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Monday, October 17, 2011

Education's 3200 Error




Sickness is everywhere. In my house. In our schools.

Sitting here at 6:42 am in the morning, I am in my comfy chair for a brief moment at the start of my day about to head a school after another night with a sick child. The worst has past and she should sleep comfortably through the day with her bottle of Gatorade nearby. I know because she is the fourth of the five of us to have this same virus. (I'm the only one left standing but as the nurse, I have to admit I'm completely worn out.)

Last Wednesday afternoon my iphone got sick. It would not update to iOS5. I was getting Error 3200 (like many other hundreds of thousands of people, it seems.) I got on Twitter and eventually got onto some reputable blogs to determine that this error that no one had ever seen before was due to lack of capacity on Apple's servers.

Last Monday and Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of Blackberry Messenger (BBM) customers around the world, primarily non US, could not use their messenger service. This was due, we now know, to a major switch failure where the backup switch did not take over.

Measuring and Placing Blame for Failure
As I was facing my own 3200 error on Wednesday, it struck me that in the US, we have a whole different standard of measurement for businesses versus schools.

When we judged Apple for the 3200 error, everyone knew it was a systemic problem and that somewhere there was a technical reason for the error. We also knew that if Apple was an effective company that they would move heaven and earth to take steps quickly because their core mission was at stake. They would spend what they had to, do what they had to, because an inability to scale up in this way would harm their long term growth. They are positioning themselves for the next ten years, not the last.

When we judged BBM for their error, they took quite a bit longer to fix it, but we still knew there was a systemic error somewhere. Many do think that their inability to find the problem more quickly points at bigger problems within the company.

But in neither of these cases did you hear:
  • All of the engineers at Apple are sorry wastes of human flesh who are just drawing a paycheck.
  • BBM engineers should all be fired for this.
  • All technology companies have bad, sorry, engineers and programmers.
If someone said this, a whole industry would be up at arms. And yet, for example in Rhode Island last year, a school literally fired every teacher.

When business fails we blame the system. When education fails we blame the people.

The other struggle is that you can see an Apple or a BMM outage immediately but often it takes a decade to see a failure at a certain grade level. We should be able to "deconstruct" what is happening with the failed classes that are coming out. We have plenty of students and parents (and teachers) to interview. Where did they lose interest? What happened? When did the situation turn for the negative with this class of students? Are we deconstructing today's failure and analyzing what we did 10-13 years a go to cause it? Ships like educational institutions don't turn on a dime.

Find the problem and fix it.
Neither can we say "one thing" has gotten us here. That one thing isn't just teachers that one thing isn't just administrators. Never to shift blame, we must examine ourselves closely for any failure in the system, but let's look at some other things too.


There are a few questions I think we should ask ourselves in every schools. (In my few brief moments I have left in this chair before I go help my fourth grader review his wordly wise words (again) for his big test today.)
  • Discipline. One student can disrupt learning for a whole class. Are we so eager to give another chance that we've made teachers impotent? Are the corrective measures we're using actually correcting anything? Does one student have the right to disrupt learning for everyone else? Can't we use video and document what is happening and stop having one persons word against another?

  • Classroom environment. Each classroom should be a place where learning can happen. Are their noise interruptions or basic flaws that are preventing learning from happening? When these happen, are the systems in place to promptly fix the problems? (Leaks, loud/broken Air conditioners, etc.) Do administrators and others respect class time and rarely interrupt on the intercom or impromptu assemblies?

  • Class size. There is definitely a point where it becomes significantly harder to teach a class. My largest class was 26. We had to be in desks because I only have 21 computers (not counting mine at my desk.) One time I had 22 students and had to let a student use the computer at my desk. I have to say that the 26 and the 22 situations were very tough to manage for me. It took everything I had and I know for a fact that I couldn't cover as much as I did when I had 18 or 12. For me, the point where it becomes a bit more challenging is somewhere around 19 or 20. I don't know why it gets tough at that point but I have a computer lab and it is. I have friends with 30 and even more in a class. I've heard of 40. In South Africa, I saw a teacher who had 150 students. She said, "I couldn't help everyone but I helped the ones I could."
  • IT Purchasing policies. Why do we buy what we buy? There is no doubt, corruption in the system. Right now in Alabama, their 2009 move to a glitchy  state-wide SIS system without going to bid has raised eyebrows and my inside sources say that it is sparking an investigation. (The Mobile School Board demanded it this summer.) IT is not an afterthought it is as important as the plans for the new school building. We need people who understand the specific needs of education making decisions and the position of IT directors escalated to a level where less temptation for corruption is there. Many IT decisions should really be curricular decisions anyway. We still treat it like a black box in most schools.

  • How we look at research. We talk about research based best practices and in some ways it has become the Achilles heel of education. All a company has to do is go out and fund research proving their product improves learning and we'll buy it and cite the research. Are we blind? Are we so eager to believe there is a quick fix that we'll swallow such nonsense? When I dated guys, I knew not to believe half of what they said about themselves on the first date because they were trying to make themselves look good. Salesmen are trying to SELL. If we're sick we get a second opinion. Take a look at the What Works Clearinghouse but know also that sometimes we should test new things and innovate as well. Can we "BETA" test before we go full scale? WE should.
  • Do we listen to contrarian voices? Stephen Downes and Gary Stager, God bless 'em, they are often contrarian voices. I read them for that reason. While I don't always agree with how they disagree with  people sometimes (everyone deserves respect) I do think that we need to listen to all sides of issues and topics. If you only listen to people just like you when people just like you are wrong, you'll be wrong too. Balanced voices make for good decisionmaking. Contrarians are sometimes right and the general viewpoints are sometimes wrong. Get the facts, listen to both sides and make up your mind.
  • Do we educate parents on their role? One thing that could improve learning by next week for every school would be if parents made sure their children got 8-9 hours of sleep a night. That one thing. Read Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School and other research and you'll find that student learning is negatively impacted by lack of sleep.(One study equated the IQ drop of 1 hour less of sleep to that of lead poisoning.) Yet, parents persist on letting their kids sleep with their constantly buzzing cell phone on their pillow denying them the ability to get a good night's sleep. If we know that a child drops two grade levels in their ability to perform in class after losing an hour of sleep, then do we have systemic problems with our education system because of a nationwide inability to put our children to bed at a decent hour and take cell phones out of their hands?

    Don't stop there. How about having a place to do homework? Making sure they have their assignments written down and are bringing homework home. If the kid has "no homework" then are they studying anyway. Studying for a test is homework too. To think you can have a good school system without parental involvement is like thinking you can be a healthy athlete without drinking anything. Parents are a higher indicator of success than teachers.
  • Are teachers free to teach? (I wrote about this in a Washington Post oped this summer.) Who is the customer? How much time are teachers spending filling out paperwork for administrators?

    What is a better measure of a good teacher: good paperwork and detailed lesson plans or what is happening in the classroom with the students? What makes a good bureaucrat doesn't make a good teacher and yet we have a system that consistently rewards teachers who are good paper pushers and hurts teachers who aren't. The customer is our students after they've graduated from high school. Will they thank us for what we taught them?

    I had a time during my teaching career where I had to do detailed lesson plans and honestly, sometimes I realized that I had finished my plans but wasn't ready to teach. I hadn't made the copies and done the work to really teach. Flat Classroom was invented the year that my interim headmaster (now my curriculum director) said - stop filling out lesson plans and start teaching - keep a general overview of what you cover in your lesson plan book but I'll be in your classroom 3-4 times a week. Then, I really started teaching. I was a good teacher but focusing on teaching and my students is what made me a great teacher and that was when this blog was born too.
  • Do we look at what is happening in the classroom? Are administrators in your classroom more than once a week? Do they know what is happening there? A poor teacher becomes a bad teacher without supervision. A great teacher loves showing off and feels valued when their administrator comes by. All teachers appreciate this because we have the chance to point out obstacles that administrators can fix. (i.e. that loud A/c unit.) Why do we make teachers fill out paperwork about what they are doing with students, couldn't we have a recorder of some time document what they are ACTUALLY doing? Paperwork is antiquated and unnecessary in a world of digital recorders. Is anyone looking at it anyway?
  • Stop looking for quick fixes. Quick fixes don't fix education. If you have a massive failure, you have massive problems. A quick fix is what you do when your child scratches their knee and needs a band aid. Major surgery happens after a horrible car crash. This car has run into the 21st century head on and most in education weren't ready. Certainly, we have some work to do. As I said in Alabama last week - maybe it is time to kill some sacred cows if we can't afford to feed them any more.
My Management professor, Dr. Phil Adler, always said that

"Accountability without Authority is a recipe for disaster" 

and that is what we have in education right now.

We have a lot of accountability on the heads of teachers and administrators.

  • But do we give them authority? 
  • Can they change a curriculum that is not working? 
  • Can they fix things that are broken? 
  • Can they handle discipline and be backed up? 
  • Can they appeal to have the schedule changed or class sizes altered? 
  • Can they  get rid of a computer system that is causing problems for everyone? 
  • Can an administrator who identifies a personnel issue actually have the authority to fire the person who deserves it? 
  • Can an administrator who is constantly causing classroom problems be reported in a way to reduce the problems or let other administrators know that this person is harming the learning environment.


We've made educators into bureaucrats by this massive move to centralize the education system in America. Bureaucrats are infamously horrible at moving quickly to fix things. BBM and Apple would still be trying to get things fixed today if they had to push paper like many of my public school friends have to do.

I'm quite tired of business people criticizing educators for not running education like "a business." The last 30 years of lawsuits and centralization of education has turned many schools into behemoths where it is very hard to get anything done, even if you are in charge. I can say this because I've worked with public schools for the last 15 years and have many close friends who are administrators.

Let's hold people in education accountable but first, let's give them the authority to do something about the myriad of problems they face.

When you have a system wide problem with low test scores you have systemic problems.

No one can tell me that every teacher in a certain town is a sorry teacher or that every principal is a bad principle. The logic just doesn't add up. We have great teachers and great principals losing their jobs today.

Why Destroy and Start Over Doesn't Make Sense
And to those who say, just destroy it and start over. That would be like me saying that I'm going to solve this stomach virus in my house by killing my children and adopting new ones. Eventually my new children WILL get sick too. Besides, it would be a horrible waste of human life and all of my love for them knows that is a horrific thing to even suggest.

And yet, people ever day call to destroy all the schools and start over. It may solve your problem temporarily but if we keep moving "best practices" that aren't best practices at all to new places then we have problems. My private school friends who say they are having problems say they start when the public school testing environment moves into their walls. It kills learning.

If the chicken is always on the scale being weighed, she's never in the barnyard eating grain.

If we've learned anything in the last ten years is that much of what we've put in place in the last ten years should be called to question. When you have teachers who have thrived for 20-30 years getting out because of the system, its the system.
Let's open our eyes and look at 3200 error in education for what it is: systemic problems that require a fix. Stop blaming ALL the people and start getting practical here. We have a mission and the future of a nation is at stake.

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