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A Broken System

A Broken SystemNote: Chris is out today. This blog is being written by me, Steve Flaig, Compass’ VP of Marketing. To provide a little background, I am the product of a public school system from suburban Detroit. These thoughts and suggestions are based upon my own educational experiences and observations as a parent.

In case you hadn’t noticed from articles documenting that a large percentage of recent high school graduates think Japan was our ally in WWII, or that 80% of NYC community college students that come from the city’s public schools don’t have the basic skills necessary to do the required coursework, our educational system is a failure. Not failing, a failure. For an industry like ours, for example, this inability of our public educational system to produce students capable of mastering the higher order concepts of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) poses a long term personnel challenge in the form of fewer engineers, computer scientists and alike available to design and operate facilities or develop the applications that run within them.

Despite the counter factual arguments of educational apologists, the data is indisputable. By any measure our schools systems are failing to produce the product necessary to fuel the continued growth of not only the data center industry as a whole, but American business in general. From 1971 to 2008 (the last year that data is available) reading scores for 17 year olds on the National Assessment of Educational Process (NEAP) have increased less than 1%, with equivalent scores for math rising a dismal 1% during the same period (1). This lack of progress is further reinforced when we consider that from 1972 to 2011 the average combined SAT Reading and Verbal score has dropped 20 points (2).

Those who advocate increased educational spending as a cure for our nation’s scholastic ills characterize the lack of serious thinking that has been devoted to reforming a system that so poorly prepares students for the next level of academic rigor that 50% of incoming community college students, and 20% of incoming freshman at four year institutions are required to take one or more remedial classes (3). The United States now spends an average of $10,995 per pupil in our public schools. This is 35% higher than the average of all of the other developed countries in the OECD (4). Although we outpace our OECD counterparts in lavishing dollars on our students, our return on investment is obviously lacking when we consider that we rank 25th in math, 14th in reading and 17th in science when compared to the other 34 nations we are competing with. The argument for increased federal spending on education is also rendered moot when we consider that the budget for the US Department of Education has increased 500% since 1980 (5).

Smaller class sizes and more personal student attention are also two frequently recited panaceas of the education establishment. Upon closer examination both are exposed for the canards that they are. According the National Center for Education Studies, your parents somehow overcame the lack of individualized attention that came with attending schools with teacher to student ratios of 27:1, while today’s young scholar learns less despite having to share his instructor with only 14 other pupils (6). This is the manifestation of a 300% increase in the number of teachers and administrators since the mid-50’s versus a student increase of only 60%. (7)

Fixing the educational system that we are entrusting our children, and futures, to is one of the biggest issues that we must face as a nation if we are to remain competitive in a global economy. Naturally, there are those who feel that we should look to federal government to help fix this problem. I would argue that a prescription of more spending and nationally standardized curriculums like the current administration’s Common Core effort–which attempts to improve student’s ability in math by not requiring them to learn multiplication until fifth grade and algebra until 9th—are variants on the same themes that have undermined our children’s education for the past half century. More money and less academic rigor are not the answer that we are looking for.

The educational system in this country has been the equivalent of a closed shop with only the views of inside “educational experts” being deemed qualified to chart the direction of perhaps the most essential element of a thriving country. Obviously, their efforts have failed miserably. Fixing the ills of our K-12 educational system will require plans of action that include:

  1. Local control- One size fits all prescriptions from Washington do not address the needs of your local school district. Each state should be responsible for determining what works best for its students. 50 laboratories for innovation offer a far better chance of developing programs that work and can be proliferated than the diktats of a central government bureaucracy.
  2. Choice: Charter schools and voucher programs put the decisions for children’s education into the hands of the people who should be making them—parents. Initiatives such as these that let the money follow the child not only give parents more direct input into their child’s education, they also introduce the element of competition into the equation. This enables schools to structure themselves in ways that are attractive to potential “customers” be it through areas of focus, math and science academies for example, or the scope of their curriculum.
  3. Introduce Professionals into the Classroom: In many states a Phd in mathematics could not be hired to teach your child algebra because they haven’t passed through a “certification process”. This union inflicted “closed shop” mentality raises artificial barriers to professionals wishing to enter the teaching profession and are the reason your kid’s math teacher is the football coach rather than a former engineer. Opening the classroom to those who wish to bring their skill sets to the educational community should be an issue of subject knowledge and not the latest in pedagogy taught by today’s Schools of Education, period.
  4. Develop More Math and Science Teachers: Today’s college students are avoiding the sciences and mathematics in droves. Programs promoting these courses of study are necessary to develop the qualified teachers needed to improve K-12 performance. Scholarship programs that offer free tuition for any graduate with a math or science degree who agrees to teach for four years in a public school are an example of the thinking that must be developed if we are to fill this void.

For most of our history the American public educational system was the envy of the world. Those days have passed and the current product that is being delivered places the country at a strategic disadvantage to our competitors around the globe at a time when we can least afford it. Traditional platitudes and recommendations for correcting the problem can no longer be viewed as acceptable. As an industry, and a nation, we need to replace dialogue with action to re-engineer a system that is no longer fit for the purpose it serves.


  1. US Department of Education
  2. US Department of Education
  3. Complete College America, “Remediation: The Bridge to Nowhere”, April, 2012
  4. George Washington University
  5. US Department of Education
  6. National Center for Education Studies
  7. National Center for Education Studies