A seven-year run of this education blog has produced 137 posts, covering an ongoing war between America's 150 year old public school system, and 35 years of what has been dubbed "corporate reform."
Not automatically visible in that blogging has been the learning process needed to create those words. Even with an academic base of a quarter century of high level social research methodology, jumping into the products of the second law of thermodynamics public education reflects as a metaphor, was demanding. If that seems mysterious, I invite the reader to Google ‘the second law’ and reflect on how it may foot many of the dysfunctions now visible in America’s various education function trajectories.
Trying to explain public education – in contrast with the incredibly stupid comments of Betsy DeVos, disavowing that public education is a ‘system’ – means seeing it as a massive complex of nested systems. How one scopes that, to seek diagnosis of ills, means seeing analysis having longitudinal and latitudinal dimensions. What drives present dialogue about our schools is primarily latitudinal, exploring all of the elements that comprise finally what happens in our classrooms along with their consequences. The longitudinal dimension implies how high you go in trying to visualize the system’s core infrastructure versus just working parts.
But if you step back and get on top of this highly developed and ritually-driven ‘big system,’ there are some points of view that explain a lot. At the top of the list are answerable questions:
What happens to any system over time when it is handed a monopoly?
What behaviors are triggered when a system is handed a public money pipeline vulnerable to being played, as well as activating the “ratchet effect” of economics, always expanding funding?
What happens to the operating entities in the system when there is no genuinely effective oversight of frequently poorly vetted school administrators, handed unchecked capacities to manipulate a child’s learning and public monies? If this question appears challenging, Google “Lord Acton’s Dictum.”
What happens to systems that have supporting constituencies inadequately educated to actually know when they are being provided subpar education or being conned?
What happens when a function as universal and secular as the core learning of a nation’s children is exploited by political power to serve ideological ends?
And what happens to that base of operating systems and its products when a false mechanism for inducing change – alleged standardized testing – is ignorantly and despotically installed overriding competent pedagogical strategies and means of assessing learning performance?
The answers aren’t per the riff of a protest song from the ‘60s’ “…written in the wind;” they are demonstrated in the manifest dumbing-down of a nation’s children.
Trying to understand why and how America’s public education experiment – second only to constitutional and democratic central government – has begun to critically fail is one half of the issue, that bifurcates into the above core philosophical questions, and the education ‘street’ questions of how that has evolved?
That reform call apparently went public roughly 35 years ago, it likely represented even earlier some fraction of our major corporate leaderships concluding our public schools had started to visibly fail to turn out the human resource preparation they assumed was needed to satisfy their employee and leadership needs. The call, paralleling a study called "A Nation At Risk," commissioned by then President Ronald Reagan, started a politically infused chain of events that ultimately led, in President George Bush's Administration, to the Federal mandates popularly called "No Child Left Behind."
The rest is recent history, and a massive and confused portfolio of attempts to change our public schools, to produce better learning performance. Not a credit to American ingenuity, those attempts, to use a food analogy, have become a hash of trial and error, all of it pragmatically failing to materially elevate US public school learning performances. That smorgasbord of alleged reforms has, however, driven our public system mammoth into a mess of variable compliance mixed with resistance, but sans anything that could be legitimately called reform. The premise of this concluding postscript to educationredux is that our twisted networks of school reform have for all practical purposes left America's public schools in 2017 in a dysfunctional limbo.
Issues with the most current clarity are the very weapons that have corrupted the original reform strategies: One, continuation of proven dysfunctional excessive standardized testing that persists because of the ideologies and ignorance of state education directorates, along with testing company lobbying; and two the attempts to privatize public schools via use of charters and to a lesser extent the ideological use of vouchers to try to force religion into our schools. Neither have proven productive in improving US learning, in fact, the opposite. See Daniel Koretz, Why the school ‘accountability movement’ based on standardized tests is nothing more than ‘a charade.’
The critical questions are, even if now increasing public resistance to both mechanisms offer some retreat and relief, how do you actually change for positive effect the infrastructure and behaviors in public education to generate true reform? The tactics of the present Administration will not last long enough to materially change a massive public system into a private one. The tens of thousands of public school administrators, many inadequately educated and wrongly conditioned by flawed collegiate schools of education can't be replaced in less than decades, and that assumes those training grounds for human resources can themselves reform their disciplines. Despite the mythology of perfection of public school teachers, that is a grand lie, because of how many were initially educationally unqualified for those positions, and our systems’ overall ignorance or dereliction in not continually updating teachers’ knowledge.
How does a nation change this mess?
To answer the question, one has to address the almost unthinkable challenge of causing millions of beliefs and attitudes to be modified, and millions of tactical acts both in and out of our classrooms to be modified to enhanced specifications. In perspective one can emphasize with the top corporate CEOs who ignited the reform movement just prior to issue of ANAR. They at the time logically believed that America's public schools had both become distracted with culturally defined learning needs, and had begun to become obsolete in dealing with exploding knowledge. Not a pejorative assessment but a pragmatic one.
By the decade of the '80s computer and digital technologies had already overtaken world business. The automation of manufacturing of the '70s (that failed to address how the substitution of machines for human resources would impact our nation) was already being supplanted by digital industries and robotics. What used to boggle the mind as billions of dollars has become scales of trillions of dollars. America's educators, run through by then arguably obsolete schools of education in terms of that knowledge, could not provide the learning being demanded by industry. The second hammer dropped.
Our public schools by fundamental nature were not politically shaped organizations. However, by that time social pressures to correct major national and social inequities had mushroomed. The political mission of the liberal half of America had asserted itself, leading to putting the schools in the X-ring for the mission of correcting multiple issues of discrimination and bigotry. Simultaneously, the evolution of social psychology married to mass media expansion, made elementary and secondary education pawns of political ideology; political power via the vote increasingly hinged on attitudes, opinions and beliefs, installed either in the home or in those schools, becoming a hidden agenda of political and governmental treatment of schools. The crescendos of those beliefs among our power brokers are now crudely and malevolently on the table. Public education, to use a bonehead simple phrase, is now caught between the good guys and the bad guys. Because both sides, and the system itself defensively, have become opaque to diagnosis and treatment, they also seem to be the sources of ultimate stalemate.
America, step out of the Mobius Loop?
If one is both cognizant of systems theory, and rational in recognizing the complexity of what has been now assembled, then flayed out among many actors with the resources and power to nudge our education system, the answer is there are few forces that can dominate. The Constitution constrains one avenue, Federal takeover of the entire system. Divergent state constitutions, and divergent core perceptions and values about education constrain state actions. Saying out loud, "our public education system," posits a universal and monolithic organizational entity that doesn't exist. That becomes even more messy by the belief embedded in our nation that education is a matter of local control. That belief, manifested in oversight of locally funded schools, lacking competent oversight and leadership from inappropriate local boards of education, is failure in motion. As the latter deficit traces directly to the failure of our states for decades to upgrade the requirement for BOE service, that doubles down on faulting our states for US learning failures.
One might argue that the NCSL or National Conference of State Legislatures is a vehicle for reform. Or the NGA or National Governors Association a similar vehicle. Both have the stigma of state divergence and competence failures. Another more plausible opportunity could be a consortium of America's top institutions of higher education? As that is precisely where our advanced knowledge gets processed before trickling down to K-12, it seems plausible. Those associations are already quietly in existence. A vignette: Two decades ago the Federal government, seeking to standardize -- for the benefit of parents and students -- the data for assessing college and university choice, could not get those institutions to agree to a common format for that critical information. Make higher education the rallying cry for reform of public schools?
What remains after all else drops out is the same concentration of wealth and power that launched our reform devastation -- our corporate behemoth. If the sundry billionaires putting billions into poorly devised schemes and personal ideologies, along with the power of our corporations constituting the Business Roundtable, operated within a unified private sector effort to sort reform strategies and tactics, it might offer a solution. This is also plausible, but faces a major constraint. The 'corporatizing' of America is underway, supportive of the concept. But that movement will also eventually run into America's resistance to any all-encompassing takeover of how the nation is ruled.
Where does the buck stop?
It is hard to envision a pathway that doesn't require some social destruction, albeit that could be short of civil revolt or upheaval. The hard reality is that the two 800 pound gorillas in this conceptual struggle are not the ones most would articulate or ones that will yield to the relatively peaceful transitions of the last century. Public schools are an American entrenched reality; with 150 years of history they will not of their own volition give up the near nation-status they have constructed from public money, or easily yield to normative calls for becoming transparent and responsive to anything. The have become a cultural enclave that by human nature will resist being changed much less ousted. For all of the media reform blather, they are almost impervious to less than overwhelming disapproval at a scale that threatens their public funding pipeline.
On the other side of the skirmish line, corporate America has become imperious and virtually immune to public oversight, as earlier public protections are being destroyed by political ignorance and demagoguery.
Many, who feel more comfortable with physical scales of Legos to tall buildings, time’s arrow in months or years, and action units that fit the prior, will not be comfortable with the proposed analog of education change fitting the Strauss-Howe concept of "Turnings." That is a human trait; but it does not fit nor assist the scale of the work and accomplishment that the US must achieve with our schools to stagger successfully through even the remaining first half of this century.
World renowned futurist Mishio Kaku, in a recent presentation, argues that “intellectual capitalism” will overtake “product capitalism” in future. His thoughts about education in 2017:
"1) In the internet and digital age, where information is at the population’s fingertips anytime, anywhere, learning based on memorization and not concepts is incredibly outdated; and 2) junior high school is the biggest enemy of science today." “Every one of us is born a scientist." “We ask questions all the time about where we come from and why we’re here. And it’s in junior high, where students are still asked to memorize the Periodic Table, that science dies in the heart.”
“In the future, where knowledge is everywhere and accessed instantaneously, and where robotics and AI can perform a variety of functions once held by humans, intellectual capital will be valued over commodity capital.” “In other words, the ability to reason, to think outside-the-box, and to be creative will be the skills most valued." "So if the old methods of teaching and learning through memorization and the presentation of facts are outdated thanks to the digital age, what should teaching and learning look like today?"
Paradoxically, our brightest students of education were articulating this wisdom even before the onset of this century, but a deaf and blind, qua self-righteous public school establishment chose to ignore the realities, creating their own reform adversaries. A humorous sidebar but one not all will welcome, Kaku predicts one profession immune to the threat of AI replacement is, lawyers. His argument, the combination of critical thought and creativity required by its practice will resist mechanization; parenthetically F. Scott Fitzgerald's assertion about being able to entertain simultaneously two opposed views also seems apropos.
The New York Times David Brooks, in an insightful recent column asserts that much of what currently ails America, destroying once common values and hopes, fragmenting the nation, is a “siege mentality.” Noted by others who have sought to dissect the undiscriminating lobs of bile that litter our media his explanation is worthy: "The fact is, the siege mentality arises from overgeneralization: They are all out to get us. It shouldn’t be met with a counter-overgeneralization: Those people are all sick."
Early in this seven-year effort, there was a discouraging discovery; that a large part of our society, including many of this rural wedge of America, even its alleged educators and their BOE oversight, lacked either the will or the capacity to read for effect.
There are multiple treatises on the theme, how societies fail; only one of many examples, the work of Jared Diamond, COLLAPSE: HOW SOCIETIES CHOOSE TO FAIL OR SUCCEED, or the work of Peter Senge, et al., in PRESENCE: HUMAN PURPOSE AND THE FIELD OF THE FUTURE. Public education, as a major national chunk of our infrastructure, but compared to that reflecting metaphorically bricks & mortar, is vulnerable to high speed decay when its human resource derived conventions for positive improvement break down.
Our staunch defenders of our public schools in this century merit applause, for bucking the multiple less commendable motivations for trying to privatize them. They do not merit approbation for the tunnel vision or blinders that refuse to log the incompetence and lack of integrity that selectively streak that virtuous view of real schools. In all explanation of phenomena, from quantum physics versus the behavior of large things, to the motivations that power individual behavior versus group and societal movements, both scales and all between require explanation if our nation’s future isn’t going to be ordained by a random generator.
I truly believe in the next decades, unless there is an epiphany in a population finally waking up, demanding better, our public education systems will continue to reflect the growth of entropy that brought us to 2017. That may realistically be public education finally sufficiently abusing its delegated grants of money and power, that salvaging public schools may compete with climate change to see which first yields to any intelligence that reflects a civilized society, if either manage the task?
Ron Willett, 15 November 2017