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

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