Monday, August 15, 2011


Next to jobs and the debt limit brouhaha, the status and future of U.S. public education has become one of America’s head-scratchers.  Attempting to make sense of the different positions on K-12 change reminds one of a TV gambit from the 1960s, a 60 second high speed presentation of graphics about some newsworthy item.  Too fast to register the significance of a single graphic, drinking from a fire hose, the medium was the message, conveying diversity and complexity, defying a normal mortal to comprehend.

Welcome to U.S. K-12 reform, charters, vouchers, Duncan’s duplicity, Gates’ gambits, misdirected acronyms, standardized test hyperventilation, value added (test) assessments to judge teachers, waivers, or whatever is trendy at the moment.   What is not obscure is that the end product of over 350 years of attempted education, starting on our shores before this was even a nation, is now a flat spot threatening to fracture the public education model.

The available lenses to view K-12 change are not countless, but so numerous that the next thousand words wouldn’t exhaust a précis of the approaches.  So, with a nod to practicality, let’s zero in on a couple of roots to frame the issues, and then move to current events.


If you are adverse to ambiguity, or nuance is elusive in your assessment processes, this is a good time to leave this blog.  For in our history of public education there are few straight lines, or simplistic connecting of the dots, or even universal goodness and prescience, including Horace Mann, father of the “common school” movement.  Indeed, there is reason to believe that few current teachers or administrators, unless they have pursued research tracks in education, have a full and clear view of how public education in the U.S. unfolded, or what it has become.

A single example may illuminate the point.  Simply Google “history of U.S. public education,” and prepare to be underwhelmed.  With the exception of a few stand out critics, what you will get is a vanilla, sugar-coated, pristine view of our public education system as goody two-shoes with a sports addiction and wrapped in the American flag.  If you dig a bit deeper, a far more nuanced picture emerges.

Virtually all education on what would become American soil prior to the 17th Century was by and within families.   The principal shift in the 1600s started with the Boston Latin School in 1635, organized to educate clergy and public officials. Massachusetts was the center of gravity of all formal education in this period, culminating in The Massachusetts Law of 1647, decreeing that every town of 50 families hire a schoolmaster.

Through the 18th Century primary and secondary education was open season for training provided by religious organizations, private contractors and companies, and virtually anyone who could set themselves up as a schoolmaster.   But two events in that century presage present education:  In 1787 the Northwest Ordinance stipulated that land in every new state be reserved for education; and The Bill of Rights was passed in 1791, that by exclusion of education made it the province of the states.  Our Founders demonstrated remarkable perspicacity in anticipating how politics might unfold in a new nation, but not unexpectedly, had little awareness of how science and the knowledge thus generated would change the need or format for education in the next 235 years.

An interesting sidelight, in 1779 Thomas Jefferson proposed a two-track education system, for “laboring and the learned.”

The pace quickened in the 19th Century:  In 1821, the first public high school opened, Boston English High School; the McGuffey Readers were published; Horace Mann became Secretary of the new Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1837, launching what would become the “public common school“ movement; but Catholic immigration and schools raised public alarm and bigotry that actually helped popularize secular public school evolution.  It is worth noting that even as public schools proliferated private schools and church schools continued to serve education market segments, frequently being the high end of K-12 performance.

For the next hundred years both educational theory developments and structural evolution around two world wars, and increasing state government sophistication, shaped and hardened public school organization and operations.  The proliferation of teachers colleges and schools of education attached to our universities cemented the philosophies of public schools in place, but with genealogy that traces back to the common school ideologies. Contrary to the belief that teachers’ unions are a contemporary phenomenon, The National Teachers Association was formed in 1857 ultimately becoming the NEA.  The first mandatory student attendance law was enacted in 1852 (Massachusetts), and by 1918 all states had such laws.

Now politically incorrect, but factual, migration of students into K-12 collegiate education after WWII resulted in many of those students coming from the intellectual bottom one-third of the student barrel.  As late as the end of last century, and perhaps to this day, the assertion is that our schools of education are doing an inept job of training teachers, substituting indoctrination in rooted education beliefs for both substantive subject matter knowledge and the flood of neural learning research findings emerging, as well as failing to equip teachers to deal with classroom implementation.  A result has been the heavily hyped but overall inconsequential appearance of programs such as “Teach for America,” that are a drop in the bucket among almost 3.5 million public school teachers, handcuffed to frequently managerially unprepared education administration and highly variable school board preparedness and oversight.

Lastly, what is devaluing contemporary public education, and that set the scene for NCLB, our public schools over the last half of the 20th Century became vehicles of retro education and weak STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) work, dropping the U.S. in world position.  This was complicated by union intransigence and teacher salary relative deprivation, finally precipitating a clumsy NCLB signed into law in January 2002, mandating high stakes student testing and school yearly progress requirements based on those tests.  America flopped from the frying pan into the fire.

Where are we?

Points of departure for inspecting the present debates about K-12 change are examining the wake-up call, assessing just what change entails, and how it should be enabled.

History provides a useful perspective in a nation contemporarily hobbled by the incapacity to simultaneously think and act strategically without acrid partisanship, and continuously pummeled by media that have even shorter attention spans than most of our citizens.  From the mid-17th Century through the mid-18th Century virtually every advance in education originated in Massachusetts.  Perhaps no surprise then, that Massachusetts has consistently been at the top of the heap in K-12 performance.  But worth reflection, it took over 100 years of experience to infuse that level of alacrity and competence.

Fast forward to the present debates about how to improve public education in the space of a few presidential terms.  Combine that naivety with the problem’s mass:  50 states each capable of going their own way on school curricula and governance, with politicized state boards of education and departments; 3.2MM public school teachers; 13,800 public systems; 13,500 local school boards, many fundamentally ignorant about real education; not only teachers’ unions, but principals’, superintendents’ and school board interest and lobbying groups; a deeply entrenched public education mentality steeped in visions of social engineering; and schools of education that tended to isolate themselves in the higher education community, partially because they were considered second-class academic citizens, but perhaps equally to protect a self-perceived identity and entitlement.

How public education evolved into a failing institutional mass the latter half of last century is also easier to understand if one looks at both the foregoing, and that history. 

Public school conceptualization started with elitism and well-intended self-righteousness, and with a likely genuine if debatable belief that the proper role of the public common school was to make your children wards of the state, and turn them into proper citizens.  Public education went through multiple phases of attempting social engineering in the 20th Century succeeding principally in dumbing-down K-12, barely noticed by parents striving for their children’s education.  Couple this with low financial compensation of teachers.  Their rewards had to be internalized, and took the form of self-esteem, deep commitment to the profession, and even a sense of martyrdom for giving but receiving less financially for their education and investment than other professions.   The effect is at core no different than how any ideologically-driven group comes to play the game; tight identification within the genre, build defenses, avoid transparency of your actions as protection, develop self-righteousness, develop countervailing power groups, e.g., teachers’ unions.

History also teaches that these are properties that cause bureaucracies to evolve to protect the status quo, create risk aversion, and by definition suppress creativity and innovation that require risk taking and organizational openness.  Ask your local public school system to be transparent, display their education assumptions and theories, provide vita for all teachers and administrators, provide their textbooks and lesson plans for inspection, ante up their budgets beyond state minimal reporting, share system ACT and/or SAT results, show their plans for teacher development and research on classroom practices, show their technology plan, and respond with interest to ideas from parents and their taxpayer stake holders.  You won’t be pleasantly surprised.

By the mid-1980s the increased obsolescence and degraded performance of many public systems were broadly visible, juxtaposed against the performance of nationalized systems in European countries that had less diversity and more control.  This finally culminated in “A Nation at Risk,” a report commissioned by then President Reagan, who totally misread its outcomes.  Instead of a naïve assumption that the group would recommend restoration of school prayer, and dissolution of the U.S. Department of Education (in existence since 1867 to the surprise I suspect of many readers), the group correctly predicted the course of K-12 over the next couple of decades.  Mr. Reagan promptly dismissed the study group of some of our best and brightest and ignored the report.

The rest is also history but a pretty shabby version.  In existence under another banner for some time, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was adopted in Mr. Bush’s administration, relying on standardized testing fostered by a control mentality and the cluster of corporations who saw profit in the construction and scoring of those tests, and in a captive market and draconian threats to public school systems that conservatives didn’t much like in the first place. 

NCLB accomplished one material thing; it exposed in clear relief in its first years of testing the public K-12 systems that were failing, dysfunctional, and dropout factories.  To that extent it merits applause. 

But instead of evolution of NCLB into a proactive strategy during the Bush years, or intellect taking over with Mr. Obama’s election -- the next step in-depth work on how learning could be enhanced in the classroom and adoption of both new neural learning findings and digital technologies -- reform came to be stylized by the same testing as NCLB but even more extensive.   Over $5B were thrown at Race to the Top (RttT) which was nothing more than warmed over protocol from last century, perhaps with the belief that if enough schools followed the drills improvement might happen. 

There is almost no escaping the conclusion, that while both Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan intellectually know that standardized testing fails in measuring genuine learning – they have publicly stated as much – it and Federal funds are what they have to manipulate public schools.  Also political points from trying to claim some short term gains, and reluctance to offend a liberal public education base including the teachers’ unions, scored far higher than properly setting a new course and long term strategic plan for the nation’s public education.

Not widely known, the U.S. Department of Education supports a small army of PhD resources in its National Center for Education Research (NCER), and funds an array of academic research efforts on education.  The issue is that the majority of these projects are probably of quality, but also highly fragmented research that never gets knitted together into coherent K-12 strategies.  Its voice, an Internet web site called “Doing What Works,” produces fragments and tactics for improving teaching, but seems boxed-in by Mr. Duncan’s and the Department’s tunnel vision.  The one NCER research area that could maximally serve public education, on organization and education leadership, is ignorantly managed and short of needed research on an area that may be far more responsible for U.S. public K-12 mediocrity and malfeasance than training of teachers or gaps in curricula.

Complexity and dogmatism

These two words to a large extent characterize the buzz saw public education has invited by management mediocrity and the prevailing process of circling the wagons, rather than redefining missions and employing the intellect it claims to innovate.  The very first phases of any strategic plan need to be some hard questions:  How did we get so far along without someone shouting, “time out;” who defined the problems; who defined and how was the organization of solutions parceled out; who defined the standards of performance, and who is keeping score?

Our public education system is also by no stretch monolithic, but highly fragmented in both educational environments and oversight.  If nothing else, leaving education to our states, compounded by a fierce if unthinking commitment to local control, ensures that any one-size-fits-all policy will be a train wreck.  But there has been little if any attempt to segment both the environments for change, nor attempt to see if there is a match between the diverse forms of underachievement and prescriptions for change.  The poorest urban school is subject to the same treatments as relatively affluent rural school systems, yet failures regularly occur in the latter though the underlying bases for failure are quite different.

Given the rigidity and pragmatism of the present solution set – test, test, test, then penalize for inadequate progress – who devised this model?  There are clues that it didn’t originate with the champions of genuine learning in this nation, but was set in motion by a tortured and misguided analogy between our economy’s private sector production systems and the process of churning out students with certain achievement properties.  Would NCLB and RttT have been different if the guiding hands were those doing contemporary neural research and those resources had greater political clout?  Would they have been different if the prime movers had been acknowledged high-level students of institutionalized learning with full awareness of our present public K-12 infrastructure?  Would they have been different if they had been based on critical thinking rather than politics and rigid ideologies?

Enter local control, introducing a major conundrum.  There are sound arguments for local control of public schools because of how education is funded and because of their need to reflect in their operations some elements of local culture.  But how reconcile the concept of broad local control, including what happens in the classroom because of control of administrative and teacher hiring, with knowledge expansion and universality?  Math, physics, history, reading, et al., in Massachusetts are still math, physics, history, reading, et al., in Texas, even if the latter’s governor and legislators believe it takes divine guidance to define the subjects.  Instances of local boards and systems trying to chase America’s schools back to magic by reintroducing religious mythology into curricula, and as noted in the last issue of Science, small groups of extremist parents turning into a “hate lynch mob” -- trying to block even use of the words “climate change” in factual courses on environmental science, with cowardly school administration capitulating -- are two examples of the damage local forcing of education can create.  Others are gutting of academic standards, cheating and “teaching to the tests,” throwing an iron curtain around a school’s true performance and finances, and cynical use of sports and boosterism to deflect dissent.

Beating up local school boards, while it seems so totally justified by their frequent ignorance and intransigence, won’t suddenly turn our schools into learning communities.  Coincidentally, unless the Constitution is changed, this mechanism will still control much of future local educational process, and those boards would have to become more aware of real learning and discover how to interact with their stake holders in a collaborative way to advance public K-12.  Present propensities are pulling up the drawbridge to information about what a school system is really doing and delivering, as peak school administrators’ tactics of choice to protect their views from assessment and their positions.  That suggests that post-secondary education and at least functional literacy be required to run for board positions, and subsequent educational awareness training be required of the elected as a condition of being seated and serving.

Lastly, a convergence of the one place our nation is still innovating – highly refined digital technologies that are changing the very meaning of knowledge and its use – with an unsustainable funding model for public K-12 education, has redefined the learning playing field.  The whole “seat time” model of U.S. public education, created by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1905 (the roots of the “production” model of education inappropriately pushed in that period), persists to this day, deforming just about every attempt to install and validate more productive learning approaches.   Public education, intended or not, has managed to embed its feet in clay that has paralyzed both education and the economic creativity dependent on its delivery of better learning; U.S. public education crippled itself, and seems incapable or lethargic in finding the buttons or courage to refresh beliefs and select a new vector and gear.


A conclusion perpetually ignored by those seeking quick or simplistic answers, there is no silver bullet for remaking U.S. schools.  Increasingly draconian and invalid testing now being used to hire and fire teachers will simply ramp up resistance to all change, already evident in Duncan’s proposed NCLB waivers (with strings attached).  Simultaneously, there is a massive need for testing protocols that test for critical thinking and problem solving, and to measure the productivity of key resources poured into our youths’ education.  That means projectable research at the classroom level and new and better models for measurement of more complex learning than memorization of facts, not just a bigger test ball bat or more times at bat.

Issues go even deeper into basic philosophy.  Is the express purpose of our 9-12 or post-secondary schooling now preparation for an entry-level job?  In the present environment of knee-jerk reaction to both Keynesian and structural job displacement, are we creating a sub-optimal education system that may be irreversible and that we’ll regret?  Have we unintentionally fulfilled Thomas Jefferson’s 18th Century proposal, a two tier education system for the “laboring and the learned?”  If so, what does this say about American values of egalitarianism, equal opportunity, and class mobility, much less understanding of our society and its civic values, and our evolution as a species? 

At the output end of K-12, a growing criticism of its function has been failure to prepare students for transition to post-secondary work.  In fact, there has been a two-century disconnect between U.S. primary/secondary education and higher education, each acting as if they were just ships passing in the night.  But in the wake of escalating mainstream collegiate tuition, there has been an explosion of so-called community colleges and satellite campuses.  Frequently employing both unqualified faculty and academic administration, lacking quality controls for curricula and teaching, are they more than high school two (or too, your choice) than higher education?  Even when they are attached to an accredited university they may fit into that box.  Their administrations, in turn, appear more dedicated to acquiring public construction dollars, and building sustainable empire, than creating even credible education.  Perhaps an alternative is a nationally accredited cluster of online colleges chartered by groups of states -- thereby conforming to the Constitution -- that can use the best of our curricula, and leverage competent faculty, rather than continue the dumbing-down of U.S. higher education.

Meanwhile in K-12 systems, rejecting or firing teachers for narrowly conceived poor performance art won’t improve learning.  Simultaneously, teachers have to be educated and trained for classroom effectiveness in some formal way; our alleged schools of education may need to be taken apart and reassembled with better parts and leadership, and greater requirements for subject matter knowledge.  At the moment the majority of those schools are in denial and our university leaderships appear too wimpy or politically correct to make the call.

And while the nation is gearing up to beat up our K-12 teachers, many of whom are genuine "Mr. Chips" and in the game by the pure motivation to teach and serve their charges, the currently worst K-12 culprits are likely its administrators, poorly trained managerially, lacking oversight by boards they regularly seek to manipulate for the precise reason of avoiding oversight, and in the process demonstrating the universality of Lord Acton’s dictum about how power corrupts.  Our public K-12 systems could probably take a giant step forward if all of its superintendents had to be recertified as capable of leadership, or that specific function was replaced by a new organizational model and human resources with generic managerial expertise -- principals remaining chief academic officers -- rather than alleged educators with a yen to command and control, or simply pursue the higher dollars.

There appear to be ample topics for future blogs and debate if one can forgive the understatement.  Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of our current national K-12 education machinations is the tendency for otherwise intelligent and learned leadership to cheapen these debates by reducing the issues to one-liners, or resorting to simplistic slogans rather than defensible argument.  Opportunists trying to put their stamp on our nation, winding up merely deepening the demagoguery surrounding K-12, for example, the well funded but frequently inept and arrogant initiatives of Bill Gates, may match that.  We need some gateways and a segue to better education problem solving, but maybe fewer gates?

Next blog, into the teeth of the beast:  Standardized (not really) testing; why, who, what effects, and what options?

Ron Willett

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