Saturday, June 11, 2016

Lament for the Cessation of Reason


Edunationredux has been silent for some time, witnessing the unrelenting push — even in the face of demonstrations it has failed — to reform public education by brute force, and punitive application of standardized testing and flawed value-added teacher assessment.  After a material hiatus it seemed timely to reflect on the shifts that have occurred in so-called corporate reform of our U.S. public schools over the last year or so.  

What follows is an attempt to backfill without whitewash the current reporting with some realities that framed the onset of current testing excesses, value-added assessment of teachers, the rise and decline of the alleged common core, and the same-o, same-o by players such as Mr. Obama and his obsession with testing, Mr. Gates with his obsession with playing amateur and ignorant education advocate, with our profiteering testing companies, and lastly with our real public systems still defensively dug in or in denial they are under attack.

Let’s be clear and direct on a couple of issues:  No one legitimately aware of K-12 education is rejecting or has rejected the need for school testing, a common rhetorical device injected by our testing vultures — the issue has always been whether the right stuff is being tested, and who bears the design responsibility for test creation and use of insights therefrom; and few legitimate educators dispute the need for some common knowledge components to be the backbone for all learning K-12 — here the issue is whether the right human resources, for the right reasons, and with the right research backdrop created a viable knowledge and tools core.  Gathering evidence suggests both issues have been fumbled in current reform, some of that fumbling incompetence, some ideology replacing critical thought, some self-righteousness, some outright corrupt action.

In the 21st Century, “spare the rod and spoil the child” once seemed too bizarre to contemplate as civilized public policy.  Companies profiting from that testing have dug in, becoming ever more bold in simply ignoring critique, and doubling down on installing untested products to extract public dollars. The following observations are prompted by two core beliefs:  One, that only a broader electorate can now exert the force to mediate present trends; and two, on balance that electorate, most parents, and even the public resources who signed on to at least nominally serve public schools, are either confused by the reform lenaean hydra poisoning public education, or blissfully unaware of what it is costing the nation in futures.

Genesis of the Reform Movement

From many sources, and over a great span of time our society has assessed how words matter.  If you research the most destructive words in our language there is a proliferation of negative syntax.  But oft quoted:  "The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’"

I want to contest that conclusion in a brief essay dealing with the current sturm und drang surrounding America's public schools — the argument is in essence that the most dangerous words for our society are the words that are never spoken, the truths preferred unsaid.  Public education has been a prime inheritor of the condition.  The words won't issue even from the prolific anti-testing press advocate, WaPo’s "The Answer Sheet:"  Public school systems in the U.S. over the last half century have reaped, by failing in multiple ways, the punitive, test-based, alleged "corporate reform” currently being endured.

Let's do a bit of reality testing.  Did this alleged reform movement just fall like a random shower?  Was there no activating causal sequence?  Did the notion that our public schools were failing to prepare tomorrow's decision makers just pop into some executive’s head during a Starbucks break?  Were our schools wth low variance equally equipping America's children?  Was our private sector seeing its employees (and customers) outclass the rest of the world?  Was it seeing in new hires critical thinking, creativity, and capacities for both excellence and innovation?  Were our local public schools the recipients of the best and brightest in our society as oversight, our famous or infamous system of boards of education accessible by popular vote to even school dropouts?  As any complex system evolves and creates deep roots, and breeds defenders, did the public systems remain humble, rejecting entitlement, and resisting the temptation to socially engineer the embryonic society they obviously footed from pre-K through the end of high school?  Did the players in those schools resist the temptation to demand more of the nation's resources because they could tax, or their personal returns were outstripped by alternative professions?  Did our public schools, presciently recognizing advancing digital technology, become the leaders in related education? Unless you believe in the tooth fairy, one or more of these or ones left unsaid will resonate as 21st Century public K-12 system failure modes.

The list goes on, but quickly, for public educators long protected by society to have absolved every source of critique would have been the persona of saints. For all of the credit public system teachers deserve for persevering there was and still is massive resistance to change in most public schools, resistance to upgrading obsolete texts and knowledge proffered, resistance to and ignorance of technology rolling out in the private sector, and the latter as will be seen a key factor in launching an attack on those systems.  Couple this with most collegiate schools of education to this day as retro as most local systems.  Local systems have regularly allowed poorly equipped and trained school administration, compounded by incompetent BOE oversight of that management.  You have the nucleus of rebellion by the market-based segment of society dependent on that education.  And there was a first shot fired.

That event was the 1983 National Governors Association (NGA) meeting, dominated by a speech and proposals by the CEO of IBM, Lou Gerstner.  At the time still America's preeminent technology company, the POV expressed by its representative was the genesis of attacks on public education.  That speech was followed by comparable rhetoric about America's public system mediocrity at The Business Roundtable, a consortium of the CEOs of America's largest corporations. In turn the NGA's staff dealing with education, already conservatively oriented by Republican governor dominance, became populated by MBAs from U.S. B-schools — not educators, not even the better education gurus. Then the perceived need for major change migrated to the Bush White House.  The anthem became, “aggressive, no excuses K-12 discipline to get tough when the going gets tough.” The result was NCLB (No Child Left Behind) which in fact had some rational and egalitarian roots, though short on human resources genuinely knowledgeable about learning just beginning to be understood as neuroscience.  (Dr. Diane Ravitch, then Assistant Secretary of Education, championed the reforms of NCLB based on testing, but subsequently witnessing their downsides became that testing's most aggressive opponent.)  Then, in the vernacular, all hell broke loose.

It is this next phase of alleged reform evolution that was and still is not recognized by most of our states, by virtually any local BOE, and arguably by few public school administrators and even teachers.  Once the metaphorical public education reform toothpaste was out of the tube it not only couldn't be returned to the source, it stuck like plaque.  All of the diverse special interest critics of public education entered the emerging battle, but lacking any coherent composite position on what it was.  (Subsequently, reform created such disparate odd fellows as the Obama Administration at least tacitly joining hands with the most vehement advocates of charters and public school replacement.)

At this juncture, actually pre-NCLB, both our collegiate schools of education and America's public systems had a chance to intercept what has since occurred — both populations reflexively retreated into defensive positions, BOE and schools’ leaderships in denial, teachers leaning on unions for a buffer or just retreating to foxholes.  The moment, when leadership within the education establishment might have deflected corporate reform attack, was lost.

I would interject a brief personal experience that reinforces the above observation. In the early 1990s, the retiring dean of my doctoral alma mater's school of education created a program named, Center for Excellence in Education.  Its purpose to research and bring related seminars to public school superintendents in that state.  Its faculty consisted of a half dozen of the brightest scholars I had witnessed, none the product of a traditional school of education.  They assembled cutting edge tools for school administrators, and offered these in seminars for the small number of public school resources who perceived the need and opportunity. Although long off of that institution's faculty, I was serving as a consultant to the university's vice president for research and graduate studies, and prevailed on that resource to enroll me in the CEE summer program.  A quarter century ago, what was being taught and advocated are some of the tools just emerging in our most contemporary (irony) public schools.  The point of the story, however, is the ultimate fate of that program — the literal day that former dean finally left the education school the traditionally-bent replacement started to dismantle the program.  It was never replaced. 

Our broader public education establishment has been its own worst enemy in the reform wars.

Uncontrolled Fragmentation of School Warfare

At this point in history the previously referenced wave of public school criticism experienced the arguably predictable, but never predicted sequel — that population of critics fragmented, uncontrolled, into aggressive splinters of public school attackers, all pretty much on their own wavelength, but all in the common spectrum that envisioned evisceration of the universal public system to its complete replacement.  Each faction created its own weapons, and many of the splinters quickly became candidly quite corrupt in the quests.  It became open-season on public schools.  The players were diverse, either in purpose or in methods, but the target was the same.  Many of the players, in large measure many of our unprepared or naive state departments of education, became more pawns than activists, the political tail wagging the education dog.

An incomplete but telling list of the enemy:  Right wing ideologues who saw this corporate rebellion against what they saw as a retro, liberal public education monopoly, to be a chance to dismantle at least part of it via "charters;" migration of that political force into the Bush Department of Education, finally resulting in ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act), popularly known as NCLB as its promotional tag; via the NGA, creation of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council -- sounds noble, right) a right wing organization that created legislation for conservative-dominated state legislatures incompetent to write their own laws, pushing standardized testing (and subsequently the alleged "common core”); the rise of the corporate testing cabal, that saw this as a naive new market worth billions of dollars with little need for development expenditures, and no ethical prerogative to do needed research; the creation of a then (and still mostly) anonymous group of primarily non-educators (instead of the professionals who guard the quality of their area of knowledge), chaired by the CEO of a testing company, that produced "the common core," now increasingly proving to be a terribly flawed effort (being rejected by states and schools, just branded as misguided, and torpedoed by sensible work like Marion Brady's approaches to learning); "Teach for America" was created on the premise that modest discipline expertise and five weeks of education training would save the public schools, then and now failing; enter the misdirected dollars of a Bill Gates to push standardized testing, with the same lame understanding of creativity and managerial excellence installed at Microsoft; and last, but devastating, the Obama Administration's venal endorsement and deepened installation of the testing mentality, arguably prompted by the belief that forcing some idealistic equilibration of education for minorities — aware it risked partially destroying public schools — was worth that cost (this policy in the opinion of many is as bad as the worst abuses of power and bigotry issuing from the current Republican Congress).

The enemy within has been equally devastating:  Ignorant, to fearful, to lazy, to self-righteous, to duplicitous BOE; sports obsessions and idiocy vamping learning priorities; school administration almost universally poorly trained to supply managerial excellence; compounded by the failed vetting of leadership hires that has produced school leaders ranging from simply educationally retro or incompetent, through the fraudulent, to superintendents' out right arrogant pursuit of power and corrupt practice; obsolete curricular thinking; naive substitution of usually already or near obsolete technology hardware for needed digital logic preparation; and slavish adoption of even the most obviously retro or insane directives from state education departments (branding tweaked secondary teachers as college professors certainly ranks high on the list of Ohio stupidity, and based on performances since CC+’s [College Credit+] launch has become a quality issue).

Welcome to U.S. public education, 2016 style.   

With candor uncommon in the present venue of squeamish or gutless public school spokespeople, it was said well in a recent WaPo/TAS post:  “Civil rights icon James Meredith:  ‘We are in a dark age of American public education.’”  Perhaps the greatest insult to the American public, and its children, has been the refusal of any of the above list of culprits for the current education train wreck, to either do the research or listen to legitimate research showing they are wrong, or even acknowledging the publicly-visible failures of their various tactics.  U.S. public systems and their oversight have in turn generally simply gone deeper into denial of a need for unforced change, and misguided by both incredibly lame state education departments and the usual BOE performances, have not only not created contemporary fixes, but reinvested in those that failed.  

Can Local Control Save Public Education?

The rewrite of ESEA (now ESSA, "Every Student Succeeds Act") under Lamar Alexander was alleged to reduce the standardized testing binge, and restore more public school local control.  Actual text of the revised Act did that; however, four major impediments stand in the way of a healthier educational outcome.  First, the Obama Administration has already abused that spirit by its appointment of John King as Secretary (having failed in New York State), and demonstrated that it has learned nothing from present reform’s failures. Two, the moronic push powered by Bill Gates’ legacy dollars continues, with that cabal even taking the wrong message away from the repetitive failures that effort has produced.  Three, most school policy is still either crafted at the state level or has to survive that gatekeeping, so to actually assert some intelligent local control means finding paths through frequent state education incompetence or ideology — witness the corrupt and massively politically inspired fumbling of Ohio’s Department of Education, and of its State Board of Education, courtesy of political cronyism by Ohio’s current Governor.  Four, lastly, local control means having BOE with the intelligence and professionalism to not simply rubber stamp school administrative action, but summon the courage to do independent homework and innovate.  Both capacities are notably absent in two local school systems.

James Meredith is right, an educational "dark age" has descended on American public education, and there appears no clear vector to a renaissance. The best chance of system change in the current chaotic political environment is local parental and taxpayer emerging awareness that their school system is shortchanging a community’s children.  The fix is not complicated, but historically by tradition has been very difficult:  Recognition of their children’s vulnerability to ‘good enough’ education and specious inspirational nostrums; awareness that BOE have been products of electing resources who are an umpteenth cousin, or happen to belong to the local Rotary, or have been manipulatively positioned by a dominant private sector, or are cherry-picked by a school because they are considered harmless and unlikely to challenge administration despotism; then demanding competition and voting for professional competence on a BOE.  A last factor in Ohio; a BOE member can’t be recalled, so unless they can be removed by the court for commission of a felony or gross violation of sworn oath, "what you sees is what you gets.”  That currently in this neck of the woods is dysfunctional.

There is no fully satisfactory way to exit this national crisis.  Smaller countries, with less diverse populations (e. g., Finland) have addressed the equivalent of K-12 with greater creativity and even greater rigor than the U.S., and have succeeded. The occasional education voice in the wilderness, e. g., an accomplished lifelong educator and guru, Dr. Marion Brady, has offered ways to update classroom thinking.  Dr. Diane Ravitch has authored best-selling books on the damage to sustainable learning being inflicted by excessive and misdirected standardized testing. A genuine neural science of learning is finally emerging, contradicting just about every aspect of present reform. Parental instinctive awareness of the cost of specious reform has produced the highest level ever in refusals to have their children so tested. Congress remains tone deaf, as are most state education departments and legislatures slavishly following the conservative party line.  The testing companies long ago ceased to be good corporate citizens with awareness of public responsibility.


The dispersion of power in a republic is and has been a point of American exceptionalism.  It can also when things go off the rails be an impediment to timely repair or redirection.  Lacking the combination of social responsibility and selflessness as the governing principles for school change moderation, by seemingly all parties, this reform lenaean hydra of mythology will continue to strike and poison U.S. public school systems.  Any vector for reform of the reform appears at this point a mirage.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

How Public Schools Lose the Game: Stomping On Ants While Elephants Roam the Halls

November 30, 2015

There is a paradox of major proportion in the trajectory of most of America’s public K-12 systems:  The education being offered should equip our students, and by definition those doing the strategic oversight and leadership of those systems, to exemplify the spirit of 9/11’s “Let’s roll…” versus the ancient chestnut “...we once had a problem but we solved it.”  Unfortunately, the strategic and even tactical performances of too many U.S. school systems, and in extremis in this neck of Ohio’s woods, are woefully replicative of the latter.

Two items caught my attention this last week; one, an op-ed by the NYT’s David Brooks, and two, an interview (audio) on innovation with two of consulting giant McKinsey’s top resources;   Both are linked below:

(download podcast)

What do these seemingly diverse and certainly conceptual references have to do with the down-in-the-dirt and practical issues that fill the hours in the oversight of our public schools, consuming its BOE and frequently superintendents?  

Well, candidly, not a hell of a lot, compared with the trivia that dominate the cognitive function for most BOE.  And therein resides the paradox.  Most of our public system BOE reflect the POV you would get by seeing the world from the vantage point of a ground-hugger.  Having managed both academic units, and private sector firms totaling nearly a couple hundred million dollars, and practicing “MBWA” (managing by walking around for the novices) as well as strategic planning, of course there are nuts and bolts choices to be made, procedures to be forged, state bureaucracy to be straddled or deflected, lesson plans to be imposed lest a standardized test score tank, budgets to be massaged, sports to be scheduled and promoted sometimes ad absurdum, and other nits to be picked.  

There can be strategic choices to be made — e.g., finding school leadership, or deciding how to fund then spend double digit millions of dollars on school construction with both due process, ethics, and awareness of what product excellence entails.  But rarely are the priorities for decision processes articulated with clarity in advance, or exercised with either transparency or excellence.  In some cases, mirroring the worst abuses in our society, these processes are mindlessly executed or become corrupted by influence peddling.

But let’s crawl out of the prototypical bunker at least briefly. Referencing Brooks’ offering, over decades of a false sense of public school entitlement a schism developed between civic values and interests, versus the principles guiding core K-12 education efforts.  Schools erected castle walls and deflected oversight, developing a rigid sense of self-righteousness.  The proposition, that both broad institutional sets are actually inseparable for intelligent community, was lost; and because maintaining that duality of purpose was challenging hence pushed off, many civic enclaves and BOE/administrators not fit or up to the task. Brooks revisits prior arguments in light of the narrowly conceived and dysfunctional mechanization of our public schools via the testing/reform mafia which threaten to deepen the schism.

The McKinsey offering is sobering, because it highlights both the materiality and difficulties of organizational innovation; but without that innovation, pointedly creative means to improve learning productivity, school spending will continue to escalate while genuine learning sags, giving the reform gang even more ammunition for wiping out public schools in favor of privatization. Perhaps the McKinsey views should be augmented by another POV, namely that innovation needs to be paired with “kaizen” or continuous improvement, but not the version being ignorantly mouthed by the testing extremists.

The references bespoke two of likely only a half dozen magisterial POV that are the nuclei of strategic thinking that should guide an American public school’s organization and administration.  Neither is new news, being asserted for decades by genuine students of our public systems and learning that has evolved over time and now accelerating.  Half out of the bunker, also consider two realities:  That public education’s failure for decades to address our systems’ strategic needs is pragmatically what launched and fed present alleged corporate reform and the drive to put public schools out of business; and that too many ill-prepared BOE and superintendents are not only in denial of being under attack, but cluelessly are aiding the alleged reformers to undercut their own public schools.

Why those topics should be front and center in BOE's and administrations' cerebral cortexes should be transparent if the pieces are read/heard.  They go to the core of what educationally competent BOE and administrators should be massaging with their oversight as the strategic and overriding factors that govern systems' major choices.

December 3, 2015

There were a couple of responses to Monday's post, both asking the following question:  If the two core factors listed as strategic imperatives for public schools — learning and productivity innovation (that encompasses the need for entrepreneurship in our schools’ leadership), and the parallelism of school and community cultures — are two of a half dozen (perhaps plus one) overriding areas of strategic vision, what are the other four or five?

Fair question.  

One perspective — they are:  (3) Handling of STEM in most public schools; (4) workarounds to advance genuine learning while still meeting newly revised ESEA and state mandates for standardized test performance; (5) modernizing school organization structure; (6) replacing most public schools' obsolete curricular logic and contents (see for example the continuing crusade for K-12 curricular sanity by Dr. Marion Brady); and perhaps the most challenging of all for most BOE and virtually every superintendent — (7) summoning the intellect and courage, and tamping down the solipsism that blocks hearing and conversing with, perchance learning from those who are metaphorically stockholder activists in the search for better school performances (the private sector again eclipses public education, see from McKinsey, Read the article).

Arguably, there is an eighth heavy-duty strategic factor, but it really isn't under control of our public systems, at least directly.  That is the major reform of our collegiate schools of education, to update teacher education, and to reform curricula that are a century old in concept.  Even Bill Gates is getting into the act, allegedly investing $35MM to double that over the next five years to upgrade teacher training, though based on his repetitive past failures to translate hundreds of millions of dollars into positive education performance the quest’s utility may well be in doubt.  

Hard to define this as a factor that favors genuine public education growth, but another billionaire, Mark Zuckerberg, also just got into the act with the educational fad of the year, “personalized learning.”  Like Gates’ miscues, billions of dollars may not be matched by billions of truly functioning grey cells — some commentary on Zuckerberg’s grand gesture (or grandstanding, take your pick) was just authored by a genuine giant of primary and secondary education, Dr. Howard Gardner (read it here).

Notably, digital technology, hardware and even software don't make the list as chapter titles.  They are both, however, subsets of and embedded in STEM. STEM in most of our schools, especially the S, T and E are dismal to simply riddled with misinformation, dysfunctional deconstruction of concepts, or teaching misdirection.  Even present math curricula are frequently either too low level to support preparation for real STE higher education, or misdirected for students who will never become scientists or engineers.

Issues of school organization span both organization structure, organizational behavior, and the reality that many school leaderships are clueless about real management of a complex learning community.  Part of that fault resides with BOE that aren't equipped to hire competent education leadership; part is that our schools of education have for decades refused to acknowledge and adopt managerial science that has been in place for decades in our schools of business and the better segments of our private sector, and applies equally to school management.  Belatedly, recognition of this has spurred Indiana University’s Kelley business school to develop the "MBA for education administrators.”

Repeating a position stated in Monday's post, self-evidently our BOE and top level school leadership have to take care of tactical business — it goes with the territory in the leadership of any complex organization — but it is also achieved by a combination of leadership style, delegation, and understanding the model that defines how any organization in question achieves ongoing performance. It's simply what you reflexively do, if you are competent, on a day-to-day basis without expecting applause.  

Strategic direction is another matter entirely if the organization doesn't have a short term expiration date on its charter.  Like a flywheel, the organization can run for some time without inertial increments, but ultimately they are required — the basic engine — to achieve continuing performance improvement.  That strategic understanding, and it's enforced critical thinking, are also the properties that equip an organization to cope with environmental trajectories in play (e.g., 'corporate reform’), and to cope with unforeseen inputs that can threaten any organizational setting.

When the nitty-gritty is allowed to dominate execution of a school's oversight, it's capacities to grow are suppressed.  Local area schools currently reflect choices littered with such deficits; one glaring example is a mind-numbing plunge to spend large dollars on personal shopping lists of digital hardware for the classroom, but totally ignoring the mission, function, and fit of digital learning process as the prerequisite. Even more egregious is potentially spending millions building futures’ classrooms out of last century’s thinking.

The POV of what is truly strategically highest priority for a contemporary public school may well differ from the eight items referenced above.  What does seem clear is that addressing proactively some similar roster of core issues is what will in future distinguish the public systems that develop effective true student learning and critical thought, versus those finding themselves increasingly behind national need, risking further attack of the ‘reform grinch,’ or finally being identified by a tax-stretched public as hypocritical and ineffective.

It is also the stuff of ethical commitment to serve a community’s children, rather than a small cabal of personal egos unable to distinguish between "servant leadership,” and being crowned, or without the humility and grit to do the self-education needed to oversee a system.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Do U.S. Colleges/Universities Need Standardized Testing?


This proposition is enough to cause legitimate students of higher education to pall or shudder, increase dental practices from grinding teeth, or evoke hate mail to its proponent.

Promptly, that is not being advocated by this post; but what is being suggested is that one can in frustration get to that extreme position simply by trying to scope the status and futures for America’s higher education complex.

In the last Edunationredux post the ending question was how the quality disparity among America's over five thousand post secondary institutions might impact the careers of their graduates.  On reflection, that was in part the wrong question:  Recognition prompted by a stirring speech; and realization that the prior point of view was likely disproportionately influenced by focusing on Ohio's extensive roster of many academically questionable satellite campuses.

The speech that gave pause was V. P. Joe Biden's recent commencement address at Yale, before his son Beau died from cancer.  His comment that impacted thinking was:

“My Yale Law School grad son graduated very well from Yale Law School.  My other son out of loyalty to his deceased mother decided to go to Syracuse Law School from Penn.  They’re a year and a day apart in their age.  The one who graduated from Yale had doors open to him, the lowest salary offered back in the early ‘90s was $50,000 more than a federal judge made.  My other son, it was a struggle — equally as bright, went on to be elected one of the youngest attorney generals in the history of the state of Delaware, the most popular public official in my state.  Big headline after the 2012 election, “Biden Most Popular Man in Delaware — Beau.

The conclusion, a large majority of our four-year institutions, and some unknown fraction of our two-year versions likely have less causal impact on their graduates’ successes than those graduates' personal aspirations, values, and determinants.  And most of those institutions, by virtue of how they are de facto networked on most things academic, subject to common professional media, and employ each others' products, represent comparable intellectual values and practices.  For these institutions the more relevant issue is their capacity to deliver that performance with future affordability and effectiveness.

For the rest of that institutional population, assessing and remedying academic quality deficits may still be a pressing national need.  That need may also be confounded with cost of delivery; the lower cost and/or greater convenience of these programs being hoisted as justification for lesser academic standards, or misconstruing training for education.  It is certainly complicated by the fundamental lack of comparable big data that clarify that segment's vision of their assignment, what they actually practice, and the specifics of who they employ to do it.  Pejorative, at times that appears deliberately employed to mislead or promote.

Today's post, going oblique from the original intent, addresses as a next issue the larger set of collegiate change needs.  A subsequent post will survey the still limited collegiate attempts to increase productivity of delivery of post secondary learning, to attempts at learning and academic management innovation, and by definition to moderating its student/parental costs.

Smoke clearing, the picture isn’t pretty

While the sound and fury has subsided a bit, over prior years’ public concerns with the inflation of collegiate tuition and related costs (ameliorated by an improved economy), the issues are not far below the surface.  Consider:

41% of students starting a four-year collegiate program still fail to graduate in six years.

60% of students entering a two-year postsecondary program still fail to finish in six years.

College student debt has now reached $1.3 trillion, on top of $150 billion in Federal aid to higher education.

Even while Mr. Obama was proposing to rate colleges and universities, penalizing those dodging tuition control, many of our institutions declared tuition increases.

Rating and ranking America’s colleges and universities has become a profit center for entities like US News, and lesser known firms that are pitching for a share of the potential college student’s search dollars.  The issue is that there is little overlap among the various ratings, offering the college wannabe even more confusion in their search.

The level of understanding of what our colleges and universities are actually doing and achieving has been carefully managed by their administrations to in some cases actually obscure, or less pejorative, make it difficult for the public to know what its inputs, outputs, processes, and costs really are.  One example, branch campuses of American colleges and universities are actually an unknown quantity, numbers ranging from roughly 500 to 650?  As most branch campuses may operate with a lower level of rigor then their base campuses, it matters.

Lastly, in an Ohio effort that beggars the imagination, its Department of Education proposes to turn primary and/or secondary teachers into college professors in a snake-bit program dubbed CC+, for college credit plus.  One of the proposals for accelerating degree accomplishment is that qualified grade 9-12 students be able to secure some postsecondary credit in parallel with high school completion; that is a legitimate argument and goal, even an imperative if times to degrees are to be shortened. However, having observed first hand the pedestrian course organization and syllabi of one of Ohio’s local branch campuses, and of a local high school business course the incompetent counterfeit of a legitimate beginning university course, the potential results here are really quite scary.

Simultaneously, there have been real efforts to cut higher education costs, and some creative proposals for restructuring US higher education.  In the former category, Purdue University has just frozen its tuition for the fourth straight year under Mitch Daniels’ leadership.  Indiana University’s Michael McRobbie and its Trustees have just announced that IU’s undergraduate in-state tuition will be frozen for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 academic years.  There have been few replications of that wisdom across our over 3,000 four-year institutions.

Building on delusions

Understanding the difference between America’s public primary and secondary systems, versus our population of colleges and universities, is metaphorically like comparing a bicycle race to the Indy 500.  While there are standout US public school systems, the majority is still lodged in last century and dominated by educators that have not been equipped to deal with this century’s trajectories.  Even the organizational platforms are distinct, public schools by virtue of common state oversight, similar; our colleges and universities, the public versions increasingly disconnected from their state origins, have demonstrated the capacity to declare their independence.  Not quite the wild west, but that independence has created a pattern of higher education corporatization in decision style and spending.

In addition to the above, and in contrast with the grudging fights to privatize public K-12, for-profit postsecondary work has dominated institutional growth in this century.  While public postsecondary campuses have actually declined, from 1999-2000 to 2012-2013, four-year for-profit Title IV colleges have increased 259 percent; no, that’s not a typographical error.  An implication is that programs more narrowly focused on careers and even beginning job placement are superseding the traditional and defensible broader role of higher education.

Three major effects of current postsecondary growth patterns connote negatives for the US:  One, pragmatically, the evolving dumbing-down of higher education by a proliferation of diluted (Ohio’s CC+) and/or commercialized programs that lack the visibility and oversight of last century; two, the substitution of adjunct/contingent faculty for prior tenure-track faculty, now accounting for over two-thirds of four-year programs, and three-quarters of faculty teaching in two-year programs; and three, the lack of comparable data for what is actually occurring in our roughly five thousand postsecondary institutions.  

Arguments abound on item one; whether adjunct faculty, particularly ones with the educational background plus professional experience, may provide better classroom performance than faculty pursuing the multi-career demands in a research university?  Some may.  But the hard, depressing fact is we lack the basic information gathering about our postsecondary institutions that is not spun for their own strategies by the institutions, and that has been assembled with common canons for what is to be measured.  This is evident even in the popular alleged college ratings (with divergent and even contradictory assessments) of our institutions being marketed for profit to prospective students.  Without a reliable fact base for assessing US higher education, including core performance (completion rates that we label “dropout factories” in public K-12) and the qualities of its outputs, one gets a sense of the frustration that brought on public system “corporate reform.”  

The diversity of postsecondary institutions, and the likely diversity of the processes footing what is superficially promulgated, make the data chore even more complex than describing our more homogeneous public schools, and in spite of their level of magnitude greater numbers. But the single-minded and na├»ve invocation of “standardized testing” to intimidate our schools is not the mechanism for changing higher education, even if it wasn’t refuted by the diversity of subject matter and pedagogy required of higher education.

No first cause mysteries; many downstream

US postsecondary education need for assessment, and provisionally change, isn’t exactly news, kicking around the halls of academe for over a half century.  In the couple of decades period anchoring mid-20th century, it was about bringing knowledge and especially STEM up to date.  Toward the end of last century it became a race to build the collegiate infrastructure to accommodate soaring student enrollments.  At last century’s end the most visible dysfunctions were reductions in state support of their postsecondary institutions, with the not unexpected consequence that they started to escalate tuition and related pricing for students as offset.  Not as visible, our better colleges and universities gathered their wits, turned corporate, and started myriad programs to increase revenues.  What that corporatization created, however, was a “business” strategy that ramped up non-teaching human resources.  What it did not prompt were parallel programs to increase  instructional productivity and contain costs.

Much of this insight has been conveyed to our state legislatures, and testimony by two solid academics conveyed that in Ohio.  One source, the perhaps longest systematic critic of what was happening to US higher education, was Richard Vedder, originally an Ohio State faculty member, now Director of the Center for College Productivity and Affordability.  A second source from Ohio is Dr. John McNay, President of the Ohio Conference of the AAUP, who in March 2015 provided testimony before the Ohio Senate Finance Committee.  Embracing Dr. Vedder’s critiques and more, his testimony included the following, a pretty good summary of issues:

According to a recent Cleveland Plain Dealer article, if tuition, fees, and room and board had kept pace with inflation, their cost today should be just under $9,000. Instead, the cost is just under $20,000. We agree that now is the time to take steps to reverse this unsustainable course.”

The numbers tell the story. Data from the Integrated Post-Secondary Data System (IPEDS) reveals that between FY 2002 and FY 2013, Ohio’s institutions spent, on average, 23.9% of their operating budgets on total instructional compensation (e.g. salaries and benefits). Over the 10-year period, total instructional compensation declined by 4.1%. In other words, our institutions spent less than a quarter of their budgets employing faculty, and the total amount spent employing faculty declined over that time frame.”

Administrative staff now outnumber full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty by a nearly two to one ratio. If you include all full-time faculty, the ratio is closer to one to one. To be clear, our institutions are employing as many administrative staffers as full-time faculty. Research has shown that the ideal faculty to administrator ratio is three to one. There is one administrator for every 14 students, representing an increase of 25% over the aforementioned 10-year period.”

The issues with these characterizations are, there is a major missing factor, and one size does not fit all.

Missing, the wide disparity in the level of education received from our best, versus that received from too many branch campuses and community colleges.  That in turn can trace to the education and quality of faculty available to locally based institutions, and the quality of leadership/administration.  But even this is further complicated.  

One, the missions of these diverse campuses are usually different, a broad core education (or deep specialization) in quality four-year programs, versus education bordering on training for locally sourced employment.  The latter can be rigorous as well, but the missions are different.  Two patterns, unfortunately illustrated by examples in Ohio, local college administrators are placed in those positions primarily to fatten their resume for a main campus assignment, or to pump up retirement payments, versus appointment to pursue the best mission.

Compounding, this disparity can be beyond data reach simply because we have failed for decades to properly gather and assess the data that can position our colleges, universities, and sundry campuses.  The US Department of education has failed that challenge even though it could be within its responsibilities, and most of our states lack the insights or education oversight to perform the task, or are politically motivated to duck the question.  Until there is a database that will permit multivariate characterization of higher education campuses and programs, and therefore a basis for assessment, the diversity is a shield for our institutions against being held accountable.

Lacking a sea change in how America’s colleges and universities are assessed, and some form of national consensus is formed, prediction is a no-brainer and the prospectus mixed:  The top ten percent or so of US postsecondary institutions – public as well as private – will continue to output graduates with a generally superior education, or deep expertise in discipline specialties, demanded for better jobs; the majority of public branch campuses will continue to struggle to match main campus performances, turning out either mediocre education or some mix of locally demanded training and patches of broader learning; and proliferating community colleges will continue to churn out mixed education/job-related training that may evolutionarily be replaced by emerging robotics and AI (artificial intelligence) based approaches.  

Emerging from retro political thinking, the myopic view that basic research should be put on the back-burner in favor of applied or job-related development (Scott Walker's folly) is potentially strategic disaster, as that miscue denies how America’s once technology leads were achieved.  That cascades down to education and further debases the higher education faculty roles and tenure, influencing substitution with adjunct faculty.  Political denial of Federal oversight of higher education, and variable but marginal state oversight virtually assure that  “what you sees is what you gets” for a foreseeable future.

Almost makes one susceptible to the arguments put forth by two researchers (Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, 2010), of missing to spastic learning on our collegiate campuses, and the need for some comprehensive testing to enforce performance -- but only for a fraction of a second, mindful of the mess that NCLB, Obama/Duncan, our testing companies, and most states, et al., have made of public K-12 standardized testing as a reform strategy!

Next postsecondary topic

In spite of the above unknowns, there have been some brave attempts to propose and execute reforms that could lower the cost of higher education, to innovate with learning processes, to deal with campus strategic and operations issues, and to reconcile the many flavors of postsecondary offerings out there.  The next post will present some of these attempts to change college and university strategies and operations.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

US Higher Education: Diverging and Descending? Round One


Recapping, this series on higher education futures is premised on the complexity of educational institutions that have had a couple of centuries to nationally evolve, and with world roots that reach back almost a millennium.  Accordingly, the intent is to tackle in any single post just a few of the factors prompting current debate.   Round one will seek to define parameters of US higher education, a growth industry most of last century – albeit not without critique witness the first presidential commission on higher education (Mr. Truman’s) – but now undergoing challenge and potential change.

First Principles

Before there was a Harvard, before the Boston Latin School, before US public schools, before Horace Mann, before John Dewey, literally before most humans could broadly read and write, there was a university, the University of Bologna (Italy), followed shortly afterward by the University of Oxford (England).  Harvard was a latecomer in 1636.  The need for harboring and classifying knowledge, and for scholarship and research mark the evolution of civilized societies.  US colleges and universities expanded rapidly in the first half of the nineteenth century powered by land grants, followed later by states’ establishment of teachers colleges to feed the need from growing public education.  Prophetically, even at birth, many postsecondary institutions projected a measure of independence from the governance that was established over public primary and secondary programs, a factor that has come home to roost in corralling escalating costs of a degree.

The GI Bill, post WWII, launched unprecedented growth and democratization of higher education. Both Federal and states’ funding drove expansion of both campuses and faculties.  Until approximately the 1950s much curricula still mirrored the pre-war conception of a degree.  But prompted by technology and research growth, accelerated by Russia’s Sputnik, and the private sector’s demand for more prescriptive disciplines, the decades of the 1960s and 1970s saw another expansion of science-based disciplines and curricula, including the social sciences and business.

An exception to the call for greater basic discipline development in curricula, a few positive departures still standouts, was the generic collegiate school of education.   For whatever reasons, education as a discipline walled itself off from the increasing science content being demanded of surrounding schools and disciplines.  Even in this century, education dogma has skirted much neural science, clinging to the deductive models of learning – many plain wrong – used last century to shape classroom rubrics.  Part of the explanation may reside in the questionable rigor or misdirection of its curricula, and the quality of its recruits.  At the time in 1959 when this writer became a faculty member, schools of education generally were considered close to or at the intellectual bottom of the university pecking order, vying with health, physical education, and recreation (HPER) for that dubious honor.  Its students allegedly represented the bottom one-third of the college admissions ranks, though this oft-cited proposition lacks empirical testing.  That election by collegiate education to ignore the rest of academia was directly responsible, two decades later, for the launch of public school criticism and destructively what is now called “corporate reform” (actually inappropriately because no contemporary business is sufficiently misguided to employ its present tactics).

Related to the above, fault that must be attributed to the whole postsecondary academy, in the education and screening of those who would become public systems' peak administrators, little distinction was made between classroom preparation and fully equipping school leaders to perform with managerial competence.  As much to blame for public K-12 education's malaise last century as any other factor, the failed preparation, and vetting, of public school superintendents and principals stand out.  That failed comprehension of organizational behavior and proper leadership was compounded by broken oversight in the form of present BOE requirements to serve and frequent performance failures.  This factor has still not been touched by alleged reform thinking.

After calls for more science in all areas, all was cool in academia for a time, until states, pressed by ever-growing demands for services, started to reduce state higher education funding.  America’s institutions – by definition usually managed by smart people – responded by:  Increasing prices, i.e., tuition, residency, and services; by seeking more research funding; and by marketing the institutions to their successful alumni to create endowment dollars.  With that increased self-funding came a measure of independence from state oversight, launching the growth of higher education management that saw their institutions as independent entities, with increased power, both from control of advanced education, and by being the focal point of national sports obsessions.

All aspects of higher education expanded; more diverse offerings of education services, and the growth of students to be served, expanded both the core human resources manning the classrooms, but drove even higher rates of growth in non-teaching and bureaucratic head counts.  The cycle plus obsession with ever more campus construction created increased fixed costs, aggravated by “Baumol’s Disease” (failure to increase academic factor productivity).  An explosion of digital capabilities challenging traditional learning design, and over a trillion dollars of student debt driven by cost escalation, ultimately created the current calls for higher education reform.  Clearly there is more to the story, but for purposes of this exploration that is a thumbnail picture.

The Chess Pieces

The major factors impacting higher education futures span the differentiated segments of higher education institutions, through mushrooming demand for postsecondary work, to innovations in how that learning can be achieved.   Current rhetoric feeding critique of higher education ranges from the assertion that colleges will financially fail as costs and tuition push degrees out of reach, to the view that innovations like MOOC will undercut traditional institutions’ education delivery.  While some for-profit institutions are failing – the University of Phoenix losing double-digit thousands of students, and Corinthian Colleges shutting down, current examples – for-profits generically are struggling as the base of postsecondary institutions expands, and governments crack down on online postsecondary fraud.

Reading higher education’s tea leaves is not for the faint-hearted.  The most influential determinants of those futures may be:

  • The track of the leading 100 US colleges/universities, that may persist simply because they are at the top of the education food chain, where high level firms will continue to first search for human resources, and pay premium salaries.
  • Limits of Federal control of postsecondary education that is both Constitutionally and pragmatically constrained, stuck with trying to influence those leaderships with Federal student grants that have slowly become less significant compared to other funding.
  • MOOC (Massive Online Open Courses) blossomed as higher education’s salvation, then receded as limitations were revealed, the most prominent being their present limits in providing regular institutional credit hours.  Like all innovations, the skeptics pounced before all of the pieces of the game came together.  There are currently 12 or more non-profit sources of MOOC, many from our top 25-50 US institutions; and 14 or more commercial MOOC sources.  As these mature, expect their offerings to ultimately win credit toward degrees.  Perhaps of even greater portent, the unique presentation quality of the best MOOC is being recognized as a basis for blended learning, combining MOOC presentation that can feature the best of any discipline with localized student classroom work and/or constructivism.  The potential is for upgrading course quality, especially on community and satellite campuses, while cutting the cost of course delivery.
  • How many US postsecondary institutions can you name?  There are presently 5,300, a number that has been steadily growing as community colleges and satellite campuses have multiplied.  A growing issue is, there is no accepted national standard for assessing the quality of most of these programs.  Many will be fiercely defended by local populations that view any institution of higher education, irrespective of quality, as a major asset and source of pride.  Alleged accreditation is virtually useless as a basis for assessment of meaningfulness of degrees issued; short of national testing of the products of degree programs, or an unprecedented system of inspection of their faculties, curricula, and syllabi, there appears no easy way to assign quality metrics.  The product, if the present pattern of oversight prevails, may be an educational variant of Gresham’s financial law (“bad money drives out good”) – “mediocre or weak collegiate work drives out legitimate higher education?”
  • Because of how our major state universities have prevailed in the face of declining state support, developing their own controlled sources of revenue, there is an ego factor in university leadership.  Perhaps not as extreme as the “too big to fail” mantra of our financial institutions, before they did fail, our majors nevertheless have simply ignored the various calls for tuition reduction.  Some institutions, while those words were being offered in our national press and from the White House, actually raised tuition.  Mr. Obama’s saber-rattling accompanying a threat of rating our institutions had all the effect of a shower of that garden’s rose petals.  An inside budgeting source in a major public university has confided that planning models employed have factored in six percent annual increases in tuition.  The scary part of that university hubris should be apparent to those in stratospheric positions – that is not sustainable.  In economics the term is “bubble,” and bubbles can burst.
  • Next, a devastatingly ignorant game is being played in Ohio, threatening to accelerate a higher education version of Gresham’s Law.  That is the move (seriously lacking specification of process) to turn secondary public school teachers into college professors, sans any of the real screening, preparation, and scholarship that goes into creating the real resource.  Running such course work through filters, cultures, and assets with the norms for Ohio 9-12, and that can’t replicate the real academy is the formula for mediocrity to malfeasance.  Ohio’s parents and students may possess greater intelligence than being exhibited by whatever Ohio education brain trust hatched this tactic, and walk, no sprint the other way.  Simultaneously, some intelligent innovations need to be sought generically -- perhaps combinations of resident work plus contemporary online work and/or a better mechanism for creating an adjunct faculty that could use the logistics of local school assets to provide credit pre-college matriculation -- to get a handle on the stretched times being taken to achieve a degree, legitimately a material cause of the escalating total cost of getting through college.  How much alleged "collegiate" work should occur at a 9-12 level for cognitive reasons is itself an unanswered question. Ohio's underdeveloped "CC+" hatchling is not an answer, and the program dropped officiously, and sans intelligent pre-testing, on the state's parents suggests incompetence and/or unacceptable political sycophancy by both Ohio's state public school and higher education leaderships.  Equally egregious, ignorant to indifferent local BOE are rubber-stamping the proposal without challenge.
  • Lastly, a quiet crisis has been developing for years or even decades in scoping how higher education delivery and maintenance of standards are to be enforced.  Our major institutions – though not necessarily the top schools – have methodically reduced the proportion of courses being handled by tenure track faculty.  Arguably this was a coward’s way of dealing with the tenure issue; instead of tackling the reform of tenure that has been an elephant in the room for a half century, our institutions simply cut faculty costs and ducked the issue by now fielding from one-half to two-thirds of courses taught by adjunct faculty, lacking health insurance, lacking contracts, lacking any career path, and doing no research.  To the hard-nosed, this might appear a proper emulation of corporate values (prudent outsourcing); to those who have spent a lifetime in education based on better values, the question they might ask is – what does this do to teaching motivation, and the quality levels of delivered instruction?

Questions on the Table

Self-evidently, trying to create dialogue on these issues is not a matter of “one and done.”  Hence, the decision to try to partition the issues, and handle each material issue in a separate post.

The tasks as presently envisioned:

  • Just defining the postsecondary universe; there are tens of attributes that might be used to classify our institutions.  Without that specification, there is the risk of comparing, metaphorically, passion fruit and lemons.  The US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has a massive postsecondary relational database, but has executed literally no multivariate analysis that would help to classify colleges and universities for analysis of performance.  The NCES data combined with the US News' ratings detail, and other private data sources, could be a platform for making sense of sorting what is happening in 5,300 colleges and universities.
  • Try to project and assess the direction of MOOC evolution, and how it could materially change the entire postsecondary learning game, shifting emphasis from degrees to what its students can perform with the learning acquired.
  • Speculate how college/university student performance can be assessed and equilibrated across the various strata of institutions, short of creating the same standardized testing malfeasance akin to that degrading public K-12 learning delivery. 
  • Examine Ohio’s dubious to shatteringly ignorant attempt to turn public school teachers – coming from the same pool of human resources who have with only standout exceptions failed to create public 9-12 performance that is college-ready – into pseudo-college professors.  Failure can be a learning experience; simply replicating and extending the practice is one definition of insanity. 
  • Where are our universities beyond the top 25 or 50 heading, and what could overtake their penchant to simply ignore the criticism being leveled and continue expansion, increasing pricing, and executing learning business-as-usual?  Is this becoming a true bubble, and could it burst? 
  • What are the pragmatic limits of creation of so-called “community colleges” and satellite campuses – is there a point not sustainable, where the quality of faculty available, absence of research, and the limitations of their management become so tenuous that the systems simply become a version of high school II?  Reality is that some of our best private 9-12 schools, and even premier public 9-12 programs, are superior academically to community college and splinter satellite 2- and 4-year postsecondary degree programs. 

The list may go on, but next post will extend this series by asking perhaps the grittiest question:  What happens, if the gap in quality of learning between our top 100 institutions, versus the next tier of postsecondary work, versus community college and satellite education levels, becomes so substantial it ruptures the historical assumptions about what a degree means, and what it will return to its holder in the marketplace?  Hard questions, and miles to go.

RPW, 4/29/2015