Monday, February 13, 2017

America's Public Schools: Dead Man Walking?

Dr. Ron Willett
13 February 2017


America’s public schools' massive culture is complicated.  Unfortunately, even in this mushrooming era of “big data” our government has never sought to gather sufficient data on public K-12 to tell its truth, or make a difference in assessing it.

At the same time, public schools have historically democratized the learning that supports a democratic and free society, but also have become by self-righteousness and being inwardly directed, a cocoon wrapped around last century’s knowledge and reams of alleged rules for educating that grew up in ignorance of how genuine learning happens. The perpetuation of this culture via increasingly obsolete teachers colleges and schools of education, and inept and politicized state education apparat, has set up present conflict. The real world is that most of public education, even our best, in spite of 33 years of assault by "corporate reform,” is still in denial that their intransigence and intellectual failures precipitated that clumsy and punitive reform.

It is still lost on most of our public that many of them are equally responsible, by permitting the creation of ignorant, poorly prepared, ideologically driven, and even corrupt boards of education as the only real check and balance on how learning happens where there are teaching boots on the ground.  Of all elected offices in the U.S., BOE stand out as the least responsibly elected, tested and accountable.  Most aren’t subject to recall; many become so arrogant and able to deflect transparency that they can’t be insulted or shamed into exiting after malfeasant performances.  The failure of our states to reform BOE requirements to serve may well be the proverbial key log that is finally crashing America’s grand universal education experiment.

It shouldn’t be lost on a perceptive reader that what is bringing our public model of education onto the rocks is also systemic.  A century of slowly degraded public models of learning has created most of the very population that would have had to recognize the potentials for failure; those learning failures beget the failure to be able to assess environments, processes, and values, and what now laps at parental doorsteps. It has to be argued as well that the decades of "corporate reform's" thrusts circle back to our public systems’ failures to possess the intellectualism and invention to recognize that they were burying themselves in, and thereby re-broadcasting obsolete knowledge as alleged education.

Large scale systems can and do reverse and repair their rips and craters; but pivotal in that capability is whether the critical environments within which they operate, and the core explanatory models that predestine performance, stay relatively stable.  Change the underlying concept of what we’re about, of why things actually work, and systems’ capacities for restoration of various equilibriums go berserk.

And that is what may well be coming down the chute, aiming point blank at America’s public K-12 systems, that have ignored too long the tsunami of core technological change brought about by over a half century of innovation curing and scaling up in labs, and entrepreneurial garages, and in the largest corporate enclaves.  To the naive, this mass of strange unfamiliar products and processes built out of zeroes and ones, or particles/forces they can’t see, appears to be sci-fi or from a comic book. But as the "internet of things" demonstrates, basic knowledge and advanced technology really don't ask the permission of the average citizen if they can burst forth.

Present “reform” may be the very least of U.S. public education’s problems in 2017.  Today’s Edunationredux blog addresses a few of the possible implications for U.S. public education of unprecedented technology now rapidly emerging in this society.

Current Point of Crisis

With the prospect of Spring on the horizon, a sense of renewal around the future corner, businesses, institutions, even families traditionally move their focus in February to at least near term futures.  It is normally a month lacking excitement, delivering more ‘cabin fever’ than a sense of opportunity.  But by virtue of the normal silence, a chance to think and plan.

Segue to 2017; a nation scrambling to find some middle ground.  A White House providing the gravitas of a third-rate reality show, punctuated by commercially driven ethical lapses, ‘alternative facts,’ haphazard directives, and the nasty divisions that prevailed in November 2016 now even more virulent.  Cap that off with human resources nominated to lead this nation you might not relish occupying even local government, or gracing your next dinner party.  Poisoning the education component of our nation, the forced acceptance of DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education temporarily set a new low.

DeVos is a potential threat to our 100,000 public schools, and 3.5 million public school teachers.  Even more threatening, her past actions in promoting, thoughtlessly, privatization of public schools, backed by the ignorance and illogic of our POTUS, goes further than either Bush or Obama in being an existential threat to the very notion of ‘public system.’ What is not clear is how much of the now multi-pronged threat environment surrounding public education is just DeVos/Trump, versus public education’s own dysfunction, versus our private sector’s idiosyncratic abandonment of clear thinking and invocation of a false and ridiculous logic for public education reform?

When you intensively inspect and tease apart the issues that have brought our public systems from a zenith of popularity mid-20th century, to being under attack from all sides, and now lapsing into the last couple of decades of denial, a conclusion is that they are heavily responsible for their own vulnerability. But in the vernacular of the day, ‘it’s complicated,’ and our society has itself lapsed into an unthinking mode splattered with delusions and attention spans of the immature.  But there’s a branch in this road that has reached a point of evolution making all of the reform rhetoric potentially moot, and our public systems per our subject line, a potential “dead man walking.”


Firms, institutions, congresses, parliaments, governments alike can become so internally focused or committed to some deeply invested history, that two major forces occur.  Either the very environmental basis for all of that structure is just assumed to be stable or advancing discreetly and therefore projectable, or the entire notion of futures fades into the background, and what is selectively perceived as the settings for all choice is only what the actors see in front of them.  Certainly there are parts of this earth where there are or have been long periods of relatively calm even glacial change.  Further complicating seeing the future is what is termed "punctuated equilibrium," the major event that changes the composite landscape but that was unanticipated, and for which there was never a contingency plan.  One author terms such an event a “black swan,” happens but never anticipated.  Consequently the whole notion of predicting the future of a swath of human activity is frequently seen as hopeless, or naive, the stuff of sci-fi, but not the solid grist of our reality that we can see or feel, or offering a place to plant a foot.

The U.S. has for over a half century precipitated technology revolutions, perhaps aside from once moral leadership and support of the mechanisms of individual freedom, its historical contribution to civilization as we know it.  Easily forgotten when one becomes jaded witnessing the outpouring of American invention over decades, all of that innovation and technology had a birth, an adolescence, and a slog to maturity called "the experience curve.”  A companion function is referred to as "scaling,” meaning the creators of this technology had to find the formula to make it work in counts of millions and up, rather than just the proof of concept in a laboratory environment.  Technology that can be scaled is not a given, it must go through another development cycle.   The point of this trip down technology lane is that long technology gestation periods can lull decision makers and institutions into believing their methods and tools won’t be challenged on their watch.

Coming Down the Pipeline

American education, especially our highly structured and inward-looking public school system, has been vulnerable for a long time to disruptive innovation.  What has slowed and blocked it is the sheer mass and once credible history of public education’s long trek from occasional to mandatory schooling for the nation’s children.  The second factor keeping our public model alive is the core of what education is all about; not the cute inventions of materials and gambits that inhabit today’s classrooms, but the truth of 3,000 years of how civilization fostered learning, via that almost magic interaction between the teacher or master, and the student or apprentice.  A constant supportive background historically has been the steady but not explosive change in knowledge that footed early learning.  With WWII that changed.

All discovery since has developed as in a pressure tank simply percolating until pretty much formed it has exploded on our society.  We like to think it is incremental, that what we know is sufficient to sense and grasp what’s coming along.  It isn’t without embracing new models, new assessments, and retooling.  In this emerging milieu U.S. public education hunkered down in the apparent belief that if they simply followed the classic education lore and guidelines all would adjust.  It might have, we’ll never know.  For an American business society flexing and growing in size and complexity, and in sophistication, finally discovered they were being delivered unacceptable human resource products by our public schools.  Public education was still living in the 20th century, while American business was being forced to confront the opportunities for and threats to business success of the 21st century.  A major theme that finally cut across every aspect of business among the top 1,000 U.S. corporations was "corporate reform.”  Simultaneously there was commercial digital reinvention of just about every process and marketable output, all demanding modified human resources.

American public education missed the basic heartbeat of the digital revolution.  It misinterpreted the tsunami as the need for computers, or pads, or electronic boards, or whatever gadget was trendy, instead of a basic and profound change in how knowledge is found, expressed, processed, funded, employed, and extended.  Digital logic is now not just another point of view, but the core raw material of every aspect of future knowledge.  It doesn’t make any difference if the raw materials are cells, or polymers, some other arrangement of molecules, or data, if you can’t quantify it nothing happens.  The stuff that unthinking educators and school boards still see as sci-fi, and a basis for rolling their eyes, is close to wiping out conventional wisdom.  The terms “big data,” “machine learning,” “artificial intelligence,” “robotics,” “Big Blue,” are now realities starting to poke their muscular functions right through traditional organization of work.  In the space of just a few years all of the above have started to replace not just the manufacturing jobs of the mid-70s that were decimated by automation, but are targeting the jobs once seen safe, white collar, thinking employment.  In fact, some of these models are challenging human brains for supremacy.

Collision in Two Parts

Two massive movements in civilization’s track record have finally begun to collide:  One, the relentless march of knowledge updating and creation that evolved simply because knowledge begets knowledge (along with techniques that support its discovery and verification); and two, discovery that zeroes and ones can be made to capture and manipulate everything that evolved in softer form as language and graphic representations of reality.  Living within the beast that has been expanding exponentially is deceiving.  In a way the inhabitants are insulated to an extent by the other world being sown and grown. Specialists for a time are the keepers of the digital zoo, and don’t interact fluidly with the non-digital societal clusters.  But when all the threads start to converge the game changes.  Sci-fi becomes science reality, and science reality gets teeth that first gnaw at how we think, then swallow it. One prominent digital age guru also in a heady fraction of our income one percent, said it:  “Software eats everything.”

Consider just a small patch of what is now being documented for those prepared and not too fearful to look, starting with the contrast with what we presently pathetically bill as K-12 education versus the knowledge that conceptually has to be spanned and absorbed to keep the pace.  For example:  The knowledge doubling curve.  “Buckminster Fuller created the “Knowledge Doubling Curve”; he noticed that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today things are not as simple as different types of knowledge have different rates of growth.  For example, nanotechnology knowledge is doubling every two years and clinical knowledge every 18 months. But on average human knowledge is doubling every 13 months. According to IBM, the build out of the 'internet of things' will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours.”

In digital terms the trajectory and present state are even more pronounced. "The BBC reports on an article in Science about scientists who calculate that the sum of all the world’s data is 250 exabytes; that can be expressed as 10 raised to the 18th power."   Put this in perspective against our universe. Multiplying the number of galaxies — which is about 2 trillion — by the 100 million stars in the galaxy suggests there could be about 10 raised to the 19th power stars in the universe.  So the process marches on, but in this decade what we now call knowledge is close to exceeding the stars in our universe and may soon eclipse that. Even speculation is revealing — how many magnitudes of change have public school textbooks (controlled for decades by states’ ideologies, and a textbook mafia) experienced in even decades, versus the explosion of knowledge in the briefest current periods of history?

Oh yeah the skeptic snaps.  But those are just digits, knowledge is far richer and textured.  Is it?  Try playing a chess game with IBM’s Big Blue, or diagnosing the presence of cancer in a patient, using thousands of bits of real world reporting of cases and diagnoses, or in real places in 2017 seeing an entire enterprise run by robotic logic and execution.
The other piece of a divide between assumed reality — that paper textbook or lesson plan in a 9-12 classroom — versus the swarm of data coming out of thousands of journals fed buy thousands of researchers covering virtually very facet of human knowledge, is that what used to be assumed right is now likely wrong.  Call it the half-life of existing knowledge:  Half of what we are teaching in public schools is probably wrong, and our educators have not been trained or recruited for the capacity to upgrade that knowledge.  As the arrow of time moves on, even the half assumed right, with ever more knowledge production, is likely proven half wrong, and on.  Couple this with the continuing more quiet percolation to maturity of substitutes for the traditional classroom in especially the secondary grade bands and first rounds of higher education. (MOOCs for example haven’t disappeared but like all technology are working there way up the experience curve — ditto for self-administered and extra-classroom digitally-based learning.)

An aggressive but not unrealistic conclusion about our present public schools is, that even the very best of the genre is close to being an obsolete modality to prepare an upcoming population of workers and decision makers.  Public education has no one to blame save its own internal failure to search and grow.  In parallel, the obsolescence of what our systems still contend is knowledge may well mean that our entire fabric of what is learned, and how, needs to be reformulated.  That, however, may still not exhaust the bad news.

Part Two:  Non-Humans Only Being Hired

In the last few years two events have unfolded with many of our citizens missing the beat:  One, the combination of computer/cloud capacities, the refinement of machine learning, the practical emergence of the holy grail of decision science, “artificial intelligence,” and the rapid takeover of what’s termed “big data” as a research device, have all started to bleed together to challenge large chunks of the jobs currently being done by humans.  Two, the notion that it is immigrants that have ripped off most American jobs is myth, ignorance of what American technology has invested for much of a century.  In reality:  Our corporate business universe started the snowball in the mid-70s, with exploitation of investment tax credits, to “automate” manufacturing.  And they truly did, essentially sending millions of factory jobs to oblivion (if this stretches credulity for you, tune into a contemporary Canadian TV series titled “How It’s Made;” the reality becomes transparent).  To no one’s credit, research at the time revealed that, though automation dramatically increased U.S. corporate productivity and profits, our brainy executive suites gave zero thought to what those displaced workers would do.

What they did was more luck than smart government.  The prosperity and middle class wealth being created at the time translated into a massive and growing service sector that in the aggregate helped absorb that manpower.

Fast forward to 2017.  AI, big data, and robotics are merging to create work suites capable of replacing white collar jobs that have repetitive operations, and even creative components.  They can replace humans in service assignments.  They can write full news stories, compose music, and design art.  Before popping a neuron, the robots referenced are not the comic book robots of fiction, but systems that contain machine learning algorithms and can duplicate human performance, sans wages, medical insurance, time off, and all other benefits.  They don’t take breaks, and they don’t picket.  As it turns out, thinking in an effective sense isn’t a  machine barrier anymore.  We are miles away from creating an artificial brain based on the actual behavior of neurons, synapses, et al., but it doesn’t matter.  If the right stuff goes in, and the right stuff comes out, if productivity soars, and you don’t have to pay human wages, will the system favor flesh and blood?  It hasn’t yet.

The current best estimates by genuine expertise about what will happen to future jobs our schools mistakenly think they’re preparing students to get, are that by 2025 there will be 25 percent fewer human-based jobs — this includes white collar and tech — and by 2035 that loss factor may be as high as 50 percent. For what mission do we then educate the next full generation of elementary/secondary students launching in 2018 or so, and hitting the job market in 2030?  Public education may also want to start seeking rent-paying alternatives for their present physical plants.

Early ‘April Fool,' Right

Human nature is to head quickly into denial of some or all of the above. Fiction.  As an old classroom stomper for some quarter century, I confess these are unnerving assertions.  It would be far more comfortable to believe that time’s arrow will do a reversal, and the good old days of still unfocused and benign students, not too demanding, occasionally performing and elevating your spirits, will again assert itself.  Software product life cycles wouldn't be measured in hours or minutes.  Not in the cards.  What should be in near term mission statements of human resources still assigned great responsibility for learning, is the quest to take in the views, and data, and assessments, and reasoning, and predictions of an army of the human resources that think about these issues.

One just revealed example of the speed of technological change, a speeding up that challenges the civilian to do a reality check to make sure they haven't dropped through Alice's 'rabbit hole,' was just reported in the world journal Nature.   It is being proposed that the holy grail of computing, "quantum computing," using thousands instead of a few "qubits," could be built right now, enabling computing power unmatched in our history.  The resulting 'box' would be the rough size of a football field, but there is apparently no roadblock save funding preventing the development.

There is surprisingly an ancient remedy for developing the backgrounds, and instincts, and tools to deal with our next decades of societal planning and prodding.  It is called ‘reading.’  Many talk about it, and many don’t do it, including egregiously many especially public elementary and secondary educators.  Here are a few current works that elaborate the above arguments. What is important to register is that these highly rated and coherent materials increasingly are coming from human resources who are not only intellectually competent but practicing the science for profit, and they're increasingly telling exactly the same story.

Some Starter References

Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable:  Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, Viking.

Alec Ross, The Jobs of the Future, Simon & Schuster.

Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots:  Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Basic Books.  ("2015 Business Book of the Year" Award Winner)

SCIENCE, 3 February 2017.  SPECIAL ISSUE, “What can we know in advance about human activities?”  PP. 469-489.

There are many other references of merit; repeating what’s important is that there’s increasing consensus among the credible researchers and authors about the futures factors that are likely to impact our educational systems, and even their finer points.

Game On

A bit frivolous to capsulate the complex messy issue of what happens to America’s public schools of over 190 years as ‘game on,’ but in a real sense that is where history has dealt our hand.  Consider that all of the many puts and takes that have pummeled our public schools for 33 years since the inception of what became “corporate reform,” are coming home to roost.  Betsy DeVos, over the massive objections of the human resources who know anything about education, is now empowered to pursue whatever mission she sees.  Total mystery what that is at the moment.  The standardized testing grinch is momentarily stilled, but its negative effects on real learning are still deeply entrenched, and the corporations profiteering by continuing to use every ploy to keep cranking out testing won’t back off short of full bore assault by proper government; that isn’t going to come out of the present White House. Most of our public education establishment, from legitimate teachers at one pole, to too many power mongering and unethical administrators at an opposite pole, hasn't shifted enough to change anything, including reducing the denial that our systems are heavily their own worst enemy.

What is its fate:  “Dead man walking” if a political maelstrom is orchestrated to attack the core idea of K-12 as a public system and good? What is scary is a fascist school model, all present schools converted into poorly overseen charters, eventually competing with each other for public tax dollars, lacking the controls on learning achievement and ethics in asset use.  Almost equally scary is the less extreme option of a quarter to a third of all public schools converted to charters, also rolling religious myth back into alleged learning, but with the chaotic redeployment of tax dollars that would destabilize decades of present school resource allocation, apparently with little community recourse to appeal results that were destructive.  What is clear are the hypocritical and demagogic appeals being employed to try to sell privatization by continuously mouthing, 'but it’s choice.'  Reality is that present charter illogic makes such conversions a zero-sum game for ordinary Americans who will have no voice in redistribution of their taxes paid.  That is not ‘choice.'

There appears no present force that can intercept the naive, simplistic view that by privatizing a K-12 education, some never explained mythological transformation via Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” will suddenly create a new era of learning.  As a former business professor, student of markets, and student of American and world business for over six decades, that simply rates the assessment — stupidity.  Not as questionable however, if this had been the thrust of business-driven public schools, would have been forcing into public education the knowledge collegiate education schools never self-discovered, adopted or installed, the rich theory and practice around development of organizational design and behavior, and the entire discipline that created firms capable of managerial excellence in achieving both short and long term mission objectives.  Our public systems into 2017 are overall still blundering incompetents in terms of using contemporary organizational design and decision processes to plan, execute and assess within their missions.

Public or Private Sector

The astute reader will pick up on a thread woven among these paragraphs; that neither is present U.S. public school structure seen as viable in our future, nor are vouchers and simplistic charter renderings of public schools seen as a way to improve the game.  What are the options?

Another day, another big data exploration, but one elephantine hypothesis is that our public schools could be successfully privatized as a universe, if there were major assumption changes.  Education in the Constitution belongs to our states.  Lots of ifs and buts, but if our system was seen structured as 50 public-private corporations, by state, using most of the present teaching human resources, but creating competent administrative ranks, driven by business values and principles, with a totally modern school organizational model instead of the 19th century’s, with school-by-school oversight jointly by accomplished executives paired with representatives of a state’s colleges/universities, overseen by a national congress of states’ public-private education partnerships, there might be a chance?

Miles to go to sort out the proposal, but a scheme that might merit thought experiments and conceptual testing.  Alternately, maybe former House Speaker and Buckeye, John Boehner was right, when he frequently intoned (paraphrased):  ‘If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas in edu-land.’  Maybe Mr. Boehner was right more than any of us knew in seeing a society broken and cranky...

-- Blog Transmittal -- 

TO:        Edunationredux Learning Community

DATE:   13 February 2017

Good morning.

Yes, the DeVos train wreck is coming, but it may get lost in the perfect storm.

Not news to anyone not oblivious to America’s love-hate relationship with our almost two-century old public school labyrinth — of ever-escalating taxes, pockets of genuine learning excellence, juxtaposed against dismal low-income and discriminatory urban systems, disguised incompetence of rural schools, physical plant and sports excess precedence over learning, schools of education becoming culturally isolated islands, and the blend of near-sainthood of a large fraction of dedicated teachers versus the conflicting large fraction of pseudo-educators lacking proper training dominating school administration with self-interest and power trips — public education is still under attack.

A simple pointed example of why our public systems are still drawing fire is playing out in Indiana’s current Legislature.  Its school spending has exceeded inflation in five of the last six years, but simultaneously "...more of the new money has gone to operations and overhead than to classrooms.”  This in spite of a major effort earlier this century to emphasize the goals of increasing that dollar fraction directly supporting the classroom, plus former Governor Mitch Daniels’ effort a decade ago to make it possible for systems to join together to cut the costs of various services.  By last year the ratio of dollars going to the classroom “...had dropped to 57 percent.”  In spite of the self-evident attention of anyone who has successfully managed a corporate enterprise, Indiana local systems simply offered evidence that they were indifferent to, or unwilling to exercise the discipline to meet the need for spending reform.

It is hard to even conceptualize school leadership so naive, or so arrogant, that after decades of attempted reform, they simply offer in-your-face refusals to seek to meet stated public needs to change the game in favor putting their public dollars into instruction rather than empire building.  There is major realization highlighted by this anecdote — American public school leadership has probably never in this century had either its educational or operating functions ‘professionally managed’ where the rubber meets the road!
The latest tactical assault is of course the appointment of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education; seemingly her qualifications for that post being her husband’s billions from plugging Amway products, and a destructive path of unaccountable charters through Michigan’s K-12 systems.  But DeVos may prove to be a minor inconvenience for our public systems, compared to the strategic shifts starting to roil the need for and shape of public learning.

Present “reform” may be the very least of U.S. public education’s problems in 2017.  Today’s Edunationredux blog addresses a few of the possible implications for public education of unprecedented technology now rapidly emerging in this society, linked here.



      Ron Willett  

Dr. Ronald Willett
New Bremen, OH

Friday, August 12, 2016

Prospectus — Reframing the Debate: Our Public School Reform Fiasco

Appended are the bones of a thought paper underway.  Its title will likely be: "Reframing the Debate:  Our Public School Reform Fiasco."  The mission, and why this preliminary display?

To the first question, because the debates to date are becoming stylized and hardened, reflecting the inner biases of the competitors for the high ground. In that process far too many of the real but complex factors at play get reduced to talking points and slogans.  No effective public policy in the history of these United States has ever been served by that simplification and its related bigotry.  The reformers aren't knuckle-dragging cretins; but public K-12 education in turn isn't totally populated by teaching saints, many teachers are inadequately educated to handle the knowledge cluster assigned, and many public schools' imperfect systems for finding and ensuring competent and honest leadership have more holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese.  Our states’ systems for creating and ensuring the professional function of local BOE may be the most flawed function in public education.

The second question:  Why this prospectus?  Because the writer sees and values others' properly considered and documented points of view, and the offering appended below is in the hope of receiving some intelligent critique. My defense of that assertion is in my very neural nets — I had the good fortune to be trained at the doctoral level, plus the innate disposition from childhood on, to be a researcher.  One can't practice that professional commitment successfully for decades without being able to dissect complexity, probe the inner workings of a system, and consider alternative explanations for phenomena.


Some educators, most public system parents and taxpayers, and many members of BOE are clueless about the history and motivations that resulted in the creation of America’s public schools.  Far from being the product, overall, of nobility, soaring values about learning, and thirst for equality, most of the motivation stemming from public system drivers was to create a workforce literate enough to support last century’s growing manufacturing economy, but not intellectual enough to question authority or become wary of the power establishments of the era.  It is probably fair to say, that as ignorant and naive as Ronald Reagan and George Bush were about real learning, they reflected more altruistic and lofty views of the reasons for mandatory education than most of its prior pioneers.  Simultaneously, there were education giants, with intellect, who went with the development flow, but pioneered the ideas related to how to structure the processes, and fashion infrastructure to make learning effective.

Systems and Public School Genesis

Public schools over last century quickly became the dominant source of student head counts, if not its highest and best learning expression.  The latter were, and still are, the private schools and academies that could be afforded by our nation’s wealthiest and elite families.  Those schools  — not even remotely resembling charters  — have frequently resembled small colleges, and indeed, the pedagogy practiced more nearly mimics very high quality postsecondary education than our public schools’ monolithic reasoning and protocols.

The core mechanism installing our public schools was the creation of, first, teachers colleges across our states, then gradual creation of mainstream schools of education in most colleges and universities.  That process did two things that became the eventual causes of the present reform fiasco:  One, it isolated many schools of education within the broader universe of higher education knowledge creation and codification.  That autonomy was likely initially conceptualized with some legitimacy, that the teachers being created would operate with immature human beings, children, requiring an emphasis on methods that might be considered pedestrian when propagating or employing knowledge among the adults and establishments in our society.  

Secondly, that created a culture in which teachers easily developed and even became dependent on a sense of entitlement from opting for the role of teacher.  That was reinforced over decades by salaries that were constrained by the vagaries of taxes as the source of school funding, and by an anthem as onerous as many in today’s political arena, “them that can’t, teach.”  But once installed, no matter how much respect for and compensation of the profession improved, the composite teaching profession hung onto that sense of entitlement.  In any system where such a cultural basic is installed, its recipients acquire a measure of self-righteousness that erodes the willingness to look beyond their environment for clues to how well its practices are accepted, and even more importantly, whether those practices are fulfilling the mission the larger society ascribes to their profession.

Education Tunnel Vision

This culture, by itself amenable to deflecting alienation from society in general, was thrown a curve by the failure of our educational training to recognize that management of what became highly complex organization was neither understood by most educating the educators, nor was it addressed by the social science those schools understood.  I have used this true story before, but it is very pointed.  At the end of last century, an education professor authored a journal article proclaiming the “discovery” of principles of organizational behavior and management that should guide school administration.  To anyone versed in modern understanding of organizational behavior and management, the concepts floated as “discovered by education,” had been pioneered at least decades before in our business schools. Additionally, every principle “discovered” had been assigned a different name than the universally non-education intellectual community recognized and employed.  This manifests a form of isolationism that ultimately became public education’s trajectory to an unfortunate place — the conclusion that our public schools were broadly failing to create contemporary understanding of rapidly changing knowledge and skills.  The systems for training, recruiting, qualifying, vetting, and controlling our alleged school administrators may be the most flawed, even corrupted component of contemporary public education.  Instead of leaders, the system has created unsupervised managers who can gravitate to those positions because of desire for power and greater incomes, not out of the highest visions of service.

A second sequela of public school evolution has been its adoption of the view that one of its roles as the mainstay of moving children into adulthood was to do the social engineering to shape those values as much as install a command of sufficient knowledge to move into a next learning world, or into earning a living.  This cultural assumption, coupled to a second factor, multiplied by decades of relatively unchecked freedom to write its own tickets for tax-funded infrastructure and methods of operation, plus expansion of a technology revolution it still hasn’t in whole grasped, is what catalyzed 1983’s private sector rebellion.  The rest of the conservative ‘bit in the mouth’ initiative, to penalize public education for being unresponsive or overtly aggressive in pushing its own values, is what’s been visible since launch of NCLB. Add that a second failure quickly joined the first; the failure as an institution to sense and research its own inability to meet the differential and growing needs of minority and disadvantaged population segments for educational change.  A different audience than corporate reform, but taking the same punitive form of the prior, it simply multiplied the damage being inflicted on real learning. A sidebar here is as simple as trying to find out, as a citizen paying for our public schools, or even a parent of enrollees, precisely what a school is teaching its students.  Try it some time; ask your local superintendent to open its metaphorical curriculum books.
How Public Education Became Alienated

Conventional wisdom is, that though these properties taint the history of public education, its need to practice in and secure the funding of local communities is a countervailing force, requiring systems to respond to local oversight and acceptance. In a perfect, and erudite citizen world, it might.  In the real world of schools, citizen deep belief in education, acceptance of its taxes, and citizen ignorance of what a school can do, should do, and does, those are naive assumptions.  Part of the reason for that lies in the benign culture and optimistic views of most of our society, part is the original error in strategy for oversight of this major piece of our society, and part is that educators can be as flawed as any other profession, possessing in the case of a school system’s monopoly in equipping its children for life, the capacity to intimidate both parents and a community when power is unchecked.  Parents are inevitably reluctant to challenge administrators and teachers when manipulating their child’s assessments can be used as a weapon to suppress. Horrors, does that actually happen?  In a local system it has been observed blatantly exercised in public meetings.

One factor above has already been noted.  The image of the teaching gestalt as a unique identity and culture creates the beliefs that our educators alone possess the magic sauce of learning.  It reinforces that sense of teacher-administrator entitlement that promotes looking in rather than out.  It creates opportunities for dictatorial practice and malfeasance.  Even the most empathetic educator can be caught up in this ego trip.  A very recent report of research on earliest childhood learning suggests that children create their own learning models, and can even experience less effective learning when it is fed or orchestrated by an adult.  Spoiler alert:  Schools as we depict them are in the long swath of history a literally new invention.

The second factor is the typically American trait of assuming that we are the good guys, that the joint presence in a community of educators and parents/taxpayers makes them equals.  In fact, most educators in our public systems see themselves as superior intellectually, even when that assumption is quite flawed by their comparison level with a general population versus resources who practice intellectually at a higher level.  In a nation of “all created equal” the misinterpretation of that concept has caused more damage to civil tranquility than many other societal discontinuities. There are systems in which some school administrator writes the minutes of a BOE meeting before the meeting occurs.  That sounds a bit paranoid?  Perhaps.   All of that and more have for over a dozen years characterized the system in the village from which this post is originating.

The third factor is the one “whose name one should not say,” that is, the debacle created by our utopian belief in intellectual equality applicable to oversight of public schools  — our incredibly unprepared and frequently incompetent to demagogic boards of education.  Bypassing the extensive history of early education formation for the sake of brevity, education became constitutionally the province of states and local communities.  In our early evolution of systems, both parents and general citizenry, and boards popularly elected — frequently then and to this day on the basis of general popularity and not competence to assess and control education — could achieve reasonable oversight, because their knowledge was on a par with that of the systems so governed. That ceased to be true decades ago.  Our states in turn failed to upgrade laws determining the qualifications for BOE, and in parallel create regulations that would assure elections were based on reasonable testing of candidates.  At the moment one can be on a BOE and be illiterate, have never graduated from a high school, and experience zero testing of qualifications in the electoral process.  In fact, our systems have increasingly abused that process by setting up candidates for a BOE, acquiring necessary signatures for them to be on the ballot, covertly promoting their election, and the basis is virtually always identifying candidates who cannot or will not challenge school administration wishes, as well as look the other way for example if teacher or parental complaints are blocked.  System integrity in action?  BOE cannot be recalled, and except for the rare critical mass of public protest, and an occasional press that doesn’t give them a free-get-out-of-jail-card, they receive little oversight.  

Public Schools In the Real Trenches

Two heroines of the remonstrance against standardized testing as the right prescription for improving public school performance have been Dr. Diane Ravitch, reflecting both academic and public sector education excellence and power of rational argument, and Valeri Strauss, the seemingly indefatigable editor of the Washington Post’s "The Answer Sheet."  It is difficult to do anything but marvel at the latter’s reach and grasp of material by accomplished educators who have dissected the errors in the alleged corporate reform movement.  A hero of that cause is also Dr. Marion Brady, who has authored some of the most potent arguments for a different approach to school change, possessing a background as rich in excellence as the two above. But for all of the arguments mustered by Ms Strauss, she is categorically adamant about acknowledging that not all teachers are peerless, nor that a bungled pattern of acquiring and supervising school administrators has been the most destructive human resource factor in blocking public education’s self reform to blunt the destructive corporate version. The latter has been more destructive of school reform than even the still malingering recognition that our schools of education are what’s broken, and need radical change.

Let’s promptly acknowledge, that as in all attempts to generalize about complex systems, U.S. public education is a segmented, fragmented, stratified assembly of systems that range from almost angelic to horrible — precisely the status of any real world system that possesses the capacity for independence in its values, choices, and manner of operation.  Were there contemporary research and data on what is actually happening in U.S. public schools we might be able to comprehensively and accurately diagnose where the worst of public K-12 is occurring, and those causal factors.  Not based on research to date, totally impressionistic, the incidence of felony indictments of public school teachers for cause appears to parallel the comparable indictment and release for cause of school administrators.  If that is even within miles of truth, it is a massive indictment of public school leadership — because the number of teachers is many levels of magnitude greater than the number of administrators.

Parenthetically, a documented event, in its history there has been only one attempt to do a projectable empirical study of our public schools, surveying adequate numbers of students teachers and administrators — the study directed by premier educator/researcher Dr. John Goodlad.  Paradoxically, this study was being concluded at the same time a report was being prepared for President Reagan, the now famous “A Nation at Risk,” that was the ignition point for the subsequent condemnation of our public schools by the CEO of IBM emoting to the National Governors Conference, cascading into what became finally NCLB, then under Mr. Obama’s ideological thrust, the egregious RttT.  Goodlad’s real data on our systems were available to the group that crafted ANAR, were requested by it, then ignored in the report. What Goodlad concluded and recommended for improving U.S. public K-12 was virtually 180 degrees away from the punitive current style of corporate reform.

The Crisis of Knowledge

An assumption that appears to underlay much if not most of public education’s organizational monolith is that whatever knowledge is perceived and being conveyed in its classrooms is immutable.  In most cases all that its teachers actually grasp is what came out of their postsecondary training, even masters work.  So-called teacher development rarely extends beyond bureaucratic drills to make life less taxing for school administrators; how often is core knowledge they pass on as fact updated?  In fact, all knowledge that fits into our arbitrary K-12 Procrustean Bed is probably wrong; some material obsolete, all we think we know scientifically, biologically, and sociologically subject to continuing correction and updating by virtue of better research tools, better digital capabilities, and the cumulative effects of focused study in both higher education, national research entities, and by private sector R&D.  Most K-12 text materials are prepared by some of the most mediocre intellects around, further twisted at state levels of textbook review by ignorance and religious ideologies.  A very small number of books critiquing school text adoption have survived censorship, but the message they convey is disgusting; corrupt practices at every seam, perpetrated by both publishers concerned only with profit, and authorship manipulating systems to maintain their authors' strangleholds on adoptions and their royalty stream.

Couple the above to both teachers and administrators, even ones with integrity, who have been indoctrinated from training through Praxis One and Two, to mechanically plod through classes with fixed rhetoric, and you get the nucleus of what actually provoked corporate reform.  A couple of generations of our public systems, thanks to self-righteousness and adopted isolationism, compounded by incompetent administration and ineffectual BOE, have in fact neutered most creativity and genuine intellectual competence in some fraction of our overall public systems.  As counterproductive and mean-spirited as the ‘means’ of present alleged corporate reform have been, it is very hard to actually blame the Business Roundtable, thinking conservatives, and any entity that depends on being able to count on critical thought coming out of public education, for rebelling and putting into motion attempts to replace public systems with charters if public systems refuse to reform themselves.

The partial counter to this is in the necessary use of “some,” “a few,” “too many,” “most,” and on, the product of our cluelessness about what pragmatically occurs in our massive public school universe.  Repeating a previous point, except for Goodlad’s work thirty years ago, that encompassed the experiences of 36,000 students, and their associated teachers and administrators, we don’t know what public K-12 actually is in actionable detail.  We don’t know except by chance encounters with systems that invite scrutiny, precisely how many of our systems are good, to mediocre, to poor, to corrupt.  Alexis de Tocqueville said: “America is great because she is good.  If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”  There are robust arguments for the assertion that our public school systems have evolutionarily ceased to be overall good because of pedestrian beliefs and training, and refusal to adapt to contemporary understanding of virtually all phenomena and even modern understanding of organizational behavior and management. But which ones, and to each of those characterizations, how much; then to each of those fragments, with what causes?  Lacking any of the answers to those questions, present corporate reform does have the ambience of a knuckle-dragging gang of cretins swinging clubs and throwing rocks to “improve” systems they can’t accurately characterize and critique; simultaneously, commentators of the stripe that grace the WaPo’s “The Answer Sheet,” can with sophistication, always find a haphazard sample of excellent and highly effective systems to hold out as shining public schools on a hill.  Haphazard samples if they are misinterpreted as truth have a nasty historical habit of undermining the universe they only accidentally and temporally reflect.

Up Close and Personal

It would be uplifting to segue to a narrative that now describes a pair of shining examples of public systems in America’s heartland. Unfortunately, the opposite of that is the curse of the site of this essay.

Two places in America’s culturally semi-insulated heartland of west central Ohio nevertheless make the point that we have miles to go to actually cope with over a century’s drift of our public schools from inception, to major tax and asset users, to virtual monopoly in critical preparation, or failure of preparation of our youth for adulthood.  As the saying goes, “is not your grandfather’s or even father’s world or America.”  But those places, a village, New Bremen, OH, and technically, a small city, St, Marys, OH, missed educationally joining this century.

Both places could easily have visually come out of a piece of Norman Rockwell art, brimming with wholesome and benign display of people and things.  A difference, New Bremen could be a comic book reconstruction of a far grittier history, one notch short of being fiction.  St. Marys would be that Norman Rockwell wholesomeness aged by decades of loss of industry and a center of the modern meaning of community.  Both house the relics of a historically brief and not terribly distinguished or prescient era of the Miami-Erie canal. New Bremen’s as stated was reconstructed mostly as fiction; St. Marys downtown is peppered with dry rot, its canals presently riddled with cyanobacteria, the product of a man-made lake historically feeding the canal (now being saturated with nutrients courtesy of surrounding farms and farmers irresponsibly leaching animal waste into that reservoir).  

Both communities survive, New Bremen though civically insular prospering because of the presence of a major (and controlling) manufacturing business that is outstanding in historical business terms.  St. Marys is a blue-collar place, that one native describes as “a place where a whole bunch of us live, but it is not a ‘community.’”  Both have school systems that physically would impress the naive observer, Norman Rockwell ambience.  Lift the lids, and a closer look might suggest that the educational highlight of the upcoming school year is the onset of the games on its groomed football fields, and the next round of historical liberally-rooted feel good mantras that will grace the extensive propaganda and self-promotion from both schools.  To know what either school is really doing to their children, you would have to file in Ohio with its supreme court for a writ of mandamus to force open school records.

With the exception of a single BOE member out of the composite ten, the BOE constituency ranges from ignorant, to bullies, to the cowardly, to the Machiavellian, to sock puppets for special interests, to alleged human resources who pursued the post not to work, or even to provide oversight of both the communities’ use of tax monies or how its children were provided the assets to learn, but to burnish personal egos. Not unexpectedly, these BOEs’ defaults in hiring leadership reflect the above superlative traits. New Bremen’s system in this century has had superintendents who: Trafficked in child pornography; were dishonest in administration virtually across the board in school policy, accepting public input, and misreporting; have been educationally retro or incompetent accompanied by personality disorder bordering on socio-pathology; and have demonstrated plagiarism, educational fraud, and regular lapses of ethical management.  Four-fifths of St. Marys BOE might have looked ‘good' if they had simply emulated New Bremen, and the SMCS’ system leadership has made New Bremen’s look almost kosher.  This is the reality that is never seen by the critic who stands on a peak and observes public education at a great distance, visualizing only the products of this nation’s obsessive and excessive spending on public K-12 buildings and sports infrastructure.  

Simultaneously, the excesses and omissions and dysfunction of these two systems may be the exception, or the tip of the iceberg?  We simply don’t know how low an entitled, self-righteous, and incompletely trained, but very tightly cultured and self-identified education community can really go? Lastly, state education departments are almost a farce; Ohio’s has now ousted more officials in that function by implication of, or accusation of wrongdoing than most of Ohio’s bureaucracy.  


The punch line to all of this is both optimistic and dismal.  Congress in its rewrite of the original ESEA (now ESSA) sought to hand more power to mediate public K-12 back to local communities.  Mr. Obama, still guided by a deeply ingrained desire to equilibrate childhood learning across our population segments, his own partly flawed ideology, is still seeking to override that local control.  The point is that the opportunity has been put on the table for local systems to reform their own venues. The dismal conclusion is that, except for the exceptional systems Valerie Strauss digs out and highlights, some unknown fraction of our systems has some variant of the rot or venality described in New Bremen's and St. Marys’ systems, accompanied by the dysfunction and cowardice of their BOE to grasp and be innovative in real reform and upgrading quality and integrity.

What happens over the rest of this decade and the next is a major factor in where this nation goes intellectually, civically, economically, culturally, and environmentally as this century unfolds.  Will it sink to the low depicted by the rhetoric issuing from the “orange cowbell,” or further dissemble from the distorted self-interest suffocating both public and private sector better values? The stark reality is that national policy and lunges into places not planned have increasingly been ceded to the young.  The young for better or worse will act out based on how they receive learning now and in the near future.  If their received wisdom rotates around mythology, or inaccurate science, or distorted values, or meaningless feel-good mantras, and lacking the capacities for critical thought and innovation without a crib sheet or being beaten with a standardized test, envisioning our nation’s possible futures is not a pleasant undertaking.

Cutting through all of the qualified rhetoric surrounding how to rescue public education, what would it take to roll back corporate reform, sink charters, and stick a fork in the hybrid collection of entities collaborating by chance, greed, and mischief to attack America’s public schools?

Real Reform  

One, it would take a champion with the scope and authority to intercept and torpedo present functions and their perpetrators. Ideally, if the GOP wasn’t obsessively trying to roll the nation back to what they, experiencing delusions, believe constituted the U.S. mid-20th century, and Mr. Obama didn’t have a neural short-circuit in his wiring for conceiving public education, it would have been spiritually the U.S. Department of Education. The issue here is that even through the W. G. Bush administration, that department retained most of the brains to accomplish the task given far more enlightened and operationally oriented leadership. If one started today, it would take a decade to recreate that human resource assembly and intellectual capacity trashed by Arne Duncan.

Alternatively, it could be major reform of the top 100 schools of education in the U.S. That would take starter dough of the leading U.S. universities to challenge those schools and with real teeth demanding change.  Potentially, if that ignited and took off, some consortium of those universities and schools could be a force and organizing concept.

Like the other President Bush’s 1,000 points of light, a movement by some of our largest local school systems, backed from epiphanies by some thinking governors and legislatures, aligned with rethinking of roles by our various education practice and school board associations, might prove a critical mass for attracting other institutions to join the anti-testing movement.

It would take Bill Gates actually engaging his neural nets, and a handful of other rich but shallow thinkers having an epiphany, redirecting major dollars to actually installing in our public schools the concepts already researched that could with innovation improve real learning.  In practice, those dollars applied to re-educating America’s present teacher force with a massive program of real teacher development, employing the most contemporary learning technologies and virtual access to knowledge, and adjusted for every development as it occurs, would actually be an exciting prospect and challenge.

Lastly, it would take major rethinking, with new vetting of every sitting public school superintendent, coupled with the re-education in management of those who survive to teach them how to actually manage their systems and learning. Imagine, a small revolution in our increasingly twisted B-schools, to redirect some of their time spent building more greed-driven finance MBAs, to re-educate to a doctoral level the nation’s educational administrators with the intellect to do it.  Who knows, the concept of social responsibility and ethical leadership might come back in fashion.

BOE?  Without states massively rethinking how public schools are governed and provided oversight BOE don’t enter the picture.  As inept as they are, an argument is that actually valid and competent leadership installed in every school could allow most BOE to simply be ignored — few would have the courage, energy, or intellect to challenge.  Yes, it’s true for many right now; however, the issue is that too many of the latter are being mismanaged by superintendents needing separation or indictment. The alternative positive strategy; modification of state laws to require, one, higher levels of education to be on a BOE, two, training and testing before one can be seated, and three, changing present election of all BOE to a mixed system of elected plus appointed.  A parallel idea is that every BOE has to be linked to, and is subject to ‘visitation’ by a credible state college or university.

It might take an effort to cross-functionally and sharply focus Federal law enforcement on the collective abuses of our cabal of testing companies, in conspiracies to defraud, improper buying of influence in our public sectors, bribery to acquire public contracts, turning over every rock to expose how they have essentially thumbed their nose at public policy since they were allowed into the education loop by public system malfeasance.  Might the RICO statute even apply?

Lastly, in precisely the opposite of the disastrous adoption of all aspects of corporate reform, from NCLB, through RttT, to every debacle allowed by our testing vultures, every proposed initiative could be concept-tested, via small scale experiments, or pilot programs, to estimate issues, costs, application protocols, project performance, and capacity for scaling – all of the correct development action that should have preceded dumping on public education an untested and ignorant massive system of mechanical alleged change.  Even our greediest firms, indifferent to even the concept of social responsibility, use that model in development before betting the farm on a potential opportunity for functional and/or market failure.  Amazing, that almost the first words spoken in higher education work on product development are “market testing.”  Did our standardized testing companies and their sundry consultants, and trailing demagogues, deposit their brains in their left-hand desk drawers before launching our learning Titanic?

Real Reform In Action

After posting this draft, a report issued that embodies many of the prospective elements of real reform; in this case issuing from a consortium of our states. A major such resource is the NCSL, standing for the National Conference of State Legislatures.  Not as politicized as the NGA (National Governors Association), the NCSL has frequently sponsored and reported policy research that straddles our political poles.

Such a study was featured in a regular newsletter from NCSL, just appearing in my email.  That feature and lead item were so low key that it might easily be missed by those who should heed its findings and recommendations.  What makes the report in question so pertinent is that Mr. Obama’s current U.S. Department of Education overreach on the rewrite of NCLB — ESSA — is skating on Constitutionally thin ice, because public education is the province of our states and local communities.

The NCSL report, titled “No Time to Lose:  How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State,” tackles the question how a balanced, rational, multi-dimensional approach to public school reform might be structured, if our states would come to the party with their neural nets working. In a measured way it is candid, most specifically demolishing the current “silver bullet” mentality as the fix for upgrading public K-12.  However, the study and report on which the recommendations are based stops short of "naming names and kicking butt."  

It states what should be, but, and perhaps understandably to hang on to readers, it never fingers the classes of culprits who have been responsible for where we are.  For example, repeated to a fault, that we need overall far better equipped teachers, but is silent on the reality that two major factors are responsible:  The wholesale failure of our collegiate schools of education to reform themselves, and move their awareness of learning out of the 20th century, and their command of knowledge into this one; and the endemic failure of both local BOE and the administrators they elect to comprehend, recruit, and support competent teachers rather than their own agendas.  Of course we have good, even great teachers, a tribute to the power of empathy and values that draw one to teaching as a vocation — that is not enough.  

A discriminating reader, allowing defense screens to recede sufficiently to entertain the generic prescription offered by the NCLS effort, will find there is in it a spirit and sense that foot virtually all good decision process.  As with every such prescription, goal specificity, the action plan, the milestones, the contingency plans, the human and other resource assignments, and timetables to create movement are in its extensions into the specific environments.   They are in this case states’ initiatives, then relay down to local systems, to make work happen.

I can’t suppress using the favorite quote from an executive to whom I once reported, referencing some new and daunting performance goals for my profit center:  “Of course it’s hard; if it was easy I’d do it on a cocktail napkin over a martini."