Race cars, slow and fast
Bucky is a legend. He not only has an uncanny ability to put his race car in just the right place at the right time. He is a mechanical magician. After we finished putting in his new turbo-charger, he leaned on one side of his pickup, arms splayed across the bed rail, while I kept the other side from flying away.
“Heck, I’ve spent a ton of money making that car go faster,” he said. “But some of those top-dollar gadgets made it run slower — and some caused me to wreck.” After a pause, he said, “You’re in the education business, and I’m no expert but I’ve been thinking about a thing or two.”
“Yes,” I answered warily.
“In a race car, if your car is running real good, you don’t go messing around with things that don’t need fixing. If you do, you’re gonna make it run slower. On the other hand, if your car is running doggy, you can change out most everything and feel pretty sure that whatever you do will make it run faster. Isn’t there some kind of scientific principle that says that’s so?”
“There’s a lot of research that says that. Some call it the regression effect,” I said, not yet sure where he was going.
“Now isn’t Vermont supposed to be some kind of education superpower?”
“Well, that may be putting it a bit strong, but according to test scores, we’re national leaders,” I said. “The most prominent education writer in the nation says Vermont’s got the best system in the country, and another says our finance system is probably the best. We’re seventh and eighth in science and math in the world. Our graduation rate is number one in the U.S., and we’re number two in social health indicators. Our achievement gap is smaller than the nation’s, but it’s still a problem. Community involvement is high, even though the Internet is changing people. All in all, it’s kind of hard to do better than that.”
“What I can’t understand,” Bucky interrupted, “is all this yammerin’ about the state consolidating supervisory unions. It looks like education is running well. If my race car is running real well, I don’t mess with it. But if she starts swapping ends in the corners, I don’t tear out the engine and the transmission; I go fix the suspension and the balance. You solve the problem you got, not the one you don’t.”
He was warming to the subject.
“Now everybody knows the state has a whole lot fewer students than it did before. It seems to me you solve that problem by going to ungraded schools, using Skype and electronics, reducing staff and combining schools. I don’t see how eliminating supervisory unions will fix that. The solution doesn’t fit the problem. In my garage, I have all kinds of trouble-shooting gizmos. The first thing I do is figure out the real problem. Then I know what I have to fix. Do they know what they’re trying to fix?
“Then, there’s all this talk about the shortage of leadership,” Bucky charged on. “Our turnover rate is about the same as other states, better than some. In a time when we need good leadership, how cutting down on them and doubling the load on the others will solve the problem is a mystery to me. If we were looking for reasons for the leadership problem, it’s probably retiring baby boomers or folks taking jobs in other districts. Mindless bureaucratic handcuffs and whiny adults probably figure in, too. Seems to me, recruiting and training promising leaders might be a better way to go. How going to mega-districts connects to the problem is not clear to me.
“Finally, there’s this moaning and groaning about lack of citizen involvement,” Bucky added with a touch of sarcasm in his voice. “How throwing out your elected local boards and turning them into some weak-kneed advisory committee will solve this problem is something I just don’t get. Who’s going to waste their time sipping tea, crocheting and organizing bake sales? I’m not going to get too fancy, but Thomas Jefferson said we must build and constantly nourish democracy, not abandon it because it’s too much trouble.”
After this shot, Bucky turned and starting walking away. Then he turned back and quietly said, “That new turbo-charger we just put on? If we got the boost wrong, she blows up. So I’m going to bench-test it and field test it real strong. Do they know this stuff will work or are they just going to roar out of the barn and see what happens?”
William J. Mathis is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center. He previously served as a Vermont Superintendent of Schools and is presently a member of the state Education Board. The views expressed are his own.