Commentary On CNN's "Don't Fail Me: Education In America"

The CNN special report “Don’t Fail Me: Education In America” originally aired on CNN on May 15, 2011.  The report chronicled three students and teams engaged in the FIRST Robotics Competition during the 2010-11 school year.  Below are some of my thoughts on the documentary.

Let me clearly state that I am a strong supporter of FIRST programs. I have coached a FIRST Tech Challenge team and since the program was first rolled out in New Jersey several years ago, I actively partnered and promoted FIRST programs by way of my involvement in my state professional association, the NJTEA. FIRST students work hard on developing and applying their ingenuity in a meaningful context.  It might sound as if I am critical of the program in some of my remarks, but make no mistake that FIRST is at the very least one of the programs on the right track. Yet, as one analyzes the teams pictured as participants in the FIRST Robotics Program in Don’t Fail Me, several interesting things come to light.

FIRST teams in schools are comprised of about twenty students.  FIRST reports that in 2011, they are reaching 66,875 students with their high school programs.  Let’s dig a little deeper into that number because it sounds like a lot. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are about 26 million secondary school students in the United States. So, FIRST, a program which most consider to be wildly successful, is now reaching only about 0.25% of American high school students.  Even if there was a FIRST robotics team in every one of America’s 41,000+ secondary schools, with only twenty students on each team, this program would be for only about 3% of American high school students.

The other thing that might strike you is the makeup of the FIRST teams themselves.  In photos of teams of just over twenty students, I counted only three and four girls on each of the teams pictured.  Let’s put that against some of the numbers mentioned previously. Assuming that the teams pictured are indicative of female participation in FIRST programs, and based on my research and involvement with this issue in the state of New Jersey I have no reason to think this is not at least in the ballpark, this means that FIRST programs are reaching only 0.08% of all female high school students in the United States!



I was surprised and somewhat pleased to see a former prominent public official in former Governor of Tennessee Phil Bredesen speak so frankly to a wide public audience about the insanity of the accountability system we employ in statewide testing.  I conclude from his comments and CNN’s analysis that any data presented by any state education institution can be considered invalid.

I also believe that this is closely linked to another thing I noticed in Don’t Fail Me. Pretty much any time you saw anyone teaching mathematics, it was as we all remember it; it was an overhead projector with the teacher writing on it; it was students doing math problems on the board in front of the class.  The relationship I would point out is this: The insanity of the testing and accountability system in place in educational institutions is perpetuating us in the same stale, demonstrably ineffective instructional practices that have lead us to where we find ourselves today. Ask any teacher in a tested subject and they will tell you clearly that they know that how they are teaching does not hold up in what research shows as effective. They basically will tell you that they do know better, but that they teach this way because of the test for which they are preparing students.

After all, Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We are clearly epitomizing his definition in the tested “core academic” subjects and this is done at the expense of programs that can deliver authentic learning experience such as those that FIRST and other technology and engineering programs in schools provide.

I am thankful to CNN and Soledad O’Brien for taking up the effort to try to raise awareness about some of the issues that they brought to light in Don’t Fail Me. But, call it cautiously thankful since I know that so much more needs to be done. If we want to do more, we don’t need another robotics competition. We need a strong, rigorous, scalable program institutionalized in American schools that can reach every student, not just a few.  My colleagues and I are working on a plan to do just that and I look forward to sharing our ideas in the near future.


2 comments to Commentary On CNN’s “Don’t Fail Me: Education In America”

  • Ivan Fidler

    I enjoyed the views on the CNN “Don’t Fail Me” piece, and particularly the concerns on the validity of the accountability system per statewide testing. In light of proposed reforms in NJ regarding teacher evaluation, per tenure, pay, etc., I’m wondering: could this represent an opportunity for technology education to establish itself as an important contributor to solid accountability reform? For example, through existing and future interdisciplinary mathematics integration, could the technology education field demonstrate students’ strengthened mathematics capabilities? Could it showcase effective teaching practices and assist the reform process, to address concerns with NCLB’s annual yearly progress component,with measures being developed for showing students’ individual progress, etc.?

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