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Coulson on Replicating Success

In a recent WSJ opinion piece, Andrew J. Coulson–Director of CATO’s Center for Educational Freedom–identifies a key defect in American education: its inability to replicate successful results. [HT: Thrutch]

The persistence of this problem is not for lack of effort or high level commitment. Coulson notes that the goal of identifying and propagating the best methods and materials drove Horace Mann’s effort in establishing centralized state direction of public education in the early 19th century. Yet more than 150 years later, President Clinton observed, about those who have devoted themselves to education reform, they “…are constantly plagued by the fact that nearly every problem has been solved by somebody somewhere, and yet we can’t seem to replicate it everywhere else.”

The recent death of one of America’s best known teachers provided Coulson with a concrete example of his point. Jaime Escalante, made famous in the movie “Stand and Deliver,” created a program to successfully teach calculus to poor inner city kids. Despite his success, the teachers union contested his large class sizes, which gave access to all willing students. He experienced conflicts with other teachers and the administration, plus he received threats of violence. Eventually, he was pushed out of his position as head of the math department, which precipitated not only his resignation but also the demise of his successful program.

In contrast, Coulson points to two recent examples of success: the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) network of 82 charter schools, and the Kumon tutoring centers, which help 4 million students in 42 countries.

However, I would note two criticisms of these examples, which get to points that I have made previously about “public” education and proper instructional methodology. First, Diana Ravitch had noted that charter schools as a whole do not foster better student performance than regular public schools; which further supports Coulson’s overall point that publicly financed and regulated schools fail to replicate innovation, thus the overall charter school results return to the same miserably ineffective level. Second, as Coulson acknowledges, the rote drill methods of instruction typical of Japanese education, such as Kumon, do not promote the conceptual thinking necessary for a student’s later success in life.

Extrapolating from Coulson’s essay, I find three additional important points about education reform, which provide a substantial challenge.

The first relates to the lack of properly trained teachers. Escalante’s efforts were hampered because he had more motivated students than qualified teachers. This relates to Ravitch’s proposal for stricter certification of teachers, which would require a demonstration of subject matter expertise. However, raising the standards does not create suddenly qualified teachers; instead, it identifies what we already know: students require better teachers than those created by our teacher colleges. If all schools were privatized tomorrow, we would still have the problem of poorly trained and poor performing teachers.

As I mentioned earlier in the week to a prospective teacher, I view the lack of properly trained (according to my own standards) teachers as the largest constraint in establishing and scaling up my own educational institutions, thus I have to plan to retrain the teachers myself before I can begin with students.

Second, the process of replicating best practices in private industry leverage two relevant tools: franchising and independent auditing. Within Coulson’s context, I refer to the aspect of franchising that documents procedures and practices, and provides supporting training to implement uniform and optimized standards across a distributed enterprise. Ravitch recommends external auditing of troubled schools as a lever to identify and target resources for improvement. However, the critical aspect of auditing is “what standards shall be used for measurement?” Applying the wrong standards re-enforces negative outcomes; as the Escalante’s case demonstrates, public school values are incompatible with actual education. In fact, school reform efforts have been frustrated over issues of what to audit and how to do so.

Third, teachers unions have proven to be an impediment to actually teaching students. While Ravitch objects to the wholesale firing of all teachers in failed schools, an alternative that should be considered is terminating the union from that school. This is not an anti-union reflex, but focused upon the question of “What is the purpose of teachers unions within education?” If one of their key purposes is not facilitating the delivery of excellent education or they have failed to do so, then they should be excluded.

In summary, related to Coulson’s observation about American education’s inability to replicate successful results, such efforts are incompatible with public management, regulation, and financing of schools. Further, even with privatization, significant improvements must be made in labor relations, teacher training, and the establishment of objective standards for measuring and implementing best education practices.

Reposted from The Prometheus Inquiry

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  1. Fareed


    have you come across Gatto’s “A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling” ?

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    • Jim


      I have not read that; however, after looking at the Amazon review, I can see some value in it. Thank you for the recommendation.

      Are you a teacher or just interested in education?

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  2. Fareed

    I’m interested in education. I read your previous and this post and the point about integrating knowledge to reality hit the mark for me. I graduated from a NZ university with a bachelor’s in chemistry and that is what I experienced first hand. you learn a lot of information but it does not seem to be connected to the reality around you. the professors live in an educational bubble of their own.

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