December 18, 2013
If you read Skunk Works carefully, you’ll notice that the men at the top of the Pentagon, secretaries of defense Harold Brown, Caspar Weinberger, and William J. Perry, emphasize that the amazing innovation they sponsored was not good enough by itself. Brown, a brilliant technocrat who was Jimmy Carter’s secretary of defense while the F-117 was being developed, pointedly notes:
[Stealth] was a remarkable achievement and excited the imagination of operational planners who finally had the good sense to come up with a workable doctrine and operational concept, combining the airplane’s invulnerability with high-precision bombs.
In other words, even an invisible bomber (much less an iPad) only works in the right system. The Pentagon also needed a carefully thought-out and tested plan for using the F-117. They eventually concluded it worked best as a first-strike penetrator against radar installations, allowing less exotic planes to do the bulk of the fighting once the enemy’s sensors were demolished.
On the defensive side of combat control, the US protected its radar and computers by miniaturizing them enough to be sent aloft in airliners, which couldn’t be blown up by bombers. The entire offensive/defensive system required getting millions of lines of software code to work together”a gigantic investment of money, brainpower, and time. The Soviets eventually came to the depressing realization that they couldn’t match American system integration.
While the search in education for a magic bullet is never-ending, the energy put into integrating systems to support teaching is paltry.
The junkyard of school solutions includes the 2002 No Child Left Behind act that mandated that every student in America be above average by next May.
And who can forget “Small Learning Communities?” Actually, who can recall this organizational fad that convulsed public schools a decade ago? The only thing memorable about it was Bill Gates’s 2009 speech announcing that the two billion dollars he’d spent on this and other panaceas had been wasted.
Lately, 45 states have signed on to junk their current curricula and tests in favor of the “Common Core,” a series of guidelines concocted by a former McKinsey consultant named David Coleman, whose only teaching experience is some tutoring of New Haven urban youth while he was buffing his Rhodes Scholarship application.
In Los Angeles, spending a billion bucks on iPads was seen as a Stealth-like breakthrough. But nobody bothered to think through the issues. The Air Force formerly employed veteran pilots to fly Soviet MiGs in war games, but the LAUSD brain trust didn’t put themselves into the shoes of their students and ask, “What’s the first thing you’d do if handed a new iPad: Do all your extra-credit homework ahead of time or download porn?”
Touchscreen tablets are a promising tool for multiple-choice tests. Unfortunately, the LA administrators forgot that the equally trendy Common Core they were adopting is on the warpath against multiple-choice tests. So to allow students to write lengthy essay answers for the upcoming Common Core tests, they belatedly realized they needed to spend more than the billion-dollar budget because they also had to buy keyboards for the iPads. (Eventually, they may also realize they’ll need to pay for typing lessons, because otherwise the vaunted new essay examinations might prove to be mostly measuring the wide variation among students in typing skills.)
The iPad fiasco could have been foreseen by anybody familiar with military history, which is full of magic bullets that weren’t fully thought through. It’s not coincidental that Murphy’s Law“if anything can go wrong, it will”was coined at Edwards Air Force Base, the military’s desert test track. (Even though it sounds almost too good to be true, the phrase “Murphy’s Law” emerged from an Air Force experiment involving a rocket sled and chimpanzees.)
Consider the Battle of the Crater in 1864. Ulysses S. Grant, stymied by Confederate trenches protecting Petersburg, VA, agreed to have coal miners dig a tunnel under the enemy lines, then pack it with 8,000 pounds of gunpowder. The Union troops rushed into the 30-foot-deep hole. Not having been issued ladders, however, they found they had no way to climb out. Eventually, the stunned Rebels wandered over to the lip of the crater and began what they described as a “turkey shoot.”
Sadly, there’s no meta-magic bullet that makes magic bullets work instantly. The only solution ever found has been sustained managerial effort.
The education business has a short memory that keeps it from getting discouraged but also prevents it from learning from its mistakes. One reason fads are so common in public schools is that the incentive structure pays more to administrators with Ph.D.’s. A doctorate in education means you came up with some gimmick and then spent a few years documenting it. Education schools are thus novelty generation machines. Nobody gets to call himself “Doctor” for being good at making old ideas work together.
Outside of Ed schools, however, novelty isn”t enough.