Our Education System is not so much “Broken” – as it is Totally Outdated!



The US education system does what it was designed to do – the problem is that it was formed over 100 years ago in a different time – for a different need – in a different world economy – to satisfy a different life style – using the then available technology.

The US education system has not changed significantly in over 100 years but the world has!

It was created and driven by a set of business leaders, liked Carnegie and others, who saw the country was moving from an agricultural economy to an industrial one.  They saw the need for workers who could “read, right and cipher a little” to man the factories and mills that were being built in areas of the East and across the great Midwest, (today’s “rust belt”) where the farm children were and could be trained and put to work.  It created millions of jobs and allowed the country’s to become the leading economy in the world as it implemented the industrial revolution.

As Ken Robinson illustrates, schools were, and still are structured like the factories they were developed to serve.  They treat education like an assembly line – you move from one task (class) to the next – day in and day out.  There is little collaboration or interchange between the work done in one department (course) versus the next.  The product (students) are processed, as in a factory, in batches (by year of birth).  The resultant product (graduates) are therefore all from the same mold. Due to this structure, which has not changed much in the last 100+ years – change is hard to come by. 

So is it any wonder that the teachers, who are given the workflow and schedule (curriculum) by the plant managers (the school boards and politicians) with little flexibility and/or authority to change things, are treated like foreman, unionized, and are paid and protected by seniority (tenure)?

When this system began students accepted this regimen because graduation promised (almost guaranteed) a job and maybe a chance for college and an even better job.  The latter is no longer true even if ones grades are great – there is an oversupply of graduates.   Couple this with the boredom and lack of enthusiasm generated by this production line education and is there any wonder why there are more costly drop-outs and an overall uninspired set of students?

The businessmen of the late 1800’s knew that an appropriately trained and educated work force was essential for the success of their businesses so that the country could grow with the industrial revolution and we became the world’s economic leader. They saw that the nation needed a national public school system to fulfill this need.  They were right and their basic premise is still correct.

Training and education must meet the needs of the times and the economy of the future – ours does not!


The state of our current system is like owning an old trusted, rusty, seriously underpowered 150,000 mile van that has missing and broken parts, that your grandfather gave you, to operate your family’s delivery business.  But the items to be delivered have gotten larger and more complicated and you are falling behind competitors who have newer vans and enhanced scheduling software. 

Do you try to “fix” some of the more noticeable “broken” parts – paint it – and try to “upgrade” as many of these missing parts as you can to bring it in line with current technology and needs?   Or do you buy a new van with the best current technology and has all the features needed for today’s job?

The “fix and upgrade it” approach may cost less dollars up front.  But it will still be an old van with old technology and broken parts and competition will continue to gain market share at your expense.

The answer seems clear.  To stay in business and support your family’s current life style and survive and grow as future competition expands – you must buy a new van.

The same is true with our K-12 education system – a “patchwork fixing it up” approach is not the answer – we must have a totally new refocused system in order to successfully compete globally.

Good news – the time is right and now to refocus our K-12 education system

We have a wonderful opportunity today.  The stars are aligned to do the redefining and refocusing of an education system built for the future competitive economy.  The public wants the current K-12 education system fixed – really needs to be redone.  Government and thought leaders are struggling to find ways to meet the need for innovation and create the education system that supports it. 

If we merely tinker with the system piecemeal we will have wasted this opportunity and probably spent large amounts of money, energy and depleted the public’s good will to do the job right.  

Here is some more good news

In today’s very polarized and partisan political world about the only economic issue where there is general agreement is the need for the US to be leaders in innovation.  There seems to be consensus that for the US to replace the lost jobs from the industrial sector we must create the new industries that will drive the future economies of the world – and that requires innovation.

So we need to focus on examining some of the difference between what and how we ”teach” today and what we need to change to effectively “teach” innovation.

The underlying need is to refocus the system to teach innovation – not just facts

Some time ago, Clinton’s former Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, summed up this need for innovation to drive our future when he predicted what is now already occurring.

“The jobs in the greatest demand in the future don’t yet exist and will require workers to use technologies that have not yet been invented to solve problems that we don’t yet even know are problems.”


Just as was the case with the current system the new refocused one must prepare students to meet the needs of the then current and future economies.  Today that means it must produce the best trained, skilled and innovative work force possible so we can compete for, and remain a leading world economy and thus assure a continuation of our standard of living for future generations.

We need to face the fact that facts are basically irrelevant!

Ask any student you know “what is the capital of Belarus” – or “the formula for area of a circle” – or “how to spell irrelevant” – or “who won the last game ”, or “where is the nearest Italian restaurant”, or virtually any other “fact” – and what will he or she answer?  “Just a minute I will Google it on my phone” – and in the matter of literally seconds they will give you the answer.  (Actually not all students use Google – some use Yahoo or Bing or another browser to find the requested “fact”.)

Finding the “fact” is no longer the need – the need is how to use the facts

In today’s competitive world our schools need to teach not how to find facts but rather what to do with them.  We must teach our students how to synthesize, how to inter-relate, how to build systems and processes based on the acquired facts, and how to question individual facts by seeing how they fit with more complex constellations of facts.  We need to teach how to deal with ambiguities and nuances – how to think creatively and how to construct or deal with abstract issues.   These are the skills that build a base for creativity and teach innovation. The rote learning of facts, that are soon forgotten, but that students know can easily be reacquired if ever needed, is not consistent with what either students or business need to be successful in today’s world.

The whole brain is needed to “teach” creativity and innovation

There are numerous studies, writings and confirmation that the use of the whole brain fosters and strengthens creativity and innovation such as Daniel Pink’s book – A Whole New Mind, subtitled Why Right Brained People Will Rule the Future.  In it he writes we are moving from the Information Age (powered by the logical, sequential and analytical left side of the brain) to a “Conceptual Age” (powered by the inventive, empathetic and big picture skill right side of the brain). 

Robert Root-Bernstein, a biochemist and MacArthur prizewinner did a study of 150 biographies of eminent scientists, from Pasteur to Einstein, in the early 1990’s.  It dealt with this relationship between the two sides of the brain.  He found that nearly all of the great inventors and scientists were also musicians, artists, writers or poets. Galileo, was a poet and literary critic; Einstein was a passionate student of the violin; Samuel Morse, was a portrait painter, etc.  He and his wife co-authored Sparks of Genius, that studied and reported on inventive people and showed creativity is encouraged and enhanced by the exercise of thinking tools – i.e., the right side of our brains.

Dr. Brinkley, the former Provost of Columbia in a recent article in Newsweek  – “Half a Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste” writes that the “left” side of our brain is the logical side and supports the of learning facts and deducing logical answers while the “right” side deals with perceptual thinking and supports creative and instinctive thinking.  He writes that science and technology aspire to clean, clear answers to problems (as elusive as those answers might be).  The humanities address ambiguity, doubt and skepticism – essential underpinnings in today’s complex and diverse and turbulent world.  While he supports excellence in technical education he firmly believes and states that the idea that we must choose between science and humanities – is false.  

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education is important

Well-trained STEM graduates are an essential component of the US’s ability to develop new products and businesses for the economy of the future. Recently major steps have been taken to improve STEM education at all levels of our schools and colleges.  The country and its people have become aware of, and support, that STEM is so important to the US economic future that adding federal and local funds for it has actually become politically acceptable, even in this era of budget restraint.

Business and educators know Arts are also important

A recent Conference Board study, “Ready to Innovate”, surveyed of a large number of executives and school superintendents and dealt with the US businesses needing more innovative employees.  It reported agreement in the need for more innovative employees at all levels of the workforce and that education in Arts was a leading and reliable indicator of the creativity and innovation in applicants.

Arts use the right side of the brain but have recently been stripped out of the public education system by multiple budget cuts leaving the US with mainly a “half a brain” system.  Arts need to be returned to the national curricula where it was for the years leading up to our more prosperous years.

STEM education is necessary but not sufficient – we need STEAM based education.

Our success requires graduating very competent people whose training combines the best STEM education and the best creativity and innovation education for a whole brain system that includes Arts – to form STEAM.  It is imperative that our education system focuses on a curriculum that includes, uses and develops, all the tools and skills that are available to support creativity and innovation.

Carl Sagan summed up the need for using both sides of the brain when he said

“It is the tension between creativity and skepticism that has produced the stunning unexpected findings of science.

Standardized Tests results and the second “Sputnik” challenge

Standardized tests which have become the world-wide measure of education system competence, like STEM education are mostly left-brain – i.e., fact based.  Recent reports on standardized test results show the US near the bottom on Math and about the middle on many other tests while selected Chinese cities and other emerging economies surged to the top of the standings. 

The President called these results our generation’s “Sputnik” event saying we need to marshal our resources so the US would regain superiority in education as we did in the space exploration field in the 1950’s.  It was almost a national pride issue.

Kennedy’s Sputnik challenge was thought to be a national pride issue.  In fact it became the driver for our economy to take off.  The innovation that took us to the moon created whole new industries, millions of jobs and drove our economy for decades.  As was true in responding to the first “Sputnik challenge” – a national commitment to  restructuring the education system will do the same  – the country needs to realize that  it is basically an economy building issue and act accordingly!

College admissions bias fact based vs. whole brain innovation K-12 education


Colleges are swamped by applications in response to the politician’s promise that “everyone can go to college”.  To screen and select who to admit they use SAT scores and GPA’s, both of which are largely fact based measures. K-12 school systems are judged on their ability to prepare students to “go to college” so they teach to these tests. Schools that show improvements get plaudits; more money and happy parents thus teaching to the tests are well supported by administrators and funders who are willing to sacrifice right brain subjects to the budget axe to get these improvements.

The current system was founded to teach students fact-based skills – not to teach students to think.  It still focused on doing this does that is a very big problem in today’s need to educate innovators.

Technologists and technology policy -

The US used to graduate more top technical PhD’s than any country but that has significantly declined.  India and China each have 3 times population of the US and soon they will graduate more, PhD’s and highly educated scientists and then the US will.  Since we will no longer have numerical superiority we must have the best skilled, most innovatively trained graduates in order to compete.

Other emerging and developed countries are also investing heavily in capital to upgrade their technical universities and in attracting top technical professors from the US to teach there.

US technology policy in areas such as stem cell research, mean that our best and brightest scientists go off shore where government policy fosters innovation and discovery.  New companies and jobs will grow there – not in the US as a result.

Government immigration policies reduce new business formation – and new jobs

US technical universities are the best in the world and attract and graduate many of the best foreign students.  Historically many of these graduates remained in the US and worked as engineers or managers in technology based companies.  A number of them helped to establish new businesses and industries in the US.   Some VC’s report that over 70% of all start-ups in the Silicon Valley in the past few years have at least one Asian as a founder. 

Current US immigration policy almost forces graduates to return to their native land where they now start new businesses there to compete with us.   Their booming economies also lure these graduates to return home because of the increased number of exciting opportunities that are now available.

China and the rest of the world are also dedicated to be innovative world leaders

Until 2008 the US was ranked 1st as the most innovative economy in the world.  That is no longer true.  Recent studies show the US to be 3rd, 4th, 6th or 8th., depending on the report.  One report stated that in recent years the US has made the least progress of 39 countries in improving it innovation capacity and internal competitiveness, but that decision makers, when asked, continue to rank the US first by a wide margin.  So public perception has not have caught up with reality.

A Newsweek article compared what Chinese and American parents thought was the most important skills their children will need to drive innovation. The most important skill for 42% of Chinese parents, was “creative approaches to problem solving” (vs 18% of American parents) while for 52% of American parents “math and computer science” was the most important skill needed to drive innovation (vs. 9% of Chinese parents).  

A second Newsweek article on the “Creativity Crisis” notes countries around the world are making creativity a national priority.  British schools are revamping curricula – from science to foreign language – to emphasize idea generation.  The EU designated 2009 as its Year of Creativity with conferences on the neuroscience of creativity, teacher training and instituting problem-based learning programs – curricula driven by real world inquiry.  China is undergoing education reform to extinguish the drill-and-kill teaching style and to move to a problem-based learning approach. 


There is a somewhat heightened dialog beginning


 Arts leaders and educators have long voiced: lectured and held public meetings and conferences on the need to include Arts in schools but – as is true for parents at a PTA meeting -usually characterize it primarily as a cultural need – but few tie it to the real issue – the national economy and jobs.


There are more magazine and newspaper articles being written about the need for innovation for the economy.  Also some government leaders like Education Secretary Duncan and NEA Chairman Landesman who talked about the need for innovation and thus having arts restored in our education curricula when they addressed the Arts Education Partnership National Forum in April 2010.

The arts provide us with new ways of thinking, new ways to draw connections…and they             help maintain our competitive edge by engendering innovation and creativity” (Landesman)


“The arts can no longer be treated as a frill, … arts education is essential to stimulating the        creativity and innovation that will prove critical to young Americans competing in a global        economy….”.  (Duncan)

And there are some more substantive activity also starting to happen like -

Michelle Rhee’s work in Washington DC in the area of performance-based careers for both teachers and administrators has resulted in standardized test score performance improvements.  Her ability to gain union acceptance of those change are signs that progress can be made in that arena.  Her DC success has gained public interest and support and bodes well for her plan to raise significant funds to continue addressing teacher related issues.  However, further action in the area needs to also take into account that a refocused system will require that teacher selection and performance measurement shift to one that also include innovation – not just on test scores.

A very important effort addressing the need to focus education on what is taught in K-12 systems was reported in the New York Times on January 29, 2011, writing that the “College Board plans to unveil a sweeping revision to Advanced Placement biology courses ….. part of a broad revamping of Advanced Placement courses and exams to reduce memorization and to foster analytic thinking.”

“As Advanced Placement courses have proliferated…..many of the courses have been criticized for overwhelming students with facts. So the board is intending to revise its courses…..to emphasize how students can use the knowledge.”  The vice president for Advanced Placement said “we think we can do a better job of how…. teachers could limit material and free up time to focus on bigger concepts.”

A recent activity that is really focused on innovative education and the economy is taking place in Massachusetts where they recently passed economic development bill that included the requirement that all its public schools are to be rated on how students perform on standardized tests and on how well the school’s curriculum is designed to foster creativity in students.  It was positioned as an important step in boosting the commonwealth’s financial health “via the creative economy”. 

The bill’s sponsor described this as “a means of increasing the region’s overall cash flow, fostering the arts and intellect-driven industry”.  He went on to say “When we talk about a creative economy, we aren’t just talking about artists, musicians ….. but a variety of fields that rely upon creativity well beyond just the arts themselves.”

The Governor has called for the formation of a creativity index for also ranking all the public schools statewide.  A committee is being established to create this index.  (If such an index becomes generally accepted and adopted then colleges would have another basis beyond SAT’s and GPA’s to judge and process the large number of applications they now receive.)   

These are, hopefully, harbingers of a concerted effort to refocus our education system to be more innovative and prepare our students for the jobs of the future.


The cost of not promptly refocusing the K-12 education system to insure our future

We must replace our current 18th century education system with one to meet the needs of the 21st century.  Since good education is the underpinning of the country’s economy it is a national imperative to do so ASAP.  We must refocus this new system to insure it trains and graduates innovative students who will staff and/or create new industries so that every American will have a meaningful job and career that will allow them to keep the standard of living that we have today.

The refocused system must move from one that primarily requires memorization of facts and rote learning and is measured by standardized test scores, i.e., primarily a left brain focused curricula. It must again include right brain subjects such as arts, which have systematically been stripped out of the curricula on the basis that “we can’t afford them” – actually the reverse is true we need them.

The new economy requires that we continue to improve and encourage STEM education because mastering existing and new technologies is vital.    It also requires that Arts be included in the curricula to capture the full potential of the whole-brain – i.e., a STEAM based one.  It is using the combination of all these capabilities that drives creativity and innovation.   The future economic cost of not having a whole brain education system that fosters creativity and innovation is immense.

It requires retraining instructors to teach how to deal with ambiguities and nuances – how to think creatively and how to construct or deal with abstract issues instead of so much of the emphasis being on teaching facts.   Teachers will need to teach our students to “think” – not memorize.

Our current system’s failure is also marked by very costly high dropout rates resulting from the current “drill and kill” approach.  Instead of having trained and educated Americans who would pay taxes and work in our future industries our governments pay to cover the lifetime costs of welfare and medical services.   The social and societal costs are also great since many of these people, being unemployable, end up with criminal or drug records with the associated government covered costs.


How to promote and fund this new and needed refocused system

First, we must mount an effort by government; business; print and TV news; other media; and public and thought leaders to understand, formulate and present a united, cohesive story to the American people about the urgent need for the refocusing and replacing the 18th century designed education system with one designed in the 21st century.  Unless Americans understand and support, that this new refocused education system is an economic necessity – it will not happen in a timely manner. 

Their support to increase and fund STEM education indicates that Americans understood that the need for improved science based education was a national economics and well being imperative.  If they now understand that this complete refocus of the K-12 education system is also a pressing national need- then the politicians can get on board and can and will fund that need.

Business knows this refocused system is essential so they will have the required work force to be able to compete.   However, for businesses to provide funds they must be able to do so without being penalized by the stock market.  All investors need to agree that funding this refocused education system is a sound, prudent and necessary investment.  One that, if made will result in a substantial positive return in their portfolios and in the country’s future.  If not made, the future value of their individual corporations and the American industry will suffer substantially.   Analysts and investors need to separate out the cost of this investment in looking at, or predicting, quarterly earnings so that the market values of investing companies are not adversely affected by, this investment.  Even a GAAP or tax change may be needed.

If we make only piecemeal “improvements” we will lose the politicians and neither the government nor business will fund the refocusing of the education system.  Our economy will falter – unemployment will stay high and our competitors will increase their leverage on our financial system and our role in the world as both an economic and moral leader will lessen.

The time is now – there is no time to waste because we are already late in facing this issue

We need to start this public education program immediately – gathering media, marketing, industry, education, and government personnel to prepare the message and to attract the right spokespeople from those segments along with well-regarded thought leaders and personalities to deliver it.

We also need to assemble the best and brightest people from all disciplines – business, education, public policy, government, science, etc and probably the most patient and best mediators – to solve the myriad new system design items.  This can run concurrently with the public education effort so that the time line for implementation can be streamlined and shortened. 

This refocusing of the K-12 education system is not just a “nice to have” item – it is economic imperative.  Like the Sputnik challenge it is a race for the future –the winners will reap great rewards


Paper by:

Harvey White

Chairman (SHW)2 Enterprises

Suite 110 – 2223 Avenida de la Playa

La Jolla, CA 92037


858/729-0442 phone

858/729-0105 fax

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See – http://steam-notstem.com

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One Response to Our Education System is not so much “Broken” – as it is Totally Outdated!

  1. lawrence

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