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The Education-Industrial Complex

December 18, 2013

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The Education-Industrial Complex

During the Vietnam War, a famous protest bumper sticker read:

It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.

But these days, spending on quick fixes for education is approaching levels similar to the military-industrial complex. For example, Los Angeles school superintendent John Deasy plans to pay Apple a billion dollars to furnish every student with an iPad and software (some of which hasn’t gone through the formality of existing yet).

While the Air Force’s notoriously expensive B-2 Stealth Bomber program cost $45 billion from 1979 to 2004, the LAUSD iPad rollout, if scaled up to the entire country, would total about $75 billion.

That’s a lot of Rice Krispies Treats.

A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon we ought to be talking about real management. Unfortunately, the education industry approaches aerospace-sized projects with more starry-eyed optimism than is prudent for a bake sale, much less a war.

In an age when Silicon Valley trumpets “disruptive technologies,” it’s hardly surprising that the education reform establishment is addicted to the concept of magic bullets that will finally Fix the Schools. Who doesn’t love the allure of a revolutionary technological, doctrinal, or organizational fix for all that ails us?

To get some perspective on what it takes for a radical innovation to actually work in the real world, I recently reread Ben Rich’s Skunk Works, the tale of Lockheed’s invention of the revolutionary F-117 Stealth Fighter, which was really a small bomber invisible to Soviet air defenses.

“The education industry approaches aerospace-sized projects with more starry-eyed optimism than is prudent for a bake sale, much less a war.”

Flight-tested at Nevada’s Area 51, the radar-deflecting Nighthawk was so alien in aspect that it looked like it had been designed by those UFO pilots the government keeps locked up there. (Just kidding. [I think.])

In the 1991 Gulf War, the F-117 led the blinding of Iraq’s Soviet and French-made air defense system, flying approximately 1,300 missions without suffering a bullet hole.

Seven months later, the technologically outgunned Soviet Union gave up.

Now, that’s a magic bullet!

And yet the tale of how stealth technology helped win the Cold War turns out to be much more complicated than just Lockheed building a plane that bounced away radar beams. The full story contains a lesson for school reformers. The key turned out to be not just having a warplane with what seemed like a comic-book heroine’s superpower—a cloak of invisibility—but the most boring phrase imaginable: system integration. It’s a concept almost completely unknown in the excitable world of education reform.

Skunk Works is perhaps the best of the as-told-to autobiographies by Cold War military-industrial figures such as Colin Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf, and Chuck Yeager. It didn’t sell as well as those bestsellers in part because its subject, the boss of Lockheed’s advanced projects division from 1975-1990, was a civilian pencil pusher. Who wants to read the memoirs of Dilbert’s boss? Moreover, Rich couldn’t do a prolonged book tour because he was dying of cancer when Skunk Works came out in 1994.

Still, ghostwriter Leo Janos, who had earlier scored with Yeager: An Autobiography, did a remarkable job of making a life spent sitting behind a desk or standing on a runway enthralling. Skunk Works remains a model for how to construct a nonfiction book for maximum readability.

Since the Battle of Britain in 1940, radar had been the keystone of air defense. From the 1950s into the 1970s, Lockheed’s Skunk Works designed three planes that each embodied one of the three main tactics against radar-controlled surface-to-air missiles: height, speed, and, ultimately, stealth.

Skunk Works’ founder, legendary aircraft designer Kelly Johnson, built the U-2 spy plane in the mid-1950s to fly too high (70,000 feet) for existing Soviet missiles. It provided President Eisenhower with crucial information on what the Reds were up to and, perhaps more importantly, what they weren’t: They weren’t massing to launch WWIII.

After the Russians finally shot down CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers’s U-2 in 1960, Skunk Works delivered the imposing SR-71 in the 1960s to fly too fast (well over 2,000MPH). The SR-71 Blackbird was the most awesome airplane ever to enter service. Besides, the US had—as far as I know—never risked it overflying Russian airspace for fear of interceptor SAMs, which could be tipped with small nuclear bombs.

Still, the Blackbird so galvanized the male imagination that Congress forced the Air Force to reactivate it in the 1990s, even though it was extravagantly expensive to operate and no role besides reconnaissance had ever been worked out for it.

Ben Rich didn’t invent Stealth. Shortly after he had taken over Skunk Works from Johnson in 1975, an employee named Denys Overholser brought him an old article in a Soviet scientific journal extending James Clerk Maxwell’s electromagnetic equations. Overholser proposed turning Petr Ufimtsev’s equations into software that could predict how large any shape would appear on the radar screen. With this tool, they could design a plane that would be undetectable at night: at last, a magic bullet!

The emerging high-tech threat to Soviet air defenses in the early 1980s inspired the Soviet air force to back the energetic young reformer Mikhail Gorbachev to shake up the stultified system. Instead, Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost brought down the Soviet empire.

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.”

For want of a nail…

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.

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