Monday, September 26, 2011


Mr. Obama Debits and Credits.

The Obama Administration has been all over the education news the last two weeks:  Relief from the most debilitating effects (but not the latent damage of excessive or narrow testing) of NCLB, although on its terms; a proposal to put dollars into US public school construction; a “digital  promise” to US public K-12 schools.

The school construction proposal, linked to the Administration’s effort to create construction jobs via stimulus, is demonstration of the axiom that there is no such thing as simple.   Do some of our systems need physical building rehabilitation or new facilities?  Absolutely.

A demonstration of that need, only a few years back in history, is ironically the home place of both Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan -- Chicago.   This is an essential read for anyone who wants to see the testy issues of public K-12 reform up close and personal: Leslie Baldacci, Inside Mrs. B's Classroom:  Courage, Hope and Learning on Chicago's South Side.  NY:  McGraw-Hill, 2004.  (ISBN 0-07-141735-4)

Will that new building improve the K-12 education within?  It might have some effect on student attitudes for a time and as a derivative, learning; if built to reflect what learning may look like by 2020 and beyond, it could be the basis for improved learning processes.   Counterpoint, one of if not the best science high school in the US is TJHS (Thomas Jefferson High School) in Virginia; TJHS is a fully modern educational setting internally, but the edifice was constructed in the late 1800s.  Effective education is not a function of the bricks and mortar.

One of the more moronic expressions of that was recently represented by a candidate for an area school board -- a candidate who is arguably the system’s ringer to promote approval for a new elementary building -- in a public statement equating climate control and wiring with only replacement construction, and engaging every euphemism out there linking that construction to our “fast-paced society,” a “global marketplace,” and the “skills to enable them (students I guess, but it could refer to administration) to prosper.”  Funny thing about all of those glib generalities copied from press clippings, they only become operational with mechanisms of learning and soft technology that has much to do with educational competence, creativity and leadership, but little to do with buildings.

The system in question may in fact, or may not need a new building; the responsibility should be with its board and administration to present coherent, fact based, and independently verifiable arguments why that is an imperative.  Will that happen?  Based on past decision making by this system, not very likely, because the decision is being driven by obsolete beliefs about education and learning, egos, the demagoguery cited above, and administrative values close to corrupt educational practice.

Whether Mr. Obama plows more dollars into US public K-12 fixed assets may well be a useful economic stimulus, but don’t confuse that with those dollars monotonically improving K-12 learning.

Why Are We Doing This?

Two documents emerged recently that stand out in assessing our education challenges, for different reasons.  The first, from eSchool News, is both uncomplicated and elegant, addressing with sanity what K-12 reform is all about.  The opening excerpt; the full paper is available here.

“What is the purpose of a public education system? In America, we would like to believe that our forefathers envisioned the creation of a strong democracy that would necessitate an educated populace capable of governing itself and use the acquired knowledge to elect and direct the actions of their representatives in government. Perhaps one of the reasons why public education is currently under attack is because it seems that we have not done a very good job in electing and directing our representatives. Their actions reflect badly on our wisdom—and, consequently, our system of education.

Our anger at members of Congress for their actions, or perhaps more accurately, their inactions, is misplaced. We put them there. They believe they are acting on our behalf. Therefore, when they bring our country to the brink of economic disaster and our nation’s weaknesses are exposed to the eyes of the world, we have to acknowledge that it is a mere reflection of the split nation we have become.

Education policy making has been affected by the same paralysis that grips other areas of lawmaking. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known in its current iteration as No Child Left Behind, languishes in our schools and classrooms, negatively affecting the public’s perception of the quality of our schools by virtue of the faulty accountability system that it created. Our lawmakers can no more reach agreement on a fix to our educational system than they can to our economic malaise.

Hordes of education “reformers” propose solutions to the problems we face, but it is readily apparent to bona fide education experts that these solutions are shallow representations of political beliefs, rather than reflecting any in-depth knowledge of pedagogy or child psychology. Perhaps the debate should take us back to the basic question of what is the purpose of a public education—and better yet, what is the purpose of a public education today?”

The second item is a publication by the “National Center for Fair & Open Testing,” a research and public interest group.  The full document is available here, but a quote is particularly noteworthy, because readers may see frequent references, but not the full text.  The quote is “Campbell’s Law,” an axiom about testing theory that has been verified many times and in alternate testing environments.  It goes:

“’The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor. . . when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.’
Campbell’s Law, 1976”

Among all of the other reasons why our testing trajectories in K-12 may not be either prudent or sustainable, Campbell’s Law puts a spotlight on the risks being introduced by the excesses of present standardized testing logic.

A New Research Day?

One of the more serious educational deficits in attempts to secure K-12 change is the paucity of research at the classroom level.  The diversity of those classrooms limits extrapolation of experiments in model schools, and diversity of locations and environments make generalization difficult.  Optimally, our educational system would have provided every teacher and administrator the minimum understanding of experimental design, and the tools to evaluate trials.  They have not.

Accordingly, it was at least encouraging that the White House “Digital Promise to Schools,” articulated by Arne Duncan, gave lip service to both the opportunity and challenge of new soft technology.  Two paragraphs said it well:

“For years, researchers have been working on developing educational software that is as effective as a personal tutor.  Preliminary results from a DARPA/Navy “digital tutor” project suggest that we can reduce the time required to become an expert in IT from years to months.  Achieving similar results in subjects such as math would transform K-12 education.  Digital Promise will begin its work by partnering with technology firms and researchers to map the R&D landscape, identifying opportunities for breakthroughs in learning from the cradle through a career.”


“Internet startups do rapid evaluations of their sites, running test after test to continually improve their services. When it comes to education, R&D cycles can take years, producing results that are out of date the minute they're released.  Digital Promise will work with researchers and entrepreneurs to develop new approaches for rapidly evaluating new products.”

The full White House document is available here.

A related, though likely futuristic development, was recently reported by the US journal, Science.  That is, an effort to offer more research experiences via two-year colleges.  Because many more K-12 systems are likely able to access that collegiate asset, there is potential for joint K-12 research efforts with specialists staffing two-year programs.

The eText.

There are the usual naysayers to any technology-asserted initiative to improve K-12.  Two responses:  One the technology enables, but it isn’t the cause of better learning; and two, technology may well offer a dollar and productivity advantage over traditional instructional materials.  The following report from eSchool News is at least provocative.  Excerpts:

“Nearly one year after a pilot program that put Virginia’s fourth, seventh, and ninth grade social studies curriculum on an iPad, Virginia state officials say they have learned much from the implementation.

The program, which is a collaboration between education publishing giant Pearson and the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), was spawned from VDOE’s ‘Beyond Textbooks’ initiative, which encourages schools to ‘explore the potential of wireless technology and digital textbooks to enhance teaching and learning.’
Now a year into the program, many challenges and benefits have emerged.

‘We did find increased engagement, and there were really a lot more opportunities for self-directed learning,’ said Tammy McGraw, VDOE’s educational technology director.

‘Students clearly liked having access to the apps. They found it very engaging, and they also liked the fact that you could instantly access the internet from the same device. We were very encouraged by our initial results, and certainly it warrants further investigation.’”

Lastly, while NCLB is in limbo, Republican bills have been introduced to replace it.  According to the Washington Post, the present bills will not solve NCLB’s main problems.  The full piece is here.   Key conclusions:

“Among the bills introduced by Alexander, et al., was the ‘Teacher and Principal Improvement Act.’ The background is that the administration has used its “Race to the Top” competition for federal education funds to bribe states into implementing educator evaluation systems that must include student test scores ‘in significant part.’

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is expected to make that a condition of the waivers from AYP he is expected to announce on Friday. Alexander correctly avoids making that lose-lose tradeoff. However, in his bill, if a state does choose to use some of its federal funds on an evaluation system, it would have to include student test scores “in significant part.”

The best evaluation systems, such as the one in Montgomery County, Maryland, do no such thing. Congress should not require states to use student standardized test scores in reviewing educators in exchange for limited federal dollars.”

Scrap Education?

Several of the Republican candidates seeking the nomination for president have witlessly called for “shuttering” the US Department of Education, echoing Mr. Reagan’s equally lame wish when ANAR was presented to him in 1984, and dismissed, setting up our present public K-12 miasma. 

Seemingly ignored by those candidates, or “we don’t care,” is that half of the offices of that Department below Mr. Duncan’s is materially responsible for US K-12 education not sinking into third-word status.  Yes, that “half” is a problem.  But invoking the old intro to marketing joke about advertising, pioneering and innovative retailer John Wanamaker was once confronted by a press pundit asserting that half of Wanamaker’s advertising expenditures was wasted.  Wanamaker agreed:  "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half."

With little research capability in our public schools, and almost as little in many of our schools of education, the Department of Education’s NCER (National Center for Education Research) may be one of the nation’s few hopes to both think and research the nation’s way out of its K-12 education crater.

More Testing Grist.

By now you are smelling the coffee; time for some "formative assessment," if you can suppress the gag reflex from the verbiage.  The following test question was featured in a Washington Post piece on education.  It comes from a Massachusetts school math test:


"n 1 2 3 4 5 6
  tn 3 5 _ _ _ _

The first two terms of a sequence, t1 and t2, are shown above as 3 and 5. Using the rule: tn = tn-1 + tn-2, where n is greater than or equal to 3, complete the table."

The answer, quickly...well as you've not yet had that coffee, 8 13 21 34.  The rule is transparent but useless without the context.

Had the question been posed lucidly, with correct notation, and the intent had not been to obscure or trick but to test for meaning, you might instantly recognize the simple but elegant Fibonacci Number or sequence.  Named after Leonardo of Pisa, known as Fibonacci, revealed in 1202, its numbers are associated with the golden ratio, describe geometric patterns, describe biological settings such as branching of trees and an uncurling fern, and are used in a number of computer algorithms.  How much more meaningful it might have been to simply ask the student to give an example of a Fibonacci Sequence and cite why it is important?

Finally, even our philosophers are getting into the act.  See an interesting discussion of test score meaning in "The Stone" feature from the NYT.


Lastly, while there are K-12 public systems and charters that are courageously experimenting, innovating, and refusing to be denied genuine education delivery by the testing charades, there are actions underway in the US that defy wisdom, even common sense.  Mr. Obama’s and Mr. Duncan’s avowed policy of saying one thing on K-12 education, then doing the opposite backed by billions of dollars, has a venal connotation and descriptor, but let’s be generous and just call it smelly politics.

The arrogant and socially irresponsible machinations and education bullying by Bill Gates, and his well compensated gang of testing thugs, can’t claim the above barely acceptable extenuating circumstance.

In spite of an almost wrecking ball motif in flogging our public schools there is a major cause for mediocrity still naively ignored by Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan – incompetent to corrupt educational administration.  It is quite possible that a material fraction of the nation’s public school superintendents should either be in the slammer, or at the minimum not in education.  Teaching by its nature requires an existential core of beliefs, financial sacrifice for the education invested, and the humility that accrues to being frequently unrecognized and unrewarded for the commitment made.  Those who move into management, seen presently evolving unfortunately in much organizational behavior, may be motivated more by financial reward and power than altruism. 

The two education value sets bound together in present K-12 frequently don’t work.  Couple the dismal “education for management” by higher education for education, to school boards frequently lacking both the training and intellect to vet those hires, and the result is the pattern seen:  Lack of system transparency; cover ups of poor or improper administration; teaching to the tests; arrogance; dogmatism; and too frequently a level of educational obsolescence that can’t be corrected locally.

One area system demonstrated that in the last few weeks, ignoring the loud national call for more intensive quality core work in 9-12, to offer an alleged course in marketing in grades 10-12, out of any context of professional education for business, without prerequisites, and literally without the awareness or intellect to even properly define the work.  The confused and obsolete offering may seem a minor offense.  Unfortunately for the system in question the behavior is part of a larger pattern of cheating, misrepresenting performance, manipulation of parental inputs, obscuring just about every aspect of the system’s operations.  Students experiencing this ersatz offering may emerge to be hammered when subsequently encountering the real thing, either at a post-secondary level or in practice.  The opportunity cost of deferring or replacing needed core work is great and makes the malpractice even more dysfunctional.

Fixes?  A board that is either impotent or lacks the same awareness or intellect to properly perform its oversight function isn’t a fix.


Topic for another day, it may finally be time to scrap the over one-hundred year old organizational model of public K-12 education, and design a new organizational lattice that fits knowledge evolution and contemporary needs for learning, and fosters creative and accountable administration.

Promised, the next blog will examine the derivation of knowledge from known learning processes, and how present common core curricula fit the need for future knowledge.  The chore is bigger than anticipated, perhaps triggered by the challenge of a quote from former Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:  “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”  

Might even be an anthem for every K-12 and even post-secondary curriculum and course designer?

Expect the blog on "knowledge" in early October.

Eyes fully open?  Have a good day.

Monday, September 12, 2011


A new book by Steve Brill, Yale Law grad and founder of Court TV, Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools (Simon & Schuster), launches an aggressive attack on the teachers' unions, trumpeting wins of the national reform movement, ala Obama, Gates, et al., and test till they drop.  This review, however, paints a different picture of many of Brill's arguments and much of his data's bases for conclusions.  Worth a look, because while it doesn't explore new territory, it confirms many arguments appearing elsewhere and in edunationredux.

Two stories about cost control, one in NYC's Department of Education, and one in Syracuse, NY, ring some chimes about the potential to control public education costs by competent tough-minded management, and by exercising creativity.  In the case of NYC, the article cites a 3,478 percent return on investment (ROI), yes you read that correctly, 3,478%.  Realistically that means that there really wasn't much need for capital investment, and that the returns were to managerial creativity -- a message that should be carved over the thresholds of most of our local K-12 schools.

Iowa, the "corn and primary" place, but also historically the site of many of the innovations in measuring scholastic performance, has just announced a series of school reform options.  No major surprises in the topics, but their occurrence is a message.

Robert Lipsyte, recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the American Library Association, tackled boys and reading -- namely that they don't -- in this article.  Worth a look.

Charters are in, they will take over, or they are overrated, and the beat goes on. But a recent report from Houston, where there are 300 public schools competing with 105 charters, provides a nuanced message.  It is that they are not a silver bullet, but by escaping some of the bureaucratic constraints of public K-12, they have some messages for those public systems.  Notably: “…longer school days and years; more rigorous and selective hiring of principals and teachers; frequent quizzes whose results determine what needs to be retaught; ... ‘high-dosage tutoring;’ and a ‘no excuses’ culture.”

Another review of standardized test-based incentives, by a National Research Council expert panel, blasts that testing as a viable measure of educational progress.  A conclusion, the effects of incentives based on that testing are "small and ... effectively zero for a number" of impacted programs. Not new news, but from a source that should echo the findings where national policy appears oblivious to facts.

Reflecting the same rocket science mentality as those who see climate change as an orchestrated scam among thousands of qualified climate scientists -- where parenthetically most PhDs would rather share toothbrushes than mimic conclusions, to paraphrase an old academic joke about economists -- this item addresses the critics who are now lampooning or damning technology in K-12 because the hardware hasn't produced "...improvement in test scores."  Aside from the credibility of the criterion, the view reflects ignorance.  The use of the technology incorporating the latest devices/hardware, in proper epistemology, should be termed a "necessary but not sufficient" cause for learning changes.  The technology that supplies "sufficient" is going to be soft and based on creative changes in learning models.  Edunationredux will tackle that issue in a subsequent blog.

A tiny story from Wyoming has much larger potential ripples.  The story is about the disconnect between class size and how it is factored into Wyoming school building needs.  The larger ripples, the missing perspicacity in many systems seeking new school construction that has little to do with need, or fails to consider the K-12 learning strategies that will play out over the quarter century or more that construction will have to serve once dropped in place. Class size is a close-in variable, but more important is how the whole seat time model of K-12 along with other surfacing strategic learning developments may change over that asset life.  Proposed school construction that hasn't factored in those variables is flawed, and public school oversight that can't bring that kind of critical thought to bear shouldn't be school oversight.
Lastly, a just posted story from an education news journal reports the results of asking its educational professional readers for the five characteristics of "an effective 21st-century educator."  Because those readers tend to be tech-savvy, the answers are equivalently contemporary:  "Anticipates the future;" "is a lifelong learner;" "fosters peer relationships;" "can teach and assess all levels of learners;" and "is able to discern effective vs. non-effective technology."  Hard to argue with the list's contents though most experienced educators could likely add some things that are critical.  The most disconcerting aspect of the list is that is describes few of the K-12 public educational leadership in this neck of the woods.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


A suggestive punch line was on the outer cover of the last issue of the world journal, The Economist:  “Your child’s education is an investment.  Hedge it.

A “hedge” is “an investment position intended to offset potential losses that may be incurred by a companion investment.”  Your school taxes among other dollar assets are invested in your children, but the love, care, time, worry, tears, occasional terror, and other human inputs that you have incurred in raising your progeny dwarf those dollars.  The hedge here is investing the additional concern and time in understanding how and why their K-12 education is being conducted.  An old Russian proverb applies, “trust but verify.”  Because of what is happening at this moment with U.S. public education and its competitors, a war now lacking only bullets but beginning to damage lives, that proverb never had more serious meaning.

Almost unnoticed among the shooting conflicts of the last half-century, the U.S. has had that domestic war quietly underway in the neighborhoods in most communities – our educational culture wars.  But unnoticed does not mean without effect; those conflicts about what should be taught, and how that should happen, play out for the rest of your children’s education if not most of their personal and professional lives.

The adversaries?

On one side is a public education complex of 13,800 school systems and 3.2 million teachers, organizationally defined 150 years ago, highly organized, embedded in states’ budgets and oversight, also politicized there, and because of the longevity and rituals of its management, and emergence of teachers’ unions, has become a crusted and rigid bureaucratic monolith.  Missed by many, the foundations of U.S. public education were laced with noble, utopian views that over the decades became the core of liberal American political thought, and more than a little zest for social engineering.  Virtually never perceived by parents, an early perspective of public education was that your children needed to become wards of the state via the “common public school,” not left to the vagaries of parental wisdom to become productive citizens.

The public school establishment and values have been enshrined in many of our collegiate schools of education.  Those schools, in turn, though technically part of a collegiate community of learning, have historically cut themselves off from academic reform; to this day they are still doing the mind-bending of teachers winding up populating our public schools, frequently leaving them poorly equipped to either teach effectively out of the box, or possessing the knowledge or values to effectively manage K-12 education. 

A much hyped example of a counter move that gives credence to the above is “Teach for America,” a program to recruit teachers with subject matter expertise, and who have never been in a school of education.  Ohio is seeking to attract some of its resources and fast track them into its classrooms.  Another example, controversial, is emulating some of higher education, separating peak organizational leadership from academic leadership, seeking generic top management in the former roles (superintendents), retaining traditional education leadership in the latter (principals).

The other side of the skirmish line features tribes of fiscal and social conservatives, corporate executives magically turned educators, religious advocacy of schools, Milton Friedman free market voucher advocates, and many states indignant because the Federal government is inserting itself in local control of public schools.

Detailed later, some of the bizarre liberal behaviors installed in our public schools give credence to some of the conservative positions.  Public trust of our public systems has not been enhanced by decades of constant and misrepresented levies, marginal interest in productivity, union pressures for teacher compensation and control of work rules, protection of incompetent teachers, frequently challenged school boards, and public school administrations prone to dogmatism and secrecy to control schools.  This is graphically illustrated by a recent Kettering Foundation survey that found only 22 percent of its sample had “a great deal of confidence” in public education. Granted, public education outscored Congress with an eight percent rating, and television news with a seven percent rating, but the comparison seems one our systems shouldn’t be too quick to applaud.


But the outbreak of overt school hostilities started with passage of NCLB in 2002, and its spawn, a massive though flawed wave of mandatory standardized testing.  It isn’t really standardized, tests most of the wrong products of learning, opened the door to widespread teaching to the tests, then outright cheating on the testing, while creating serious consequences for schools failing to meet Federal and states’ arbitrary designations of annual yearly progress.  (The flaws in this testing, still expanding in spite of virtually universal criticism by competent educational theorists and measurement professionals, were discussed in the prior blog, “Standardized Testing Insanity?”)

Unfortunately caught in the middle of this battlefield, without body armor or assets for defense, the victims are your children, you, and a fairly large fraction of our K-12 teachers who do belong in our classrooms.  Also victims are millions of smaller businesses more critically dependent on human resources than the capital-intensive options available to corporate giants.  As the U.S. struggles out of recession this is demonstrated by employers with jobs who can’t find competent employees.

Lastly, while it stretches the boundaries of tolerance, another set of victims has been our local school boards charged with public system oversight.  Many boards confront the current issues and debates like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights.  Many boards have constituency lacking the educational background to provide needed oversight.  Others attract candidates and elect for all of the wrong reasons, as a political steppingstone, or pursuit of some cause, or seeking payback for some perceived injury to their child.  The end product, a public school’s administration can be highly motivated to either marginalize the board, or to co-opt it to advance an agenda or control the oversight received. 

These are pretty harsh assessments, likely to provoke backlash from those throwing up walls to protect their vision of our schools.  The reality is that these observations are reality, and the assumption, that if the public simply keeps feeding our systems dollars all will be great -- Pollyanna syndrome -- has been refuted by actual performance of our schools, district-by-district and nationally.  Yet, politically, there are constant strident demands to protect “local control” of education.

The war is about…?

Sometimes in what is termed “the fog of war” even the adversaries lose track of why they are contesting.  In the case of education’s culture wars few of its foot soldiers, and most of its parents and taxpayers have only a vague idea of the composite of provocations.  That is possible because many of our educators never fully explore why they are advocating what they are advocating.  The game in public education has historically been carefully embedded in teacher training, and that has been carefully guarded.  That is also one explanation why conservative and religious advocacy in America took almost four decades to register a really vocal complaint about our public schools.

Supplementing the above explanation, America’s K-12 schools were for decades successful viewed against educational attainment in the rest of the developed world.  Critique ramped up when in international testing America’s students suddenly dropped down in the rankings.  Is this U.S. K-12 failing, or the rest of the world rapidly catching up and overtaking us?  Both.

Public education, locked into unions, schools of education that have resisted change, and historically able to manipulate communities into funding anything put in front of them, invited a false sense of self-satisfaction with its learning end products.  Cracks in the systems, beyond international test comparisons, have been the failure of public education’s products to transition successfully to higher education, and even to professional positioning dependent on learning.

Still another set of explanations not public education’s fault, what is conceived as knowledge has been exploding, especially in the areas that make up science needed to drive our economy, and the governing bodies of all of those components of needed STEM learning have become proactive in spelling out standards, many contrasting with the contents of what public schools have been incorporating in curricula.

But the above, framed pretty much as effectiveness of the educational process, simply fails to explain the ferocity of many critics and the push back.  If it was just performance process, American enterprise has repetitively examined its own shortfalls and created fixes.  Surely, were that the primary grist of educational debate, functionality would have saved the peace?  There is more to the warfare, going to things as fundamental as human values and beliefs, that were once more homogeneous, or subverted to patriotism, but have become partisan and argumentative.

The liberal badge

The nitty-gritty of our culture wars are fights about core values and beliefs: A backlash against Western civilization as the embodiment of modernity and merit versus belief in American exceptionalism; divergent worldviews; cultural diversity; racism and affirmative action; sex education; multiculturalism; homosexuality; feminism; religious expression in the schools, or more apt, its expulsion from education; that K-12 was about good citizens with the right values (not to be interpreted as values from the right) versus create good employees and raise GDP; free speech; whether moral values are being taught; the commons versus individual rights; a liberal admonition that America resist jingoism versus conservative defense of national virtues; and the piece de resistance, whether Darwin and evolution, or creationism should be the guiding hand of our study of everything living and celestial.

Even the functional components of K-12 education prompt shouting matches.  One example, public education’s overarching belief in a phalanx of “methods” that have been accumulated for a century because learning science didn’t exist at the time, versus the substance of current neural science explaining how learning occurs.  A skill as basic as reading provokes dispute, witness the noisy debates over the use of phonics to teach reading versus “whole language.” Touchy-feely approaches to classroom discipline versus more assertive methods of classroom control become public arguments.  A skirmish has just broken out over whether dodgeball should remain banned in many schools? 

Capping the list is whether “the essential aim of schooling is the mastery of a historically specific body of knowledge, or the acquisition of the dispositions that make us conscientious in the pursuit of knowledge;” and add the narrowed and pedestrian version of the former, the aim of K-12 is to get an entry level job?

Add the realities of local control and oversight by resources struggling to see education beyond its physical or provincial trappings.  Are students learning just the things local industry or commerce finds useful?  There is the challenge for those who were educated by the same systems needing change, to see why change is needed, or to grasp why the humanities are part of education versus the pragmatic things that seem to make society function in their respective bubbles.  Our systems sometimes build educational palaces because it makes a community look good rather than being justified by function, even if they never subsequently fund educational technology and the education stays mediocre. Lastly, there is America’s increasingly perverted love affair with sports, while their pursuit is becoming increasingly ethically challenged even in 9-12.  As one parent put it succinctly, “a new football field isn’t going to get my child, or most other children going to school, in the NFL” (what that observation lacks in philosophical sophistication pretty much makes amends with fiscal pragmatism).

What really sets conservative teeth on edge, admittedly at the fringe of liberal interpretations of what contemporary education should be, are the bizarre examples played in our media:  School administration that substituted “winter break” for “Christmas break” in a routine calendar issue, even defying the contrary vote of its board; censoring the use of “Easter eggs” and substituting “spring spheres;” that “almost any use of the word “man,” by itself, in a suffix (as in salesman or workman), or in a colloquial phrase (the man in the street or mankind) is treated as an unacceptable form of gender bias.”

Classroom focused, there is the belief that “…whatever is taught must boost children’s self-esteem, and whatever students read should mean whatever they think it means in light of their own personal experience;” then one local system’s use of the fictional movie, “Dances with Wolves,” in an American history class presumably to install white self-loathing for the historical treatment of American Indians (a preferable strategy would have been to teach an honest American history lesson by using, for example, Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” that relies heavily on original documents of the period, and demonstrated that some tribal leaders had a better command of English, and were more eloquent than their white political opponents, as well as expressing the dynamics and complexity of the times and violence on both sides).

One expression of the absurdity of some of public education’s works came from Dr. Diane Ravitch, an education historian, education researcher, and professor of education:  Public education in positioning students “…has insulated them from any contact in their textbooks with anything that might disturb them, like violence, death, divorce, or bad language.”  But:  “When the school day is done, they will turn to the videos and music that feed them eroticized violence and surround them with language that knows no constraints.” (A parenthetical note, Dr. Ravitch after the above quote did a 180 from her former vocal support for NCLB, and its testing, in her highly recognized 2010 book, but that change of mind apparently did not extend to a switch in acceptance of some of K-12's liberal tendencies.)

From liberal to clueless

The most recent outbreak of public school “thinking” comes jointly from the explosion of student digital literacy and the rocketing popularity of social networking sites.  The knee-jerk reaction of school administrations across the nation has been to attempt to ban smartphones and social networking in schools, and explicitly social networking between teachers and students.  The merit and practicality of that game plan is at odds with reality.  When a New Jersey middle school blocked the use, students had bypassed the blocks before the code had executed.  One student, asked by his father how he had accomplished it, replied:  “Pretty easy, Dad.  Don’t be an idiot.  We know more about computers than the teachers do.”  Another 14-year old demonstrated that at least 50 Web sites offered ways students could trick schools’ systems.  With more than a little exasperation, one has to wonder if our public education administrators recall any American history, or its lessons – think “Prohibition.”

Aside from the irony that these schools are supposed to be the “source” of learning, there are deadly serious messages in the present behaviors.  This was observed years ago when the writer was asked to participate in a local system’s technology plan, an exercise that turned out to be total fraud.  As far as the eye can see in this neck of the woods, area public school systems are at least a decade behind the curve in use of digital technology (minimally hardware), even corrupting some state-of-art delivery provided to promote sports and propaganda, but not educate. 

The most serious charge is that the whole mentality of banning the best underlying technology the U.S. can claim as exceptionalism sabotages both needed education and trashes the opportunity to use that technology proactively.  Rather than banning what in the long run will never pragmatically stay banned, there is the opportunity to benefit from the desire manifested by students, and teachers, to expand the roles of communication and collaboration that could be shaped to enhance learning.  For those who have never experienced the challenge of designing and teaching an online course, the mastery of how to sustain student-teacher communication, fully online, is a challenge, humbling, and learning of merit if acquired.  No one is arguing that it is easy, or that the chore can be tackled with the strategies and tactics of last century, but the latter is only what our public systems currently seem able to perceive and execute.

What is demonstrated is that to a large extent public education’s leaders really “don’t get it.”  It simply reinforces the argument finally surfacing that decline of U.S. public education’s currency is as much its management gaps as bureaucratic requirements, its teachers’ stand-up routines, or even its teachers’ unions. 

But getting to these junctures, our public systems over decades were stroked and almost deified by a population that had lost that capacity to take on their own shoulders and intellect the schooling of their children, happy to let the schools be in loco parentis as well as educator.  Now building, and becoming another issue smoldering within our schools, are the helicopter parents, parental re-involvement with schools, and how much present K-12 dysfunction is bound up with parental challenges of relating to and accepting responsibility for their progeny’s performances.  This has even broken out on the national news front as a divisive issue, prompting attacks and counter-attacks from various interest groups. 

Embedded in public schools’ genetic makeup is the reality of challenging parents to be accountable, versus subsequently holding out their hands for levies.  Integrity and education may be chiseled into a school’s symbolic “spirit rock,” but the levies usually win hands down.  Couple this pathology with highly variable school board oversight, and the product is a brand of K-12 administration alternately paranoid about its next school controversy, and prone to self-righteousness and dogmatism.  Very sadly that is observable as far as the eye can see in many Midwestern and heartland communities’ schools where a local board is the last or only checkpoint for oversight.

Attack of the tests

American public education seems challenged as never before.  Many believe, this writer included, that it contributed to its own travails, a byproduct of over 150 years of virtual monopoly over education, little internal incentive to either innovate or reinvent itself, adopt the best of emerging science about learning, or employ an exploding digital world that could even streamline its infrastructure in future.

There is an alternative view.  Coming from Russell Jacoby, history professor at UCLA, and critic of academic culture.  His view:  “The crisis of American education is that there is no crisis.  What is needed is not sweeping reform or fundamental restructuring, but rather a ‘low tech’ approach; functional classrooms, good libraries, dedicated teachers, small classes, and affordable tuition.  If these were in place hostilities over schooling, curriculum, affirmative action, racism, and free-speech would shrink; pools of acrimony would drain away.”

To avoid being pejorative, thoughts akin to these were expressed in the prior blog on standardized testing, though expressed in a different context. 

Not unkindly, for Dr. Jacoby is a product of the humanities, he neglected the street wisdom that public education is based on a now 150 year old obsolete organizational model, and that organizational behavior and competent management have much to do with the functional performance of any organization, from ancient armies to the latest dotcom.  There is a light year’s difference between pontificating from the rarified air of UCLA, and being a grunt on the plain of conflict that is here and now in public education. 

Our public school teachers and administrators are frequently intellectually undernourished from the get-go, rarely given either the resources or time to reinvent themselves intellectually.  Teachers in turn are now on the bubble on the basis of flawed standardized test “value-added” driven assessment and firing decisions, presided over by K-12 administration that prefers jot-and-tittle compliance with ground rules that minimize risk, and who would rather cheat than become visible by objecting to unprincipled assessment strategies. 

All of those normative items Jacoby advocates are certainly part of the grist of good education in K-12; in the real world, try to get anyone in most of our systems to sign off on their taking precedence over bureaucracy, understandably self-preservation, and self-promotion.

All of the above finally triggered the political support for a silver bullet that would cut through the complexity inherent in education, and magically transform public K-12 – thought to be NCLB.  Unfortunately, that is not the way complex, interdependent systems work.  Among all of the obvious variables that must be manipulated to produce sustainable change, and still either broadly ignored or denied because it challenges the simple fix, factual research has consistently shown learning effectiveness by a student in the K-12 classroom is determined to a greater extent by the socioeconomic status and cultural background of that student than by any other educational asset including their teachers.  Even now, this is being denied by current reforms intent on holding teachers accountable for all learning effects, the latest silver bullet. 

Full circle, America’s primary effort to force educational surrender, if not install peace, is a standardized testing blitz that actually threatens to further degrade public K-12 education performance.  It also stands to splinter the positive force of a reasonably homogeneous national system that managed some harmony between the facts that knowledge is not local, while control is.

The future after war

That leaves dangling the pivotal questions:  Who will win this war, can you exit it, what will a future public education be, what may take its place, and what will those outcomes mean for this generation of children, and the next’s, and the next’s?

Predicting the course of a nation’s social structures is a hazardous undertaking, dependent on predicting first or coincidentally the vectors of its politics, its economy, its international involvements, even climate change, and subject to what mathematician and author Nathan Taleb in his highly successful book by the same name called “the black swan,” code for things that one can’t anticipate – e.g., an east coast earthquake, Irene, Texas secedes.  Because of the mass of our public education system, with so many dug-in, self-interested and resistant actors cursing change, modification of what is visible is never going to be in warp drive.

A likely mid-term projection is that with both the Obama administration (inexplicably) aligned with an aggressive right wing movement to beat America’s public schools into submission with mind-numbing standardized testing of disjointed or trivial learning, substituting charters and vouchers where they can be sold, that is what will unfold.  Barring innovative, or even rational thinking gaining a foothold, charters will eat away at public education, and its tax revenues, in several years becoming a material fraction of all schools.  Critically, most of those charter schools are still replicating the same seat time/classroom/learning/administrative models as public schools, likely accounting for the lack of a significant difference in learning outcomes versus public systems where that has been validly researched to date.  Vouchers only work where there are options, so primarily metro areas will see that kind of school-to-school migration. 

Schools in our heartland, already producing aberrations in both practices and achieved learning, and populated by in many cases questionable educational assets, will continue to depreciate K-12 learning adding to the milieu.  Expect, unless this political wing is rejected in 2012 and beyond, that religious probes, creationism (incredibly), and vitriol about and denial of climate change will start to infiltrate even our public systems; the reasoning, our public school leaderships are frequently both prone to accommodation and risk averse; they would rather switch than fight.

At another end of the spectrum, the digital technologies that have already changed the way the current generation even thinks and learns (e.g., Google has actually behaviorally shifted the way the younger part of our world acquires knowledge), are also changing the way they can acquire an education and sustainable learning.  If one wanted to acquire, now, a complete 9-12 and post secondary education, of higher quality than offered in most of our schools and alleged institutions of higher learning, it could be achieved by self-study and online, using resources as heady as MIT’s curricula including a version modified for 9-12, Kahn Academies’ offerings, the journal Nature’s new learning products, and other equally high quality knowledge resources.  The cost of these knowledge resources, in turn, is either zero or nominal once communication infrastructure is in place.

A long trail of reasoning and hypothesis testing would be needed to suss out all possibilities between these poles, but the downstream effect is likely to be a degree of learning diversity (or grand muddle if you’re pessimistic) never before experienced in the U.S. because of the former monopoly of public K-12 systems.   Adding to this diversity are two other broad effects:  The rumblings of pundits who see higher education pricing itself out of all lower and middle income households, with aid to lower income students being curtailed, and to boot, education that is increasingly either retro/flawed or not needed to become employed and pursue careers; and second, the proliferation of collegiate mediocrity (and in some cases outright educational fraud) from private sector online pretenders, community colleges, vocationally driven programs, and satellite campuses that underperform compared to the parent college/university, but carry the parent’s banner. 

The above are volatile propositions, because they could even short term modify the demand pictures of many of our institutions that have become so overhead cost and fixed asset-driven that marginal revenue shifts produce major operations’ effects.  (Parenthetically, one effect already surfacing is the re-emerging invasion of our higher education campuses by students from other nations.  Healthy intellectually, an expansive worldview, sources of dollars, but it also raises the strategic question of how many of these resources are being educated to return to their countries of origin trained to out-compete the U.S. in world markets?)


To counter these scenarios will take new levels of leadership, and greater intellect and statesmanship (good grief, is that gender bias?) than reflected in our present Congress, in most of our state governments, and even in our educational institutions, along with the return of some virtues that seem to have disappeared with million dollar collegiate academic leaders’ salaries.  It will also take correcting an anathema of current K-12 public education organizational behavior, extreme risk aversion and that “deer in the headlights” look when any critic calls out for “creativity and innovation.” 

Only partially a jab to the midsection, perhaps we need really radical innovation:  Let all 50 states and their respective communities sell their public schools, in toto, to 50 private sector organizations, pull those dollars out of corporate cash hoards and back into the economy, kick start creativity and innovation, then hold the corporate sector that generally understands accountability and quality fully accountable for the learning performance of its customers.  A wild guess is that most of our teachers would retain their employment, would likely prosper with rational managerial support and development, and via empowerment of those who actually do education’s work, technology applied to learning would soar.  A small army of educational administrators after culling might need to be retrained to get back into the classroom, or discover the utility of an old but effective model of management, MBWA, “management by walking around.”


The next two blogs will tackle, order not certain, the normative issue of how we should be educating children intellectually and professionally to survive beyond the end of this decade, and what our technology and knowledge environments might look like at and beyond that horizon. 

If that raises an eyebrow, it should not, for the education being sculpted for those children today -- once past the arguable insanity of training them principally to take today’s multiple choice tests – shouldn’t only or primarily serve them today, but needs to meet their needs at the gateways to advanced education or retooling, or where they start encountering full bore professional responsibilities.  The same reasoning applies to the future knowledge environments in which they will need to operate; both technology and knowledge acquisition have accelerated beyond any expectation of the wisdom of last century.  It is a solid argument that any educator who believes that today’s secondary and post secondary education should simply serve today’s issues, seriously needs to find another vocation and avocation.

Ron Willett

Monday, September 5, 2011


Just published, "THAT USED TO BE US:  HOW AMERICA FELL BEHIND IN THE WORLD IT INVENTED," by Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum (Amazon).  Not particularly surprising, in referencing the "five pillars" to getting the U.S. back on track, the number one item is, "education."  None of the contents may surprise most of you.  Let's see, the goal of education is to equip our population to actually read for effect, and think, not score a hazy state "grade" based on multiple-choice tests?

For a perceptive assessment of our K-12 education issues and cures, by international management expert and columnist (Forbes), Steve Denning, see:

If your classroom, or the school feedback from your progeny has a strong aroma of "them versus us," this reflection by long time educator and author, Alfie Kohn, may resonate: 

U.S. K-12 math education is still being hammered, partially by misplaced and even destructive present standardized testing, but some places claiming progress merit a look:

In Montgomery County Maryland, a place that pushes the envelope, education change and invention are in process.  A refreshing contrast to the DC strategy? Worth a look:

A tech company is going to build a 20-square-mile replica of an American city in New Mexico -- think petri dish -- that will be a ghost town, but will permit experiments with all forms of infrastructure innovations.  Perhaps we need the initiative to create the one-square-mile petri dish of inventive K-12 school infrastructures, to seriously test for better arrangements than present?

The September 3 issue of the world journal The Economist contains its "Technology Quarterly."  Coupled with a technology review from MIT that issues periodically, and similar long time clues from the journals Science and Nature, something that's a cause for optimism (at least guardedly) is coming down the pike. That is a pool of technology building, heavily still American in origin, that promises to reverse some of the vectors described in the referenced Friedman and Mandlebum book.  The catch is, will an extremist political position that witlessly parodies science, and seeks to massacre its funding, ever wake up to the reality that the technology described, along with an educated work force that can use it, may be our only avenue to America's getting back its groove?

If there are reasons that public K-12 is treading water rather than stroking to win, this vignette provides hints.  Dr. George Wood, now Superintendent of Federal Hocking Local Schools in Stewart, Ohio, and executive director of an educators' interest group, has historically been a voice of reason on our public school systems.  Valerie Strauss, who manages "The Answer Sheet" blogs appearing in the Washington Post, has frequently featured Dr. Wood's short essays.  They have been followed and generally applauded.

Ms Strauss on September 8 featured his blog titled, "Keep paddling,"  Its message, basically, public education should dismiss its critics, and essentially "keep paddling."  Perhaps Dr. Wood's recent transition from high school principal to superintendent has penetrated his persona, turning rational advocate into political correctness?  Seems to be the character of the genre for public education human resources frequently exhibiting neither the discipline, creativity nor leadership to manage complex enterprises in K-12 education, and especially their turn-arounds -- the long time management "Peter Principle" in action?

To avoid an essay on why I think he is dead wrong, I'll simply use the same metaphor he employed to try to make his case, paddling a water craft. Paddling with one oar in the water is precisely what K-12 public education has been doing, launching the criticisms and perhaps even more dysfunctional attempted cures; paddling even harder with that one oar isn't likely to make your GPS register progress or get you to a safe harbor.

Lastly, while public education is being hammered by alleged reform, and viral waves of NCLB, RttT, and standardized testing, there is a surprising lack of candor in the debates.  Pointedly, those reforming remain coy about precisely how public K-12 function is failing?  Related, virtually never asked is another question:  There are 98,700 U.S. public schools (versus systems) with 49MM students; but there are also 36,500 U.S. private and Catholic schools, plus home schooling, accounting for almost 10MM students.  Our public systems, rather than cursing the darkness and reform, may want to grab a torch and illuminate why the latter education appears to be succeeding and they are struggling?

Add another question:  Average district public school per pupil expenditure in 2010 was $12,744; average comparable charter per pupil expenditure was $8,001; average private school tuition was $8,549; average Catholic school tuition was $6,018.  There may be issues of comparability, or of tasks superimposed on public K-12 missing in the alternatives, but was public education operating with the same total delivery cost per pupil as private sector education, the tab for U.S. public K-12 education annually would drop by roughly $220 billion.

Finally, does any superintendent you can identify merit a salary 3.2X the average teacher?

For your own probes:


Ron Willett