students need to learn how to take them and perform well on them. I have a niece who applied for a summer job at a Chili’s restaurant. She had to take a multiple page test as part of the application process. She passed. If we graduate students who cannot pass the application test at Chili’s, what kind of future are we offering them? I hear the arguments that teachers are being thwarted in their creativity by being relegated to teach to the test, and I find the arguments insufferable. As an architect I must comply with certain standards and codes to design a building so it is fit for its intended use, structurally sound, and safe for its occupants in the event of emergency. We meet all these requirements for every building, yet we never design two buildings exactly alike, as the dictates of the site, the budget, and the client’s desires demand unique solutions. The standards we have to meet do not deny our creativity. They challenge it. In the same manner, educational standards establish the minimum of what a teacher has to teach, but the genius of great teachers is not in what they teach, but how they plant that material in young and malleable minds.
One afternoon I discovered a sweet little motel in Salem, IN so I stopped early. Many of the vintage motels do not have Wi-Fi access, but most McDonald’s have free Wi-Fi, so for the cost of a soft drink or an ice cream cone, I can spend an hour or two on the Internet. As I was checking email a small family sat down next to me; a stout grandmother with only eye teeth, her thin, frail husband and a skinny, bouncy little girl. Once they unwrapped their food and counted out their change to determine if they could afford another portion of fries, the grandmother began quizzing the child on basic multiplication tables. At some point, about 8 times 2, our eyes met, so I smiled and commented how nice it was to hear a family practicing math together.
Having created an opening, the grandmother and the girl were quick to jump into conversation with me. Where was I from? Where was my car? Why was I in Salem? My situation perplexed the young girl. How do you get money? Where do you stay? You stay in a motel EVERY night? My itinerant life looked glamorous in her eyes. I told the girl I had saved my money so I could take a vacation, which prompted a blank stare. “Please excuse the child,” the grandmother explained, “she don’t understand things like vacation and motels. She doesn’t know words like ‘savings’. She only understands that we don’t have any money. We’re poor.”
The grandmother described the facts of their life without a whiff of judgment. The girl leaned up against me and fingered my netbook. She lacked impulse control or a sense of personal space. We tested how far she could hold the wireless mouse away from my monitor and still move the cursor. She was too precocious. “Where are your children? Who is taking care of them?” Her grandmother shooed the girl off to refill her soda. “I appreciate you being patient with her. Most people aren’t. She’s eleven, you know (she looked no more than seven); the schools put her in Special Ed all this time. She’s not slow; she just didn’t talk until she was nine. Now I drill her all I can to get her into a regular classroom.”
The girl returned with a fresh soda and soon after the family left. The grandfather said not a word the entire time. I wondered about this girl who did not talk until age nine, about her lack of mother, about her luck in having a caring grandmother, about the depth of poverty it takes to not even know what the word ‘vacation’ means. The girl is going to need more than her grandmother will be able to give before she can ever find her full potential in life.
I only hope that as Indiana sorts out its options for charter schools and merit raises and tuition vouchers, this is the girl the policy makers keep in mind, making sure she does not get lost in the battles between the big labor / big industry education camp and the free market camp. No school that is dependent on simplistic measures of success or cost conscious results is going to welcome such a challenging case. Yet, giving this underprivileged child every opportunity to succeed in life is exactly the point of the discussion.