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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

857 wicked design problems

Amidst the traffic resulting from President Obama’s visit to Orlando, I thought of Arne Duncan in Washington, DC, and his 857 desks. I thought also of University of Virginia Rector Helen Dragas and her 3 meetings. And I thought about walking around Epcot last night while talking politics and education with my mom, a happily retired teacher from a strong union state.

Right at this moment, commenting from the peripheries of so many political conflicts, it is easy to see how privileged I am and how privileged my children are. I am both grateful for and wary of our privilege as I have learned and am learning to be. From wherever I am, I want to say this:

The pictures of Arne Duncan and empty desks coming out of Washington, DC, from the College Board’s “Don’t Forget Ed” campaign are rife with visual double-speak and a sad kind of dramatic irony.

from @usedgov

from @usedgov

Imagine those desks suddenly filled by the kids who walked out of them. Do those kids look happy to you? Do they look satisfied? Engaged? Would you exchange your place with theirs? Would it matter to you who stood in front of those desks?

The complex truth is that those dropouts walked out of a model of education that looks exactly like the one Arne Duncan, Washington, DC, and the college board are pushing and marketing to us voters. They are guilting us as if those were the desks of the disappeared. Those kids did not disappear. They took up lives that mattered to them more than school did. They did not always leave for reasons we might like; they did not always leave for reasons they liked; most of them certainly didn’t gain any more money by leaving than they would have gained by staying; however, they all left.

We live in a time of unprecedented attention to design, and the best PR campaign the College Board and Department of Education could come up with is row after row of desks positioned between Arne Duncan and the Washington Monument. I don’t associate either icon with frontline dropout prevention or recovery.

(To be fair, we live in a time of unprecedented attention to design and we maintain schools like this.)

There is a hobbling lack of vision of in our nation’s education administration, and leadership that asks our children to sit in rows is in and of itself blinkered. There are myriad communities, opportunities, and technologies that can been featured in any dropout prevention campaign – communities, opportunities, and technologies that make a compelling case for both the continued existence of schools and students’ continued enrollment in them. But what do we get?

Rows of desks?


Because at some genuine, compassionate level, we think if we fill those desks, the dropout problem will be solved. But, as Garreth Heidt might suggest, the dropout problem is one of Horst Rittel and John Kolko’s wicked problems – social problems so complex that they can be mitigated by dedicated and accountable designers in many ways without being “solved” by a “right” answer.

Filling those desks is magical thinking that benefits the College Board. More kids graduating means more kids applying to college. More kids applying to college means more rejections and higher selectivity ratings. More kids rejected means new revenues from more subscribers to virtual courses with low overhead. Higher selectivity ratings loop back into more applications which equate to more fees and more stable funding of everything else universities invest in apart from quality teaching for undergraduates (it’s no surprise that the College Board romanticizes desks in rows – if only someone would do the same for lecture halls: “Don’t forget attrition!”).

The single, best thing the College Board could do, in my mind, is to partner with higher education and overhaul admissions standards so that they require “college-ready” students to submit interdisciplinary, arts-infused portfolios for assessment. But that won’t happen without a fight (Wahoowa!) because it would be costly in the near-term and might impact the number of students a university admits during any national transition away from transcripts and test scores.

Is it okay for the College Board to want higher education to remain sustainable – or even profitable? Certainly, but to call for a greater volume of graduates without calling also for greater meaning and relevancy in public and undergraduate education is more mercenary than meritory.

Protecting the status quo in public and higher education means that at least one more generation of privileged students will graduate with having learned the blame-game two-step, through which the privileged shift blame and consequence for the problems they cause and/or ignore to the less privileged and the oppressed.

Telling candidates and voters to pay attention to education doesn’t begin to solve the wicked problem of high school dropout rates. Neither does Race to the Top (or any of its children) with its crystalline focus on purchasing more tests, more intervention systems, more teacher revaluation systems, and more student information systems. At what point do we stop paying other people to tell us what to do to find out if we still have a problem? At what point do we just get down to the hard work of connecting kids with learning they value in environments that don’t criminalize the behaviors to which we have socialized them through our adult-driven media and consumerism?

If we can admit that the dropout problem is a wicked problem, then we also have to admit that when a kid drops out, he or she isn’t making a “right” or “wrong” decision; moreover, as much as we want to judge such a decision as a “bad” one, we have to admit the possibility that the decision to drop out might have been “good” for the student – that it might have worked better than school did. Would any of us privileged, school-successful graduates have felt so sure about staying if we knew staying meant failure or a increased chance of incarceration? If we knew our schools weren’t going to grant us diplomas, would we give up years of income just to be judged and ordered to jump through the hoops each day?

Such questions may not be fair to some schools or germane to some dropouts, but surely there are kids who ask themselves similar questions daily in our schools. We can’t insist that they stay with a test or test-preparation program; however, with their help we can design better “schools” – better learning opportunities. We can convince them through our deeds and the learning we do alongside them that we are serious about making school matter to them and about making their work at school matter to their families, communities, and livelihoods.

But getting the candidates involved won’t do it; getting the bureaucrats involved won’t do it; getting the voters involved won’t do it; getting the bodies into the chairs won’t do it.

Getting kids, designers, and educators together – out from under the weight of onerous federal and state political manipulation – might start to do it.

Or we could start with a question: what are the solutions to school?

We have a design problem here – a wicked problem – and it will take some thinking that seems wicked to those invested in the status quo of public schooling to even begin to mitigate it.

I don’t want to see Arne Duncan, empty desks, or the Washington Monument. I want to see kids filling up the foregrounds of their lives with work that matters to them and brings them the delight that is just as absent as they are from the College Board’s picture.

At the very least I want some kids who dropped out invited back to sit on that lawn and tell Arne Duncan why they left – they are certainly invited here. Their faces and voices didn’t need to be kept out of this campaign; somebody made a design decision there.


About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


3 thoughts on “857 wicked design problems

  1. Yet another thoughtful, excellent post Chad. Were you aware that David Coleman, “architect” of the Common Core State Standards, is slated to be the College Board’s President in mid-October? Fascinating!

    Posted by Francesca Blueher | June 23, 2012, 5:02 pm
    • Thank you, Francesca – thank you very much.

      I wasn’t aware of Coleman’s new role, but it’s hardly surprising. I’m somewhat stunned by mainstream journalism’s unwillingness to doggedly follow the money in education (apart, perhaps, from union money). Conflicts of interest riddle our educational landscape.

      Best regards,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | June 23, 2012, 9:45 pm


  1. Pingback: This Week’s Round-Up Of Good Education Posts | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day… - July 25, 2012

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