Sending our Kids to School in a Trabant


This 1993 video of U2 singing Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” shows a spinning car above the band – an homage to the Trabant, an East German car, meaning satellite or companion in German. 

In today’s But if Not I tell the story of the Trabant and the need to modernize America’s education system.

As the Berlin wall came down in 1989 East Germans streamed through Checkpoint Charlie in their Trabants.  This four-wheeled descendent of Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz , belching smoke from its 18 horse power motor, and whose doors, which included recycled paper, swelled when it rained, was the model of central planning manufacturing efficiency.

Originally manufactured in the 1950’s as the East German response to the Volkswagon Beetle, the Trabant was nearly unimproved in its thirty-odd years of production.  Residents often waited years to get their alloted car, which, simply because of availability, drove the price of used Trabants above the price of a new one. 

Central planners thought cars should be merely a means of transportation, and nothing more.  It should not be a reflection of individual personality, as that elevated the individual above the rest.  Further, the manufacture of only one car was an efficient use of resources.  There was no waste of industrial capital in redundant competing factories.

Ahh, but you can imagine the reaction of East Germans as they streamed into West Berlin in 1989 and saw Mercedes, Audis, Volkswagons, and BMWs.  Surely it was indignation that they felt at seeing the pernicious effects of raw, unrestrained, wasteful, market competition. 

No indeed.  We know that the Berlin wall came down because the people of East Germany, Hungary, and all across eastern Europe would have no more of it.  The German split into communist and capitalist countries was a near perfect laboratory experiment; the same people, with common culture, common education, and similar access to natural resources split into two.  After more than 40 years the mice in the control group were busting out and the Trabant was the symbol of the inherent failure of central planning.

This urge for better applies itself everywhere, even to America’s Trabant – public education.

Which brings me to a post on the Atlantic Wire yesterday on the value of teachers.  Uri Freidman argues that a good teacher yields $400,000 more in future earning for her students than an average teacher.  Further,

replacing the worst-performing five to eight percent of teachers with average teachers could catapult the U.S. to near the top of international math and science rankings, padding GDP by $100 trillion

There are many factors affecting teacher quality, not the least of which is the bureaucracy of education central planners and jobs protectors

Shining full Hollywood spotlight on the dilemma of education innovation is Davis Guggenheim, the producer of An Inconvenient Truth, with his new movie Waiting for Superman.  He highlights the story of 5 students navigating the lottery to get out of the Washington D.C. school system and into one of its charter schools.  In doing so he also shows the incredible roadblocks put up by the union.  Putting a fine point on it, in my conversation last week with a high school principal he said that the number one challenge he faces in running his school is teacher tenure. 

While advancements in manufacturing have been driven by advancements in quality control measures and feedback systems, even trying to know how schools are doing is a challenge.  School systems, led by employee unions, push back against attempts to measure the effectiveness of teachers and techniques.  Current measures of performance are perfectly ambiguous; AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) measures this year’s third graders against last year’s third graders – where any change in the composition of students makes results un-comparable.

Measuring the amount of individual growth students make in a year is surely one direct measure of teacher effectiveness.  The value-added assessment model is catching on and will help identify techniques that work.  The quicker we get on with properly measuring how we are doing, the quicker we can get on with making it better.

Like the Trabant, public schooling has had few improvements over the past 40 years.  Students still sit in rows, in desks, looking at and listening to someone talk at them.  In today’s world of rich media, the time at school must be the most unstimulating hours in a child’s day.

But, like the collapse of the wall, change is coming.  And its coming in the same way that the record player put the local opera singer out of business. Alternatives to the public education monopoly are popping up all over, and people are noticing, starting with Bill Gates.

Bill Gates says he used the Khan Academy to teach his children math.  Founded by Sal Khan, a former hedge fund manager, the Khan Academy is a collection of 5 to 15 minute videos clearly explaining the principles of all forms of math, with accompanying exercises.  Initially Sal posted the little recordings on YouTube, for free.  In the course of  getting more than 18 million hits he was discovered and now he has his own website.

This guy, Sal, isn’t an average educator that knows a little math and how to post on YouTube. He was valedictorian of his high school class and attained a perfect score in the math portion of his SATs, holds a B.S. in mathematics, a B.S. in electrical engineering, and a B.S. in computer science from MIT. In addition, he also holds an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. 

With cred like that kids are getting access to one of the brightest math teachers in the world.

This is where public education lacks the dynamism of the market.  When private entities fail to innovate they go out of business and something better replaces it.  Here’s a perfect metaphor on the demise of Blockbuster from a recent Surowiecki article in the New Yorker

Why didn’t Blockbuster evolve more quickly? In part, it was because of what you could call the “internal constituency” problem: the company was full of people who had been there when bricks-and-mortar stores were hugely profitable, and who couldn’t believe that those days were gone for good. Blockbuster treated its thousands of stores as if they were a protective moat, when in fact they were the business equivalent of the Maginot Line.

Our public education system was designed in the time before computers and streaming media and is run by a union committed to ensuring enrichment and permanency for its teaching members.   The many instances of local attempts to innovate around these problems are quibbling within the existing margins.  Our current system, with large central offices and too many planners outside the classroom, lacks the ability to respond and change.

Which isn’t to say that there is not modernization going on.  There are many teachers that feel the urgency to “tear down that wall” and drive innovation into the school.  Dr. Julie Morrow, principal of Mooresville Intermediate School, is among those experimenting with a modern classroom.  In her school, each child gets either a laptop or an iPad and these devices are loaded with content supportive of the curricula.  But what’s remarkable about Julie’s school is that it is remarkable. 

Returning to the Trabant, this icon of central planning failure is being re-released as an electic car, fully kitted with the latest generation of technology.  Now,  I know that the jury is still out on the future of electric cars, but the irony is too rich to bypass.  Can’t we similarly begin to re-kit our public education system?  Doing so will require us to abandon the East German model of teaching our kids.

As a final fly over, I leave you with a terrific video by Sir Ken Robinson motivating the need to change education paradigms.  (Thanks to Nick Houlton, an innovator in adult education himself, for the pointer).

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3 Responses to Sending our Kids to School in a Trabant

  1. Pingback: To Begin a Dialogue on Parenting and Education | But If Nots

  2. Moose says:

    Probably not your original intent in posting this, but I found the RSA Animate treatment of Ken Robinson’s speech to be fascinating, and probably a lot more valuable than just listening to the speech. Maybe it’s because I have ADD (since I live on the East Coast).

  3. Bhuvan Nijhawan says:

    thank you Sean..powerful and usefull stuff this

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