Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Forest For the Trees…

Alleged reform of our public schools has unfolded over more than three decades though most mark its inception with launch of NCLB.  How NCLB became the point of the spear was addressed in a prior Edunationredux.  That history to a great extent explains why reform has created such disparate tactics, throwing into the same bed players with conflicting motives, providing openings for scams in the name of reform, and blunting the ability to change, sometimes even sight the core problems.

Last Gasp

Analyzing any problem generally invokes the early choice of the unit of analysis.  Samuel Fay, who scored the first patent for the paperclip certainly wasn’t attacking a global issue.  Nor was the triad of 3M researchers who ultimately created the ubiquitous Post-It note.   But in our present venue of education, the unit can be all over the place:  Upper case SYSTEMIC; an issue, cursive writing or not; a state’s schools; a local school; a building; a classroom; a day’s lesson plan; and on.  All can be important in their own context, but only at the highest level of aggregation does the landscape get painted.  This likely last post on public K-12 for a time is focused on the forest.

Looking Large

The big picture is, that American public education may be the only remaining monolithic public system that has been by default protected from world-view change.  Reasons are three:  A century of protection from competition in delivering its basic services via the assumption of fault-free entitlement; the nostalgic belief that because control is local, parents and taxpayers are adequately and responsibly represented; and failure on the part of higher education to intellectually police its schools of education and demand upgrades.

A major rift, between what industry saw as its needs for educated human resources, and what public schools were delivering directly, and to higher education, precipitated private sector pro-action.  The game was played aggressively, at the time by the CEOs of our largest corporations speaking directly to our nation's governors via the NGA (National Governors Association), followed by the 1983 report, ANAR (“A Nation at Risk”) by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, created by Mr. Reagan.  Between 1983 and 2001 there were behind the scene skirmishes over how to change public K-12, but prophetically, the public school bureaucracy itself, lacking coherent leadership, simply continued its drift.  The sway and propaganda of the then more dominant teachers’ unions were likely part of the force that blocked change.

In 2003 there was a report by the KORET TASK FORCE on K-12 Education, titled “Are We Still at Risk?”  The source of that report was a consortium of three major and respected institutions, Stanford (Hoover Institution), Harvard (Kennedy School), and Fordham, via a web site and publication, EDUCATIONnext.  The sources are all advocates of competition as one mechanism for improving public schools, but that position doesn’t diminish or demean the scholarship of the report and its observations.  After three years of chasing explanations for how our public K-12 schools wound up with feet of clay, the report’s findings ring true.

KORET Excerpts Addressing Reform Need

“What the Commission Said
The excellence commission organized its findings within four broad topics: content, expectations, time, and teaching. Under these headings, Risk issued a 24-count indictment of American primary-secondary education as the commissioners found it in 1983. The spirit of these indictments can be sensed from the following excerpts:
• “Secondary school curricula have been homogenized, diluted, and diffused to the point that they no longer have a central purpose. In effect, we have a cafeteria-style curriculum in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main course.”
• “The amount of homework for high school seniors has decreased . . . and grades have risen as average student achievement has been declining.”
• “In 13 States, 50 percent or more of the units required for high school graduation may be electives chosen by the student. Given this freedom . . . many students opt for less demanding personal service courses, such as bachelor living.”
• “A study of the school week in the United States found that some schools provided students only 17 hours of academic instruction. [In] other industrialized countries, it is not unusual for academic high school students to spend 8 hours a day at school, 220 days per year.”
• “Too many teachers are being drawn from the bottom quarter of graduating high school and college students. . . . Half of the newly employed mathematics, science, and English teachers are not qualified to teach those subjects. . . .”
The commission’s four major recommendations did not call for sweeping reform of the education system itself, but they demanded higher standards of performance. The commission said:
• High-school graduation requirements should be strengthened so that all students acquire a solid foundation in five “new basics”: English, mathematics, science, social studies, and computer science.
• Schools and colleges should adopt higher and measurable standards for academic performance.
• The amount of time students devote to learning should be significantly increased.
• The teaching profession should be strengthened by raising standards for training, entry, and professional growth.”

KORET Excerpts Addressing Roadblocks to Change

“Why So Much Change Yet So Little Improvement?
First of all, the commission’s diagnosis was incomplete. It paid scant attention to the K-8 years, seeing them as providing a reasonable level of basic skills, when in fact many children were failing to gain the fundamental knowledge they would need to continue learning in subsequent years.
Second, the commission was either too obtuse or too naïve to take on the basic functioning and political control of the system itself. It seemingly believed that the public education system of the day, given higher standards, better-trained teachers, and more time on task, would move the schools and their pupils toward loftier levels of performance. It trusted the system to do the right thing once that system was duly chastised and pointed in the right direction.
We now know that this was unrealistic, that the commission failed to confront essential issues of power and control. It seemed not to realize that the system lacked meaningful accountability and tangible incentives to improve, that it exhibited the characteristic flaws of a command-and-control enterprise. The commission accepted the system as it was, with all the anachronisms inherent in a political mechanism created in the mid-19th century.
We now know that powerful forces-three in particular-proved far stronger and more stubborn than the commission could have foreseen in 1983:
Risk underestimated the resistance to change from the organized interests of the K-12 public education system, at the center of which were the two big teacher unions as well as school administrators, colleges of education, state bureaucracies, school boards, and many others. These groups see any changes beyond the most marginal as threats to their own jealously guarded power. Moreover, they are permanent features on the education landscape, whereas the excellence commission detonated its report and then disappeared, with no real successors to shepherd its recommendations through the political minefields.
Risk underestimated the tenacity of the “thoughtworld” of the nation’s colleges of education, which see themselves as owners of the nation’s schools and the minds of educators, free to impose their ideas on future teachers and administrators regardless of evidence about their effectiveness. Some of the commission’s own expert advisors were advocates of these ideas, in effect poisoning the report from within.
Risk also underestimated the large number of Americans, particularly in middle-class suburbs, who believe that their schools are basically sound and academically successful. This misapprehension arises mainly from the dearth of honest, standards-based information from objective outside sources concerning the true performance levels of our schools, an immense data void that the commission failed to address.
In counterweight to these forces of inertia, the past two decades have also seen the development of powerful new forces for reform that should strengthen America’s ability to improve its schools as we head into the future. These include:
• The public’s surprisingly durable belief that education reform is one of the most critical issues facing the nation-a belief heartily shared by impatient business leaders and elected officials. Although this sense of urgency seems inconsistent with the oft-reported complacency of parents about their own child’s school, satisfaction levels do not run deep. A majority of American parents believe that private schools are more effective than their children’s public schools and say they would move their children if they could.
• Growing and sustained support for both standards-based and choice-based education reforms has the potential to leverage changes that are farther reaching than those the commission envisioned, though both reform strategies face staunch resistance from established education interests.
• Minority parents are increasingly angry and disenchanted with failing inner-city school systems and are less willing to listen to promises that things will get better if they continue to trust the system and drench it with resources.”

It would difficult to be clearer in expressing what has vexed both the schools and reformers to this day and hour.   But, basically, in a decade and since 2003, none of the above constraints on genuine reform of public K-12 has changed.  If anything our K-12 schools have become even more defensive and resistant to internal rebirth, finding tactics that can satisfy the sub-optimal test standards while refusing rethinking of past learning strategies.   The national NEA and AFT have adopted rational goals, but local union components remain as corrupt as prior seeking only higher teacher salaries without related increases in performance or accommodation of needed productivity change.

Our public school system is massive and a systemic hydra because of myriad state differences in approach.  National census of its precise participants, their roles, their strategies, and their tactics is a black box.  We lack even the basics of a methodical approach to characterizing the mass of public systems, preparatory to finding models to allow what they do and how they are doing it to be researched and quantified.  To complicate the issue of reform, its parameters quickly began to be shaped by resources lacking the knowledge and epistemology to make those calls; specifically, the alleged “common core” is freezing what is already questionably contemporary knowledge layered with ideological methods reasoning.

The Effects of Oversimplification and Ignorance

At the forefront of original corporate angst with public education was that our schools were essentially unaccountable for performance versus their mission, a red flag to the business ethos.  It is also clear that “accountability” became a selective form of remediation narrowed to teachers, and “measurable standards of performance” were never fleshed out to reflect the research needed to verify what constitutes proper measurement.  In the case of accountability, some unidentified combination of critics latched onto the notion that the teacher was the key log in learning, a conclusion that can be correct, that can be wrong, but that has never been adequately subjected to legitimate research on the multivariate causes of how effective learning happens, how it co-varies with other causes of learning success, and with the beginning conditions for learners. 

Wholly ignored, the debacle of public school administration ignorant of several decades of findings about human behavior, and of organizational behavior propositions that foot performance of all institutions including schools.  Add that BOE human resources who may lack the first qualification for the chore perform vetting of most current school leadership.  In essence, there is virtually no accountability for the direct leadership of most of our public schools.

On measurement, instead of competent professional development of assessment methods keyed to learning progression, resources lacking either the intellectual capacities or patience to develop proper standards and measurement pushed the present structured bed of standardized testing and school grading.  The motivation was political conformity or profit in the case of the testing companies.  With conspiratorial Gate’s-funded lobbying, this is now internalized in the vast majority of our states, and virtually impossible to root out of state bureaucratic education practice without legislative overturn, unlikely in the majority right wing dominated legislatures.

In sum, if you were asked a perverse test question, design a system of attitudes, actions, organization structure, performance-quality-administrative assessment, strategic planning, classroom tactics, and pervasive use of resources, that would produce the worst possible system for moving a nation’s children from nascent learners to accomplished thinkers and practitioners, the best answer would likely be:  Positions of most U.S. public schools, along with the comprehensive ineptitude of oversight responsible for their control, aggravated by alleged reform, and absolving literally none of the names you might recognize.

How Remedy This Catastrophe?

The closest thing to a systemic solution is a major strategic reach and would demand a decade, but possible:  Essentially disenfranchise our existing schools of education and redesign the model of teaching education within the science and/or behavioral science halls of higher education, or create a new entity divorced from present leadership and curricula.  Simultaneously, via state cooperation, develop one set of higher education-driven and administered standards for teaching certification that recognize the need for one or more instances of teacher subject matter expertise.  

A subset of the above, there are out there with the potential to enter the K-12 learning arena, possessing greater education than much of the present public teacher pool, more human resources than presently occupy all of our K-12 classrooms.  In addition, present certification models should be seen for precisely what they are – a protective mechanism to keep non-indoctrinated resources out of the teaching industry, protect insider dogma, and prevent competition.  Consider, there are approximately 1.5MM highly educated teachers in U.S. academia (excluding TAs), most with doctorates, successfully teaching our best and brightest, few if any of whom claim having needed or taken Praxis I or II.

Leaving this topic for now, a parting prediction is that there is left virtually no mechanism for adjusting the present trajectory because of entrenched positions.  Left in place, the standardized testing without extension to cover more appropriate learning, with states’ simplistic school grading, and with curricular distortions being imposed, simply promise to harden what has become a standoff:  Our reformers won’t retire the match; our systems are too deeply entrenched, and devoid of the creativity and insight to find an end run; and our political solutions are so partisan they offer no help.  But the product of all of this is predictable -- at least one generation if not two that is so narrowly programmed by our public schools that our nation’s status as 'educated' drops even further.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Why has school reform failed?

There is little bipartisanship in the present debates about school reform, and even less straight talk.  The rhetoric is expansive, claims and counterclaims; data fragments that are contradictory reference the recent excellent post by “Sheet” regular, Carol Burris, on remedial college work.  But millions of words have carefully stepped around our public systems’ home truths.

Present reform is failing because, targeting variables that are not the cause of the disease, it was impotent before advocates launched it where ideology or emotion trumped wits. Its conceptual mechanisms violate contemporary principles of human behavior; its tactics violate contemporary organizational and managerial thought. 

Consider some gut explanations, not circling or politically correct, that puncture America’s feel good delusions; these propositions explain a lot:

One, scissors cuts paper, but repeatable empirical findings on paper about the variables effecting the entire spectrum of K-12 learning, from credible places, would go a long way toward clearing the fog of present reform.  None of the testing terrorism being used to beat up students, or to simplistically assess teacher performance, or to grade systems, or to claim success, has a critical mass of legitimate research behind their face.  Indeed, we don’t know enough about our real public schools beyond NCER’s boiler plate to even form hypotheses.

Two, the structured testing now inundating alleged reform, along with psychometric methods employed, have a legitimate application for certain types of learning.  A naive conception of and compulsion for “metrics,” and a primitive testing model have virtually no utility in measuring successful higher order thought, integrative problem solving, or footing creative thinking.  Standardized testing overuse and misuse is being sustained because of the improper influence of a handful of testing corporations with inordinate and inappropriate power over a public good and system, and cowardice or witless dogmatism that permeates entire institutional strata.

Three, public K-12 schools, and their unions, and the bureaucracies supporting and lobbying for them, are as directly responsible for present school reform as the alleged "corporate" impetus in current depictions of reform morphology.  Decades ago our public schools ossified, introduced their own ideological overreach, and failed to retool – that is what invited private sector reform initiatives starting in 1980. But while some corporate players may have disproportionately promoted public school attacks even before ANAR, contemporary management as practiced in 21st century businesses is not so stupid as to employ present methodologies.  The game is now being prosecuted by a motley assortment of ideologues with their own agendas, and of course, by a profoundly misguided White House perspective.

Four, the vast majority of public schools are dully to dogmatically managed by overwhelmed, or untutored, or incompetent, or downright unethical administration, overseen by inept BOE.  Their genre can be seen if you lift the lid on real schools:  What you will see is too frequently a circle-the-wagons mentality, hypocrisy and self-interest, dogmatic belief in obsolete school of education nostrums, lack of contemporary managerial concepts, cynical tactical initiatives to conform to test and VAM mandates but resist core change, and aggressiveness only to protect the funding of fiefdoms created and block system transparency to the public.  Creativity has been cut out of their thesaurus because it entails risk.  As a class, our nation's public school superintendents likely represent a level of magnitude greater need for assessment and remediation than our teachers yet they are being tolerated.  In parallel, the organizational model for K-12 schools is obsolete and needs to go back to the drawing board.

Five, the number of public school teachers who are "Mr. Chips" is vastly outnumbered by the number who may have those committed learning values, but are broadly ignorant of contemporary learning, or lack the subject matter competence to teach assigned venues, both because they were poorly educated out of the gate.   This is matched by systems that will fight tooth and nail for a grander football stadium, or award unearned teacher salaries to buy teacher pacifism, but allocate not a cent for teacher development.

Six, the traditional BOE is a major cause of our schools’ failures to perform, has been for decades, and change there is both a necessary and sufficient factor in ever truly improving public school performance. BOE upgrades have been advocated for decades by the leading national association of school boards, but ignored or suppressed by our states.  Try to electorally recall an unethical board.

Seven, and close to being the rotten core of the proverbial apple, are our retro schools of education, dogmatically wedded by arrogance and ignorance to the deductive models of last century, and simply permitted by higher education leadership reactive to reform to continue unchallenged.  Throw in a century of disconnect, and lack of empathy or even contempt for each other, by both public education and higher education.  How much of demanded post-secondary remediation is attributable to the knowledge mission and process information misconceptions between the two systems?

Eight, and hardly the end of the list but causal, our electorate; so totally ignorant of what constitutes genuine primary and secondary learning, and splitting into partisan camps.  So gullible in absorbing propaganda locally, and from both reformers and reform opponents, that the public’s one real control mechanism -- putting some intellectually competent control of local schools in place via legislature and BOE choices -- is a crater.

Our prolific commentators on our public schools’ challenges are fond of the bromide, "there is no silver bullet for reform." Unfortunately, rarely do our rapporteurs dig below that banality and show the courage to call out where real roadblocks are dominant.  Mr. Obama's delusions, Arne Duncan's demagoguery, our testing companies' greed and social irresponsibility, our schools themselves and an entire education bureaucracy in need of renewal, a self-righteous Gates and Rhee, ideological monsters such as ALEC and inbred state government education cabals, are the generic problems and the reasons that present reform hammering symptoms has become a slow motion train wreck.

Prophetically, on the Fourth, symbolic of political change, Arne Duncan’s reign was addressed:  “Delegates of the National Education Association adopted a business item July 4 at its annual convention in Denver that called for his resignation.”  Duncan characteristically dismissed the vote, offering more than a hint of the historical penchant for performance scaling from myopic to despotic.  For the sake of argument, assume that Mr. Duncan is justifiably routed, triggering a turning point in present reform.  But as reform has failed, because our public systems are as resistant to meaningful change as present reform is in delivering it, where does that leave the mission of materially improving American public K-12 learning performance?

American public K-12 seems to be suspended between Sir Winston Churchill's lament on the odyssey of our nation eventually getting anything right, and an apparent societal incapacity to handle simultaneously more than one critical social issue.  Until there is finally education system and change agent self-realization, critical thought, multiplexing, and application of creativity on causes of public school mediocrity and relevant reform strategies, the classic line of ground-breaking TV comedian Flip Wilson’s alter ego, “Geraldine,” seems apropos:  "What you sees is what you gets."

Friday, June 20, 2014

TOBT III – School Reform’s Contradictions

Without preamble, the answer to the question posed by IBM, cited in the transmittal email, was:  “creativity and adaptability.”  Vacuously missing from executives' narratives, standardized test averages, state grades, and the number of children held back by ritual and perhaps irrational tests!  Oops.

Before myopia sets in, and the long knives come out, the learning goals above are self-evidently a superimposition.  The presumption is that in the run-up to achieving those strategic learning objectives our students will have acquired the core understanding of the necessary knowledge components; initially decoding social language, maths, and other basic knowledge, then the core disciplinary concepts that foot explanation and prediction, then awareness of how that knowledge is threaded throughout understanding of our civic, social, and economic systems. Also, self-evidently, a progression of learning paradigms is involved, ranging from memorization that facilitates cognition, to the more complex processes that foot critical thinking and support creativity.

But one reform opponent and media bubble is burst by representative corporate endorsement of a wholly different public education mission than represented by current draconian alleged reform


The questions posed by that survey result open the proverbial can of worms.

The first one is, how has it come to pass that a level of magnitude more senior corporate leaders in 2012, than the number three decades ago launching then titled “corporate reform” of our public schools, has essentially flipped direction?  The assumption, reasonable, is that standardized tests, VAM, and a flawed “common core” are not the ultimate purveyors of either of the corporate education values above.  The findings also address a long-time conundrum in viewing the last decades' reform antics:  How a U.S. corporate universe that overall is technologically advanced, managerially nuanced, and that abandoned the punitive quality control style of present reform decades ago, would be witless enough to contemporarily apply it to our public schools?

The second question then, is “corporate reform” still corporate reform, or now egregiously mislabeled?  Has it become alleged reform hijacked by:  Self-serving market strategies of a small cadre of profit-driven testing companies, along with their imposition on the nation of their conception of contemporary knowledge; lobbying from right wing ideology seeking privatization of public schools, forcing testing/grading via political pressure on our states; and change sought by the White House's utopian view of achieving simplistic student and educational equality in two presidential terms, even by bribery and with punitive tactics?  Who made the testing companies and a secretive CCSSI enclave the replacement for an entire higher education venue and our nation’s research establishments, the resources who actually create, sort, test, and preserve knowledge? And who invited Bill Gates to specify what our nation’s public schools should teach, and to fund lobbying of our states?

The third question, with a dull thud; why has virtually an entire public K-12 establishment with cowardice and/or in ignorance hunkered down, accepting with virtually no protest the degradation of genuine learning that establishment was granted a century’s monopoly to pursue?  Perhaps even more egregious, much of the public school establishment currently exhibits the arrogance to still claim entitlement, while abandoning their overriding mission and permitting bureaucratic bloat.  By the end of last decade the administrative and non-teaching human resources loading up public K-12 school budgets were 104 percent of the number of systems' classroom teachers!

There is certainly inductive evidence to modify the pejorative "corporate reform" label planted on America's composite private sector, using the "duck test" attributed to poet James Whitcomb Riley:  "If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck." Corporate reform might better be termed "corrupted reform," now demanding transparency of those complicit it its prosecution along with their motivations.

"We have met the enemy, and they is us" (“Pogo” classic)

The answers to the third question set reside in the fundamental character of change in our society – massively greater systemic complexity, more entrenched institutionalization to cope with the number of actors and actions in that complexity, and the deeply rooted change in a society that once valued individuality and giving, versus present evolving self-centricity and cynicism about both futures and equitable distribution of resources.

However, within the context of public education, useful change cannot result from condemning and punishing either our teachers or their students, the results intended or not of the present reform disaster.  The previously cited Sir Ken Robinson, in a prescient TED talk in 2006, made one of the most persuasive arguments for getting our heads adjusted and asking the hard questions that foot how our future leaderships will perform.  The conclusion is hardly mysterious, or even new, but seemingly lost on public educators burying their wits in bureaucracy and what’s politically correct:  Change in public schools will not happen because of top-down imposition of simplistic rubrics, or teacher flagellation, or holding back children, but from the ground up and because of that most fundamental property of education, the dyad of teacher and learner.

Attribution has been to Socrates, then Yeats, but probably traces to Plutarch:  "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."

Sir Ken’s arguments are simple but eloquent, best presented rather than paraphrased:

“I have a big interest in education, and I think we all do. We have a huge vested interest in it, partly because it's education that's meant to take us into this future that we can't grasp. If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue -- despite all the expertise that's been on parade for the past four days -- what the world will look like in five years' time. And yet we're meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary.”

“And my contention is, all kids have tremendous talents. And we squander them, pretty ruthlessly. So I want to talk about education and I want to talk about creativity. My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”

“Now our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability. And there's a reason. The whole system was invented -- around the world, there were no public systems of education, really -- before the 19th century. They all came into being to meet the needs of industrialism. So the hierarchy is rooted on two ideas. Number one, that the most useful subjects for work are at the top. So you were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. Is that right? Don't do music, you're not going to be a musician; don't do art, you won't be an artist. Benign advice -- now, profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution. And the second is academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they're not, because the thing they were good at in school wasn't valued, or was actually stigmatized. And I think we can't afford to go on that way.”

“In the next 30 years, according to UNESCO, more people worldwide will be graduating through education than since the beginning of history. More people, and it's the combination of all the things we've talked about -- technology and its transformation effect on work, and demography and the huge explosion in population. Suddenly, degrees aren't worth anything. Isn't that true? When I was a student, if you had a degree, you had a job. If you didn't have a job it's because you didn't want one.  But now kids with degrees are often heading home to carry on playing video games, because you need an MA where the previous job required a BA, and now you need a PhD for the other. It's a process of academic inflation. And it indicates the whole structure of education is shifting beneath our feet. We need to radically rethink our view of intelligence.”

“We know three things about intelligence. One, it's diverse. We think about the world in all the ways that we experience it. We think visually, we think in sound, we think kinesthetically. We think in abstract terms, we think in movement. Secondly, intelligence is dynamic. If you look at the interactions of a human brain, as we heard yesterday from a number of presentations, intelligence is wonderfully interactive. The brain isn't divided into compartments. In fact, creativity -- which I define as the process of having original ideas that have value -- more often than not comes about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things.”

“Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won't serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we're educating our children. There was a wonderful quote by Jonas Salk, who said, ‘If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.’ And he's right.”

Those futures

Rebellion against the demagogic rhetoric of an Arne Duncan, Mr. Obama’s educational MIA status, and the wretched ideologies still being pandered by an ignorant and extremist conservative mentality, is beginning to fracture the present reform agenda.  Dispiriting however, too much clueless public school establishment continues to prosecute a model of reform that may in a couple of decades potentially further diminish critical thinking and creativity in our society and in guiding many of our nation’s institutions.  Even at the level of our states, where for example, the alleged "common core" is being rejected (most recently Louisiana), rejection is being rationalized ignorantly and ideologically for the wrong reasons. 

Sickening, in public K-12 systems in range of sight that have simply circled the wagons or gone into denial, we see mediocre through unethical school administration seeking to preserve their own fiefdoms and levies, and even teachers with their greatest concern now, ‘how they can increase salaries and benefits in their next union contract without upping their game.’  Add, local BOE so under-equipped or disingenuous, or co-opted by administration, the latter policy becomes the mission along with failed oversight.

The proverbial fly in genuine reform ointment, were critical thinking to magically break out – resulting in an epiphany in higher education and its schools of education, and in places with the power of government to manipulate public education, factors it may take time and a political sea change to launch – is, who in our public schools still has the intellect and courage to strike the match, light the fire?  Factually, it is happening randomly, but with positive effects on learning and teacher motivation and satisfaction.  

An additional caveat, if the teacher-learner change-starter principle is valid, it will have to happen eventually "from the ground up" in every local public school district.  That may mean changing the most destructive institutional school variable blocking change  likely exceeding even critically miseducated school administrations and the presently dysfunctional U.S. Department of Education  changing the manner that local public school systems are provided oversight by changing the entire BOE mechanism.

Short of a public school sea change, any hope for genuine reform of our public K-12 systems, regardless of where the fire starts, is sufficient public awareness, expressing by social media protest and at the ballot box, to short circuit what will inevitably be a host of status-quo and myopic bureaucratic enclaves’ efforts to strangle the birth of creative reform before it can draw a breath.  We’re short a single universal mechanism to dispatch our current educational reform zombies, but an increasingly self- and cynically-perceived 'powerless American electorate,' does in fact have the power to change the learning game.

Achieving that, winning the game as in any venue has a first prerequisite, showing up and choosing performance when state and local candidates with the power to mediate your public schools are on a ballot!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

TOTB II – Public K-12 Reality Check

This is part two of an attempt to get beyond traditional perspectives of present “corporate reform” and public education’s somnambulant drift of several decades. 

The post is brief, with assertions about present reform, and its roots, without filling in the voluminous material that is out there supporting the points.  So it is a table of contents – and maybe a wakeup call where issues have not been probed – for subsequent posts to explore each issue, both causes of our systems’ lethargy and countervailing reform miscues, along with possible remediation.

Top Lines

Did ya see it comin’?  Most of our nation, including our school bureaucracies, was too distracted or myopic to see “corporate reform” coming, though it was initiated with little cloaking, and by a major swath of our private sector’s largest entities nearly 35 years ago.  If there is a public school administration or related BOE, still in denial that their brand is under attack, the human resources in question should be immediate candidates for change.

The reasons?  The incentive for alleged reform was the private sector belief that our public K-12 establishment, aggravated by its teachers’ unions, was flat out failing to create needed learning.  An ideological subtext, the full extent of those beliefs unclear, is that our public schools should be privatized.  Where embedded in the reform agenda, it is likely based on the belief that our “liberal” public system was growing Democrat voters, or that historically systems were attempting social engineering, or installing liberal/silly excesses.

Bizarre.  Over the last six years of a hypocritical White House, the same belief, but fueled by a different drive – the conception that discrimination in learning achieved among children was not primarily attributable to socioeconomic and cultural inequalities, but because schools weren’t trying hard enough.  Probably some truth in both sets of assertions, but from that point reform tumbled down Alice’s “rabbit hole.”

The culprits?  Some cabal of the powerful, spanning the Federal government, The Business Roundtable, testing company leadership, the NGA’s predominantly right wing state consortium, with a politically warped ALEC to write state legislation, and educational components seeking repatriation of traditional education beliefs of last century.  This improbable amalgam managed to hang together to create NCLB, subsequently joined by RttT and enough billions – along with the intrusive individual funding by Bill Gates – to bribe state governments to implement present testing and school grading, and advance the “common core” designed to breed more standardized testing.

Responsible pretesting?  There was no rational K-12 education inquiry by our best and brightest, no transparent mission debates or specification, no testing of the testing, or research to verify that the tactics would improve genuine learning and student downstream performance, before dropping the testing and VAM mandates on our public systems.  Recent testing results suggest that the composite reform mission has already failed, if one uses the movement's own criteria.  Surely this, along with a track record of cheating and teaching to the tests, has now prompted a pause in more testing, more state grades, and injected the wisdom to reassess the model of "corporate reform" before ramming ahead?  You wish; same level of responsibility that preceded NCLB, and virtually every other present reform gambit.

One size fits all?  A monumental assumption, that our public schools are homogeneous, perhaps because superficially and physically they seem alike, is false.  Because of increasing heterogeneity of cultures and politics of our places, and because of local control, public systems are diverse, and can range from excellent to horrid.  Notably, the corporate drivers of this alleged reform, to a fault, operate philosophically in their own markets based on market segmentation and differential strategies and tactics, now becoming even more particularized as traditional marketing has been transformed by digital communication to even individualization to a consumer.  There has been no credible research, including the U.S. Department of Education’s NCER survey boilerplate, offering a clue about the real status of our public systems.

QC versus QA sanity?  Even more retro and hypocrisy, the corporate sector decades ago moved from traditional notions of quality control based on end product inspection to quality assurance that installed quality at the beginning of the product chain.  The notions of inspection of K-12 performance via testing the finished product, that teachers were the controlling factor, that multiple choice questions about factoids constitute learning assessment, and that beating on children was necessary and sufficient motivation for learning, all scale somewhere between stupidity and insanity.

Source of default?  The nation’s schools of education continue to matriculate students who may be professionally and benevolently motivated, but tolerant of lame education rubrics as learning, and veer away from subject matter depth and excellence.  Consequently, those schools overall continue to turn out teachers unprepared to deal with, or even with grasp of contemporary knowledge and its trajectory, are turning out alleged administrators unprepared to manage any complexity, and are pandering pedagogy based on learning models made obsolete by neural research of the last couple of decades.  In turn, our colleges and universities, too paranoid to reform those schools, likely in the belief that it might start a larger reform movement of higher education (way overdue), have given those schools and faculties a get-out-of-jail-free card.  Additionally, higher education has continued a century of simply ignoring public K-12, a syndrome that for a likely different set of motivations applies equally to most public K-12 dwellers.

The worst?  Our local BOE are categorical failures, generally lacking the intellect and objectivity to provide local public school direction, for the simple reasons that our states have resisted for decades upgrading the requirements for that board service and specific preparation, and many incompetent to unethical superintendents work overtime to co-opt board members.  BOE oversight of our public schools is currently a joke, undermining the legitimate philosophy of sustaining local control of schools.

Teachers good, change bad?  There are good to great teachers, bad teachers (one estimate is that a quarter of our present public K-12 teachers should be replaced), and there are teachers motivated primarily by a job that while demanding in some dimensions avoids the performance requirements and risks of many private sector occupations.  Selection and supervision are therefore critical givens as in any complex organization, while school administrations as a class are central to the historical failures of public education.  There are also still deeply embedded in our public schools local teachers’ unions with the principal interest of hanging onto that gig by simply continually and irresponsibly pushing for higher salaries and benefits.  Teacher development among our public systems, that stresses depth of knowledge of what is taught versus bureaucratic trivia, is almost non-existent, contrasting with the private sector drive to develop employee line and managerial skills.

Learning relics?  A large swath of the materials that form the basis for what happens in current K-12 public classrooms is the product of textbooks heavily lobbied to states and systems, sometimes determined politically and ideologically at the state level, controlled by their publishers, and regularly authored by some of our most mediocre academics.  Add the now stilted and even less appetizing lesson plans imposed on teachers to facilitate test scores.  The absence of legitimate curricula in our public schools is the long-standing dark underbelly of public education, for decades invisible to the public and parents, deliberately masked by our systems.  Unfortunately the “common core” by virtue of its origins is both flawed and incomplete even as minimal national curricula K-12; with no provisions for credible updating it will also be obsolete from knowledge now doubling virtually annually.

Classroom options?  Allegedly the nation will lose up to a million teachers over the rest of this decade.  There are millions of retirees and underemployed, with more and better degrees, and greater experience, than a great many public 7-12 teachers.  Most are blocked from being employed in and upgrading that educational venue – even as volunteers and no cost to our systems – by the profession’s protectionism, coupled with the same myopia and outright discrimination in certification by most teacher-derived state education bureaucracies.

Our education piñata?  Lastly, a pronouncement that should be carved in stone, there is at this point no silver bullet to reform the nation’s public schools – repeat that once every hour of every day that Arne Duncan’s demagoguery, our testing oligarchy, and Bill Gates’ billions are permitted to drive reform of our schools – and there is no “standard” public school.  Our public systems need to be detailed at least once by in-depth research and census, characterized by their specific needs for change, with strategies and tactics devised accordingly.  The issue is, that for far too many with their fingers presently in the reform pie, the notion of a multivariate and systems world-view simply doesn’t compute, either because of sheer ignorance, or other agendas that view restricts or violates.

Bottom Lines

Public K-12 reform is a synonym for complexity.  View it against:  A contrasting bundle of simplistic, convoluted and cross-canceling reform tactics; populations of actors operating out of different hymn books; lacking coherent definitions of our schools’ missions; what constitutes genuine and sustainable learning; how that learning must be delivered for effect; along with popular ignorance of how the present mess will impact the next generation.  One proposition is that the one-size-fits-all stupidity of present reform, coupled with the political baggage reform is toting, means there won’t be change paralleling the nation’s timely need for new models of job creation and competitive restoration.

Next post, in the spirit of TOTB, will propose some unconventional alternative, disruptive strategies:  For spanning the 9-12 versus 13-16 gulf; changing public K-12 from local control to a national model – but not under political control – based  on the concept of the Federal Reserve System; for essentially eliminating the grade bands 7-16 and restructuring of its learning resources, human and supporting; for potentially eliminating all grade bands, substituting a technology-supported system of individualized K- or 1-12 learning; changing the constituencies who can qualify to selectively staff our learning systems; and probing how a national need for creativity and invention can be supplied by reigniting that quest in our public systems?

Simultaneously, the question must be addressed, are there less disruptive models for achieving enhancement of some genuine learning, based on trashing present reform dysfunction? With what required changes in and consequences for present political and leadership roles governing schools, with what changes in present human resources, and with what school organization changes?

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Thinking Outside the Box

Today's post almost never occurred, because of a sense of futility that critical thinking might actually break out in our nation before the sun sets on its once world education leadership.  But when the insanity gets too ever-present to ignore, it invites some loyal opposition.


Yesterday's news featured some catalytic inputs:  An intelligent op-ed by conservative columnist David Brooks, on why Bergdahl had to be ransomed even if he is subject to military discipline; the ignorant, ugly, and flip-flopping grunts of many Republican demagogues about that tactic; a story about WWII's Navajo "code-talkers," the critical role they played in the Pacific, then the post-war discrimination and disrespect they endured; an intelligent column in The Answer Sheet (V. Strauss/The Washington Post) by educator Alfie Kohn, on the insanity of present standardized testing; and not to be left out, Ohio's announcement of its new portfolio of high school graduation testing.

The latter simply defies common sense:  The use of one sample in time of recalled information even by subject, that subject matter itself a sample, and the same dismal testing methodology now being discredited -- despite four years of continuous formative testing -- will determine whether an Ohio child gets to graduate from high school?  Even with two optional paths to achieve a diploma, Ohio's solution to improving public K-12 performance is somewhere between antediluvian and stupid, proposing to test just one dimension or fragments of the learning processes that shape neural net formation, critical thought, and that foot subsequent civic, social, and professional competence. If the state is saying, "we don't trust our public schools, their teachers, and their alleged leaders to create desired learning," the thought may well be credible.  But isn't cold cocking a student after four high school years the pinnacle of stupidity as a mechanism for improving needed learning?  Even our less evolved ancestors understood the parable of the lost horse and the barn door.

Add to the pejoratives points made by Alfie Kohn:  What is it truly important to know; who gets to determine that; and where is the pre-testing or evidence that what is being tested effects subsequent performance of the graduate?  The ignorance and ideology that allowed standardized testing and twisted the present "common core" apparently was lost on Ohio's education bureaucracy.

No-Man's Land

As temporarily depressing as current public education machinations are, by both the alleged reformers and our deficient and defensive public schools, the strategic issues have deeper roots.  There is so much history, so much embedded but unquestioned learning, and so much dogmatism, that launching any explorations, of what thinking outside the box might churn up about key segments of public education, starts with core questions.  Even the seemingly simplest, most basic, appear to have eluded the entire reform movement:
  • What is knowledge?  One quick observation, it is not defined by just facts, or context free math, or narrow reading comprehension issues, or even information, but extends to understanding basic concepts by discipline including epistemology, through critical assessment, to evolving creativity, ultimately to the capacity to successfully act on what is neurally defined and stored.
  • Who gets to call out what is knowledge, and what elements are worth the effort of knowing?  Presumably, the human resources who identify, organize, characterize, unfold, codify, quantify, test, challenge, and promulgate it.  As those resources are predominantly higher education and our national research establishments, that leaves out virtually all of the present cadres pretending to define it or test it in public K-12.
  • Who gets to devise the tests that have become not just high stakes but in cases ruinous to lives of children who aren't "standard" or aren't the socioeconomically thereby culturally fortunate?  The standardized testing in the present reform zoo de facto defines what is knowledge, even to what dominates the classroom, corrupting both the knowledge and the testing as learning.   Is the wizard behind the rhetorical curtain massive test-creator and publisher, Pearson, or another profit-driven testing corporation, or a cabal of bureaucrats and testing company personnel, with a few no-name academics tossed in, the case of the "common core?"  Sorry, this should not be acceptable in an allegedly civilized and advanced nation that reveres education.
  • One and done?  Reminiscent of the old Johnny Carson routine, "we now know all there is to know" about some chunk of reality. Those Ohio graduation tests, for example, signify the fortunate graduate knows all needed?  "Not quite," Johnny would intone, "just a few more things..."  Aside from the irrationality of that retro testing, a quote says it well:  "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." 
  • Playing off the above, some rational thought suggests that some to much of what is currently being tested is:  One, already obsolete; two, might be better based on learning the processes that create the capacity to extend and sustain personal learning; and three, add that at the rate of change in what constitutes knowledge, most of the historical models of learning applicable to any advanced society may need to be rethought from the ground up almost continuously.  Beyond core math constructs, and being able to decode language, why are we slogging through typically damaged knowledge in public K-12, flogging our children to learn fragmented materials that may well be obsolete before their acquisition hits the reform inquisition, introducing major opportunity costs by failure to equip them to both discover and assess knowledge?
  • Our 9-12 schools and collegiate 13-16 years remain basically disconnected, for reasons previously explored in this blog. Consider two propositions:  One that much of what is allegedly learned in 9-12 is wrong or truncated, and needs to be extinguished in 13-16 before more effective learning can happen; and two, one major study suggests that little actual learning occurs in the first three years of present collegiate undergraduate work. The combined points raise multiple questions; one are we, and have we been irrationally educating for yesterday, yesteryear, and last century?
  • What could be accomplished with eight years of a child's education, 9-12 plus 13-16, if the thought processes about needed learning started with a fresh sheet of paper?  Going into even less defined territory, recognizing the individual human learning differences now ignored by stuffing children into our public school Procrustean Beds, what would be gained by eliminating grade bands and using emerging technology to create one-on-one learning?
  • Our nation has propagated and is now intensifying making public school decisions dependent on various versions of locally tax-funded direct and overhead costs -- what would choices be if "opportunity costs," including loss of students' future achievement and earning capacities, had to be considered for all major school strategies and expenditures?
  • Have present BOE, and the standards for membership and performance, become the worst possible mechanism for public school oversight?  Should citizens without greater educational standing than those for whom they're accountable be permitted to be effectively the principal oversight of our public schools?  Our public BOE are failures, beyond any deficiencies attributed to the nation's public K-12 teachers, on a par with many of our schools' incompetent to failed administration.
  • Public school organization, and the mechanisms for choosing school leadership have barely changed in a half century?  Time to rethink the present school organizational model?  Time for school leaders to be truly educated to strategize and manage, and be held fully accountable for their systems' performance, versus simply flogging teachers?  The principal proponents of "corporate reform" and an entire business academic establishment decades ago upgraded the standards for private sector management, but "corporate reformers" have hypocritically left a deficient and in many cases corrupted system of leadership of K-12 schools out of their reform agenda.
  • Why are our schools of education still out there and unchallenged, miseducating the nation's teachers, without even a whimper about those schools' need for basic rethinking and reform?
  • Why have our public schools, with physical infrastructure underutilized a material fraction of the time, not recognized and responded to the national need for adult education, a factor that as much as "corporate reform" has hamstrung the awareness of public education challenges needed -- so long as there is local control -- to force or support genuine public K-12 change?
  • And why have many if not most of our nation's public schools become, in sociologist Everett Rogers' terms, "laggards" in adopting mushrooming technologies, from digital, to building and workspace design, to pedagogy design, to social interaction, to managerial, to understanding the science of discovering and verifying knowledge, even to grasping the neural science learning fundamentals that foot their craft?

Educational Establishments Lost

Public K-12 education in the U.S. is still in a crater, bogged down by self-righteousness, defensiveness, its historical sense of entitlement; and seemingly increasingly prone to beating on and undercutting by production-based methodologies teachers who once saw their vocation as a calling and noble challenge.  Many are deserting the profession, leaving an increased fraction of teaching human resources who only see "the job," and are principally motivated by increasing their own salaries and benefits to prep getting beyond it.

"College readiness" has become the most recent mantra to justify ramming through alleged public school change.  Problem is, higher education is in almost as bad a rut as public K-12, and that century of disconnect of the two systems so far offers little daylight on tactical moves that could ease either's learning failures.  Yet, our system of higher education is the single hope the nation has for processing the knowledge trajectories noted above to make needed learning accessible for use at the street level.  Perhaps politically incorrect, but the majority of our colleges and universities are still delusional in envisioning the unabated expansion of activities, and tuition, and bricks and mortar, and student entertainment, and endowments, and sports focus, all in contradiction of the potential sustainability of those last century's strategic excesses.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the Obama administration has proposed that all of our colleges and universities be rated, by a scheme yet to be devised, but as depicted by a rocket scientist staffer, " different from rating a blender." Needless to emphasize, the howls of protests from our increasingly highly paid collegiate CEOs were prompt.  Ignored, or the subject of selective memory, a 2006 report of the Presidential Commission on Higher Education recommended that our colleges and universities voluntarily cooperate to devise a single rating scheme for their institutions, as a means to assist students in choosing a higher education fit. The institutions dissed the concept and refused.  That same Commission also proposed a litany of already overdue remediation to deal with student debt and the financial trajectories of the institutions.  

Fast forward from that timely alert, the present U.S. Department of Education, as stripped of intellect by Arne Duncan, has about as much chance of creating a valid and reliable rating scheme for our colleges and universities, or their constituent parts, as Mr. Obama has of being named chair of the Republican National Committee.

Yes, "corporate reform" is also a cruel joke on our nation, the original product of misplaced ideology coupled with ignorance about the differences between steering private sector infrastructure, and the process of creating in human resources who are still children, or incomplete adults, the far more complex task of equipping them to perform in a complex society in chaotic motion.  It is impossible to look out at the disaster that has been created by "corporate reform" over roughly 35 years, along with the lack of integrity and intelligence that should permeate public K-12, and not invoke Aristophanes' famous quote:  Youth ages, immaturity is outgrown, ignorance can be educated, and drunkenness sobered, but stupid lasts forever.” 

Perhaps that should be carved into the lintel above the entrance to every U.S. public school, tacked onto the door of many present public school administrators' offices, and introduced to higher education?  Unresolved historically, why our private sector's largest corporations in the 1980s both suddenly discovered public schools, and concluded that what worked to crank out and market goods and services was the magical stuff of learning in children.  Many were complicit, but notable for leadership of the earliest attacks was IBM; the business expressing the prescience that the world could only use roughly a half-dozen "computers," and that gave away the personal computer business.  The latter created the dull monopoly that inflated Bill Gates.  Three strikes.  One has to wonder if IBM's 1980s leadership's attack on public education wasn't prompted by a mental lapse, mistaking IBM's early joke anthem -- "THIMK" -- for strategy?

Q & A 

Subsequent posts will probe for some alternate answers to the above questions, recognizing that many out-of-the-box answers require change that is structural and even societal rather than tactical or procedural. Worth reflection; the failures -- of 35 years ago, then 13 years ago with NCLB, then continuing for the last six years by both the testing oligarchy's and U.S. Department of Education's destruction of real learning, now aided and abetted by reactionary states' implementation of phony assessments along with the ideological imposition of charters and vouchers -- to think strategically, or outside the box, are precisely why our public schools are still cratered, and why higher education in denial may eventually be on the cusp.