Thursday, August 7, 2014

Conversation, anyone? Postscript: Fixing US public schools; can they be fixed?


The following is a repeat of the prior post, asking the question:  "Fixing US public schools; can they be fixed?"

Candidly, this post of March 25, 2013 was virtually forgotten in the ensuing 82 posts to Edunationredux.  It resurfaced because of chance reflection on an Edunationredux EXTRA email post this week, "Conversation, anyone?"; itself resurfacing words of wisdom drilled into memory by any number of wiser authors and thinkers experienced in the last decade or so.

Many of those references were not from our most elevated, or most acclaimed, but resources with great intellect who have labored in the trenches of education, sometimes with the standard issue college student or K-12 student, but also with adults where English is a second language, or where the socioeconomic benefits we mostly possess are profoundly missing.  Some were former students, educating the former professor.  The common message, however, was that we prosper as a society when 'proclaiming' is at least matched by 'listening,' but especially when societal problem solving is correctly seen as the product of real conversations coupled with the capacity to simultaneously see, and even hold alternative points of view.

The present tragedy of so-called public school reform is that with few changes, the following set of assessments and ideas, penned almost one and one-half years ago, is still virtually universally applicable to crawling out of a US public K-12 education crater formed by both "corporate reform" and an atrophied public education bureaucracy.

What follows is involved, and many words.  But it allows airing a favorite managerial saying of CEO days of yore, when a resource agonized that a challenge was complex:  "If it was easy, we'd do it on a postcard while sipping a martini."  (Parenthetically, to be contemporary, substitute for "on a postcard," "with Tweets.")


In a prior post to the Washington Post feature, “The Answer Sheet,” “Fourteen reasons schools are troubled (and no, it’s not all about teachers),” it was asserted that U.S. classroom teachers are neither the only, nor even the most heavily weighted variable effecting overall learning in formal K-12 systems.  The point of the opinion piece, American teachers are being witlessly and unfairly targeted in present massive and nationally orchestrated standardized testing, along with deployment of simplistic VAM (value-added measurement) assessments of teachers based on those test scores.

The “Fourteen reasons…” post understandably attracted some critique, one the lament that while 14 issues were outlined, no solutions were offered.  A practical response is that the “The Answer Sheet” did not offer a level of magnitude increase in posted words.

A more compelling explanation is that K-12 school reform – “improve…by removal of faults or abuses, beneficial change” – is complex, systemic, neither as simple as bubble testing of memory of reductionist information, nor achievable by imposing on a public school population of almost 100,000 entities one-size-fits-all prescribed actions.  In sum, our odd couple of ideologically diverse reformers huddled in the same space capsule, a back-room horde of standardized test designers, and VAM modelers and consultants, et al., cannot basically change US K-12 education.  Short of public K-12 nationalization, or a hostile private sector takeover, only individual schools as systems can craft sustainable organizational and related performance changes.

Channeling Adam Smith

There are two major arguments (usually not forthrightly stated) offered to push present tactics:  The market, if allowed to work, will drive out poor performing schools and lift all public K-12 ships; and if enough pressure is put on schools, teachers, and even children driven by fear of reprisal, vilification, or dismissal, the quality of learning and its universality will automatically improve.  Self-evidently, most of the standardized testing crowd is not big on Douglas McGregor and “Theory X Theory Y,” or the argument that learning and knowledge don’t come bite-sized packaged in one flavor.

The assumption that markets will function “efficiently,” and competition will mediate excesses and abuses, simply by waving a market wand over the lot is a grossly naïve view of economic theory as it plays out in real-world markets.  It worked for pins, or a delusional Ayn Rand, why not schools?

Not the least of the overlooked assessments of this simplistic view of competition (ignoring the litany of assumptions footing predictable market behavior and exceptions fragmenting real markets) is what happens after the first round of competitive shakeout of public systems.  A thought experiment, charters become a major factor, and already occurring, they start failing because they are premised not on creative learning achievement but brand switching, profit opportunity, and the exploitation encouraged by those goals.  How do nascent public schools, shorn of assets and support, then become second round corrective competitors?  They don’t; it becomes charter versus charter (perhaps fought with promotional dollars and vouchers), competitive warfare not in the public interest at least for a nation’s mandatory education. 

If, however, the underlying motivation is less changing learning than making public schools obsolete, it is raw and destructive ideology, not reform.  Taken far enough it has the aroma of autocracy and an attempt to circumvent how public K-12 has been interpreted in conforming Constitutionally.  An unintended consequence, virtually every regulation governing public K-12 institutions would need to be rewritten to create the necessary oversight of a vastly different, more heterogeneous, even less transparent, and unpredictable population of charter schools.

The questions keep coming:  Who conceptualizes the most efficacious organizational forms for privatized K-12 schools; how does individual system oversight operate; how does certification of teachers and administrators occur; will unions for teachers and administrators have to surge to provide countervailing power for what are now all employees and middle management versus corporate management?  How long will it take to rebuild an environment of parental trust and stable operating strategies, given that it required over a century to arrive there the first time?

Some Potential Solutions

An alternative is the overdue, properly defined reform of the major body of K-12 education, still your local public school.  The present reform movement won’t get you there.  Suggested action, including some solutions for issues bypassed in asserting the “fallow fourteen:”


We know less about most of our public schools than is known about over 117MM U.S. households.  Execute a national benchmark census of US K-12 schools, gathering more than boilerplate, with uniform categories of questions and data.

Stopping the Bleeding

As reported in a recent post by educator Anthony Cody, a 15 point decline in teacher satisfaction in the last two years – driven by increases in US poverty, but also arguably exacerbated by the haphazard punitive effects of VAM teacher assessment – may foretell the loss of almost one million teachers in the next half decade.

“Teach for America” won’t fill that hole, even if one buys the simplistic reasoning that developing the science and art to teach is just a five week briefing before occupying a classroom.  Microsoft won’t fill those classrooms though the classrooms they invade may see a surge in hype for Microsoft’s products.

What might both stop the exodus, and build a new American teaching corps, are reforms advocated below for schools of education, obviously a “Teach for America” that gets a lot smarter, and a sea change in the manner teachers are perceived in the US – throttle some American exceptionalism, and use Finland’s model as at least a values’ guide.

Lastly, rethink and revisit the earlier proposed initiatives to make it easier for already accomplished professionals and even retirees to enter K-12 teaching.  A decade ago, when that concept had started to gain some traction, and the writer had just relocated, via dialogue with the state superintendent an offer was extended to apply for certification to teach in 9-12.  Not exactly a new experience, after 25 years in the classroom teaching all from 12th graders just three months prior, to doctoral candidates, to executives, the effort was started.  Tilt; it was an exercise in futility to traverse the bureaucracy, powered in many cases by factotums who had never been in a classroom or were even capable of conceptualizing education as a process. Less ethically, there seemed to be the intent of blocking entry to the public K-12 sorority/fraternity.

Education for Education

Initiate major reform of our collegiate schools of education, with comprehensive revision of their curricula based on cross-discipline awareness and all findings from ongoing neural biological and experimental research on learning.  Eliminate the bachelor's degree in education; require for a master's in education an acceptable bachelor's degree in a knowledge discipline of the intended teaching venue.

Certification for Administration

Require to assume superintendent responsibilities, the EdD or PhD, plus two years of internship as an administrator under the direction of a certified administrator, plus certification peer review based on national standards for school leadership.

Education for Administration

Require for an EdD, work taken in neural and educational psychology, and in organizational behavior and development from an accredited B-school or school of public administration, as well as upgraded thesis or alternative experience emphasizing classroom research capability and technology applicable to the classroom.


Launch a major research effort to develop and validate assessment instruments beyond present standardized testing, and by law require origination in either USDOE, or accredited colleges/universities, or in qualified K-12 systems, or in legitimate research foundations, and prohibited for private sector companies except as supervised by accredited academic or public research institutions. Phase out present standardized testing; shifting strategy to a TQM (total quality management) and process control quality assurance logic, plus the few properly constructed summative tests to maintain national assessments of progress.  


Return to the prior configured USDOE strategies of researching what works in the classroom, but with a national program of mandated public K-12 school involvement in field experiments of alternative pedagogies.   (A 8/8/2014 note:  This is already happening though it would likely never be known if Arne Duncan either, was aware of it, or its promulgation depended on his perspicacity.  PRW)

Communication, Acculturation, and Interaction

Create multiple online networks for K-12 teachers, allowing exchanges of experiences, ideas, techniques, attitudes-opinions-beliefs and without administrative censorship.  Restore the U.S. Department of Education program and site, “Doing What Works,” to the format that was maturing, and add to that program the capability to engage more of America’s parents in a separate version scaled to parental interests.

Local School Boards

There are at least 15 widely cited opportunities for reform of selection and operations of local school boards on the table (SQUINTS 3/12/2012), some for decades but not pursued by our states; mandate pursuit of those changes by the states as part of any Federal funding for public K-12 education.


Turn all present charters into essentially private K-12 schools, allowing phasing out of present tax-based funding; simultaneously, establish in every state effective oversight of present charters to enforce the same standards being applied to public schools, including prohibition of selectivity in enrolling students at any level.  Ongoing research and media disclosure suggest, excepting some excellently managed chains of charters, that episodic charter takeovers are educationally underperforming and producing fiscal improprieties.  As in other examples of U.S. market-based enterprise, it may take “chain” scales for charters to attract the quality of management and exhibit the scale efficiencies needed to excel.

Public K-12 Reform

This conundrum has been so long in gestation that a fix is likely to be both painful and extended, but a place to start beyond changes already advocated above might parallel the proposed reform of collegiate schools of education.  That remediation might take the form of requiring every public K-12 system to be partnered with some US college or university, that institution having the power to form “boards of visitors,” with the authority to periodically visit, require full transparency, and assess a system’s strategic plans for change and performance against those targets.  Peripherally, it also would help to address the long-standing critique of the chasm between secondary education and postsecondary work.

Rediscovering the Wheel

In the course of researching the contents for this post some previously unseen citations were found, but their significance didn’t fully register until the publication dates were noted.  One was “Change in School Systems,” a document resulting from a grant from the US Department of Health, Education & Welfare.  The acronym for the project was COPED, standing for “Cooperative Project for Educational Development.”  Its participating professionals read like a who’s who of pioneers in educational psychology, including psychologists Ronald Lippitt, Goodwin Watson, and others who shared the stage with Kurt Lewin among others at the time.  The document with a little tweaking could be a roadmap for reforming public K-12; its publication date, 1967, forty-five years ago -- the US public education establishment has not been a good listener!

A second, later report but preceding NCLB, was authored by Colleen Lannon-Kim, titled “Revitalizing the Schools: A Systems Thinking Approach.”  Even more tuned to the K-12 trenches, the article reports a number of successful system transitions to contemporary perspectives of learning that may have – one has to presume, as with other pioneering efforts – been obliterated by the undiscriminating hammer and hypocrisy of NCLB. The date of this publication, June/July 1991.  Parenthetically, Lannon-Kim subsequently partnered with MIT’s Peter Senge on additional publications advocating a highly praised, perceptive, and widely used approach to organizational assessment and change.

A third piece of history, less salubrious, was the 1999 advocacy of a VAM approach to K-12 assessment, by a Virginia-based management consulting firm.  Footed by a pedestrian view of systems theory, and though authored by a former educator, the paper managed in 26 pages to avoid any reference to learning or the education challenge of K-12 except invoking Virginia’s SOL (standards of learning) at that time.  Recalling Yogi Berra’s classic quote:  “Déjà vu all over again.”

Change-Blocking Majesteria

The US Department of Education, and Friends with Privileges

Fully restore the US Department of Education’s functions of research, as an educational data bank, as arbiter of standards of real learning and knowledge, and as accountable for public education advocacy.  In a prior attempt to interest the Department in a research effort, it was observed that the most impoverished sector of the Department’s NCER programs was its coverage of public K-12 leadership, potentially the most important substantive topic for both research and advocacy by the Department.

For its “direction and friends,” it is dispiriting to see the postures of Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Wendy Kopp, Joel Klein, Condoleezza Rice, Michelle Rhee, and others, resources of high standing and arguably with the intellect to know that present standardized testing will strategically prove both educationally destructive and is cognitive malpractice, and even more egregiously, that the use of VAM to assess real teaching is both educational, organizational, and behavioral science fraud.  Some, including Duncan and Klein, if prior statements and writing are reviewed, have carried hypocrisy about the reform effort to new levels.  Find the lot new hobbies, or obsessions, or modes of display, and the Department the ethical core to discontinue the corporate patronage that may be undermining the legitimacy of even competent testing.


There has been a quickening of rhetoric about K-12 curricula since the publication of the so-called Common Core Standards (CCSSI), initiated by the NGA (National Governors Association), and now adopted by most of our states.  Are these alleged standards a step forward for US public K-12 education?  (Note 8/8/2014:  We did not anticipate the venal action of Bill Gates in funding via ALEC the aggressive lobbying of our state legislatures to get a quick buy-in of "Common Core" standards, usually without time for their review before installation.  RPW)

To most casual viewers of education’s current dystopia, and apparently our media, the initiative may appear a rare instance of American solidarity in an otherwise partisan period of our history.  The standards must represent consensus of our best and brightest in every relevant subject matter discipline, and based on the media hype, US knowledge crème-de-la-crème?  Well, not so much.

The NGA, billing itself as “bipartisan,” might be if states were presently equally apportioned between our political parties; they are not, nor are the human resources staffing NGA’s functions a very bipartisan mix.  The organization is now guided heavily by conservative staffing and other organizations that have been identified as part of the so-called corporate reform movement, and advocates of charters and vouchers.  To further complicate the milieu, most of the experts enlisted to shepherd or validate the standards appear to disproportionately represent the methods mantra that has too long characterized US public education and, more, contributed to its present challenges.  The group of 30 resources, comprising the CCSSI validation committee, seems an inadequate representation of the disciplinary breadth and quality needed to frame what US public K-12 should be communicating as learning.

The alleged standards promulgated to date cover “English language arts” and “mathematics.”  Alleged, because there is a question whether the first category consists of any proposition meriting representation as a "standard." Much of that category consists of fuzzy methods reasoning, and repetitive mantras that raise the issue whether their authorship actually grasps the use of language.  A recent article in the Washington Post feature, ”The Answer Sheet,” by an educator seeking in good faith to apply the standards, says far more than this post can convey.

The mathematics standards consist of a hodge-podge with some legitimate math constructs, but predominantly the lowest common denominators of math reasoning, more methods froth, and little that might satisfy the mathematically literate as the norm that should be sought in K-12.  The section of the mathematics set that relates to statistics and probability is so questionable that it might have been constructed by simply paraphrasing (poorly) the table of contents of a random introductory statistics text.

All of the CCSSI reflects the potentially obsolete view that seat-time must be the mediator of when the various behaviors it ambiguously describes as “standards” are to be achieved, an assumption that is at odds with virtually every behavioral construct of how learning evolves.  The point of view is automatically an impediment to any creative thinking applied to improving the public K-12 genre.

Perhaps the most distressing – and illuminating – indicator of the origins of the CCSSI, and the biases reflected in the NGA, is the repetitive statement on the NGA website that the Federal government (we assume including the US Department of Education) had nothing to do with the creation or validation of the standards, and further, overt advocacy there be no Federal input in either the implementation or oversight of their use in the states by our K-12 schools. (Note 8/8/2014:  This statement, with CCSSI sarcasm that was not presented as courtesy, was present on its website on the date of this post. The language since magically disappeared from the website.  RPW)

There are in this nation multiple bodies of competent discipline experts, both academic and in areas where knowledge is applied, who have the genuine competence to assemble needed learning standards for K-12.  One very prominent, simply as an example, is AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and publisher of the premier journal, Science.  Its equivalent already exists for virtually all knowledge areas that need to be embraced in K-12 education, numbering in the hundreds, and representing the legitimate sourcing of American education standards.  The question is, why have the genuine keepers of knowledge not been enlisted to create proper learning standards for K-12?  And where is the U.S. Department of Education hiding?

The CCSSI alleged public K-12 standards, how they were contrived by NGA, their adoption by most of our states without critique, and the abdication of the USDOE, may represent a new low point in America’s education intellectual integrity.  (Note 8/8/2104:  Actually the real low point was development of STEM standards by AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] and higher education scientists, along with proper methods of STEM learning assessment; when turned over to CCSSI, the standards and assessment logic were scuttled, contents twisted to fit standardized testing.  RPW)

Solutions are challenging, implying now literally educational warfare between our states (at least as represented by NGA) and federalism, even when sense favors the latter.  One solution is a consortia of representation from the bodies and organizations that set the criteria for US and even world knowledge and serve by consent as its oversight. Examples are our national academies, an AAAS, the LSA (Linguistic Society of America, with 5,000 members), the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English, with double-digit thousands of members), the AMS (American Mathematical Society, with 30,000 members), the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, with 90,000 members), and the additional multitude of both academic and private sector professional associations that surround our major disciplines and areas of practice.  Collectively created and promoted, competent knowledge standards could push the politicized artifice of CCSSI off the table before it further debases American K-12 education.

Technology in K-12 Classrooms

This topic cannot be addressed in any meaningful way without far more words than the present format can support.  Certainly there are public K-12 schools that have shown leadership in integrating digital technologies into their classroom practice, some likely as advanced as our technology creators.  But, assessing the entire population of US public K-12 schools, using sociologist Everett Rogers’ construct for describing the diffusion of innovation, an assertion is that the vast majority of those schools and their leaderships are either “late adopters” or “laggards.”

The insanity of this posture is that digital technology and STEM, in addition to being the additional languages of our world, are perhaps the premier hopes for America’s thrust to recapture historical levels of creation of new product and service utilities and their growth factor as economic stimulus.

Bottom lines are:  That much US public K-12 leadership is not only ignorant of contemporary technologies that might assist learning, but also either fearful of such exposure and deflecting it, or dogmatically denying its materiality; and that to date when many products reflecting such technology have been employed in public K-12, they have been layered on top of existing rubrics rather than recognized as calling for ground-up rethinking of how learning can be enhanced or even redesigned by the usage.

In a real sense, the broad failure of public K-12 to not only accept these technologies, but to have actively allowed the egregious opportunity cost to the nation from not actually leading in their adoption, constitutes education malpractice.

Solutions are elusive, in part because they may only emerge from the proper training of a future generation of teachers, or ironically, because the developmental and entrepreneurial dynamics of the technologies have not yet slowed enough to see a coalescence of one leadership cluster.  Perhaps, only partially in jest, this is where the student teaches the teacher; arguably, virtually every American student possessing the ability to thumb a smartphone, or manipulate today’s gaming that rivals professional simulation (many 8th and even 7th graders now possess the skills to write simulation models), likely possesses technology awareness that exceeds the vast majority of their teachers?

Alternatively, our collegiate schools of education could widely elect, or be required to transition into the 21st century.

No Easy Fixer-Uppers

Action and the Even Larger Unknowns

What are simply chapter or even book titles above, will never be easy when filleted out to become strategies, tactics, then action plans, fitting the old corporate saw, “says easy, does hard.”  The reality is that advocates on both sides of the public K-12 reform challenge are guilty of expressing issues in discrepant scales, exaggerating or denying both problems and consequences, and underestimating the complexity of creating operational solutions.
Lastly, the elephants in the room – America’s increasingly lopsided income distribution, finding some political sanity in Congress but even in local cultures, and creating greater parental awareness of the potential malpractice in their local school systems – go well beyond what can simply be referenced as subject to “fixes.”  They are tectonic drift compared to problem solving at an organizational level, manifestations of increasingly disparate cultural shifts in American life that beggar the imagination, both in their implications of cumulative failed K-12 education for decades – with higher education rapidly overtaking the latter – and in future portent.

Journalist and author Thomas Friedman (The World is Flat) penned March 25, 2012 a perceptive piece on U.S. foreign policy relating to "...Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan."  Key points:  "What the Middle East needs most from America today are modern schools and hard truths, and we haven’t found a way to offer either."  Then:  "...the requirements of a forward-looking society — which are institutions that deliver decent government, consensual politics that provide for rotations in power, women’s rights and an ethic of pluralism that protects minorities and allows for modern education."

Oops -- are these not values that one might want to effectively install first or at least concomitantly in the USA?     

Genuine and sustainable remediation for K-12 will require strategic time scales and culture changes, the latter something that can never happen without broad-based professional and citizen willingness to do the hardest intellectual chore they may encounter in a lifetime -- confront and challenge their own assumptions and beliefs.


As far afield as the above prescriptions are, compared to standardized testing and VAM teacher assessments being promulgated as public K-12 education's "silver bullets," they are still discrete concepts.

Extending the above, the challenges of basically changing US K-12 performances might be more effectively expressed and understood by viewing our states' funding of education, their structures for facilitating education, means of providing and qualifying school administration and teachers, and oversight, as a problem in general systems theory.  The approach has application all the way to the organization of individual systems, schools within, and even in the relationships that local systems forge with other systems and organizations within a community.

The beginnings of a such a systemic approach to understanding public K-12 appeared in the latter decades of last century, but never reached a high level of maturity or widespread awareness before the alternative vision of forcing overall change in our public schools emerged as a political rather than a functional or technical imperative.  NCLB arguably squelched many such efforts that might have been embryonic at the onset of this century; present strategies almost preclude that modernization of thought.

A subsequent effort down the line will be an attempt to review past efforts to view public K-12 in that fashion, to see where the reasoning might clarify and amplify current issues and debate.  One provocative area of inquiry is the organization of our public K-12 institutions, essentially unchanged at their core literally since their emergence as the present public school model. Tantalizing, in the last  several decades, organization theory, understanding of human interaction, organizational designs, motivation and management of human resources, technological linkages with human performance, and now even core neural biological understanding of how learning works have undergone a revolution, or even successive revolutions.

Most of America's state-by-state embedded beliefs and protocols, and too many of the nation's elementary and secondary schools seem an intellectually petrified forest in that landscape.

Epilog 8/8/2014

There is an analogy of school reform evolution in the imagery experienced by folks who live in our most northern enclaves, the cacophonous sound that is made when a Spring thaw commences, a sound of ice cracking and shifting on lakes that is hard to miss.

The reform game is still overall a stalemate:  The product of dogmatism by our cabals of alleged reformers, many with divergent, and some with less than noble motivations for perseverance, most with either governmental or corporate infrastructure on their side; and equally product of the intransigence of a century-old public education system, that lacks both fundamental oversight and accountability, and by circling the wagons has deflected the behavioral, technological and managerial tools that might have and still could drive self-reform.

But the cracking you hear is the sound of double-digit states rejecting the "Common Core" along with its enforcement of even more standardized testing (even if some of this rejection is for the wrong and ideological reasons). Parents are organizing to demand less of that testing.  Groups are organizing to fight attacks on teacher tenure.  A few more of our media have discovered critical thought and are reporting truths about reform.  And Mr. Obama and especially Mr. Duncan have mercifully at least throttled down the most hypocritical rhetoric about reform, and perhaps toned down the misplaced morality that appears their motivation.

On the flip side, none of the critics of our public schools, or champions of charters, have hoisted a white flag.  In parallel, outside of a small fraction of standout public school systems, with enlightened management, and a good deal of courage, that are injecting this century's knowledge into their public school performances, the vast majority of our systems are still in either defensive mode, or are delusional, or reflect Dunning-Kruger effect in their stewardship of their local schools.  Unfortunately, west central Ohio, and uncounted American increasingly tribal enclaves, are littered with schools where local control is fiercely defended, and even dishonest tax levies are accepted, but communities lack the awareness or courage to require their schools to kick it up a notch and perform.

Repeating the mantra in the FORWARD, a continuing cold war between reformers and our public systems buys the nation nothing except futures depreciating educational creativity and performance.  Backing out of that model requires going back to respected approaches to conflict resolution; one essential element of that operating strategy is clearly that 'conversation' is a better mechanism as a problem solver than intimidation and destruction. Both "corporate reform" and our educational systems might want to try it.

RPW, 8/8/2014

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Conversation, anyone?

TO:        Edunationredux Learning Community

DATE:    5 August 2014


Good morning. 

Unless you have been living an artificial life on Facebook, or a simulated one in Sim City, or are a delusional member of Congress, you have likely noted with exasperation that our nation is mired in partisanship among other things, and that it is eroding our society.  The fraction of Americans who think the country is moving in the right direction, based on the most recent survey, is now roughly one-quarter.

Two observations to augment that:  The first, it is frequently assumed that we can lay this on politics and uniquely that system (we’ll pass for now on whether any other system of governance would produce a more admirable result), when the symptoms are highly visible in the venue of this blog, public education; the second, that it is the guy over there, or there, who is the cause, not as the wisdom of Walt Kelly’s Pogo intoned… “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Our public schools, seen as compartmentalized from the above milieu, and above all of that, are not.  Unless one has been, again, immersed in one of the venues of the first sentence, there has to be awareness that our public schools are locked in a no-win cold war, between “corporate reform,” and our one-hundred year old public education bureaucracy that resists change because, candidly, it may mean loss of power, loss of control, damage egos, and on.  The reformers are operating on very bad assumptions and data, and could seem to care less, as long as their personal morality is served.  Our public systems have in turn, by being sycophant to that reform, become the additional enemy of genuine learning for all of the nation’s children. Public systems’ propensity to periodically become scam artists fleecing their taxpayers, and breakdowns in BOE local oversight, can only partially be laid off on “reform.”

A bad scene, but the legitimate objection is, quit grousing, how do we get out of this evolving crater?  Two opinion items that appeared this week start to offer answers.  Their common denominator is an entire nation’s defection in the art of listening, and increasing isolation of views by virtue of a refusal to have a conversation.  The first piece, from The Washington Post, is linked here.  The second is from a program called “The Future of Work,” and essays that issue there; the piece is linked here.  Both communicate, if you’ll pardon the pun, that failure to communicate is one genesis of our woes.

The why of the above is another issue; situational, too much media noise, required by political correctness, or is it as Shakespeare stated… It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”  If the latter, motivation becomes all important; to protect our egos, risk averse to the possibility that we might be wrong, because independent acts of courage may alienate those who can’t find that value, or simply something has left the state of American character?

A reasonable argument is that national leadership starts and blooms when it happens or is reinforced at the grass roots.  That requires the challenges in the two citations be flipped, to start real conversations in every professional venue to solve problems not simply defer them to our progeny.  

Public education, for obvious reasons, is a relevant and timely place to start — if it retains any character at all…


      Ron Willett

Thursday, July 24, 2014

"The Forest..." -- Postscript, 25 July 2014

TO:        Edunationredux Learning Community

DATE:    25 July 2014

SUBJ:   Coping/Changing

Good morning.  

This is a brief postscript to the last Edunationredux post, “The Forest For the Trees…”  The reason, a trove of points of view that tumbled out of press coverage after “Forest" was posted.

An insightful article, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math,” was published this week in the NYT.  Its thesis is that America’s public school teachers are the vortex of that failure, but primarily because of the enabling of those failures  by our schools of education.  

That piece was narrowly preceded by a widely cited report from the source of the international PISA testing of school performance (the OECD), the regular basis for assessments that US schools are underperforming. The study’s finding:  Our public school principals hold seriously distorted perceptions of a property of their students.

Also popping after “Forest” posted, a revealing article in WaPo’s “The Answer Sheet" by an experienced public and private school educator and education administrator; "The many reasons 'I am ashamed to be part of the system.'"

Inside these conundrums, a complex of reasons why.  

One explanation is simply public education’s delusion-based coping mechanisms:  From a Board-Certified psychiatrist — “…psychological strategies used by individuals (and by extension—groups of individuals and even entire nations at times) to cope with reality and to maintain his/her self-image.”  “A defense mechanism becomes pathological when … it prevents being able to cope with a real threat and obscures ability to perceive reality.”

A second explanation is that many of our systems have evolved into implacable and dysfunctional bureaucratic enclaves, lacking effective oversight, and doing what bureaucracies do, resisting any change that might threaten loss of power or dollars.  This was an assertion in the “Forest” linked report a decade after “A Nation at Risk,” by EDUCATIONnext, titled  “Are We Still at Risk.”

Still another explanation from “Are We Still at Risk” was cited in our post: “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.”

Much press handling of the “corporate reform” attack on the nation’s public systems slights the issues and risks to our current model of public education, even in places such as university communities that should reflect greater intellect and objectivity.  Indeed, the latter coverage and presumed delusions introduce double jeopardy for our systems, withholding from the public legitimate challenges to local school strategies and control, and masking building indictment of collegiate schools of education.

A very personally-felt case-in-point, because of 45 years of residency in the community, is Bloomington, IN, its principal press, The Herald-Times.  The allegation is that this press’ editorial function has in this century regularly censored or ignored coverage of virtually all larger public school reform issues, and of malfeasance throughout its MCCSC county school system. The damage inflicted on the community and its progeny for an unknowable time period — that may even extend to the publication’s alleged manipulation of information to support incompetent system leadership, and subjecting taxpayers to unnecessary school levies — is unconscionable even by civilian standards, and despicable by a community’s principal alleged free press.

The growing implications, of what may be material leaks of insight from public school systems that simply abhor transparency, are three:   That lifting the lid on too many of our public schools reveals negative BOE and system performances that have been too long covered up or publicly deflected; that our public systems’ flaws will become increasingly visible, further indicting our schools of education; and that for 34 years our alleged reformers, punitively targeting public school teachers and students with standardized testing (now bungled) and VAM, may have had the wrong culprits in their cross-hairs.  

Parenthetically, the latter assessment may also apply to this nation’s US Department of Education, and its principals, with both the NEA and AFT national teachers’ unions challenging the Federal reform stances taken, and now Arne Duncan’s continued agency leadership for cause.

One of the earliest lessons offered in even the most rudimentary treatment of the logic of inquiry or decision making, is to define the right problem.  Both our overall public education bureaucracy, and our alleged “corporate reform” horde, seem to merit a single letter grade to supersede the faux NCLB assessments and witless state grading:  An “F.”

Next on the Edunationredux agenda, some of our institutions of higher education, and some of their embedded colleges and schools, that are supposed to be this nation’s cutting edge for learning and innovation; but are they still viable, and for how long given questionable priorities and resource use?


      Ron Willett

Dr. Ronald Willett, 29 Canterbury Drive, New Bremen, OH  45869
Home:  419-977-2103   Cell:  419-202-2044

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 Gates'-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?

A prophetic article, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math,” has a barely suppressed subtext — that America’s public school teachers have not been trained to teach contemporary math, perhaps extending the thought, not much at all.  If that is true, the causal arrow only has one vector, our failed schools of education as implied above.  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.