The Challenge of Educational Reform in The United States

Ubiquiti Networks has engineering offices in San Jose, Los Angeles, Irvine, Chicago, Kaunas (Lithuania), Moscow, and Taipei.  Even though we only have upwards of 100 employees, it is quite the geographic mix.  Ironically, we never intended to build these remote offices and we never had aspirations to save costs on engineering salaries. We just somehow managed to recruit outstanding people (irrespective of location), and over time, teams and offices naturally grew around them.

I often enjoy traveling to the different offices and helping make sure each one has what it needs to be successful in product development.  Over the past several years, I have flown 1,000’s of hours in the air and I have trained myself to the point where I will naturally fall asleep as soon as I get on plane.  It does not matter where in the world or what time, typically I will be asleep on the plane before it takes off through when it lands.

Today, on the flight back home, I happened to wake up early and was able to check out a movie called “Waiting for Superman” which details the state of the country’s educational system.  I was so intrigued by the film that I went on to do some further research.  I thought I would share what I found:

For those of you who are fans of the book “Freakenomics,” you might recall that in 2001, Steven Levitt (University of Chicago) and John Donohue (Yale University), published a paper titled “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime.”  Backed by compelling statistics, they claimed that the Roe vs. Wade decision of 1973, in which the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion, directly resulted in the sharp decrease in crime rates seen in the 1990’s.

Their argument is that this legalized abortion had a compelling side effect  — it essentially reduced the number of unwanted children typically growing up in severely underprivileged circumstances that would eventually go on to lead criminal adult lives.

Now, if their argument were true, it would appear that by extension, the key to a brighter future depends on finding a way to solve the problem of underprivileged circumstances altogether, right?

The documentary “Waiting for Superman” is a study of how we are failing to deliver a quality education to much of today’s youth. It argues that the poor performance of the U.S. public school system is directly related to the poor quality of its teachers.  And changing the situation is incredibly difficult because of the highly inefficient government educational bureaucracies combined with the change-resistant national teacher’s union who stand in the way of improving teacher quality and performance.

One of the most interesting scenes of the film shows the ill-effects of a system that accumulates bad teachers combined with a union which makes it nearly impossible to fire any of them once they enter the system.   New York’s “rubber room” is a building where teachers who are on job related probation are required stay while they await their disciplinary hearing – a wait that takes on average 3 years! Here, they spend their days collecting full pay and benefits basically doing nothing at a cost of $100mm/year to the state of New York.

Rubber Room, New York

Another memorable scene studies the statistics of a Pennsylvania jail in a failing school district where 68% of the inmates were highschool dropouts.   The inmates stay inside the jail at a cost to the state of $33,000/year per inmate.  Meanwhile, the cost of the average private school tuition in the country is just $8,300 year.  For ¼ the amount, the inmates could have been sent to private school as youths, highly unlikely to have ended up in jail in first place, and possibly paying taxes and contributing to the work force as well.

Charter Schools

“Charter Schools” have recently been promoted as a solution to the failing performance of the current educational system.  Charter Schools are public schools funded by public money, but completely redesigned and free of the agents resistent to change in the current system  They are backed by philanthropists and business leaders such as Bill Gates, Reid Hoffman, and Pitt Hyde; and aim to bridge the inequality between the privileged top private schools and the failing public schools throughout the country.  Charter schools believe in smaller class sizes, longer school days, and tighter screening of teacher quality.  Although there are statistics showing that some charter schools have been very successful, other studies show that their overall test scores have not yet shown significant improvement compared with the existing public school system.


After reading conflicting accounts about the success of Charter Schools, I proceeded to research who had the best educational system in the world.   It turned out to be the Scandinavian country of Finland (home of Nokia).  Finland has consistently ranked at the top of the world in educational test results across virtually every standard.  Here are a few of the philosophies from Finland’s educational system that I am most impressed with:

Disciplined Pursuit of Perfecting the Teaching Profession: Teachers are very highly respected in the country and becoming a teacher in Finland’s school system is even more difficult than becoming a doctor or lawyer.  All teachers are required to obtain a masters degree and gaining entrance into these programs is highly competitive with only 10% of the applicants being accepted.

Even though the new teachers are highly qualified, they still go the extra mile.  Groups of these “student teachers” will regularly visit schools and sit in on classes for years before actually teaching lessons.  After sitting in on the lessons, the student teachers will congregate with senior teachers in feedback discussions about how lessons can be further improved.

Encouraging Student “Discovery”:  While an average teacher spends 1100 hours per year in a classroom in which they dominate 85% of the spoken words, in Finland teachers spend just 600 hours in the classroom and it is the students who speak 60% of the time.  There is very little homework (a few hours per week), very little testing, and no “tracking” or separating students based on their learning ability.  In fact, teachers often stay with a core group of students for several years and focus on how each child learns.  Different teaching styles are adopted as needed to fit individual students.  Finnish teachers say they don’t want students to learn lessons; but rather “discover” lessons.

Designed for the Modern World:  Finland’s students are introduced to hands-on learning involving computers and electronics at an early age.  In addition, lessons in entrepreneurship and innovation are embedded across the school system.   But, what is most interesting to me is that high school diverges into two separate tracks:  there is a general track which leads to higher studies as well as a vocational track that focuses on hands-on engineering skills, immediately preparing students for the work place.  Interestingly, 40% of the students voluntarily choose the vocational, hands-on track

There is a great documentary done by Harvard’s Tony Wagner that can be viewed here that covers a lot of the above:

My Closing Thoughts:

Finland’s system reminds me of a great “company culture” which empowers the value creators (in this case the teachers) to collaborate, innovate, and focus on a quality product (the students).   As Steve Jobs might say – it is an environment, which promotes “A” players working together with other “A” players, and everyone sharing a disciplined focus on constantly advancing the quality of the product.

The U.S. system in contrast has many attributes of a bloated, inefficient company that has been over-run by “C” players who are blinded by self-preservation and politics with little care for product quality (the students).

So how do you fix it?  I think the Charter school idea is a good start.  One of the strategies I have used in growing Ubiquiti is identifying great products and finding the people behind them.  So, why not just recruit Finland’s leading educational system brain trust and employ them to develop a charter school system here in the U.S.?


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