An Engineer Makes Points and Plans for Schools That Solve Problems

Author: William Schmitt
At a time when the problem-solving approaches of “engineering thinking” are bringing new hope to K-12 education, a distinguished industrial engineer who hails from Purdue has applied his systems analysis skills to understand — and address — a challenge facing still-beleaguered elementary schools.

Richard W. Garrett, who applied his College of Engineering bachelor’s and master’s degree training in IE (plus a Northwestern University Ph.D. in operations research) during 27 years as an executive at Eli Lilly and Company, continues to draw lessons from Lilly’s Total Quality program. Integrating principles from that program, he has advocated support for hard-pressed teachers in a book on school reform. (Find his ongoing reflections at the website he founded:

Richard Garrett
Richard Garrett

The Kids Are Smart Enough, So What’s the Problem? was published in late 2017, delivering multiple insights Garrett developed in the corporate arena. He probed a rarely discussed argument grounded in efficiency and accountability, determined to respond to tests that have produced distressing performance scores for grade schools as well as students.

His book’s subtitle, A Businessman’s Perspective on Educational Reform and the Teacher Crisis, signals this Boilermaker’s readiness for interdisciplinary troubleshooting and collaboration to raise those scores. An industrial engineer’s focus on time management guided Garrett through several systemic challenges worth considering; he identified a major root cause that partially explains the woeful test scores — namely, evidence that precious school hours were wasted, derailing instruction and demoralizing fourth-grade teachers he interviewed.

That root cause reflected the presence of a critical mass of disruptive students in all their classrooms. In early 2013, he led a study team with several of those teachers, one of whom was his son, in a local Indiana public school. They spoke candidly about what they observed in the building’s daily operations. This yielded intriguing — and seldom calculated — metrics and associated statistics that Garrett said became starting points toward compassionate remedies for every struggling child.

His goal was, and still is, the implementation of steps to elevate all students’ outcomes — in cooperation with teacher groups, education leaders, policy makers and other important stakeholders, such as parents. The book contains extensive research into strategies adopted elsewhere. He also makes his own recommendations for action, as befits a Total-Quality watchdog who has facilitated about 60 long-range planning sessions for non-profits. (He also served for more than six years on the faculty of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business and for ten years as an accreditor of U.S. university engineering departments.)

The study team’s most thought-provoking finding was a set of statistics based on the teachers’ reported school experiences: Students they described as “disruptive,” lacking in character attributes such as curiosity, zest, self-control and perseverance, constituted 23 percent of their classroom populations.

Teachers described two other subsets of students. Those who were “engaged” in the class work constituted 31 percent of the populations, and “followers” — who pivoted between “engaged” and “disruptive” behaviors according to changing circumstances — constituted 46 percent.

Based on regularly cited patterns, Garrett estimated that the teachers’ inability to rein in the troublesome students either directly or indirectly robbed the class of 28 percent of the total time those teachers could have used instructing their whole class. One might say the students were receiving less than four days of instruction during a typical five-day week, he commented for this story.

Students stole valuable learning time not only from themselves, but also from the more cooperative segments of their classmates, whose Indiana state test performance was likely to suffer, too. Ironically, the educators agreed that most everyone in their classes had the intellectual capacity to earn creditable scores on those standardized exams if only they would give each other, and their teachers, the time and attentiveness needed for deeper learning.

“My hat is off to Richard Garrett who has given us an in-depth look at an often unspoken subject that has been going on behind classroom doors for decades. This book accurately describes an unacceptable situation in many education classes of our youth. These classes are void of hope, discipline, and quality education.”
Charles Roach, high school administrator, former North Central High Principal, 26 years President Challenge Leadership Programs, 8 years contract consultant for Franklin Covey - The Leader in Me

What is most disturbing, Garrett said, is a 2004 study by the Public Agenda organization, titled Teaching Interrupted, that an estimated 80 percent of school’s experience classroom disruptions, as well. Nationally, this is about 80,000 public schools across the United States.

“Is it any wonder we rank so low in international student comparisons?” Garrett asked. “These results confirm that unruly children are a major systemic problem for U.S. public schools.”

“It is terribly wrong for this group of disruptive students to deprive the balance of the class, students who are amenable to education, from an opportunity to learn and excel,” Garrett wrote in his book, published by Rowman and Littlefield.

Citing additional research, he culled from other sources, he said sound principles of efficiency could point toward placing the “disruptive” population in a separate classroom of their own, where discipline and character education (including cultivation of perseverance or “grit”) would be high-priority pedagogical goals. Deficiencies in the skills of character and grit were isolated by the teachers in the study team as a major reason for their unruly behavior. Teachers with special skills suited to this classroom-management acid test would be assigned to help reach the goals.

In short, The Kids Are Smart Enough reflects Garrett’s diligence in putting forth such assessments and recommendations based on his corporate background and engineering instincts. Many education-reform books are published every year, drawing upon the latest guidance from various disciplines, but this Boilermaker says the distinctive viewpoint of a retired business executive could help generate fresh, outside-the-box conversations with established ranks of education experts.

The Kids Are Smart Enough, So What's the Problem? by Richard Garrett

He’s eager to advocate for widespread character education as a triple win for students, teachers and society in general. Now, in 2019, he’s also using his retirement days to continue reaching out to school-reform influencers from a range of backgrounds, supporting endeavors to elevate kids and teachers alike.

The book demonstrates Garrett’s engineering thinking and business perspectives:

  • He values teachers and knows this workforce generally does its best, even though they risk being blamed in various ways for excessive discipline or disappointing state rankings. He recognizes they draw down their own “emotional bank accounts” when their students perform poorly on tests and receive criticism rather than gratitude from various stakeholders.
  • Garrett is mindful of another school workforce problem growing in many K-12 schools nationwide — namely, morale and classroom-discipline issues that encourage some teachers to leave the profession and discourage prospective teachers from pursuing the career. If society doesn’t impose increased accountability on the disruptive students and on their parents, rather than solely blaming teachers or imposing extra rules or burdens on them, “we’re no longer going to have teachers to kick around,” he wrote.
  • He sees the shrinkage of the nation’s teacher pool partly from an economic perspective, worrying about stewardship of tomorrow’s young labor force and development of the talent needed so corporations like Eli Lilly can grow: “A teacher shortage is just the beginning of a huge workforce development problem if not corrected.”
  • Garrett writes of public-school officials, “The absence of discipline is a management problem — not a problem to be blamed on the children…. It is leadership that brings order to chaos; it usually will not happen on its own.”

While ready to analyze schools with objective data and engineering thinking for the purpose of solving today’s problems, his knack for seeing connections is rooted in community consciousness. He calls for better, more purposeful parenting of those students growing up disruptive. But he is sensitive to the issues faced by children and families today, and he proposes seeking other “caring adults” who can stand in the gap to cultivate stronger values and self-esteem when responsible parents are absent.

What is of absolute importance is the “whole student” approach, this champion of big-picture thinking asserts. (Find his ongoing reflections at the website he founded, If people and processes currently are not summoning up the best of character, grit and cooperation in tomorrow’s generation, Garrett says everyone must accept responsibility to assess and solve the problems in the system. Schools have a choice: to cast down smart students and talented teachers into an enervated environment lacking hope, or to raise the sights of all participants with strategic, humane management where efficiency embodies and yields real quality.