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The Bottom Five Percent

The Bottom Five Percent
Avoiding the downward spiral of systematic failure and poverty requires an entrepreneurial spirit from higher education’s decision markers. Photo by James Byrum.

Improving the bottom five percent of K-12 schools is one of the most vexing problems in America.  We all agree that the cost of the institutionalized poverty from failure is unacceptable, and the lost human contribution to the community and economy is significant, but few agree on solutions.

In my higher education role as an associate provost at Colorado State University, I work hard to create access to CSU, but see fewer and fewer candidates ready to embrace America’s future role in the global economy.  I greatly appreciate Clayton Christenson’s application of Disruption Theory to K-12 education in Disrupting Class, and especially his conclusion that it is not any one thing; it is a system of slightly bad elements that perpetuates poor performance.  This aligns well with Jim Collin’s Good to Great conclusion that good is the enemy of great.  One of our huge problems in America today is that so many things are good and there is little incentive to be great.

I won’t belabor the arguments about who is failing because this is not a “who” problem, nor can “who” provide the solution.  This is a complex systems problem, and only a system dynamic solution can work.  To crack the code, a few policy changes or exceptions are needed.

First is to understand most problems manifest differently in each location, meaning the solution needs to be local. To accomplish this, the federal government needs to get out of the way and the state government needs to join them on the sidelines. They can provide money, but they can’t find or provide the solution.

Next, the teachers unions need to accommodate more flexibility.  If teachers just stopped having to file federal and state forms, enough time might be opened up that no changes are needed from the unions.

Third, everyone in the system needs to study, understand, and decide how to apply the Khan Academy approach.  Khan is an implementation of the Clayton Christenson solution focusing on delivering education to the learning style of each student in each discipline. Technology allows us to do that today, but no one has time to actually do it.

Finally, and most vexing of all, we need a way to create a constructive community for kids with no or only one parent.  In many inner city schools, the school only sees a student for 30-90 days a year.  You can’t educate a student when they come and go that much.  With no parenting, constant moving between relatives, jail, probation, house, appliance box, and alley as home, how can anyone learn? This means school needs to be the anchor, teachers the mentors, and classmates the community. This is a mandate never anticipated in K-12 education, which is why students turn to gangs as their surrogate family.  Gangs deliver on a promise of belonging that schools were never asked to deliver.  Schools need to win and become the community anchor for these kids.

So, a solution?  We need to think entrepreneurially. Great entrepreneurs do not take many risks; they are masters at avoiding risk. We need them running these schools and to be given enough freedom to fail.  Enough local entrepreneurs focused on the problem will illuminate a few great solutions that can be studied and applied locally by others. The government should fund these experiments along with groups like the Gates foundation (who is funding a Khan Academy test in Los Angeles). All should be shared with high transparency and documentation. Then let the government keep watching and funding while the best solutions get replicated and the worst get stopped. This will take 10-15 years, meaning a lot of kids will get left behind. However, it’s still better than leaving them all behind for several generations, which is the path we have been on for at least 10 years.