Edit: I had confused open loop and closed loop guidance. This has been corrected along with some spelling errors.
As frequent readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of space exploration. This week Atlantis returned to Earth to bring the shuttle program to a close. While I am a bit bittersweet about this, I do think overall it is for the best. The shuttle was able to help expand our knowledge about ourselves. I think I thought of another way it can help us. Let’s talk about guidance.
The big debate that has been raging in education for years is how to get our school system to work better. I have said before however that the school system itself is actually doing exactly what it was designed to do, which is to create factory workers. It’s just that we don’t need that job to be done anymore at least not to the whole population. There have been many businesses throughout history that have been threatened by outside forces and have adapted or perished. For example, just today, Borders bookstores are going out of business and closing. Their business model was from the 1990s and they couldn’t adapt. The school’s business model is from the 1890s and yet it doesn’t change. Why? Let’s look to the space shuttle for the answer.
Here is a video of the last launch a few weeks ago. What I want to you listen for is what the commentator says just after they drop the solid rockets at 2:32. It’s something about guidance at 2:47.
If you watched the video the commentator says “guidance now converging”. To understand this you need to understand that the shuttle uses two different forms of guidance. The first one is called open loop guidance. It is used until the solids are dropped. In this mode, the shuttle doesn’t really care where it is going. Instead it is adjusting it’s attitude to make sure the forces on the shuttle don’t tear the wings off. That first phase is just designed to get up into the air. It’s pointed basically in the right direction but it’s not that accurate.
After the boosters have been dropped the shuttle is above most of the atmosphere. At that point the shuttle has experienced the maximum forces on it and is much safer. Right after booster separation, they switch over to closed loop guidance. In this mode, the shuttle begins getting details from the ground about where the ISS is and how exactly it needs to fly to catch up with it. You can see right after booster separation, the shuttle actually pivots a bit in the air. This is to more accurately target where it needs to go.
So, with open loop guidance, you are just concerned with minimizing stresses and variables, and making sure the system is as safe as possible. With closed loop, you are reacting and adjusting to outside forces.
Businesses that are successful use closed loop guidance. They react to their markets and their customers. In the 1970s when oil prices shot up, the Japanese car makers made smaller, more fuel efficient cars. The US car makers didn’t and ended up in big trouble. This is how economics works. Obsolete or ignorant business models adapt or die off. It’s called creative destruction. But how does it work with education? Not well.
It’s important to understand that the public education system has more in common with the Post Office than with a private sector business. The charter for public education is to provide a free, quality education to every child in America. It’s an admirable goal but you notice it doesn’t say anything about how that is to be achieved or how much it will cost? By omission of those things, certain feedbacks are missing from the system. Let me explain.
Closed loop guidance adjusts the shuttles’ trajectory because it accepts various pieces of information about the world around it. Schools generally don’t. They operate on X number of kids, Y number of teachers, Z number of schools, etc… As long as those kids are in school, being taught by teachers, everything is working well. We do standardized testing of course to measure how the product is doing, but even that has no real feedback on the system itself. Education spending has tripled since the 1970s but test scores have remained the same. No business could triple its costs, keep it’s product the same and survive. If students do poorly, do teachers get fired? Do administrators? No, the usual answer in Washington is to feed more money into it. That’s crazy.
Now, I am not advocating teachers getting fired because of poor test performance. That oversimplifies the problem. I do think however that there are two factors that are being left out of the school guidance system. That would be the parents and the students themselves. They are caught up in a machine that will function the same if they are there or not and students understand this. This machine has a goal of turning out students with identical abilities and test scores. I know most teachers don’t want this, but the guidance system mostly ignores them too.
The current public education system is not designed correctly for the times we live in. If it wasn’t a part of government it would have died off a few decades ago and been replaced with something better. Because it is using open loop guidance however, it is insulated from the usual forces that would cause significant changes. It keeps protecting itself from outside forces. Still, government or not, I don’t think it can endure and ignore the profound stormfront of changes technology is creating.