In 1936 FDR wrote, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared so they can choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

Are US Public Schools safeguarding Democracy or are they the Newest Black Swan?

In 2007 Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book that, according to the New York Times, is one of the 12 most influential books since WWII. Its name is the Black Swan. 

A Black Swan is a rare, high impact event which was not predicted. It has three properties.

  1. It is rare
  2. Its impact is extreme
  3. In retrospect, it was predictable


Examples of a Black Swan events which with hindsight we should have seen coming – or at least heard the alarm bells – are 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, or the Covid 19 pandemic. The enormous impact of Black Swan events such the Tsunami in Japan and the collapse of the stock markets in 2008 are still with us. Climate change, material pollution, the rise of autocracy and the demise of democracy, and info-pollution may be the blackest of all Black Swans.

Taleb maintains that failure to recognize and anticipate Black Swans is based on what he calls Ignorance Based Thinking. By that he means that most people are happy only thinking about things they know. Another word for this is Convergent thinking. The kind emphasized in our schools.  

It takes a different kind of thinking to think about what we do not know, and which takes effort and skill to discover. We do not know what we do not know, and that can be deadly. We do not know what would not have occurred to us unless we take actions to make sure we try our best to make things occur to us. That is called Knowledge Based Thinking or Divergent Thinking. The Terego Ideation Method™ is designed to find out what might not otherwise occur to us. 

My 2022 prediction is that school systems in a large part of the world will soon turn into Black Swans with widespread and long lasting consequences. I hope I am proved wrong, but the evidence supporting this claim is overwhelming, well understood, and completely ignored.

To begin, poll after poll asks parents if they are happy with their children’s schools and they get respectable approval numbers, as long as the graduation rate is improving. What this question ignores is the relevance of the way graduation is measured to their children’s future. To get a diploma, children must show proficiency in recalling facts. In this day and age that is simply not the right preparation. In most skilled jobs they will be paid to think, or not paid. “80% of high school students graduate. Less than half are ready for what’s next.” The Tech Edvocate. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, the most extensive standardized test administered in the United States, reports that less than 40 percent of graduating seniors have mastered reading and math and are poorly equipped for college and real-world life. But they did graduate high school, so families think all is well. If over sixty percent of HS graduates have not mastered math and English but yet were granted a diploma, what does this say?  

Schools are not functioning well, and democracy and societal norms in the USA are under attack, most worryingly from within. This is a cause and an effect. The underlying cause of all this is that our schools insist on teaching that facts are the only thing that matters, causing children to believe they should not learn to think for themselves, and that leaves them open to charlatans who will happily do the thinking for them. And that is further eroding democracy. 

Voters who are trained to accept a single answer from any authority figure to any problem cannot become productive citizens. Productive citizens are comfortable with nuance, ambiguity, and choice because as elementary children they did possess and practice the Hybrid Skills needed to deal with uncertainty. In American middle schools all that suddenly changes. We begin telling them all the answers and then make them prove they can memorize them, instead of encouraging them to nurture and polish their natural abilities.   

This has led to glaring asymmetries between what employers of all kinds demand and what schools supply, and between what people need to survive and even prosper and what the curriculum produces. This is a recipe for disaster, a Black Swan. 

As I have written, a good career depends on graduates being skilled thinkers, collaborators, solvers, and communicators. And schools are providing graduates who can memorize and take tests. A sports team is only as good as its farm team. A political, democratic economy is only as good as its schools. 

Students and teachers know this. And they reflect this in their attitudes. In 2018 a Gallup poll reported that, “Almost half of students who responded to the survey are engaged with school (47%), with approximately one-fourth ‘not engaged’ (29%) and the remainder ‘actively disengaged’ (24%).” Gallup, which has conducted 5 million school surveys in the past five years, added this: “A closer look at the data by grade level reveals a disturbing trend. Engagement is strong at the end of elementary school, with nearly three-quarters of fifth graders (74%) reporting high levels of engagement. But similar surveys have shown a gradual and steady decline in engagement from fifth grade through about 10th grade, with approximately half of students in middle school reporting high levels of engagement and about one-third of high school students reporting the same.”

There are seventeen million high school students in the USA. If Gallup is right about disengagement levels, that means over five million students use high school as daycare every year. The US spends well over $12,000 per student each year on their education. So, that is a $100,000,000,000 non-performing asset on the US balance sheet. Not to mention the lifelong effects on these disengaged students and society. Check out the school-to-prison statistics. 

Another recent study also by Gallup shows that just 30 percent of teachers are “actively engaged in their jobs. Gallup finds that 57 percent of teachers say that they are “not engaged” at work, with an additional 13 percent saying that they are “actively disengaged”—that is, they “act out their unhappiness in ways that undermine what their coworkers accomplish.” The average salary of a teacher in the USA is almost $62,000 without the added costs of healthcare and benefits. There are three million five hundred thousand teachers in America’s public schools. Almost exactly two million are not engaged with the vital task of preparing the next generation. That is another $125,000,000,000 non-performing asset on America’s balance sheet. 

Between unmotivated teachers and disengaged students, the USA is carrying an annual monetary-education-deficit of $225,000,000,000 on its balance sheet. And that balance sheet belongs to you and me the 250,000,000 taxpayers who are paying an average of $900 each to support these unproductive students and teachers. And these numbers are pre-pandemic. And this has been going on for decades and getting worse. I would not care to even try to reckon the Return on Investment calculations over the decades. Certainly, it would be a negative number. A few more dollars for PreK schooling would reduce both of these deficits. But since the Sixties, the Zombie Idea that is the US Public School curriculum has been running things into the ground. And now – right at the wrong time.

As a consequence of this misguided investment in Public Schools, the non-monetary education-deficit is right there for all to see in America’s schools’ performance results, which make abysmal reading, but maybe grab a beer or wine first.

That is multi-generational, ignorance-based thinking. Doing the same things over lifespans, again and again when we know it is not working and expecting a different result is madness. 

As a thought experiment, imagine what would happen if a respected poll of the US Armed Forces were published showing that only 30% of non-commissioned and commissioned military officers and 50% of all other ranks were actively engaged with their duties. Or if the same were true of the judicial system or healthcare workers. Probably outrage. Calls to action. Not so with schools. They are not top of mind in the public debate or even consciousness. What little debate there is, is about funding, safety, and equal access. As it should be of course, but what about that iceberg ahead? 

Of course, those are just the financial costs of schools to US taxpayers. The real cost of our inefficient public school system is in its deleterious effects on the local, state, and national economies, military capabilities, diplomatic power and prestige, intellectual property advantages, overall happiness, and leadership. The reverse is also true especially at the local level. Better schools equals better economies. 

The definition of a Black Swan is that it is rare, its impact is extreme, and it has retrospective predictability. Americans can either continue with a head-in-the-sand attitude or wake up and face the fact that educational reform is probably the only thing that matters. It comes before climate change even. Do we want ignorance-based thinking or knowledge-based thinking to be the tools we use to combat climate change, misinformation, prejudice, and nuclear proliferation? I am not the only canary in the coal mine. But I am trying to plug the gas leak before it catches fire.

And this could not be happening at a worse time. The challenges are getting exponentially more difficult and, more than at any other time in our history, we need to encourage our children to use divergent thinking and the Hybrid Skills all children possess. Instead, we are boring the majority of children and teachers to death by stressing convergent thinking and testing. 

Professor Peter Gray of Boston College reported sampling the hair of prisoners and children about to take a test, and the children had the highest stress hormone (Cortisol) levels. And we have known since ancient Greece that fear induces ignorance. That is why Aristotle thought of Ignorance and Evil as the same thing. Safety is a priority for learning. Why would we ever coerce and frighten children and expect learning to be the outcome?

Sitting still in rows, listening only to state-sanctioned facts, leaving only with permission, with guards patrolling perimeters, cameras everywhere, metal detectors checking, and vulnerable to the spread of diseases is the daily experience of many children. More like Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag than Aristotle’s Lyceum.    

In a study cited recently by Sir Ken Robinson, a prominent education theorist, 98% of children between the ages of 3 and 5 exhibit a capacity for divergent thinking: making connections between seemingly unrelated facts and scenarios and using metaphors and analogies. At age 15, only 10% retained this capacity and at age 25, the percentage dropped to 5%. You should be worried about this. But parents and companies should be horrified. That is exactly the skill employers and children need to survive. Imagine generations losing imagination. 

We know how children learn. They respond to a stimulus in the form of a learning challenge and their Hybrid Skills are automatically triggered, and they just are custom-made to rise to the challenge. Let them! Let them question, play games, tell stories, recognize patterns, imitate, think critically, collaborate, solve problems, communicate. In short, leave them alone and let them ideate their Justified Beliefs. 



So, why do we insist on teaching in a manner that does not come naturally? 

This is why. It is the law; the egg that hatched a Black Swan. This is a part of a recent, open letter from a large group of New York City teachers. This year in our school, as in schools across the country, we have seen the number of standardized tests we are required to administer grow sharply, from 25 to more than 50 (in grades 6-10). In the next six weeks alone, each of our sixth graders will be required to take 18 days of tests: 3 days of state English tests, 3 days of state math tests, 4 days of new city English and math benchmark tests, and 8 days of new English, math, social studies, and science city tests to evaluate teacher performance. Additionally, students who are learning English must spend 2-3 more days taking the NYSESLAT test for English Language Learners—a total of 21 days in just the next few weeks.”

This should not be surprising since the public schools were founded as a form of social control, not to enlighten people. What the leaders of business and colleges in the late eighteen-hundreds in the USA and Europe wanted was standardized citizens. “Passive obedience to the state,” in the words of Lord Acton. The 18th century Prussian model of factory schooling was investigated and recommended by Horace Mann, the father of the American Public School, and adopted in the late 19th century and still dominates. It was a good idea at the time. The teacher up-front transmitting facts in didactic form and the children in rows memorizing because they were headed for a factory floor, a civil service desk, a shop, or the army. Standardized teaching and testing must predominate in this kind of school of course. The explicit goal of this Prussian model was and is to stamp out curiosity and encourage homogenization of beliefs by accepting them at face value. The exact opposite – diversity – is required today. 

The focus of education since has been testing. The results have been tragic.

  1. The Committee of Ten a group of industrialists and educators set up the first public schools based on the Prussian factory model.
  2. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is passed as a part of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. It is the most far-reaching federal legislation affecting education ever passed by the US Congress. Its intention was to close the skill gap in reading, writing and mathematics between children from low-income households and children from the middle-class who attend suburban school systems. It was under this legislation that standardized testing and punitive measures for non-compliance were first introduced. It was both coercive and punitive. All stick no carrot.
  3. Optical Scanning Technology is introduced. It was intended as voting machines technology. It recorded which blank ovals had been filled in. It was rapidly adopted by schools instead as a way to grade the tests mandated by the ESEA. For it to work, however, all syllabus content now had to be re-organized in such a way that content-memorization could be tested by multiple choice, not in essay form. The textbook publishers eagerly accommodated the school districts, and for the first and last time in history an entire institution – the Public School System – changed the way it operated to fit the limits of a technology. Normally it is the other way around. And that was the beginning of a mass homogenization project in the most diverse nation on earth. This misalignment between how we train children and the real needs presented by the new career and social landscapes has been exacerbated recently.    
  4. Herbert Kohl writes The Open Classroom promoting the idea of holistic student-centered education. This provokes a backlash from the conservative back-to-the-basics schools’ movement. 
  5. President Reagan promises to eliminate the Department of Education as part of the Conservative Movement. By 2021 its budget has ballooned to $23 billion. 
  6. Reagan’s advisors publish A Nation at Risk, a report on the state of education. It begins, “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people….If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” One of the major recommendations was more standardized testing of students.
  7. J and M Brook’s book In Search of Understanding, promoting the construction of knowledge by active student participation rather than passive reception of knowledge is published. It sells well. The message is ignored by congress and educators. Brook’s ideas would have harmed the textbook publishers such as Pearson Education, Scholastic, McGraw-Hill Education, Cengage Learning, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I assume lobbyists were involved in Congress’s decision to cling to the LBJ’s 1965 law mandating standardized testing. 
  8. That same year the Massachusetts Education Reform Act introduces a common curriculum and statewide testing. It is based on the theory of Outcome-Based Education. Other states rapidly follow suit. Many countries and the European Union have since dropped the idea.
  9. The USA ranks 15th in the world in combined reading and literacy according to the PISA scores. 
  10. President George Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act into law. It is a re-authorization of the 1968 ESEA law and mandates stringent high-stakes testing of students and holds schools accountable for student achievement. There are penalties for schools that do not achieve yearly progress towards the detailed standards laid down in Washington D.C. by civil servants at the US Department of Education. 
  11. The Common Core State Standards Initiative coordinated by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of State School Officers is enacted with the expectation that most states will adopt them. This initiative is very similar to the NCLB act in terms of testing and penalties.

2011–2012. The Obama administration introduces the Race to the Top and begins allowing “flexibility” in the application of Common Core requirements. Almost all the states and the District of Columbia now have waivers making it even more difficult for teachers and districts to know what to apply.

  1. The PISA rankings place the USA 24th in Reading, 36th in Math and 28th in Science. PISA ranks the educational attainment of 70 countries
  2. Diana Ravitch an eminent scholar of education launches a blistering attack on the Common Core. She outlines how, “American public education and its teachers are under attack….Never have public schools been as subject to upheaval, assault, and chaos as they are today with a punitive regime of standardized testing on the schools….The curriculum was narrowed; the only subjects that mattered were reading and mathematics. What was not tested—the arts, history, civics, literature, geography, science, physical education—didn’t count. It became an article of faith in Washington and in state capitols that if students had low scores, it must be the fault of bad teachers. Poverty, we heard again and again, was just an excuse for bad teachers, who should be fired without delay or due process….A burgeoning educational-industrial complex of testing corporations, charter chains, and technology companies has emerged that view public education as an emerging market. Hedge funds, entrepreneurs, and real estate investment corporations invest enthusiastically, encouraged by federal tax credits, lavish fees, and the prospect of huge profits from taxpayer dollars. No other nation tests every student every year as we do. Our students are the most over-tested in the world. No other nation—at least no high-performing nation—judges the quality of teachers by the test scores of their students. Most researchers agree that this methodology is fundamentally flawed, that it is inaccurate, unreliable, and unstable, that the highest ratings will go to teachers with the most affluent students and the lowest ratings will go to teachers of English learners, teachers of students with disabilities, and teachers in high-poverty schools. Nonetheless, the U.S. Department of Education wants every state and every district to do it. Because of these federal programs, our schools have become obsessed with standardized testing, and have turned over to the testing corporations the responsibility for rating, ranking, and labeling our students, our teachers, and our schools.” 
  3. President Obama joins the Too Much Testing Movement. He proclaims that testing has taken the joy out of teaching and learning. He asks that no more than 2% of class time be spent on testing.
  4. President Obama signs the, Every Student Succeeds Act into law. It modifies but does not eliminate standardized test and has bi-partisan support.
  5. The overall PISA score of the USA is 28th.
  6. The USA ranks 38th in Math, 19th in Science, and 14th in Reading.

2017 – 2021. Secretary of Education de Vos prioritizes and champions defunding the Department of Education, and the ramping up role of religious education, and emphasizes school choice and financial aid for private schools. 

  1. We are still stressing fact-recollection skills just at the time when speech recognition, hand-held supercomputers and light-speed networks literally put facts at our children’s fingertips. And that is before the coming advent in a decade or less of quantum computing and telecommunications. 

We are even doing a terrible job of teaching fact memorization and getting worse and worse at it. Just when Google is getting geometrically better and making it exponentially easier to do the same thing. And we are coercing children to use only two of their eleven Hybrid Skills – imitation and pattern recognition. 

By clinging to an outmoded teacher-driven, didactic, one-size-fits-all, compulsory, and rigid curriculum we are deepening the chasm between what schools’ supply and what employers – and life – demand in this new age. 

Our schools are top down and punitive. People respond to both pain and pleasure, and we only use coercion with predictable results. “Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion gains no hold in the mind.” Aristotle. He also said, “A child can only learn by doing.” And by law we do not let them. At the heart of re-engagement is Buy-in. If students convince themselves of the need to learn, then fire comes from within. If their feet are held to the fire, it has the opposite effect. 

The most diverse nation ever is homogenizing its diversity not leveraging it. There are 50,000,000 students in the USA, each with their own reason to study but all are given one: it is a government mandate; it is on-the-test. What is vital to future health is its diversity. We have known this since Darwin published his ‘Origin of Species’ in 1859, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” It takes a bottom-up strategy to leverage diversity. 

If you would like to join a grassroots movement for change in our schools go to Ocean Schools 



America’s Moms and Dads and Teachers and their Allies are Best Placed to Fix this Problem and Ensure our Children are Futureproofed against an Uncertain Future. But Partnerships Will be Needed.

Four Tactical Suggestions.

One: Parents do not need to ask permission; they can spend a little time helping their children to polish their Hybrid Skills each day. The Terego Ideation Method™ is one way.


Two: The American Non-Profit Educational Foundation sector has over 3000 local foundations. Their mission is focused on school success, reform, and innovation, and they believe they are answerable to the students and their families, and they aggressively and productively engage with students and teachers; unlike school boards and governmental authorities that are focused on process and testing. Teachers, take both the message contained in these pages describing the problems you are having with children’s education and the method built to unleash children’s Ideation and Hybrid Skills to your local Education Foundation. I am sure they will welcome you. 

Three: This one comes from the heart. I was raised in a union household. Unions helped pay for my scholarships. And I began my professional career with no student debt as a member of a teacher’s union. 77% of American teachers belong to a union. 100% have both the heart and mind needed for Servant Leadership. Take this message and solution to your local chapter. 

Four: Individual teachers – ask forgiveness not permission to teach children to Ideate. And tell a colleague. Ocean Schools

America’s parents and teachers have an unprecedented chance to be in the vanguard of a movement to inspire and engage their children, re-invent our schools, and thereby boost our economy, but most of all to Futureproof their children against an uncertain future.  

Reform starts with someone who has something to lose in the short-term, and much to gain long term, takes a principled stand.

“Children are the messengers we send to a future we will not see.” A.N. Whitehead.

Excerpted from my book Hybrid Learning. 

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 #Ideation #Hybridskills #Justifiedbelief #Futureproof #Infoliteracy Ocean Schools