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.

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