One of my friends loves the term “pushing rope” and uses it as often as he can, whether or not it’s relevant to the conversation. For those unaccustomed or without working knowledge of inappropriate post-teenage slang, the term “pushing rope” connotes a situation when a male is unable to consumate an intimate situation not for lack of effort, but because…umm…well…ok, this about the time when you should exercise your imagination or become familiar with Urban Dictionary. But the point is, that regardless of spirited and genuine efforts to salvage the situation, the underlying causes (typically too much alcohol) are not addressed and the problem remains unsolved.
In the federal government, political spending is very much an exercise in pushing rope. Many a TV personality (both Democrat and Republican), political opponents (who ironically seem to forget about their points of dissent when it’s their bill being discussed), and average Joes have lamented wasteful spending in Washington. Yet often the problem with overspending can’t just be attributed to waste (although that’s obviously an issue), it’s that there is no understanding of the underlying problems in the first place. While this is a problem everywhere in every vertical, I’m going to focus on education because this an issue that the government should understand in detail (given that, you know, there’s an entire department devoted to it).
The federal government budgeted over $940B in education spending for 2012. Per student, the US spends over $10,000 annually. Finland, a country known for its educational prowess, spends a lower percentage of its GDP and roughly 20-35% less per student. Yet when you compare international rankings of elementary and secondary education, the US typically ranks in the lower-middle half of developed countries, whereas FInland ranks at or near the top. Granted, there are many differences between our two countries that make education more challenging in the US, but consider this: since the 1960’s, the US education spend per student has increased 400% (in inflation-adjusted dollars) yet our international rankings among developed countries are lower than ever. Given those statistics, it’s pretty clear that we’re throwing more and more money at a problem yet continuing to push rope. I believe that this is because those in charge of our spending either don’t understand the fundamental issues or are unwilling to make the sacrifices needed to affect meaningful change (or both).
It’s been roughly 6 months since I’ve entered the education vertical and I’ve spoken with hundreds of education personnel: teachers, principals, superintendents, state personnel, CEO’s, professors, researchers, and politicians. When I’ve asked people in each profession what they believe are the major problems in education, I’ve been amazed at the uniformity of responses: lack of accountability (of both teachers and admins), too much focus on tests/memorization (instead of critical thinking), lack of mutual professional respect (both within and outside education), and lack of modernization of schools (to parallel cultural changes and new research on teaching/learning). So on one hand we have people from all over the educational spectrum with essentially the same take on the problems in education, and on the other hand we have policies like No Child Left Behind that essentially address none of these issues with any depth and create unrealistic expectations (honestly, how can someone create legislation to assert a required 100% proficiency in anything and believe that it’s achievable).
To determine what changes are meaningful, policy-makers need to speak with people from every conceivable location in the education space. They need to understand the shortcomings of our current model both academically and practically, and create different approaches to address those problems and accountability measure to test those methods. There needs to be follow-ups to check progress and pivot plans to address failures and support programs to encourage successes. What isn’t needed is to simply throw billions at “solutions” that, out of the gate, receive widespread opposition from those with vastly more expertise in the space. That’s just pushing rope.