Systems Thinking

Confronting The Redesign of the Enterprise

by Joseph Cirasuolo

Michael Jordan is arguably the best basketball player who ever lived. He did things on a basketball court that were amazing. The athletic talent he displayed and his ability to take over a game on offense and defense are legendary.

When Jordan decided to try professional baseball, however, he met with failure. He brought to that endeavor all of the talent and all of the work ethic he had displayed in basketball. Despite this, he did not succeed as a baseball player.

Jordan did get some hits and make some defensive plays, but he was unable to play at a consistently high enough level to be a contributing member of a Major League Baseball team. After giving the sport all he could, Jordan returned to basketball, where he once again found a modicum of success.

Organizational Redesign
In a sense, what happened to Michael Jordan is what happens when you take any person who has been trained to achieve one result and try to have that person achieve a different result without retraining the person. Similar things happen when you take any organization that’s designed to achieve one result and try to get that organization to achieve a different result without redesigning the organization. There is a lesson in this for public education.

At present public education is designed to give every student the opportunity to learn. Public education is meeting this goal better than it has ever met it before. With few exceptions, every child in this country has access to educational opportunity. While no exceptions should be tolerated, especially if they relate to the income status of a child’s parents, the leaders of public education can derive satisfaction from what they have done to date. Even Jordan missed a free throw every now and then.

As we all know, however, we can no longer be satisfied with what we have done to date. It isn’t good enough to just give every child an opportunity to learn. We now have to make sure every child takes sufficient advantage of that opportunity to become proficient at a noticeably high standard of achievement.

Over the past few years, we have tried many ways to meet this new expectation. New programs that promise dramatically improved results have been implemented every year. Accountability and assessment have grown exponentially in scope and expense. The federal government has intruded into public education more so than ever.

Some of these attempts have sacrificed valid educational practice on the altar of higher test scores. Noticeably narrow curricula and test-oriented instructional practices in some schools have resulted in a lock-step approach that is inconsistent with established facts regarding the human learning process. Because these attempts seem to be prevalent more in school districts that serve predominantly poor children than in districts that serve predominantly middle- and upper-class students, some observers have concluded we are moving to a system of educational apartheid.

A New Enterprise
Despite all of these efforts, we have not made anywhere near enough progress toward the goal of having every child reach a high standard of proficiency. While it is true you can document a little progress on several measures of achievement, there are still far too many children who are not meeting the proficiency standard that must be met for them to be successful.

The reason for this is that with few exceptions, we have not seriously confronted the brutal fact that we are not designed to produce this result. Consequently, we have not seriously addressed what we have to do to redesign the enterprise.

Confronting the redesign means we have to address at least the following issues:

  • Time is now a constant and achievement is a variable. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
  • Education is still exclusively the job of the education system itself. Shouldn’t education be linked integrally with other social systems so the needs of the whole child can be met?
  • Most instruction is organized on an age-grade system. Shouldn’t it be organized on a multiage continuum through which children can move at the pace that’s appropriate for them?
  • Almost all instruction takes place in school buildings. Can’t technology allow us to connect students on a regular basis with instructional sources outside of school buildings?
  • Almost all school calendars are still based on an agrarian model. How many children still work on farms in the summer time?
  • Schools and school systems are still organized as bureaucracies. That’s fine for providing universal access. Is it fine for producing universal success?

Gradual Realization
Confronting these and similar design issues is tough. It requires courage, skill, patience and the willingness to learn new things. We have, however, no alternative. We have to do this difficult work.

Doing it, however, is not without its rewards. Chief among them is the gradual realization that we are making real progress toward the goal of universal success.

This is not a goal that has merit only in and of itself. When we help every child succeed, we extend to the next generations of American children the promise that America made to the rest of the world more than 200 years ago. This is not only the land of opportunity. It is the place where we help each other use this opportunity to achieve success.

Joe Cirasuolo, a past president of AASA, serves as a consultant to the AASA Center for System Leadership. E-mail: jcirasuolo@aasa.org