Reforming Education Requires another Way of Thinking: What is it?

In this article I am going to argue that the kind of thinking that will be required to reform education has been part of our culture for decades, but it runs counter to ways that reformists have been “tinkering” with schools, K – college.  This “tinkering” is playing havoc on teachers, students, and parents, and there seems to be no end in sight.   We’ve tinkered with achievement test scores, achievement test score gaps, graduation and drop out rates, teacher VAM scores–you name it.

School can be reformed if we think differently. Learning is not about competition.  There is no need to have winners and losers as outcomes of the school experience.  Education is about learning, and in an environment that has as its core belief that learning is the fundamental goal of schooling.  Students are living in the present, and their school experience should be based on their lives now, and should not be based on furthering the economic prosperity of the nation.  Schooling should not be about job training, career readiness or college entry.  It should be about fostering the creative and innovative aspects of youth, and creating school as a learning environment designed to help students learn to collaborate, work with others to solve problems, and engage in content from the arts and the sciences that has personal meaning.

What kind of thinking is required?

Shortly after World War II ended, in May 1946, Albert Einstein wrote a fund-raising letter for the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists. He started out his letter by saying:

Our world faces a crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing the power to make great decisions for good or evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe. (Holt, R. R., Can psychology meet Einstein’s challenge, Political Psychology, Vol. 5, No.2, 1984, p. 199.)

Later in the letter he stated, “We need $200, 000 at once for a nation-wide campaign to inform the American people that a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”

Although Einstein didn’t say it directly, we infer he meant a mode of thinking that embraced systems was needed if we were to survive. Russell L. Ackoff, whose work (Ackoff’s Best, 1999) described this new kind of thinking, remarked that it was Einstein who explained why we had to begin to think differently.  Einstein said,

You can’t solve the problems created by the current pattern of thought using the current pattern of thought.

Mechanistic Age Thinking

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 3.57.58 PMAckoff, in his writings, speeches, and courses, described the kind of transformation in our thinking that began to emerge after WWII.  Ackoff wrote that he believed that humankind was leaving the Machine Age, one that was dominated by analysis and reductionism.  In the Machine Age all of reality was broken down–reduced to indivisible elements.  In science we see this when we think about reducing matter into small particles or atoms.  In chemistry, the table of the elements.  In biology, the cell.  Even Freud, as Ackoff points out, broke the human psyche into elements–the id, ego, and superego.

But there was another concept that is important here.  Breaking things into elements meant it was necessary to put them together or assemble them to understand the whole.  Thus, we looked at relationships among the parts.   Ackoff reminds us that in this kind of world (the Machine Age), it was quite possible to explain the relationships between the parts in a simple relationship, cause-effect.

The following question arose: Is everything in the universe the effect of some cause? The answer to this question was dictated by the prevailing belief in the possibility of understanding the universe completely. For this to be possible, everything had to be taken as the effect of some cause, otherwise they could not be related or understood. This doctrine was called determinism. It precluded anything occurring by either chance or choice.  Russell L. Ackoff. Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management (Kindle Locations 152-154). Kindle Edition.

Studying Ackoff’s writings when applied to education and the nature of schooling leads to astounding conclusions.  According to Ackoff, and others, Machine-Age thinking was environment-free.  He puts it this way:

Another important consequence of the commitment to causal thinking derives from the acceptance of a cause as sufficient for its effect. Because of this a cause was taken to explain its effect completely. Nothing else was required to explain it, not even the environment. Therefore, Machine-Age thinking was, to a large extent, environment-free; it tried to develop understanding of natural phenomena without using the concept of environment. For example, what does the word “freely” in the familiar “Law of Freely Falling Bodies” mean? It means a body falling in the absence of any environmental influences. The apparent universality of such laws (and there were many) does not derive from their applicability to every environment for, strictly speaking, they apply to none; it derives from the fact that they apply approximately to most environments that we experience. Russell L. Ackoff. Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management (Kindle Locations 166-168). Kindle Edition.

To Ackoff, our schools are machine age inventions that have remained unchanged in fundamental ways. The machine age gave rise to factories which became the model used to organize schools, indeed to explain how students learn by cause-effect relationships. There have been attempts to challenge machine age schooling, including the philosophy of John Dewey, the Progressive Education Era, Open Schools, Humanistic Education, Critical Pedagogy.

But schooling has resisted innovation. The school, as a mechanistic age idea, turned learning into work (and not play) and thus students were taught to memorize, and not experience learning. Teaching became the focus of schools and not learning. The outcomes of school were caused by the teacher, or the curriculum. There was a clear belief that a cause-effect relationship could explain student learning. To find the effects of teachers, curriculum, all that was needed was to measure output by means of achievement tests.

Everything in school is broken in to parts–subjects and departments of math, science, music, art, social studies, English, language. Students are organized in the same fashion. They come school and are broken into age based groups. Their outputs are graded, they compete for the grades, and are constantly inspected.

Russell Ackoff, in his book Redesigning the Future opens a chapter on education with this statement:

Most schools appear to put a lid on children’s minds. Curiosity and creativity are suppressed. Learning is equated to memorization, thus converting it into work and differentiating it from play. Only a relatively few are ever able to reunite work, play, and learning in later life.  Russell L. Ackoff. Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management (Kindle Locations 1760-1761). Kindle Edition.

Ackoff wrote this in 1974, forty years ago.

Mechanistic Age Schools

Which of the following statements would you say describe the nature of schooling in 2014?

  1. Today’s school is modeled after a factory. The incoming student is treated like raw material coming onto a production line that converts him into a finished product.
  2. We have reduced education to a large number of discrete and disconnected parts.
  3. We make little or no effort to relate the bits and pieces of information they dispense. Subjects matters are kept apart.
  4. More “advanced” Machine Age teaching is based on the Pavlovian concept of the student as an input-output organism. Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner modernized the language used to describe this concept.
  5. Cheating is more a consequence of the characteristics of examinations than it is of the characteristics of students. Otherwise why would teachers also cheat?
  6. Most learning takes place without teaching, but schools are founded on teaching, not learning.

Did you select all of the above?  All of these characterize schooling in 2014, yet they were written by Ackoff in 1974 (Russell L. Ackoff. Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management Kindle Edition).

Yet, in the year 2014, we still have a factory model of schooling, we have reduced learning to discrete statements of performance that all American students should be forced to learn–The Common Core State Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards.  We still use the Pavlovian conception of stimulus-response and cause-effect to define relationships between school variables. The school is like a 19th-Century laboratory with no need to recognize the variables and conditions outside of school that may have a greater effect on student learning than teachers or curriculum.

What kind of thinking Is Required to Get Beyond this Mire?

The short answer is that our world has changed and this change needs to be integral to schooling.  The change that has taken place in the world is that we are leaving the Machine Age, and have embraced a new way of thinking that emerged from dilemma’s that could not be solved by resorting to simple cause-effect relationships.  An ecological and interdisciplinary view of the world proliferated, and writers from many fields began describing this new way of thinking.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which led to the environmental movement (and later, the EPA), is a powerful example of the ecological type of thinking that is required to understand a natural environment, including school and learning.

What began to emerge was that we needed to think about the whole, or systems.  In this form of thinking, a system can not be divided into parts to understand it.  As Russell Ackoff puts it,

A system, therefore, is a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts. From this, two of its most important properties derive: every part of a system has properties that it loses when separated from the system, and every system has some properties-its essential ones-that none of its parts do. Russell L. Ackoff. Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management (Kindle Locations 233-235). Kindle Edition.

In the next several posts, I will go into more detail about systems thinking and how systems thinking is being used to transform school in spite of the 21st Century reformists who stuck in the Machine Age.

What do you think about this “analysis” of Machine Age thinking and how it has determined the nature of schooling?

Is the Atlanta School Board Going to Think Differently?

Is the Atlanta School Board (APS) going to think differently? Its composition is different than it was a year ago. Six of the nine member board were elected to the Board in November.

On January 14th, the Atlanta School Board met to discuss the nature of the school system, and to draft an APS Statement of Purpose.

In addition to the members of the board, and Dr. Cathy Mincberg of the Center for Reform of School Systems (CRSS), Mr. Ed Johnson was in attendance, and participated in some aspects of the meeting. (Note: Mr. Johnson, an advocate for quality public education, ran for a seat on the board in the last election, but was not elected. However, he has for years been actively collaborating with Atlanta school officials, including the board).

Keep in mind that Atlanta is in the middle of the process to hire a new school superintendent. According to Ed Johnson, the new board is interested in formulating a statement of core beliefs and strategies to aid in the selection process.

In a letter shared by Mr. Johnson after the January 14th meeting, it appears as if some of the board members are interested in thinking differently. Here is part of Mr. Johnson’s letter:

It will be my pleasure to offer, by your invitation, a recap of my observations of your work today with Dr. Cathy Mincberg of the Center for the Reform of School Systems (CRSS) to help you articulate core beliefs and strategies for interviewing and selecting a new superintendent.

For now, I say thanks to ABOE member Matt Westmoreland for inviting me to comment on an aspect of your proceedings. I also say thanks to ABOE Chair Courtney English for going with my suggestion to synthesize your collective wisdom into a Wordle (“word cloud”) to be examined for noteworthy words that might come together in an APS Statement of Purpose. I hope to share that Wordle with others; it is quite interesting, both for words that stand out and words that do not stand out. Dr. Mincberg had solicited and written down, in some detail, your collective wisdom, save that of ABOE member Jason Esteves who was absent.

APS Board Wordle: Be to Every Community…

The wordle below is a kind of summary of the “collective wisdom” of the board during a the meeting.  Ed Johnson has used the “collective wisdom” depicted in the wordle to write a statement of purpose for the Atlanta Public Schools.

In a letter to the APS Board, Mr. Johnson had this to say:

Good afternoon, ABOE Members and Dr. Grant:

Again, your Wordle (“word cloud”) is quite interesting.  Because it has been so begging of my attention, I have drafted from it a sample APS Statement of Purpose.  Kindly see that attachment.

Again, it is just a sample, an idea for you to consider. Still, I am by bcc, here, also sharing the attachment with the greater community with the invitation to reply to you with their ideas about it.

Too, how about this?  Present the APS Statement of Purpose along with your Wordle to each superintendent candidate finalist and ask: “What story do you see in this?”

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Reading Assignment

Another important part of this meeting is that Ed Johnson is a “systems thinker,” and has written and spoken about why schools need to embrace the world view of systems thinking to improve schools.  Clearly, his synthesis of the APS Board wordle into this statement sets the tone for what education in Atlanta could become.

Be to Every community where Students, Teachers, and Parents Gather to Engage in Joyful Learning within a Wholesome Culture—Ed Johnson

To help the APS Board members understand the nature of systems thinking as it relates to school, he said this:

On the matter of the superintendent search, kindly allow me the pleasure to give each of you a copy of the book “The System Thinking School: Redesigning Schools From the Inside-Out (Leading Systemic Improvement),” by Peter A. Barnard.

Expect 13 copies to arrive from addressed to Attn: Dr. Howard Grant.  The total shipment may arrive in parts at different times.  Nonetheless, the total shipment will also include a copy for Dr. Alexis Kirijan and Mr. Steve Smith as well as for the Superintendent Search Committee Chair, Ms. Anne Crammer.  As always, there are no strings attached, and everyone may do with her or his copy as she or he pleases.

But in this case I do offer this advice:  Read in the book BEFORE you hire the new APS superintendent.

Thinking Different

It appears as if the APS Board is off to an interesting start.  The book that Mr. Johnson has ordered for each member is a powerful document on school reform.  But to embrace the ideas in Peter Barnard’s new book, The Systems Thinking School, the leaders in Atlanta will have to think different.  Here is opening paragraph of the Foreword to Barnard’s book:

Peter Barnard might as well have called this book Thinking because that is what he invites readers to do. It is time, he argues passionately, to set aside all the tinkering that sits at the heart of modern school improvement and reform and recognize that the problem is not performance. The problem is the linear system we are stuck with.  Barnard, Peter A. (2013-09-19). The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (Leading Systemic School Improvement) (Kindle Locations 34-37). R&L Education. Kindle Edition.

What do think about these events? Will the Atlanta School Board take a different path when they come to the fork in the road?

In Spite of the “System,” Urban Teachers Have a Record of Success

In spite of the “System” the evidence is that urban teachers have a record of success, not one that is spiraling down.  The present state of reform of American education is based on the idea that American students are doing poorly, and this will lead to disastrous economic consequences, and the loss of American’s place in the global economic competition.

But, education (for our students) should not be a competition.  There is no need to have winners and losers as outcomes of the school experience.  Education is about learning, and in an environment that has as its core belief that learning is the fundamental goal of schooling.  Students are living in the present, and their school experience should be based on their lives now, and should not be based on furthering the economic prosperity of society.  Schooling should not be based on job training, career readiness or college entry.  It should be based on fostering the creative and innovative aspects of youth, and create school as a learning environment designed to help students learn to collaborate, work with others to solve problems, and engage in content from the arts and the sciences that has personal meaning.

We’ve been told that urban education in America needs to be saved by pouring advise and money from the élite and influential corporations and philanthropic groups.  The problem is that these groups are focused on only one set of outcomes that all come down to increasing student academic performance measured by high-stakes examinations.

I want to show here that urban teachers have held their own for the past decade and half in spite of the problems they face in their schools day-to-day.  They not only have held their own, but the evidence shows that academic performance of their students (in mathematics at the 8th grade) in the example below has slowly but surly increased as shown in Figure 1.  As you can see, in Atlanta, students at the 25th, 50th and 75th percentile increased performance on NAEP tests given from 2003 through 2013.

Figure 1. Atlanta NAEP 8th Grade Mathematics Scores for Selected Percentiles 2003 - 2013.
Figure 1. Atlanta NAEP 8th Grade Mathematics Scores for Selected Percentiles 2003 – 2013.

Reading and Math in Urban Schools

Take a look at the next four figures (Figures 2 – 5).  They were compiled by Mr. Ed Johnson in his study of the NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA).  Johnson, who is a student W. Edwards Deming, examined the TUDA results through a Deming Lens.  A Deming Lens means that to understand the behavior of a system, one must look at the system.  Breaking down a system into its parts (goals, policies, finances, curriculum, teachers, administrators, parents, directors) loses one’s ability to understand the system.

Each of the graphs below shows the behavior of these four systems over ten years.  You will notice that there is variation in the achievement scores of students in reading (grades 4 and 8) and mathematics (grades 4 and 8) from one testing period to the next.  But the variation is within upper and lower limits that would be expected in each system.

Causes of Variation in Scores

According to W. Edwards Deming 94% of the variation is due to the nature of the system, not the people who work in or make the system work.  Only 6% are attributable to special causes.  (W. Edwards Deming. The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education (p. 33). Kindle Edition).

As you look over the graphs you will see ONLY FOUR instances where the variation in scores lies outside the Upper Control Limit (UCL), and then only in 4th grade reading  Examples include: Charlotte, 2009, Austin, 2011, Charlotte, 2011, and Hillsborough, 2011.  Except for these four instances, all the variation is due to the nature of the system.

Figure 2. Location of Cities in the Trial Urban District Assessment; Gold triangle-higher than large city; Circle--not different; Blue triangle-lower than large city. Source: Nations Report Card
Figure 2. Location of Cities in the Trial Urban District Assessment; Gold triangle-higher than large city; Circle–not different; Blue triangle-lower than large city. Source: Nations Report Card.  Click on Map for more details.

The graphs below plot reading and math scores for 21 school urban school districts.  Mr. Johnson highlighted Atlanta (in red) and DC Public Schools (purple).  As you can note in the following graphs, achievement scores in reading and math for Atlanta and DC Public Schools fell within the Upper and Lower Control limits.  There is no radical change in scores, either up or down.  It appears that the teachers in these urban schools are doing the job they were hired to do and that is help their students learn how to read, and do mathematics.  And they’ve done this in spite of all the issues that surround schools in urban communities.

In systems thinking, as Mr. Johnson would tell us, there are two types of causes of variation in any system.  The most important cause of variation in any system is what we call “common causes” of variation that is really a function of the system itself.  Examples of common cause variation will fall within control limits on a graph (as shown below in Figures 2 – 5). Examples of common causes that influence variation (scores on tests, for example, or graduation rates) include 

  • High percentage of children from low SES groups.
  • Where the school is located. It’s zip code.
  • Age of the school building.
  • Size of the school system.
  • Underpinning policies, practices, procedures of the school which determines it’s culture.
  • Inadequate resources.

According to Deming, nearly all outputs of schooling are the result of common cause variation, and these would include drop out rates, achievement test scores, violence, bullying, gang activity, low self esteem, attitudes, under performance and literacy skills.

Defying Gravity

When we examine a school system from a systems thinking view, these outputs are causes by the day to day effects of common causes of variation.  As Deming and other systems thinkers, such as Ed Johnson would say, trying to seek achievement scores beyond what see in the graphs (Figures 2 – 5) is to “defy gravity.”  Reformers have charged ahead as if they can “defy gravity” and have put the blame of not improving test scores in the wrong place.

Managers (administrators) and workers (teachers) are not “common cause” variables.  However, since schools are based on a linear factory model, “reformers” ignore common causes, and instead claim that teachers and administrators can overcome the challenges posed by common causes.  When reformers insist on market reforms, and they don’t work, they blame the teachers and principles.  And to make matters worse, they use student test scores (which are the result of common causes) to evaluate teachers on the basis of false assumptions about schooling.

We think that the present system of reading and mathematics is fairly stable.  The output in reading and math (as measured by a test score) vary little, and one can make predictions about future reading and math output.

reading 4th

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We will explore systems thinking in future posts.  But for now, what do think about the analysis of the NAEP TUDA data as compiled by Ed Johnson?

A Systems Thinker Reviews The Atlanta Public Schools’ Performance in Reading & Math

Latest Story

People are asking for better schools, with no clear idea how to improve eduction, or even how to define improvement of education (except to increase test performance on high-stakes tests).

Most people are in favor of improving education.  But when asked how would they improve education, the suggestions are insufficient, and in some cases, even negative (See W. Edwards Deming. The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education (p. 8). Kindle Edition.)

Instead of reporting the details of how people and organizations want to improve education, such as corporate chiefs, philanthropists, and the U.S. Department of Education, I want to report on the work of Mr. Ed Johnson, an advocate for quality education, and has for more than a decade devoted himself to writing and talking about improving education in the Atlanta Public Schools.

Systems Thinking

Ed Johnson consults as Quality Information Solutions, Inc., with a commitment to human social and cultural systems to receive quality information from information systems for the continual improvement of life, work, and play. His commitment extends to advocating the transformation of K-12 public education systems to humanistic paradigms from prevailing mechanistic paradigms. Ed also is former president of Atlanta Area Deming Study Group.

Ed Johnson is a systems thinker.

In this regard, he believes schools can not be improved by trying to improve the parts separately.  It is a sure path to failure.  For example, some advocates of educational reform believe that student achievement can be improved by weeding out the bad teachers.  Millions of dollars have been invested in using student high-stakes test scores to check teacher performance using a technique called Value Added Measure (VAM).  Teachers whose VAM scores are low can be identified, and according to these experts, teachers with low scores must be bad teachers.  Getting rid of “defects” in any system will not improve the system or the part that was identified.  Instead, a better investment would be to ask how can we improve the quality of teaching, and what can be done to improve the teaching of all educators.

The above example highlights the current approach to reform.  Identify a part of the system, and fix it. Bad teachers, get rid of them.  Low achievement scores?  Write “rigorous” standards, raise the bar, and give high-stakes tests.  It’s that simple.  We’ve had rigorous and not so rigorous standards in place for more than a decade, and as you will see ahead, changing standards doesn’t have any effect on student performance.

Systems thinking means that all parts of a school system are interdependent and must be taken as a whole.  The Atlanta Public Schools (APS) is a system of interconnected and interdependent parts, and to improve the quality of the APS, it is critical to look at the APS as a whole.  For example, closing schools (removing so-called underperforming schools), does not have an effect of improving the APS, or indeed saving money (as some would tell you).  Fundamental questions about APS need to be asked, but in the context of the APS being a system, not a collection of  schools, students, teachers, administrators, parents, curriculum, textbooks, technology.

Ed Johnson has contributed to my understanding of quality education, and it is my great honor to share his work on this blog, and in particular to look at teaching in urban schools, and in particular the Atlanta Public Schools.

Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA)

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) created the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) in 2002 to assess student achievement in the nation’s large urban districts.  Reading results were first reported in 2002 for six districts, and math results were reported in 2003 for 10 districts.

The NAEP provides data from 2002 through 2012 on math and reading and are comparable to NAEP national and state results because the same assessments are used.

Screen Shot 2013-12-28 at 7.00.56 PMUsing data from all of the Trial Urban Districts Assessments (2002 – 2013), available online at The Nations Report Card, Ed Johnson analyzed and created a presentation that is a series of systemic stories told by the data collected in the urban district studies.

Each story is about a system.  In TUDA (Trial Urban District Assessment), there are particular TUD’s each as a system.  So, Reading is a system.  Mathematics is a system.  4th grades is a system.  8th grades is a system.

Johnson’s research is a longitudinal study of performance in reading and mathematics from 2002 – 2013.  Using scores on reading and mathematics obtained from the National Center for Educational Statistics, he investigated the nature of a number of systems derived from the data.  Some of these particular systems include:

  • Reading as a System
  • Mathematics as a System
  • 4th Grades as a System
  • 8th Grades as a System

Since these systems are part of the APS system, we know that each of these systems is interdependent with other systems, not just the ones identified here, but including parents (as a system), teachers (as a system), and so forth.

There were 21 urban school districts in the study.  However, Ed has managed to make our work easier by highlighting with color coding just two systems, Atlanta Public Schools (Red) and District of Columbia (Purple).


Figure 1. Trial Urban District, Bottom Line.  Source: Ed Johnson
Figure 1. Trial Urban District, Bottom Line. Source: Ed Johnson

Ed starts his study by giving us the “bottom line.”  How did these systems (reading, math, 4th grade, 8th grade) do?  Figure 1, is a summary of systemic TUD student performance in reading and math at the 4th and 8th grade from 2002 – 2011, and predictions for 2013 (all the predictions were accurate forecasts of student performance in 2013).

Only 4th grade reading showed some improvement over the period 2002 – 2011, and the improvement was slight and noticed only in Austin, Charlotte, and Hillsborough.  In all other systems, no improvement was observed, meaning that the common causes that influence the system of math, or reading, or 4th or 8th grade inhibited improvement.

Student Improvement in Mathematics and Reading

In the TUDA study, a sample of students in each urban district was tested in reading and mathematics at the 4th and 8th grade level.  To help us understand how to interpret data collected over the past dozen or so years, Mr. Johnson has produced a series of graphs (control charts) showing the natural variation of scores to be expected in each system (reading, math, 4th grade, 8th grade).

Figure 2 shows a control chart for  reading, 4th grade.  Figure 3 shows a control chart for mathematics, grade 4.  Upper control limits and lower control limits were calculated for 2002, and then projected forward.  Changes in scores from one test period to the next are shown in the Figure 2.  If there is systemic change in reading at the 4th grade level, then scores would fall “outside” the upper or lower control limits.  You’ll notice that all the variation, except for four points (Charlotte, 2009 and 2011, Austin, 2011, and Hillsborough, 211), was within the variation expected.  In systems thinking, we mean that the variation for the most part was random, but there is evidence that some special causes were at work in the three districts mentioned here.

Figure 2.  NAEP TUDA, Reading, 4th Grade, All students prepared by
Figure 2. NAEP TUDA, Reading, 4th Grade, All students prepared by

Mathematics is another story.  As Mr. Johnson puts it in his study, “all districts have been on the same boat continuously since 2003 in mathematics at the 4th grade level.  What means is that the variation shown in the graph is random, and not due to any special cause.

Figure 3. NAEP TUDA, Mathematics, 4th Grade, All Students prepared by
Figure 3. NAEP TUDA, Mathematics, 4th Grade, All Students prepared by

There is very little student improvement in reading or mathematics at the 4th grade level as shown in Figures 2 and 3.

As long as we continue to ignore the common causes of variation that exist in the system then we can expect very little to no improvement.

But as Mr. Johnson has said in other letters and reports, if fundamental questions about the purpose of schooling are not addressed and if we can not agree on these purposes, very little will change in the system.  In the two systems explored here, reading at the 4th grade and math at the fourth grade, we need to ask: What is purpose of teaching reading in the elementary school?  Why do we teach reading in the elementary school?  What is goal of teaching mathematics in the elementary school?  Why do we teach mathematics?

As Mr. Johnson has shown, why are these districts on the same boat for the teaching of mathematics?  How can we used systems theory to look at mathematics teaching as a system and answer questions about how to improve mathematics learning?  How can help students develop a love affair with mathematics?

Ed Johnson has examined a lot of data from the standpoint of systems thinking based in part of his work with Edward Deming, and other scholars in the field of systems thinking.

I highly recommend that you check his study which you can get access to as a PDF file here: NAEP TUDA 2002-2011 Views through a Deming Lens.

In the days ahead, I’ll revisit Mr. Johnson’s study, and report on his analysis of the “performance gap” variation that he has depicted as a series of images as shown in Figures 2 and 3.  I’ll also explore systems thinking and school in more detail.