Industryweek 14062 Education1

Why Education Reforms Have Failed -- and How to Make Them Work

March 17, 2016
Let's stop the "prescription before diagnosis" approach to education reform. Here's how.

In 1995, in my state of Oregon, the legislature came up with a new educational reform that promised to improve test scores, the graduation rate, and prepare more kids for college. Called the Education Act for the 21st Century, it was widely applauded by the federal, state, and local governments as the answer to poorly performing schools.

Under this educational reform, schools would issue Certificates of Initial mastery (CIM) and certificates for advance mastery (CAM) to students who attained the new standards.

Four years later, Oregon test scores showed no improvement. Seventeen years later, The Oregonian reported that “Oregon high schools have made zero progress in getting more students to graduate with the skills they need to pass college classes."

At about the same time as the Oregon reform, the federal government came up with “No Child Left Behind," which also did not meet its goals, particularly for high school dropouts.

Now the most recent educational reform known is known by the acronym STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Manufacturing and other high-technology industries desperately need students who have had a STEM-focused education.

The Manufacturing Institute reports that “67% of respondents to their survey reported a moderate to severe shortage of qualified workers.” They add that this lack of qualified candidates results in approximately 600,000 jobs not being filled today.

Meanwhile, the article "STEM Education, Meet the New Manufacturing," makes a case that “over the next decade, nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled, but the skills gap is expected to result in 2 million of those job going unfilled.”

According to a study done by Georgetown University, “America isn’t producing enough students trained in STEM fields to fill the jobs of the future.” And an article in IndustryWeek reports that “high school grads with STEM backgrounds are now in higher demand in the job market than college graduates who don’t have STEM skills." seems like every time we need a revolution in education, the leaders in Industry, Government and Education decide what the solution must be without a careful examination of the very people who must be trained—the students."

The solution to this dilemma—and many others—according to many pundits, is to increase STEM learning in our education system.

I could go on with examples, but I think you get the message. This new STEM educational reform is not only expected to make all students better at math and science; it is expected to save American Manufacturing, improve innovation, solve literacy problems, lift students out of poverty, and help immigrants stay in the country.

This is mission creep based on wishful thinking, where the new initiative has taken on a life of its own.

An Education Prescription Before Diagnosis

It is true that manufacturing needs new employees who are technically well trained and students who know more about science and math. However, it seems like every time we have a national emergency and need a revolution in education, the leaders in Industry, Government and Education decide what the solution must be without a careful examination of the very people who must be trained—the students.

I call this prescription before diagnosis.

I think the idea of getting kids more proficient in science, technology and math is a splendid idea. Having spent 35 years in manufacturing, I know first-hand why future manufacturing workers need to have a better education with more science and math classes to compete in the 21st Century. But I am also a realist, and I wonder what the people who created the Oregon Educational Act and No Child Left Behind missed in their research that led to the failure of their programs.

From just working with my kids and grandkids, I know that there are many problems that are not being addressed by the people who want everybody to be STEM graduates."

There are 18,435 high schools in the U.S. with approximately 16.3 million students. From just working with my kids and grandkids, I know that there are many problems that are not being addressed by the people who want everybody to be STEM graduates.

The best survey that I have found that provided insight to high school students is the California STAR Standardization Test, which categorizes students into three groups based on historical outcomes of high school students. These categories are useful in trying to make some sense of all 16.3 million high school students in the U.S. and the problems they have in high school:

  1. Below basic or dropouts. These are students who drop out of school, did not get enough credits or pass enough tests to graduate.
  2. Basic or general track. These are students who graduate from high school, but are disengaged, and do not qualify to go to a public university.
  3. Above basic or university track. These are the students who graduate and have the credits, grades and test scores to qualify for a four-year university.

The students in our high schools are not a homogeneous group. Each high school has its share of each group. I use these general groups to make the point that each school is composed of different students with very different needs and problems.

I think before making a decision on new standards for all students, it is worth taking a hard look at each of the three student groups in terms of what they are willing or capable of doing.

So far, all education reforms seem to be based on the assumption that schools should raise the standards bar, and then somehow push, pull, or drag the students up to the higher standard. All of the reforms seem to believe that this will be accomplished by making teachers more accountable and using performance tests to prove that there is improvement.

This article questions the “raising the bar” assumption and shows why it won’t work on many kids.

A Tale of Three Student Groups: 1. Below Basic or Dropouts (30% of students)

Let’s begin with the problems of the many public high schools in poverty zones where the drop-out rate is highest. These problems are most severe in the group labeled below basic or dropouts. This group of students is dominated by inner city schools and poverty-stricken regions.

A good example in my hometown of Portland, Ore., is Roosevelt High School, which has the highest dropout rate in the State, at 50%. At Roosevelt High School, almost 80% of the students qualify for the federal free and reduced meals program, and almost 25% meet the federal definitions of homelessness. A survey found that 34% of the students have a parent who is currently or was previously incarcerated, and 29% of the students say there isn’t enough food at home.

Nora Lehnhoff was the Social Services program manager for Roosevelt High School and right in the middle of all student problems. Her background is in social services, not education, and she has worked for community-based organizations (CBOs) in the Portland area for 30 years.

Before hiring Lehnhoff, the Portland Public School System had tried all kinds of reforms, such as training on educational equity, classroom management techniques, standards-based teaching and implementation of professional learning communities.

Enforcing a one-size-fits-all approach for all students and groups will probably not work for many students and schools..."

Lehnhoff convinced the school to take a different approach that addressed the socio-economic problems of the students, first, as a means to improve proficiency standards. She recruited outside partners to establish offices in the school to address drug and alcohol, mental health, daycare and other issues; and organize coordinators to help homeless students, or arrange liaisons to food banks, shelters and churches. She has also arranged for both food and clothing donations, so that disadvantaged kids can have enough to eat and clothes to wear—for free. The outside partners both fund their programs and offer their services at the high school—these services are not in the school budget.

Nora feels that every school that has these kinds of socio-economic problems should probably have a Social Services Director who can find the resources and partners to address these kinds of problems. Lehnhoff asks: Why is it that teachers inherited responsibilities of all these social problems, on top their teaching duties, and then are held accountable for improving education and test scores?

Nora convinced me that any student who comes to school hungry, abused, pregnant, homeless, or stoned is not going to have the mental horsepower or the interest to learn. They are focused on more pressing issues, they're trying to survive.

I wrote the original story about Nora and Roosevelt in 2012, but when I called her to get an update in January of 2016, I found the school had terminated her contract and her program. Instead of investing in Nora’s program, they had opted to hire a consultant for $15,000 per month whose objective was to find ways to cap the teacher’s cost of living allowance at 1%.

During one school year, Nora had intervened on behalf of 303 teenagers (41% of Roosevelt’s student body), providing mental health referrals, processing food stamp applications, finding jobs, and procuring food and clothing.

This isn't to suggest that many of disadvantaged students are incapable at learning STEM concepts. It's to make the point that introducing a new concept like STEM learning isn’t going to make a difference until something is done about socio-economic problems for students in schools like Roosevelt. I think this is probably true in all high schools that are in poverty areas, which includes about 30% of all high schools.

As well, before any high school decides to adopt STEM learning they should test the students to see if they have the aptitude. Making STEM a mandatory curriculum in a school like Roosevelt might have the opposite effect and increase dropouts and decrease graduation rates.

The problem is that we are forcing teachers to teach kids who suffer from families with single parents, mental illness, substance abuse, hunger, homelessness and parent neglect. We are making teachers responsible for societal and poverty problems, and all of the reforms. The raising of standards is not going to help unless the socio–economic problems are addressed first. Perhaps the goal should be to just improve high school graduation before introducing another reform like STEM.

In 1971, the research of a Yale psychologist, Seymour Sarason, argued that school reform efforts were bound to fail if they ignored cultural problems, and only focused on altering structure and curriculum. I think Sarason has been proven right on this assumption over and over again.

2. Basic and General Track Group (45% of students)

The second major group of students are the general track students who are doing just enough to get through high school and get a diploma. This group does not generally know during high school what they want to do after graduation, and most of them are disengaged, not interested, or are bored much of the time. They have trouble completing their work and do just enough to get by. They are more interested in doing enough to get the credits to graduate—not learning. I know this group pretty well because most of my friends in high school were General Track students.

They are the students who get their high school diploma, but generally do not meet state standards, and do not have the grades or classes to qualify for a four-year university. About 40% of the general track students will try the community college system, and the other 60% will go to work or maybe the military. Many of these students who try community colleges drop out in the first year, and most of the people who go to work end up in low-paying service jobs because they lack skills.

For this group, the problems of boredom, lack of interest and disengagement will still be a problem regardless of what STEM reformers do to implement their new curriculum. I think it is safe to say that raising the standard on this group is not going to work unless the reformers can find new ways to get these students engaged.

From my experience listening to parents and watching my grandkids, I have come to the conclusion that many General Track students do not learn by lecture type teaching. However, many do learn if they can visualize the problem or use their hands. Adrienne Selko of Industry Week wrote a very good article that shows how facilitating hands-on kinesthetic learning and the use of graphics, pictures, and story boards is a successful teaching technique.

For this group, substituting “hands-on” learning and vocational classes might work better than the usual college prep courses.

The All-Important Plan "B"

Another important thing to keep in mind when implementing new reform like STEM is to have a plan B. Manufacturers are very interested in students who are good at math, reading and science, but they are also interested in people who have specific skill sets such as computer-aided design (CAD) drawing, programming, machining, etc. Plan B for the General Track students might be to abandon the “everyone should go to college” philosophy and concentrate on giving them the skills to get a living wage job. It might be more practical to get these students to focus on a vocation and community college, along with the remedial classes that vocational skills require.

An important point for all of the supporters of STEM learning is that unless they can find a way to engage this group they are not going to force these students to learn difficult science and math courses regardless of teacher accountability, new standards, or performance tests. It is like trying to make a pig dance. The pig is not built to dance and forcing it to dance just makes it mad.

3. Above Basic and University Track

The last group is the university track students who do so well in their exams, grades and classes that they qualify for a four-year university. What can you say about these students? They are motivated, engaged, interested and seemingly able to master any material you throw at them. I think this group will easily adapt to any kind of new standards or curriculum changes introduced by the STEM enthusiasts. This group is already taking the hardest classes, and 809,000 of them are taking international baccalaureate (IB) college-level classes.

If educators want to replace IB classes with STEM curriculums, they will have to offer the same incentive, which is college credit. If they are not enrolled in IB classes, but have achieved all of the standards to be accepted into a four-year university, the solution seems obvious. In their case, you simply have to change the standards and curriculums required by the universities to include STEM learning concepts.

How To Fix Education

The premise of this article is that before demanding that all 16.3 million high schools students participate in STEM, it might be wise to do some quantitative research (diagnosis) that defines the problems and obstacles of various groups of students, and offer a plan B if STEM education is not a good option.

I must repeat, as a retired manufacturer, I love the idea of getting students to study more science, technology, math and engineering. The more the kids know about STEM subjects, the better chance that we can grow the U.S. manufacturing industries and be more competitive. But I have some serious doubts as well.

Instead of just imposing the STEM Curriculum on all students, it is more practical to test each student to see if they have the aptitude for STEM learning. This would force the school to address the remedial learning needs of some students, rather than just impose the reform. Enforcing a one-size-fits-all approach for all students and groups will probably not work for many students and schools, and regardless of what the STEM gurus’ think—they will not be able to make students take—or succeed in—STEM classes.

The history of implementing education reforms has been, at best, a mixed bag of success and failure. The reason is that education reformers decide that current education results are not acceptable, then they decide on a solution based on what they would like to see happen. They always seem to decide on their prescription before doing careful diagnosis of these three groups of kids.

What’s your take? Please feel free to leave a comment below!

Michael P. Collins is the author of a new book The Rise of Inequality and the Decline of The Middle Class. You can find more related articles on his website via

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