Coping: With the Failed American Education System

If there is one thing most would agree about, it’s that Monday’s should be over and done with (on the work side) as soon as possible, so we can get on with the business of having fun – and working on our own projects – which is what weekends *(or time off) is all about.

One of the major obstacles to this is the inefficiency of workflow – and in thinking about it this weekend, it occurred to me that it is as much a failure of knowledge engineering as much as anything else.

As I have told you – many, many times – there is hardly any need for school if the academics would simply give up on their “pay by the word” kind of approach.

Look: Learning ANYTHING may always be distilled down into simple component processes.

Take flying an airplane: It comes down to being abled to do three things at once: Aviate, communicate, and navigate.

Got that? Three tasks.

Under each of three general tasks are some specifics for each one.

The aviate part has an engine on (climb, cruise) or engine down or off part (descend or glide).

The ailerons (roll the plane) and the rudder (turns the plane).

The art of aviation is mastered when you can move the yoke forward or back (descend or climb), while rolling the wings (turn yoke this way, or that) while stepping on a “ball” indicator to add the right amount of rudder to make a coordinated turn.

Simple as that.

But we often don’t organize knowledge until we have beat the hell out of the textbooks.

There’s one of our local pilots – I won’t give you his name – but he is an excellent “ball and stick” kind of guy. Granted, I wouldn’t go flying with him – he’s always got his airplanes right at the limits of performance. Things like wing-over turns 100 feet of the deck don’t allow enough time for recovery from errors. But this fellow has been flying for years. Clipped a few tree-tops, but a better “rudder and stick” guy would be hard to find.

No let me give you a different pilot: Son of a friend. 6+ years of school, and THEN he learns to fly.

Way different input ratios…and way different pilots, since the latter is now right seat on C-17’s.

My point, though, is we don’t do a particularly good job of implementing the “recipe approach” to knowledge.

This theory of mine says anything is essentially EASY but we wrap things up in so much goobledegook that it becomes nearly impossible to learn.

Youngest daughter called this week to announce she was going to pick up some accounting classes..maybe sign up at the local community college.

What the hell?” screamed Ures truly.

I then launched in to a long critique of the higher education system in general, and then went off on the vocational system I was once a sales sharp for.

I explained that colleges – by and large – have failed to use technology appropriately. There is no reason on God’s Green Earth for a four-year degree in accounting to cost more than some modest about, like $10,000. Why? Well, except for the annual jiggering the tax code for special interests, accounting hasn’t changed in, oh, hundreds of years.

It is still the art of money coming in, money going out, money left over, and keeping track in such ways as fraud and cheating can be found.

Instead, accounting is turned into 400 page textbooks – with accounting packages – and it goes down hill from there. One to three books per year.

Oodles of discussion but a real dearth of “rules of thumb” and that’s where I finally laid off on my attack on “the system.”

In the end, I agreed to send here one of our computers, offered to buy her a copy of QuickBooks, and gave her directions to the MIT OpenCourseWare project and explained the problem she faces.

Which employee would you hire?

One says “I don’t have a digree in accounting, but I have completed through intermediate accounting (using my own copy of QuickBooks) through the MIT OpenCourseWare program.


“I just got an associate degree from a local college, but I haven’t any experience of QuickBooks…we had to use the Textbook maker’s accounting package…”

And this gets to my point.

I bet that fully 60% of what colleges and universities are shoveling into the heads of young people is not pertinent to the one thing that employers are looking for: The ability to do real work.

You see, until you rise well above the shagging no-pays on the accounts receivable side, or until you are done with making routing A/R entries, what an employer wants you to be able to do is DO SOMETHING.

Now, colleges and universities are fine for teaching people “how to think” – but even here they fall down terribly on the job.

Today’s young people are not as able to engage in critical thinking as past generations…despite tuition that “magically” goes up by the cost of living plus two percent every year.


If Colleges and Universities want critics like me to “lay off” ‘em, they would get off the high horse and get back to teaching the basics. Here’s how reading, writing, arithmetic, and basic accounting works.

Instead, we have gender-marketing, undisciplined “hallowed halls” that are covered in ivy and public money.

Instead of teach Trade 101 in an economics program, that may be last year, or grad school content.

I would suggest that one reason national priorities are such a mess is we have kidded ourseleves into thinking we are turning out “thinking kids.”

They are generally not. They parrot fine, but when comes to making and keeping America great, higher ed is a bigger rip than the subsidized banks and auto industries.

We need recipes to DO THINGS and enough grounding to put those things in context.

What we don’t need are state-financed “diploma mills” who graduate people unsuited to the workforce and then wonder “Gee, why aren’t student loans paid back more promptly?”

For more than a decade, the vocational side of education has had to document placement of graduates.

The higher ed side has bullshitted its way past that arguing they are no preparing job candidates, they are teaching people to think.

I would point to the political stupidity of presidential politics as conclusive proof that is another massive fail.

So to wrap up the rant: Employers want people with a lot of DO and all the failures of knowledge engineering are spread before us even now. Failures to teach the basics – like accounting – and failures to structure knowledge to the student’s desired outcome.

Until we start looking at some of these systemic fails head-on, we will continue to drop further and further back from being one of the world leaders in thinking.

In terms of bang for the buck, US News carried a story in January that the US was number 4 worldwide.

The Big Ugly of that report was it was an American done report.

In the next week, or three, we expect the annual OECD Global Report on education to be released.

But based on math and science of 15 year olds in 2015, the top ten were Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japana, Taiwan, Finland, Estonia, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Canada. I’ll toss in a magnanimous bonus just for you: #11 was Poland.

We may have some nifty online quantum computing demos coming out of a few bright research oriented companies, like IBM.

But when comes down to solid knowledge engineering, don’t look now, but we are getting our asses kicked by countries which are more focused on the basics than the nonsense side.

Everyone is equal…got it? Now, can we learn something, please, and get back in the game?

Write when you get rich,


Coping: With the Failed American Education System — 16 Comments

  1. George,

    The best advice I’ve ever received was when I gettin ready to graduate high school. Struggling between the decision of military, college, or head straight into the work force, my father told me that regardless of what I choose, a trade is worth two educations. Over the years, I did things somewhat backwards. I worked in the trades for a few years and I got to be a pretty good carpenter – both trim and rough. I learned stone masonry by on old Pennsylvania mason, was an ASE certified mechanic, and I ran heavy equipment.

    I did decide to follow my family’s footsteps into the Marine Corps as to where I spent the majority of my young adult life. And, I did earn my 1st degree well into my late thirties. Truth told, my blue collar background has been more of a service to me than any piece of paper hanging on my wall.

    Now, I work in law enforcement for one of those three letter agencies you mention from time to time. And, I am still trying to finish my 2nd degree. Which, I might add, will be used for nothing more that to get a promotion. The unfortunate reality is that I will be still paying off my student loans while paying for my kids college.

    However, I do save a lot of money on improvements to the house and vehicle repairs. At least something pays for itself around here…

  2. ” well said..”
    I might add I love the MIT open courseware and am constantly participating in them.. there are also a lot of other colleges that offer similar classes or access to their materials.. especially in the European nations and the middle east.. they value education and promote it among all the people evenly.. some countries demand excellence.. America on the other hand seems to want to dumb down the general population and only promote a higher education among the wealthiest.I wonder if this could be a control issue dumb down the population so they cannot even read high school material then pass laws that takes a team of harvard lawyers to understand.. you can basically force anything down the populations throat.. even our congress is reluctant to take on the challenge of reading the same garbage… I see this in all area’s for a poor man to get his education he has to take out a lot of loans even with the best of grants he will acquire thousands of dollars in debt.. the payback if you figure it out would put you in a wage bracket where you would actually make more money working as a department store greeter.Just Another reason to send our jobs to other countries..
    enough said..

  3. How about parents assume the sole responsibility and cost of educating their children..


      Unfortunately.. what was it.. 76 percent of households with children receive the Earned income tax credit.. (Oh No a give a way Program.. )
      and more and more are having to rely on other give a way programs as well.. just to survive.. for the average household it is out of the question to take on that level of debt. we also see this in the demands for a higher minimum wage..
      where in other countries they see an education as a need to stay ahead of the curve..

  4. When you asked… Which employee would you hire?..

    I would hire neither. The first person can’t spell “degree” and has bad sentence structure, the second will cost too much to train. I will take a four year or graduate degree student any day.

    • Wow..My personal conviction is that I will Never judge someone on their spelling skills.
      My spelling and sentence structure sucks at best and I absolutely hate auto text but adore spell check….
      For me at least I would tend to judge someone on their comprehension to what they read or hear.. do they research a news article to see if it is fluff and just follow the rest of the crowd believing everything that they are told or do they take time on checking the facts and formulating their own opinion..
      reading and understanding what they read and knowing basic math is the most important tools to be given to any child and is what I push among my grandkids and one of the most important things is ask questions about everything. My thought is if they take time to read and do it often check what they read for general hype and they understand and are willing to do a little research for the facts then no one can pull the wool over their eyes by giving them general crap.. ( I bring the statement from a senator that I overheard years ago.. just give them a 123 speech tell them anything they are all dumb as sheep.. and he was right…. if they can add subtract give you the price of a slice of bread from the package or the cost of an item then they won’t be cheated….Now hiring a four year grad well.. I have personally met and visited with four year graduates that couldn’t read or comprehend a basic news story in the daily news.. so to say he couldn’t spell or that his sentence structure sucks.. hasn’t anything to do with anything. Einstein’s parents were told he was a challenged youngster and wouldn’t amount to anything..

  5. a couple of the women in my book club are teachers (although close to retirement and marking every day til then, but won’t because they want the highest pension they can). Every time we meet, we hear the teachers complaining about the ‘layers of administration’ and all the reams of paperwork (literal and computerized) they have to deal with on a daily basis – so much so that they joke they do not have time to teach. They say they rush to ‘show and tell the daily assigned lessons’ so they can do all the required forms and paperwork. The ‘Common Core’ program, they say, is not ‘teaching’ but enabling students to memorize, and the multi-leveled layers of management and administration for just that program are mind boggling.

    When I complain about how high my property taxes are (currently 52% of my property taxes are for the schools and increase every single year) with direct relationship to the lack of education provided, coupled with the fact that the teachers themselves and parents have to purchase school supplies for their students (or go without)- they politely point out that the majority of the tax dollars are, in fact, for the management/administrative types who, apparently, around here, average about $125-150,000/year, plus benefits.

  6. As long as Common Core math is taught this country will never attain the status of being in the top ten, fifteen, or even twenty again.

  7. As long as Common Core math is taught this country will never attain the status of being in the top ten, fifteen, or even twenty again. Such a farce!

    • Agreed. I think your view is right on in this regard, George. Corporations are catching up slowly – those which are nimble get that a college degree ain’t all that.
      I even read one company’s hiring guidelines which expressly stated that if you have an MBA they will count that against you as it usually means you’ve spent too much time in theory and not enough in application/practice. I know folks with no formalized “higher” education who run circles around other employees who have grad degrees, PhDs.. fancy letters after their name, etc.
      Recipe approach to learning really does work, but IMHO most of the populace would rather take someone else’s word for it than learn for his or herself (by way of trial and error, experimentation and evaluation or whatever) – therein lies the rub
      call it laziness, fear of failure, lack of self respect, confidence… – combination of things, more’n likely. It does seem that most would rather be told what to do and then do it, rather than figure out how to do it for oneself. Shame, that.

      • What is shameful is this whole degree thing to begin with. When I graduated from high school in 1978, I was prepared for LIFE. I could read, write, assess, calculate and went out into the world and contributed. AND then it started: “We cannot promote you because you do not have a degree. You are doing great work, but you do not have a degree so we cannot give you this opportunity. You will go nowhere in the Human Resources field without a degree.” On and on and on and on it went. THE degreed glass ceiling which I hit my head on for 25 years until I obtained my DAMN degree. By the time I got it, I did not learn ONE thing in college. Why? Because I was a self educated person and a life-long learner. Now, they have even dumbed down higher education and brought a nation of sheep to the shearing tents. I have spent 40 years in the work force and I have met my share of drunks, druggies, losers, and miscreants all with their beloved degrees kissing the asses of their nincompoop bosses. One day I will write a book.

  8. George, the problem with the educational system is two pronged. First the fact that education has become a business model instead of a infrastructure model has changed the nature of the beast. It is all about what is best for the bottom line instead of educating the student. Secondly, with the states selling out their rights under the constitution by chasing federal funding, lower levels of education has embraced a near socialist model of no failure and lessening standards for the student.

    • Amen, frankness, amen. I might add, a second world business model.

      And with computerization, I might add, that once the accounting software is set up for a business, 99% using a template, accounting systems just run themselves except for data entry. I finally met an honest (retired) CPA, she said in this age of computers, the only purpose of accountants was to manipulate the data to get the numbers management wanted.

    • My experience and opinion is in agreement with you Frankness and Expat.

      “Education” in the US is about a business model and not about learning or teaching. Easy debt money has bid up the price of formal “education” and the cost benefit has turned over IMO.

      I have the degrees and am actively looking for ways to avoid the “system” for my children. They don’t need to be cheated and fooled. Critical thinking and logic is high on my kids’ learning list.