In the education system, there is no substitute for numbers to make a point, but networks of relationships determine whether anything gets accomplished

When it comes to making a point, there is no substitute for numbers. Last week’s Tampa Bay Times story about five elementary schools where black children are sent to die academically relies on numbers about the schools’ racial makeup and the miniscule passing rates of the schools’ students on state math and reading tests.

The Orlando Sentinel’s district math and science rankings made it clear for all who care to see that Lake County is underperforming when it comes to preparing the district’s students for college majors in science and engineering. I used the same Sentinel rankings, as well as numbers more specific to physics, in discussions last week with officials from a different school district – one that is also underperforming when it comes to preparing its students for science and engineering fields.

In an op-ed I published in the Tallahassee Democrat last month, I quoted numbers on the decline of the percentages of black students among State University System graduates in engineering and science fields as evidence that we are losing the will to make progress in giving students from all backgrounds access to leadership roles in our new economy.

But even in a time when educational policy decisions at all levels are supposed to be data-driven, numbers cannot by themselves drive progress. Like other large human organizations, school districts and universities are complex networks of human relationships. These relationships can range from being collaborative and positive to being negatively built on coercion and self-interest. Nevertheless, any attempt at change has to navigate existing relationships – both positive and negative – and build new relationships.

These complex networks of relationships endow school districts and universities with tremendous inertia. I will watch with interest the reaction of the Pinellas County school district to last week’s Tampa Bay Times report. The report makes it clear that the board members and district officials have long been aware of everything being reported.  There is no question that a considerable number of excuses will be offered by public officials for the state of the learning environment in South Pinellas.

Another common tactic for deflecting criticism – one that often works well in a complex organization – is to shift blame to others in the organization who might plausibly have had some of the responsibility for a particular situation. I understand and sympathize with your argument, but I’m not the person who can do anything about this – you should talk to the such-and-such’s. Who no doubt have someone else to point at.

Another tactic I unfortunately recognize is this: We can’t do this small thing that might make the situation better because it should really be part of a comprehensive strategy, which requires 100% agreement of a large group of people which is certain to include some individuals who disagree with you.

Or maybe this: Your suggestion for making a small improvement would clearly be ineffective as evidenced [yes, that is a bureaucratic verb] by the small or nonexistent price tag, which demonstrates conclusively that it would not be effective. But if we could find some way to spend $50,000 on this, that would make it effective.


The mode I am in right now is this: I will do a small thing if it looks like it will probably have some effect – even if the effect will be small. I am at a point in my career and life where failure is no longer humiliating, because I have failed so much (and continue to do so). So I will just keep plugging, one baby step at a time. And I will go wherever I am welcome – constrained only by my limited resources and the tyranny of the 24 hour day.  

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