Monday, September 15, 2014

Public Education Perspective: Leadership & Reality

Introduction

In the outpouring of rhetoric accumulating around “corporate reform” of our public schools, its standardized testing, and most recently fixation on an alleged “Common Core,” there is a bias that masks key perspectives.  That is, the tendency to hone in on only public education parameters, pretty much ignoring the complex linkages among our systems, and what feeds them and is impacted by their outputs.

As critique of present standardized testing has ramped up, the impact of what feeds our public systems has been given voice.  Specifically, that the socioeconomic, cultural and familial attributes of students play a major role in what happens in that testing.   At one end of that argument is the assertion that standardized testing as a basis for assessing school performance is deeply flawed, reflecting inherent deficits of accomplishment attributable to what a student carries as incoming learning baggage.

On the other end of the public school machine, what happens to their human resource outputs has belatedly started to engage policy makers.  It should have engaged them a long time ago.  It should have engaged our public systems even earlier, where most have dismissed their charges once they have exited their schools.  Ignored has been the most elemental research issue of longitudinal analysis of whether the education provided has been effective in a former student’s next endeavor.

Even further down the road comes realization that what has been achieved K-12 will be on display for decades in human performances in either the private or public sector.  Yet, as public school rhetoric foams, there is little perspective about the other environments it impacts, or the scales of those recipients of our public schools’ outputs.

The following table offers some perspectives of where public education fits in a much larger scheme of our nation’s allocations of its human resources.  There are major stories in the following data, going beyond the implications for public education.  But some top line relationships are revealing, and what they reveal is why the composite private sector has every reason to demand accountability from public education.  (Parenthetically, that is not equivalent to naming present reform “corporate reform,” for that is an inappropriate labeling at least as it has been employed by anti-reform resources as a pejorative descriptor.)

US INSTITUTIONAL HUMAN RESOURCE
DEPLOYMENT (HEADCOUNTS)

SOURCE
        (000)
Private Sector Employment

113, 426
Public School Students All Grades

49,500
Americans w/College Degree But Imputed Underemployed

17,000
Federal/State/Local Governmental Employment

16,900
Americans Unemployed

9,600
Americans w/Graduate Degree But Imputed Underemployed

7,870
Public School Teachers

3,100
Public School Administrators and Non-Teaching Employment

3,100
Higher Education Administrative & Staff Employment

2,654
Private Sector Top Executives

2,303
Higher Education Teaching/Research Employment

1,267
Americans w/PhD or Professional Degree Imputed Underemployed

1,180
Public School Principals

231
Estimated Public School/Area Superintendents

14-15







All numbers are rounded.  Sources are multiple, government and private sector.  Numbers represent different years, but the latest available for the type, and represent the years between 2011 and 2014.  Time differences therefore reflect varying small relative comparative inaccuracies but no basic scale differences.

The most gripping relationship from the table is that the actions of public education top administrators, constituting less than one percent of our nation’s number of top executives – the latter in turn responsible for over 113 million employees and our GDP – impact that private sector’s and our nation’s business performance.  The real kicker is, that many of those public administrators have not been properly trained, or professionally vetted by marginal BOE, and reflect ‘superintendents’ frequently operating with virtually no oversight or real accountability.   There are competent public school chief executives in our nation, but with minimal effort the unprepared, the educationally challenged, the unethical, and the arrogant can be installed, then seen even when every effort is exerted to block school transparency. That is a societal miscue and debacle, and more than ample justification for rigorous public K-12 system reforms. 

In that sense, what is being prosecuted in real time as attempted public school reform is ‘corporate reform,’ but rather than naming for the prosecutors, it should reflect the economic damage an unreformed and change-resistant public school fraction of total systems is imposing on the nation.  Present reform modalities are proving equally destructive of needed K-12 learning, so both sides of the present reform equation need serious revision.

View From the Downstream Real World

Occasionally some research opportunistically surfaces at the right moment in history.  A recent study -- the third annual version just appeared -- puts some meat on the bones of the above assertions about where US public education most needs change.

The report, “AN ECONOMY DOING HALF ITS JOB,” represents findings of “Harvard Business School’s 2013-14 Survey of U.S. Competitiveness.”  Its principal author, Dr. Michael Porter, is considered by many the current dean of business strategic thought.  The survey presents the opinions of a sample of 1,947 senior business executives.  The pertinence for this post was a first in the three-year sequence of studies; the inclusion of a sample of 1,100 public school superintendents.  Their responses to selective questions on the contributions of our public systems to US competitiveness were compared with the executives’ responses, a rare comparative assessment.

While the full study covered a very wide swath of US competitiveness issues, the study questions where superintendent and executive answers could be compared primarily covered:  “Current U.S. K-12 education position compared to other countries;" business engagement in education; and actions taken or not taken by business in support of public schools.

Key findings applicable here:
  • The most strident finding came from a comparison between executives’ and superintendents’ views of how US K-12 education stacked up in comparison to other advanced countries.  In a scaling map of “current U.S. position compared to other advanced economies” X “U.S. trajectory compared to other advanced economies,” superintendents scored the US K-12 education system 55% better on position than the average of all economies, and its trajectory on a par on with other economies.  Contrasting with those views, executives scored the U.S. education system -40% and -70%, respectively, on the two factors compared to the average assessment.  Not an unexpected perception by most system superintendents, but an indictment of their connection to reality.
  • External to this study but reported for reference by the Harvard report, were results of the OECD’s 2013 cross-national study of adult competencies, covering literacy, problem-solving, and numeracy.  The U.S. results showed all three competencies higher compared to other economies as the age of the adult increased.  Americans aged 55-65 performed 5-10% better than the country average except for numeracy; but in age groups 45-54 through 16-24, the performances became increasingly lower as age decreased.  This may be the most vivid finding to date that U.S. public education is failing to perform relative to other advanced economies, and that those deficits have actually increased over two decades.  Is this in spite of reform, or because of alleged reform shifting learning from a more diverse form to narrowly conceived success based on simplistic testing?  Arguably it is both.
  • Discouraging across the board, “only 12% of superintendents characterized their business communities as deeply involved in their school districts.”  “And only 7% of business respondents described their firms as deeply involved in public education.”  Corporate reform obviously does not extend to broad executive involvement with our public schools, even if heavy-handed accountability has been attributed to business’ influence.
  • Superintendents underestimated business’ low engagement in schools, versus business respondents, perceiving 37% not involved, versus 62% of executives stating no involvement.  The same pattern of superintendents failing to perceive executive views stretched across seven other involvement factors.
  •  Lastly, “only 3% of superintendents characterized their business communities as well informed about public education, while 14% described their business communities as misinformed.”  In parallel, 65% of executives expressed deep interest in the mission of a child’s education, while only 35% of superintendents had that perception of executive interest.  It is hardly a mystery why there appears to be disconnect, and tension between public education and the U.S. economic universe as well as with its local constituencies.  The disconnect of almost a century between public systems and higher education is real, and well documented. Further contributors are the prevalence of public system administrator efforts to block school transparency, self-righteousness, and aloofness to the non-education public.   Curious, as much of that high level non-education professional public has better academic credentials than most public school administrators.

Indications for Change

The smallest number of human resources in the above table, hence, the easiest and most logical place to apply some corrective action to change US public education’s trajectory, is self-evidently public school leadership where it has failed.  Another basis for that targeting is this segment is also a major contributor to the refusal or inability of our public schools to grab their bootstraps and initiate internal reform.  One obvious implication; move part of the focus of present reform to where reform should have been initiated with or before NCLB launched – targeting failed and failing public system leadership.

That would, complicating the game, have to either bypass many local marginal BOE, or in concert, trigger BOE reform as well.  Either and both, it is asserted, offer a far more effective reform agenda for public K-12 than beating up teachers with VAM, and students with counterproductive standardized testing. 

There is currently no set of metrics to gauge school leadership deficits (ruling out the false metric of standardized test scores and states' alleged grades, and perhaps sports victories/losses), arguably because of an equally false ‘sacred cow’ historical attribution to superintendents.  But simple observation locally, of some of the ignorance, educational incompetence, and ethical failures projected by that alleged leadership, suggests the target is huge.  Not particularly radical, there are in the contemporary management literature, and being practiced in the private sector, well organized and successful processes for assessing private sector leadership.  The usual education rhetoric, ‘but we are different,’ is malarkey – organizations of all venues at core revolve around the same basic design principles and processes for human resource support, as do the bases for their leadership.

Again, self-evidently, the entire public superintendent genre is not a candidate for the unemployment line, or reprogramming, but nationally our education establishment, and particularly and spectacularly our Federal Department of Education, has flunked management 101 by deflecting wholesale the above issues while narrowly focusing on standardized testing.  Our states are equally responsible, for over multiple decades, refusing legislation to upgrade the quality of local BOE competence and oversight capability.

A strong case exists for sanctioning those public school superintendents who have either tumbled down “Alice’s rabbit hole,” or succumbed to Lord Acton’s dictum, or are unethical.   The dual contentions:  There are many quality professional resources who can be staged to take up that role, most with greater intellectual and ethical values than resources in place and failing; and there is no irrevocable law that requires a school CEO to have issued from the education bureaucracy, indeed, changing that sourcing of competent peak public system management may be the only timely way to jumpstart creative change in public K-12.

Should some fraction of 14-15K human resources, many who because of U.S. societal and systemic oversight are either lacking education currency, or incompetent to lead an education system – all contributing to under-serving 3.1MM teachers and 49+MM children – be wagging the dog?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Public Schools' Lemmings?

TO:        Edunationredux Learning Community

DATE:   31 August 2014

SUBJ:    Education Lemmings?

Good morning.

Schools are opening.   And like the urban legend of suicidal lemmings rushing to the sea, the images pop up; of our public systems indiscriminately following a testing and VAM Federal regimen, and politicized state education bureaucracies, to public K-12 educational sterility — while overdosing on sports, bureaucracy, phony inspirational mantra and preparing for more standardized testing.  The suicidal lemming behavior is pure myth; our public schools’ emulation, not so much.  

A wondrous season?

Clearly the US has many good public K-12 schools, even great ones.  There is no composite scorecard because we know little comprehensively and in depth about our public schools short of stilted US Department of Education data, and episodic press reporting with uneven educational provenance.  State grades based on standardized test scores are not a credible substitute.

But the reform dam is experiencing some cracks.  Over the last few months widespread grass roots resistance has blossomed:  To elimination of teacher tenure; to destroying teachers’ unions; to even more standardized testing; and to the “Common Core” even if for the wrong reasons.  But lastly and finally, there is nascent recognition that real US public school reform can’t be limited to the classroom and teachers, but needs to target marginal BOE and regular incompetent and unethical school leadership.  Duncan shrugged.

But back to those lemmings, some systems too close for comfort have executed a pretty good imitation of that myth, almost simultaneously illustrating that learning needs to start beyond the classroom.  Three systems regularly tracked are doing a coincidentally coordinated dance resembling Aristophanes’ famous lament.  What make one system’s bureaucratic excesses and educational deficits particularly egregious is that it is contiguous to a Big Ten research university, where the presumption is greater awareness of the nation’s future K-12 needs.

All three systems are a microcosm of why “A Nation at Risk,” “corporate reform,” charters, NCLB, and the “Common Core” initially materialized and persist, with BOE questionable to dysfunctional, with challenged public school leadership, technology late adopters or laggards, and slavishly following a testing pied piper.  Just three unfortunate opportunistic examples, but how many times across the US are these systems replicated because of reform misdirection plus broken or warped local control?

Prophetically, this week several prominent instances of educational sanity surfaced in media challenging reform strategies.  A state has called out Duncan and alleged reform as dysfunctional; a school system politely did the same.  A national organization credibly blasted the strategies.  And a prominent educator called out the myths to be dispelled and needed change to put US public education back on track.

The messages in the above links are hardly new.  Reality is that human behavior is increasingly revealed as subject to delusion, defensive psychological tactics, even our neural processes creating their own reality.  Traversing that minefield, if it is applicable to any of our society, should be a focal point of those charged with our society’s local educational missions.  The tools: listening, self-study, conversation, creative forays, design of contemporary learning and assessment rubrics, and practicing Theory Y and Z — not blocking transparency, plotting the next levy, or waging school propaganda campaigns.  

Those proactive goals, too frequently not at the core of public school responsibility or even awareness, and the incorrect values and misplaced zealousness of “corporate reform,” are precisely what are jointly depressing American public K-12 education; not the capacities of kindergarteners to now pass standardized tests.

Were our ‘Duncanian pied piper’ to be followed, where would he ultimately lead our public K-12 systems?  The suspicion is he doesn’t have a clue.  Likely it is on a par with awareness of how to, by 2015, validly and reliably segment and rank 4,500 complex and highly diverse US degree-granting institutions of higher education; where Edunationredux will segue to explore the issues next time out.

In the upcoming Fall elections and beyond, the representative refrain from public school parents and a taxpaying public usually is, but what can we do to put our public schools back on course?  The answer, surprisingly, is not complex but pragmatic:  As a start, quit voting the unprepared, the stupid, and the unethical onto your local school BOE.

Regards,

      Ron Willett

Thursday, August 7, 2014

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

FORWARD

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.")

EDUNATIONREDUX  3/25/2012

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:”

Information

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.

Testing

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.  

Pedagogy

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.

Charters

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.

Curricula

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.

Conclusions

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