Last week I got the honor of having lunch with Michelle Rhee. For those of you who don’t know, Rhee is the badass ex-Chancelor of the Washington D.C. school system. She had the guts to take on the teachers unions and status quo, in hopes of improving outcomes for students. Listening to Rhee was both incredibly frustrating and inspiring. The system is broken, but because of its current dysfunction there is so much we can do to better the system and the future of our nation.

Let me first preface myself with a disclaimer: I am not an education expert. I do not toil over education reform bills. However, I believe that I am justified in saying that education is prime for disruption. As a business owner, I can say that we desperately need education reform to maintain our competitiveness on the global stage. Here are three major challenges the U.S. faces in education today:

U.S. Youth Are Motivationally Challenged. Michelle Rhee, ex-Chancelor of the Washington D.C. school system, put it best by saying that we have become a country that “celebrates mediocrity”. All of those soccer trophies and participation ribbons, meant to boost kids self esteem, are having a nefarious effect on motivation. Many of my friends have grown up in a world where a decent job was celebrated with the gusto that only true excellence really warranted. The result is a generation of young adults who think they should be able to leave the office early and make partner, agent or CEO by the age of 26.

The fact the the U.S. is the richest nation in the world doesn’t seem to matter at all. Shawn Parr remarks on this issue in Fast Company, “Nations that formerly ranked far below the U.S. in terms of standard of living are racing ahead of us to educate their next generation so they can overcome their cycle of poverty (China, India, etc.), while first-world nations (Finland, Canada, South Korea) are greatly outpacing the U.S. in terms of educational achievement.” Can you manifest hunger? I struggle with this. To a certain degree, I believe many of the greatest executives come from a hunger that is manifested from misfortune. Instilling hunger in America’s youth is something that may only come from America’s continued descent from the tops of global economic rankings. It is on us to find other motivating factors.

Teacher’s Unions and Government Bureaucrats Think About Themselves First…Students Second. At lunch Rhee told a story about figuring out the mystery of the D.C. school system budget. When she arrived as Chancellor, D.C. spent over $18,000 a student, a number that put it two to three times above most public school districts in the nation. However, its achievement was amongst the lowest. So Rhee asked the question, “Where is all the money going?” After a brief investigation she discovered one of the major problems. The D.C. school district had been sued for not taking care of students with special needs. The result was that a court ordered an outside administrator to take over the care of these students. The D.C. school system had to pay the bill, but had no say on how the money was spent. At the time the D.C. school system was spending no less than $227,000 per year on special needs students! This money was spent to send them to high end private schools and charter them back and forth on private buses.

Similar stories can be told of teachers unions, who care more about protecting their own than they do about the students they teach. Rhee commented on the fact that she offered to pay top teachers over $100,000 a year, if they would all agree to hold themselves to the same performance standards private employers would hold their employees to. But this was voted down. As a result Rhee could not fire anyone unless they had committed an “egregious offense” which basically meant they hit a child on camera. So she decided to send underperforming teachers and administrators home, and pay them in full, because she needed to remove mediocrity and sub par performers from the school system.

No, teachers are not the enemy here. As Rhee says, “we must respect and celebrate our educators.” However, for whatever reason, there is a mafia-like protection of one another amongst teachers. Policies of tenure and due process have ruined our nation’s ability to recruit and retain top talent in teaching positions. Think about your worst few high school teachers for a second…would you want to be compared to them? Would you want to work alongside them?

America’s Cowboy Culture. To our credit and discredit, America is a country obsessed with cowboys. Trailblazers, pioneers and cowboys lie at the very core of the United States of America’s identity. Even in current day, we celebrate the story of the lone visionary that built a company practically by himself from the ground up. You can see this star-worship culture seep into the world of tech startups now with the likes of Sean Parker. David Kirkpatrick of Vanity Fair comments on Sean Parker’s stardom, “But, for all his Web-world savvy, Parker at times seems just as drawn to recreational indulgence. His is the life of programmer-as-rock-star–often spent among real-life rock stars–with the lifestyle that that implies.” As Silicon Valley disruptors have become synonymous with pop culture, our youth have been given a new division of role models to follow and emulate. Now, I suppose these role models are good in the sense that they support innovation and modern business. However, the misdirection occurs as many college graduates are choosing founding a company over taking an entry-level job. With a failure rate of 75%, recent college graduates can be put at a disadvantage when their startup fails and they are left to play catch up with their more experienced peers. Put simply, our culture can steer us away from education with delusions of stardom, fame or incredible wealth.

As a nation we need a big slap in the face. Our youth need to wake up to the fact that almost all of them are not destine to start the next Facebook – and that is okay. With a commitment to hard work and acceptance of the opportunities they have in front of them, they can and will be successful. Our teachers and government bureaucrats need to reassess their motivations and begin serving their end consumer – the students themselves. Teachers need to break their omerta-like code of silence and start ousting underperforming, incompetent educators who give their entire profession a bad name.

What we have in front of us is the central challenge to American greatness in the 21st century. Will we rise to the occassion?

  1. Jessica M
    April 02, 2013

    Great commentary on the event. It was great to meet you and I hope you continue to stay involved in issues like this, as you seem to have a knack for getting people organized and moving forward.

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