Coffee, designers, and U.S. education reform

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Imagine for a moment you're a graphic designer working within the marketing department of a major coffee-shop brand. Over the years individuals far higher up in the organization have raised profit margins by putting increasingly lower quality coffee into the customer's cup. They've replaced  experienced coffee bean importers with untrained proxies who make the cheapest selections. They have slashed the marketing and production budgets beyond recognition.

Several years in and sales have tanked. The powers-that-be settle on the designers as the source of the problem. “Potential customers who see your designs are being turned off to our product,” Management says.

“Now, wait just a minute,” you protest. “We can only design based upon the marketing campaigns we're given. We are not permitted to deviate significantly. Furthermore, as sales began their decline, we were told to abide by a series of increasingly restrictive design standards. When we try to innovate, we are beaten down from all sides.

“And that's just in our department. Decisions made over years from throughout this organization have all contributed to this problem. You can't possibly expect me or my colleagues to single-handedly turn this company around when we are granted little control over our area of expertise.”

But Management doesn't seem to hear you. They're busy talking to some consultants, who say the problem rests on accountability. “We have seen a few exceptional designers turn around failing companies,” the consultants say. “So as we see it, the problem here is that your designers just need to have their feet held to the fire. There are designers in successful companies who are driving sales every day. Your designers must be recast in their image.”

A consultant realizes you've overheard their conversation, as the frustration is evident on your face. She quickly backtracks to explain, “I'm not saying all of your designers are bad. But clearly the bad ones are dragging down the product, and we need to implement a system that will pinpoint the designers who are, perhaps a poor fit for their occupation.”

You shake your head to make the room stop spinning, then ask pointedly, “Could we maybe talk about the coffee for a minute? Because we're hearing that customers are throwing away their cups after just a taste or two. Rather than blaming the designers, let's look into the steps in the supply-chain that are leading to the production of coffee that is so poorly received. Designers can certainly make a difference, but we're being hampered at every turn. We are not the root of the problem.”

The consultants exchange glances, and one says, “Well, thank you for your input. You've certainly given us some things to think about.”

They shift back toward Management and continue, “So, it's simply a matter of accountability...”

Sound absurd? Take a closer look at what's happening in education reform.

Teachers are being scapegoated even as their autonomy is further stripped away. Those who have the most contact with children—parents, teachers, and principals—are largely pushed out of the conversation. Independent consultants and administrators largely removed from the classroom are dictating what happens within it.

It's time for those who are actively involved in the lives of students—their teachers, parents, tutors, librarians—to have a say in the future of education. In the spirit of knowledge-sharing and collaboration, you'll see more articles here from these people in the coming weeks. Many have excellent ideas for how to improve our schools. It's time we listened.

(Have something to say? We'd love to hear from you.)


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Colonel Panik's picture

¡Viva la Revolucion!

Great article, it hits home for me because my wife is leaving
her post in higher education at the end of this year. Why?
The students in her program are going to be passed through
regardless of their grades, participation or any other metric
that would prove that they are ready to do advanced work.

There is no way to "fix" the system. Start over, let the parents
and teachers and STUDENTS work together to provide the
ways and means for success.

4th Grade Teacher's picture

This metaphor presents a good depiction of what has been happening in public education over the past decade, if not more. As I interpreted it, the "coffee" represents the quality of education that is provided to our students ----- that is the "product" that teachers have increasingly little say about, as the national trend moves toward standardized lessons and common assessments. This means that teachers are told what to teach on day 1, day 2, etc and given specific assessments to use, often with little flexibility to make changes or improvements.

The coffee should NOT represent the students in our classrooms, and I hope that people do not interpret this analogy to suggest that our kids are somehow the problem. They are not the problem. Teachers should have the ability to get to know their students and make the instructional decisions that make the most sense for the kids they work with everyday. Accountability alone will not solve the problem of educational programs not meeting kids' needs.

Vocational Teacher's picture

I would add IEP abuse, fully integrated classrooms (no levels) , senior teacher "advantages" and no real discipline to the growing list of issues facing today's educational system.

How many times have we seen the "troubled" child being placed into a "good class" because it will help them to model their behavior? Anyone who has taught for more then a week knows the result. The trouble child will unfairly consume large amounts of the teachers time thus depriving the rest of the class. Related to this topic, senior teachers who have honed their classroom management skills are given the "good" or "easy" classes because of their level while the fresh out of college student, is presented with the worse class possible. Where else in the world is the higher paid, more experienced workers given the easier job while the new hires are given the position with more responsibility?
Only someone in education could rationalize this situation as being best for the student's education.

But the most painful yet entrenched problem has to be the Unions.They have painstakingly created the perfect incubator for mediocrity through collective bargaining agreements. Having personally achieved high makes for three consecutive years I was devastated to find that I received the same pay raise during the same time frame as the proverbial "teacher down the hall who comes in late, leaves early, exhibits no classroom management and is always sick."

To put it bluntly our entire educational system is in dire need of an overhaul yet those who are most entrenched in it's current sad state will not allow any form of change that they themself cannot be a part of, change, or control.

Yours Truly

Counting the days till retirement.

Cindy's picture

check this out - satirical take on assessment and collaboration dictated from on high:

thomas white's picture

Thanks for the information i have a friend who is a teacher i will tell him about this sitei hope it will help him. I also saw a site which is about best colleges in laredo it will also helpfull for teachers and students too.