Monday, October 31, 2011

SQUINTS, HALLOWEEN PS1: SECOND WHY?

Do Twain’s “lies and damned lies” define some of the current reform debate?

Lies are often hard to discern if transmission is spun to capture elements of language that connote virtue, and if one doesn’t think too much, or uses the old IBM joke anthem, “thimk.”  In currently prevailing K-12 reform rhetoric the spun misrepresentation winners are:  School choice; test-based accountability; and performance-based pay.

Good grief, the overstressed parent and a pessimistic citizenry are likely to intone, what’s wrong with freedom of choice – it’s the American way – and don’t we all have to be accountable, and what’s wrong with pay for performance, is it the American way to pay for non-performance (we’ll ignore the latter rhetorical question applied to the current Congress and Wall Street)? If the conversation stops there, you have the present public K-12 education reform train wreck.

Close on the heels of the above are lies by omission, the fact that in many cases the public is blind to what is being executed by states' education departments, and by local systems that have drifted into retro-America.

Choice?

School choice is the least objectionable of the present corporate reform spin.  There is measured school choice right now in the US, with roughly 12 percent (the number is cited as higher depending on the source, the 12 percent estimate based on data from the US Census) of all US K-12 students in either private or church-sponsored schools, in recent charter formats, or home schooled.  In US early history all education was private or sponsored by local communities.  Secular public school expansion in the 1800s was prompted in part by bigotry against the Catholic Church, to counter what was perceived as an invasion of Catholic immigrants seeking comparable education.  Not so noble a launch of public education?

The public school system evolved, not by acclamation, but because the Constitution left undefined a Federal role.  Whether that was by intent or default is open.  One thesis is that the Founders had been educated privately, were politically astute, but could not envision either where discovery and invention would eventually carry knowledge or the universal need for education, ceding control by silence to the states and ultimately to local boards.  With a few exceptions, that control has been over a half-century materially fumbled to put the issue in its best light.

Were the nation still guided by the state of knowledge in the late 1800s there might be a case for geographic differentiation and choice.  But over a century of science and social evolution has made knowledge in its proper context a universal – as well as exponentially increasing -- and in the last couple of decades neural biology and related research are similarly redefining the learning process.  Pragmatically, because education is now integral to the economic development of societies, it has become a national imperative to get it right and with minimal variance across virtually all demographic and socioeconomic environmental strata.

Bringing this argument to today’s venues, there are arguments for parental choice that match their needs to school cultures, but then the question of oversight and accountability arises.  When so-called charters are held to the same standards as public schools (to date they have not advanced a more creative model), they simply use public dollars and become de facto public schools with a fresh start, only typically without a teachers’ or other union.  So the periodic hypocrisy of that movement is on display.  Also pragmatically, the public infrastructure in place still dwarfs any choice option; to change that infrastructure in the face of 50 different state models of oversight would almost certainly require some national control of the public system, even if temporary.  The howls from the right are deafening; “Catch 22.”

Lastly, there is a myth that public schools in the US have been forced into identical learning platforms, the argument sometimes used to either deflect reform, or to provoke anti-public education and anti-Federalism attitudes.  That could not be further from the truth, even under NCLB, that never reflected the courage to require states to accept common knowledge and testing standards.  NCLB has been a half-truth since its inception.  The incompetence of local school boards, and the episodic tyranny of local education leadership equivalently lacking any real oversight have added a random factor to already haphazard state education department organization and operations.

Test-based accountability.

What can be wrong with accountability; our society has been campaigning for that exercise of leadership responsibility in our Congress, in our corporations, in education at all levels, in the practices of public administration in states through villages?

The answer of course is nothing, if any of these are held accountable for the right performances, if those held accountable can be causally connected to the performances, and if they had the authority and resources to control the performances.  

One can even make the case (in a bizarre fashion) that present standardized testing has it right; holding students and teachers accountable for being able to regurgitate the fragments of knowledge being assessed by that standardized testing.  A brief note, that testing across states and potentially across most dimensions of the K-12 environment is not "standardized" and never was. (This was discussed in the prior blog on testing.)

But an even stronger case can be made that the game is faulty, that the wrong things are being tested, at the wrong times, with fallacious 100 percent attribution to teachers as the cause of even narrow test scores.  Most of the time what appears on this testing is not contextual knowledge, but facts, data and compartmentalized information that fall categorically short of conveying real understanding of concepts, or how to test their validity, or how to apply them, or how to generate creativity in extending those concepts.

The most recent exposition of the need to get beyond what is being simplistically tested has come from our US National Academies (free pdf download) -- Science, Engineering, Math, Medicine -- paradoxically directly contradicting the mechanistic test forcing being perpetuated by the US Department of Education.

The additional argument is that the testing is being conducted after the critical activities that make up that learning have been executed, and the resources involved are sunk costs.  That in turn results from applying an obsolete model of quality assurance to education; inspecting after the fact rather than employing a process control model to ensure quality that rarely requires remedial testing, or at worst, some summative assessment at the end of the line as a check on systemic performance.  The expression of this failure mode is readily visible in the remedial course work now frequently mandatory to prepare present high school graduates to cope with higher education even in community colleges.

Performance-based pay.

All of the above arguments apply with the addition of the question, can a teacher specifically and fully be responsible for the results of present K-12 education via so-called longitudinal value-added to test scores?  The assumption, without logical defense, by those pushing the corporate testing motif is, of course.  But every bit of legitimate research, and the considered judgments of those who professionally study K-12 pedagogy and our schools, suggest this is false.  The arguments have been covered in prior blogs, but span cultural and socioeconomic variance among students, prior knowledge that has a large impact on current learning, interaction with related learning experiences beyond that teacher, and what happens in students’ homes and subcultures?

The hard and complex facts are that learning “performance,” and the acquisition of working knowledge, which enables a human resource to do something productive and inventive is a multivariate effect of the summation of what is offered in K-12, plus what is enabled by a student’s home environment, plus how that prior education is meshed with subsequent education, all longitudinally taking time to root, be reinforced, cross-referenced, then unfold.  The notion of using simplistic standardized tests to evaluate teachers in short time frames is utterly devoid of reason and common sense; it borders on the insane or total demagoguery.  That production model reduces to how many programmed students -- with short term memory of pieces of learning that may never be connected -- can you crank out in a series of 45-50 minute classroom sessions? The follow on is, increase your output by being a more programmed or manipulative “sage on the stage?”  And pssst, here are some scripted lesson plans that might, wink-wink, improve your teaching…(subvocally) and ensure test scores.

National Board-Certified, long time teacher, and now teacher coach/mentor Anthony Cody, in today’s Washington Post, knocked the hinges off some Gates’ one dimensional pie-in-the-sky.

Some proof of the pudding.

Repeating a citation from Halloween’s blog, “FIRST WHY,” the plight under NCLB of one school system, that has a track record of genuine learning, delivers some reality with impact – Oyster River Middle School, and teacher Linda Rief.  The story is replicated throughout the US where public educators who are aware of real learning, and have courage, are keeping alive what used to be American excellence in K-12 education.  One has to wonder whether anyone in Washington is listening?  In parallel, is some of our alleged school systems’ leadership being incentivized to change, or aware of the need, or even professional enough to listen?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

WAKE UP SQUINTS, HALLOWEEN, 2011: FIRST WHY?

Halloween is supposed to be hokey and scary, but this year’s event is multiplied by the even scarier real-world status of the rewrite of NCLB and its continued distortion of reality and learning.

Originally this week’s SQUINTS intended to cover three topics:  The whys surrounding NCLB and its Obama/Duncan reform rendition; the validity of arguments offered for present K-12 “reform” strategies; and why we know so little about our K-12 public schools.  But, tilt, reading the Sunday national news was so depressing that the global strategy was abandoned.

Think ghouls and goblins are scary?  Consider some of this weekend’s offerings:  Our civilization may end with a terminal cough rather than a bang or a heat stroke, because of total unpreparedness for bioterrorism; our two political parties present us with either “generic knowledge” or “procedural knowledge,” but generally can’t get them together; thanks to the Supreme Court ruling that corporations are people, political funding is turning into a corporately dominated cabal that eclipses the Republican party’s spending—total corporatocracy in the making; the punch line of an editorial on lobbying of Congress – “Our Congress today is a forum for legalized bribery;” and finally, our political future could be defined by more cholesterol saturated pizza, cancer-causing smoking, and the Koch brothers.  

Finally, for a Halloween tinged vignette of how NCLB has impacted real K-12 teaching and education, check out the dilemma of teacher Linda Rief.  

So adding even more evidence of political and bureaucratic overkill and chaos – like eye of newt – in one batch to the metaphorical Halloween eve’s witch’s cauldron was too much, hence, one question at a time.

NCLB 2001.

There are numerous players in the K-12 reform and testing game, pulling in frequently opposite directions.  That by itself makes very complex the effort that launched with 1983’s “A Nation at Risk,” but was delayed by former President Reagan’s naivety and ideologies.  To his credit Mr. Bush pushed for the upgrade of 1965’s ESEA Act to what became NCLB in 2001.

The nation sees but fails to register much of the roots for reform:  A public education establishment that was put on a pedestal for too long, allowing entrenched thinking, perpetual levies, power building and a culture of entitlement to form like dry rot; the rise and single-mindedness of teachers’ unions operating with about the same level of social responsibility we currently attribute to Wall Street; the obsolescence and intransigence of schools of education that struggled to rise above their position on the bottom rung of the academic totem pole; and a combination of state and local education oversight that became stylized or diminished over decades.

These issues are not ones that yield easily to any fix, certainly not in a time horizon less than generations.  But the 2001 NCLB put a hard temporal goal on the table, to move from the then levels of selected proficiencies to “all groups [reaching] proficiency in twelve years.”  In a smarter world, this goal juxtaposed against the mass of US public K-12 education, and facing the institutional barriers in place, was just short of insanity.  Except for that critical dimension, the short form of NCLB was pretty rational; the original executive summary can be read here.

But the curse of our society seems to be a dual capacity to simultaneously oversimplify complexity, and to bureaucratically make good intentions even more complex and opaque.  Add in that oversimplification reducing subtlety to elevated hard targets that overtake common sense.  That is what happened to NCLB in its translation from concept to application by the US Department of Education, a dozen-year odyssey that actually creates momentary sympathy for the view of some Republican presidential candidates that the US DOE should be eliminated. 

What evolved:  Average Yearly Progress (AYP) became a hardened threat to schools’ existence and rational progress when the best extant schools were likely to find it most difficult to meet that criterion; standardized testing was reduced to a caricature of the real thing by allowing states to set their own test standards, and the outsourced tests themselves became sterile short term memory exercises; that testing and subsequent state manipulation of results created school “grading” stupidity that effectively blocked any creativity in improving pedagogies; and most of the support for Local Education Agencies (LEA) defined by the Act either had its intended dollars absorbed by the states, or perverted turning into ways to either beat on those systems for compliance or create more administrative and records compliance bureaucracy.  That environment spawned, not unexpectedly, cheating, teaching to the tests, and an environment where local systems were paranoid about missing any target and even further motivated to block transparency of their performances.

A good summary of the NCLB journey is available in Wikipedia, and an example of the original good intentions are visible here.  A small sample of what happened to NCLB between concept and putting boots on the school grounds can be viewed here and here.  The good intentions hit the fan when it finally became clear, raising severe questions of governmental intellect and foresight, that 100 percent of  99,000 public K-12 schools would not be able to achieve 100 percent proficiency as defined in NCLB by the 2014 deadline.  Who could have figured?

NCLB round two.

The original NCLB, while blessed by both political parties, was criticized for both inadequate funding and for its evolved reliance on simplistic, allegedly standardized testing.  Recall there was truly nothing standardized about that testing, varying across states (some candidly acknowledging they reduced the rigor of testing to avoid penalties), and suffering from other test design errors that refuted the argument of standardized, therefore, fair assessment.

Starting in 2007, especially with recommendations by the Aspen Commission on NCLB, reforms of the law were proposed.  In 2009 and 2010 the White House proposed multiple changes to correct flaws – including one of the two major ones, getting beyond the narrow testing motif – but retrospectively, Mr. Obama, Mr. Duncan, and the cast of many PhDs that inhabit the US Department of Education and NCER elected to double-down on the punitive strategy that mushroomed within NCLB with simplistic testing. They owe the American parent, K-12 student, and taxpayer the answers to some basic questions because of the overt hypocrisy. 

Precisely when did that army of US DOE educational experts step back and ask:  Are there ways of testing for contextual knowledge, critical thinking, creativity – all of the things that Mr. Obama had and has given lip service, before continuing the standardized testing sledge hammer – that might be created, developed, and employed instead of the present testing?  Never addressed for fairly obvious reasons – political – states continue to be allowed to set their own standards of learning in spite of paper adoption of the proposed common core standards for English, science and math, what is tested, and how rigorously that happens.

And who let a self-serving corporate sector into the multi-billion dollar K-12 testing and scoring business, with psychometricians as test designers who have never graced the front of a classroom, extensive lobbying for more corporate education business, and every reason to ignore educational social responsibility in favor of cranking out even more unproductive testing for dollars?  Mr. Obama’s earlier advocacy of moving away from the lobbying model seems to have evaporated?

Why is Mr. Obama driving down this road?

Repetitively, President Obama is on the record acknowledging that the present model of public K-12 education accountability, with simplistic standardized testing as the cattle prod, is not a realistic model of learning assessment.  Yet tens of billions of tax dollars have been doled out, some with obvious political intent, to install by force a sub-optimal system of K-12 education that eschews critical thought, real learning, and that may well further harm an already deficient public model.  Why this wholly disingenuous strategy?

One thesis that touches all of the bases goes like this.  Our public K-12 model now defies more credible remedies because it is massive, cumbersome because of state variability, already subject to the influences of historical monopoly and a sense of entitlement, loosely and disjointedly controlled, and subject to both political manipulation for ideology and the machinations and power of our teachers’ unions. Add the obsolescence of most schools of education, the rates of change in information and knowledge that has outstripped the capacities and intellect of public systems to absorb them, and frequently misplaced values that dominate local school administration and board oversight.  The only Federal tool available was NCLB.

On the political front the more extremist Republicans in Congress would like to rip out all Federal links to K-12 education, even to the extreme of disassembling the US Department of Education.  To this point a factor impeding that has been that NCLB was originally passed on their watch under Mr. Bush.  (Parenthetically, and prophetically, the latest re-write of NCLB, and its Republican component authorship, has methodically ignored the White House’s calls for more accountability by seeking to reduce states’ responsibility for meeting NCLB requirements, already soft because of control of tests.)  Faced with the potential of declining Department of Education influence in any reform exercise, the White House employed a now familiar pragmatism and chose to use NCLB as its “carrier” for the reform message, hypocritically keeping present testing a basis for change.  “Race to the Top” was added in an attempt to use the only weapon the White House had, $10B, to bribe as many states as possible to run an “educational to-do” list of reductionist activities that “might” in some cases stick to the wall and improve systems’ educational processes.  It is already clear many systems simply took the money and ran, or have pursued the requirements as bureaucratic chores to be executed then go back to business-as-usual.

The other force in the game is the above referenced “corporate reform” model.  This model was pushed by business groups tightly linked to the extreme right of the Republican Party (The Business Roundtable and The US Chamber of Commerce) based on views that a liberal public K-12 establishment needed to be lassoed and forced to make changes that would produce more pragmatic versions of learning.  The corporate model in ignorance sees K-12 teaching as a production model, to be assessed by so-called value-added from longitudinal comparative standardized test scores.  And, by the way, that testing was a source of new and profitable corporate business with a built-in stick that could force school systems to ante up public funds for tests and their scoring; if or when systems failed, enter the charter school using public dollars, conservative nirvana. 

The White House has produced via its rendition of NCLB and even a bureaucratic RttT some of the change its ideologies sought.  It may have been pragmatically the only option given conservative capacities in the present Congress to block more thoughtful and strategic changes in public systems.  But the larger question is:  Was going for impact on public K-12 primarily within the then assumed two Presidential terms, worth the price of possibly severely, strategically damaging future US public K-12 education?  Increasingly the assertions of critics of public education are that while there have been improvements our systems are again flat lined.

Futures?

Is this the best the US can do; beat on public education to try to improve the worst systems by threat, and trick out an improvement in national education standing by testing that produces statistics mirroring simplistic short run gains?  When the CEO of a major US corporation, traditionally reflecting the best of a national breed of hard goods manufacturing, recently stated that they need to retrain virtually every new hire because our education system has failed, more than multiple-choice tests needs to be on the agenda.

There is genuine threat that another generation or two of children educated as NCLB has now warped the model, not truly educated to even recognize genuine learning, may thrust the US beyond the limit where self-discovery and self-healing of our public K-12 systems can happen.  The Obama Administration might have done less damage by grounding NCLB, letting a financially wastrel and bureaucratic RttT stay in the hangar, executing a long term strategy it actually articulated of working with the states to upgrade their incentives, competence, and resources to mediate their local systems.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

SQUINTS, OCTOBER 24, 2011: WHERE ARE THE WHITE HATS?

NCLB is in the process of being re-written, to improve it if you track one thread of commentary, to further federalize US public education following another thread.  In between the ether is filled with passionate words about single-topic issues.  The drift of all of this rhetoric almost prompted the title of today's SQUINTS to be, "everyone's talkin' but is anyone listenin'?"

About the only common theme of the words -- excepting a handful of apologists for public K-12, and those afflicted with Pollyanna syndrome -- is that our public system is not accomplishing the goal of raising the mean and reducing the variance of overall performance of national K-12 education.

Scope and complexity.

To replay a frequent generalization, there is no silver bullet that will transform US public K-12 schools.  But there is an important corollary to that perspective, that there is no single cause or even generally accepted system of causes of our K-12 dysfunctions.  Before attempting to assess challenges, consider the roots of that assertion.

The US has approximately 99,000 public schools, almost 14,000 local school boards, 50 state educational bureaucracies in various levels of competence and political manipulation, and most importantly systems have to address the major variance of racial distribution, education levels, cultures, economic bases, income distribution, poverty levels, and every other social perturbation spread across the nation.  If one had somehow managed to avoid brain freeze, why would we expect any one-size-fits-all solution to correct the perceived defects in a nation's public education with that complexity?

Segue to the dependent variable, overall quality of an individual system's performance.  In that 99K school population there are systems that are excellent, that are mediocre, that are wallowing in self-interest or ignorance, and if the distribution of systemic performance overall follows the behavior of most naturally influenced populations a pattern will result that looks suspiciously like a Gaussian distribution, with a majority of our systems clustered around the mean performance of all systems.   Moving one school in that distribution from minus one standard deviation to plus one standard deviation may well be something one can envision.  Fundamentally changing the variance of that overall distribution of 99K schools to become what the statistician would label more leptokurtic, or materially moving the mean of that distribution to a new level is a wholly different challenge.  Simultaneously raising the mean of K-12 systemic performance while reducing variance, given the system's parameters, in less than the space of a decade or decades, stretches credulity.
  
Doing it by threat and employing a crude performance measurement without control of the critical inputs (and simplistically trusting that all systems will automatically and uniformly respond), goes further and raises the issue of whether there was competent critical thought?  The test of these assertions is already on the books:  Record cheating and teaching to the tests, coupled with simplistic and dysfunctional use of the tests to assess teacher capacities and strategic performance, defeating in just about every dimension the original mission.  One even has to wonder what message the gestalt of this debacle communicates to the students with the awareness to compare how they are being asked to develop knowledge, versus the intelligence of the process imposed?

Change the grating of the screen, from assessing the total system to characterizing systems with certain performance and other properties, or even zeroing in on individual systems.  There is no national K-12 school database that comes close to allowing data mining of either performance or potential causal factors for that performance.  There is a need for a national census of K-12 schools, employing common variables; if Congress wanted to do one thing that would ultimately benefit public education, that would be legislation to get “big data” that would drive intelligent diagnosis rather than indiscriminately beating on K-12 with standardized tests.

The most widely ignored category of statistical indicators that influences learning across the nation, and most of its subdivisions, has been labeled politically incorrect:  The statistical fact is that every time the study is executed, learning performance as measured by present testing is highly correlated with the income, social class and cultures of a place and its students and their parents.  Poverty, culture, racial inequities, et al., do inhibit overall learning, both statistically and demonstrable logically -- correlation here is causation when the dots are connected and reasonable thought is allowed rather than just ideology.

It’s not all about minorities and deprivation.

A major causal factor has also been virtually overlooked.  Our political classically liberal leadership is understandably focused on the schools below that one standard deviation below the mean, but they also appear fixated on that niche.  There are tens of thousands of US rural and suburban systems – inbred, myopic, where a world-view stops at the county line -- that fall in the zone a fraction of a standard deviation above and below mean performance.  They are the foundation clay of our overall system, but too frequently the same clay referenced in “feet of.”  Usually well intentioned to a fault, these systems are frequently populated by administrators and teachers who have exceeded their knowledge expiration date, but because of ego, ignorance, hubris or fear, are dug in and refuse the proverbial update.  They are outputting students now, and barring reform will graduate in future students who are obsolete academically before they receive their diploma.  Upgrading education of children in low income and challenged environments is just, meritorious and newsworthy; challenging the mediocrity above that will tend to stay mediocrity infrequently occurs because it’s below the radar and promulgating that challenge won’t sell column inches or TV time. It's even branded un-American to make the point.  But unless the game is changed in such systems US systemic K-12 will remain intellectually mired in its present crater by inertia and the sheer mass of central tendency.

There is another perspective applicable to the middle majority of our K-12 public schools.  It comes from the system the critics of choice, test-based accountability and performance-based pay delight in throwing out as a comparison, Finland.  When all of the "yes but" responses of detractors of the comparison are knocked down what finally emerges are education policies with a national imprint, that are "...systematic, mostly intentional, development that has created a future of diversity, trust, and respect within Finnish society in general and within its education system in particular."

A comment to the above opinion piece, however, may have said it with even more telling candor about America's hangups:

"The cultural value that most needs changing to improve the schools is the one that led George W. Bush to joke about his low grades, that led this country to disparage Adlai Stevenson as 'an egghead,' that leads so many to say that Bill Clinton or George McGovern (both of whom had taught college before entering politics) 'never held a job,' that encourages parents to say they are worried about their bookish son and to insist he play a sport, that allows a high school teacher to teach out of field, that allows students and teachers time out of class to attend sports tournaments, and that lets kids in some schools get beaten up by classmates for doing their homework. Face it, this country doesn't value intelligence and thinking, and the schools will never improve until we decide learning is important. Maybe THAT is the difference between the U. S. and Finland." 

What can you add?

Sound and fury.

Step back a pace or two and hear the comments and arguments floating out there:
  • Learning is effectively measured by frequent standardized multiple-choice tests (of temporarily memorized fragments of information).
  • The unique determinant of performance on those tests is whether an individual at the euphemistic front of a class “teaches” those fragments of information (by drill until they are universally replicable by students on demand in the short term then forgotten and never attached to contextual knowledge).
  • School systems will automatically improve when they are threatened with being deprived of some fraction of the roughly 12 percent of their total funding that comes from the Federal government starting with Title 1.
  • Our K-12 systems would prosper if they were returned to local control, common core curricula were abandoned, and the teaching of evolution was banned.
  • Learning will be improved if every school simply completes a “punch list” of to-do items that a Department of Education filled with academic wisdom has determined is perfect K-12 education, i.e., RttT.
  • Build bigger and jazzier school complexes, for they will surely improve the learning environment, ensure greater connectivity, and they fill our communities with pride of ownership (especially the football complexes).
  • Get God and creationism back into the classroom. 
  • Keep those human resources with only subject matter expertise out of our classrooms; they lack that unique education for teaching that is imparted by our schools of education and is the hallmark of our public education success.
  • All we need to do is get rid of TV, iPods, the Internet, and go back to conversation around the dinner table.
  • It’s communism, all part of “the plan.” 
  • Whatever happened to the rights of each state to set education standards?
  • We need to bring K-12 superintendents and principals into the Congressional hearings to get real expertise on needed change.
Allegory, and from the bright cloud the voice boomed, and said:  “Flog them with standardized tests until they learn.”  From below, young voices beseeched:  “But sir, how do we learn, with what tools, with what models, with what protocols, and how do those fragments of information now doubling every 18 months become knowledge?”  And from on high the wisdom came tumbling down:  “Pass the next NCLB with teeth, and flog the teachers with standardized tests until you little buggers learn.”

A bit of lampooning, but most of the above snippets are from the op-ed offerings and related comments our population has inputted to the debates.  Is there some reason or common sense that transcends ideology in this afflicted arena?

Third rail.

Stepping onto that third rail:
  • The relationship between teaching and learning is not a constant across age levels and subject matter, and arguably across individuals or their antecedent learning.
  • Learning is not a monotonic function of teaching; indeed, teaching may be the minority variable in learning at every level, outranked in influence by other causal variables that are present in a school’s environment and systems needed for learning to occur, as well as by what happens in the home.
  • Facts, data, formulae, information, dates, even simplistic relationships, are not “knowledge,” though they make up the components of potential contextual knowledge.  Consequently, virtually all so-called standardized testing currently in vogue is not testing for acquired knowledge, much less the capacity to apply knowledge to new situations or to exercise creativity.
  • We have procrastinated for decades in developing testing that can capture genuine learning, critical thinking, problem solving, and the capacity for creative invention.  Technology in the form of computer speed, the “cloud,” and incipient practical artificial intelligence (AI) is enabling that, and we are still haphazardly kicking the challenge down the road.
  • Our schools of education and many of their rubrics are obsolete, invalidated by burgeoning neural research; the training of K-12 administration to understand and lead complex organizations is virtually non-existent; and the vetting of human resources to provide K-12 administration – frequently left for undistinguished to ignorant school boards – has allowed too many self-righteous and -interested resources to embed themselves in K-12 education with virtually no oversight unless they misappropriate dollars, or assault a student, or blunder the cover-up of school malfeasance.  Recently in Indiana, a long-time superintendent -- sober -- bit the dust when he failed to stop for an Indiana highway patrol officer, then smashed the front of the officer’s vehicle by backing into it.  Famous last words:  “You can’t ticket me, I’m a superintendent."
  • Some unknown fraction of local school boards, but likely substantial, lacks the academic and managerial competence to provide effective oversight of systems, and they are frequently manipulatively set up to be chosen in a manner that contradicts even the simple democratic notion of proper representation of a place’s voters and taxpayers.
The strident calls to return our K-12 schools to local control are accordingly a dangerously flawed solution for change. Tragically, so is the ideologically driven and crude testing strategy being forced onto states and schools by Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan with a $100B hammer.  That makes the choices pretty stark.

Render unto Caesar. 

At least one dimension of this debacle might be sorted logically, the division of control between national governance versus state and local control:
  • Knowledge -- STEM, socioeconomic, historical, artistic, literature, language, and on -- are not handmaidens of states, counties, places or systems; there needs to be a common curricular base for all US education.
  • Standards of learning, guided by curricula, need to be defined for the nation as a whole.  Therefore, summative assessment is not subject to local preferences, but needs to be developed as proposed above, or parallel NAEP, not by present standardized testing that also varies by state and was never “standardized."
  • State and local oversight of systems seems a rational dedication, subject to common standards for that oversight; that may mean national standards for operations of states’ education administrations, states’ schools of education, and standards for the election and conduct of local boards.
  • An offshoot of the prior item is suggested national standards for state certification of teachers (the principle is already established in national board certification of accomplished teachers), expediting the mobility of teachers nationally and as a basis for equalizing the supply of teaching human resources.
  • Oversight of local systems by local boards is defended, reflecting local culture and community values, collaboration accruing to communities and their role as a principal source of tax-based school  funding.  Simultaneously, the track records of many local boards connote low transparency, arrogance in the face of parental concerns, and a low level of understanding of both educational process and the complex roles of such a board.
  • Second level oversight of local systems and their boards needs to be extended to states within the context of agreed national standards of educational achievement and core ethical behavior.
  • There seems a strong case for continuing to concentrate R&D and core education research in the US Department of Education because of the efficiency of focusing basic research in one entity that can command the very best academic human resources, leverage that expertise, and with the responsibility to widely disseminate what works.
Are we thinking yet?

Diversity of viewpoints, rhetoric, and pitched battles over ideology notwithstanding, there is every reason to believe in the general sincerity and commitment of those across the nation who populate, strategize for, and execute in our public K-12 education trenches. 

But there is also the prescient and not politically correct admonition by Dr. Martin Luther King, which simultaneously evokes a picture of too much of US public education miasma: “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

HUMP DAY TRAILER, 10/19/2011

The last SQUINTS was so pessimistic about the trajectories of US public K-12 (and higher education) that it provoked a search for hope, or at least ideas that were not simply regressive.

What caught the eye this AM is a story about – in spite of national miasma about US futures – thinking from DARPA and NASA envisioning a way to get to the stars.   One of the scientists, with a sense of humor, expressed the vision in a couplet:  “On to the stars!  Cowards shoot for Mars.” 

The couplet triggered a perspective of how US public K-12 and higher education are being positioned, frequently devoid of creativity, drowning in “calf path” thinking, and committed to continually funding functions in their respective comfort zones and in many cases serving primarily self-interest, or interests that do not have learning as their hallmark. 

The last SQUINTS cited two posts by the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews airing a dozen schools and/or ideas that break the traditional K-12 mold. Unfortunately, even if that sample dozen is projectable into a small fraction of US systems pursuing creative changes in K-12, it has to be referenced against our 99,000 public schools.

Below are some ideas that are off the "calf path:"
  • One size does not fit all K-12 learning progression and scaffolding; do the research to determine at what stage traditional classrooms can yield to a more free-form model of collaborative and constructivist learning.
  • Instead of the massive deployment of our multiplying digital/computer capabilities (including incipient AI) to only entertainment, create a challenge, an open source movement and awards to develop digital testing models or mechanisms for evaluating learning that reflects genuine knowledge (full contexts for meaning, not the same as information, facts, data, word sequences, identities, formulas, etc.), and developed competence in critical thinking, problem solving, and how to foster creative-thinking.
  • Totally end the seat time model, rigid classes, and the six-sigma attempted production of human widgets – the Orwellian education model – essentially creating learning and tracking performance individually for every student.  Fantasy?  A school is already experimenting with the model powered by digital capabilities that now support daily individual lesson plans and formative assessment.
  • Throw away the present 9-12 versus entry collegiate scenario, and create a blended system that engages higher education to put its money and thinking where its gripes are about high school preparation for the collegiate model of education; in parallel, require 9-12 educational resources to engage with one or more colleges on a regular basis to understand their educational methods and requirements.  
  • While higher education is about it, running on literally medieval models of education and curricula frozen in time, go back to the drawing board to redesign post-secondary education for this century’s demands.  That may require redefinition of the chestnuts that collegiate education cannot occur without small armies of bureaucrats, winning football/basketball teams based on buying the best incipient pros they can recruit, $50+MM student entertainment centers, and that every learning resource be judged primarily, excepting most of the sciences, by a mixed bag of research and arcane publications receding into history as desiderata.  To see a world already retreating to dinosaurs and hype, one only has to view most of our B-schools. 
  • Re-engage parents in the K-12 learning process by making them full, and at least regularly on-site partners in a school’s operations.  Change the role of “teacher” to at least partially encompass the re-education of those adults to be primary learning modalities. 
  • Re-engage our schools’ physical facilities, and those funding them, with virtually all aspects of a true "learning community."  Open facilities fully to community function, and start widely employing as adjunct learning resources a community's professional human resources who in many cases bring more intellect and training to the party than most of a system’s teachers.
  • Trash the present model of school governance by superintendents and principals, who can become bureaucrats for life, by moving the goalposts:  Terminate those who can’t or refuse to push creativity and invention to change the playing field to achieve individualized and non-programmatic learning, and who reject contemporary models of leadership.   Require regular system rotation of service of even the successful administrators to minimize comfort zones and empire building.
  • To the stars -- start constructing digitally simulated schools that combine learning mechanisms deliverable digitally and by distance with human resource application where it is interactively most effective.  Far out?  The perspective is similar to the one gained by putting your head down on the floor next to your pet’s, you get a different view:  This Fall, the monthly average use of two online interactive simulated social life models reached over 140MM.  Those are our K-12 students -- learning is happening, but much of it is already outside of our educational infrastructure. 
  • Lastly, flip the model of education “expert” versus “boots on the ground.”  Require school of education faculty and administrators to teach in a K-12 school once every N periods.  In parallel, require future “teachers” to:  Have a masters degree or some equivalent at minimum to even get into a K-12 school; be competent in research design on classroom learning methods and resultant data interpretation; have training in curricular design; be competent in testing theory, test design, and interpretation.  Develop a process quality control model of K-12 delivery, then trash in perpetuity the present debacle of standardized testing and its ex post positioning of the opportunity for learning.
Hard?  For sure, but the challenges remind me of a group president (liked and hated simultaneously) to whom I once reported when in executive garb.  His favorite retort when delivering a seemingly unattainable performance goal was:  "If it was easy, I'd do it on a postcard over a martini."

Lastly, almost invalidating the "on to the stars" good feeling of the morning, attempts to game public K-12 education to support a testing and hype agenda really do stretch common sense.  Restoring sanity is today's blog by Dr. Diane Ravitch, that shreds the hype; it should be required reading for our K-12 bureaucrats and Congress.

Aiming or settling for the status quo is neither a challenge, nor one of the more prescient definitions of work as "hard fun"...

RPW

Sunday, October 16, 2011

EDUNATION EARLY WAKE UP SQUINTS, WEEK OF OCTOBER 17, 2011

US K-12:  A SWOT analysis.

SWOT refers to an analytical paradigm that attempts to categorize the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats associated with some organizational entity.  This is a bold leap (or perhaps real stretch?) to use it to characterize our K-12 systems.

Given the diversity of US K-12 education an attempted SWOT systemic exercise must be trimmed to the venue at issue to the extent possible.  This trial will focus on public education, ignoring charters, religious organization-based schools, and private K-12 programs. 

Still, the enormity of our public education base means that a bunch of simplifying assumptions are needed to do assessment.  Some are commonality in public K-12 by virtue of over a half century of standardization created by homogeneous school of education training, common teacher certification protocols, union negotiation of common work rules, and similar state-to-state education departmental models.  Add more recently the effects of NCLB, RttT, the common core curricula, and near-mandatory standardized testing in place.    

Exceptions must also be proposed, because to their credit some public K-12 systems have adopted the anthem, “simply say no,” to Federal funds and some of the maceration of learning by NCLB and standardized testing.  Many of the Weaknesses and Threats suggested below may not apply to systems that have chosen their own vector, and they may exhibit even more Strengths and capture of proposed Opportunities, or opportunities not even envisioned.

Lastly, there could be merit, in place of simply beating on public systems and students with simplistic testing, to catalyze a program of self-evaluation with transparency.  The ideal would be what is now termed “big data,” the replication of a self-analysis like SWOT for enough of our public systems with disclosure so that a full picture of the challenge was available for data mining.  A perennial criticism of the public education establishment is that much of it has refused de rigueur that self-critique, unleashing the current attempts to force it into better learning performance via testing.

Here’s a swing at the pitch:

Strengths
  • An institutional memory of past success and the sense of being a profession.
  • Stable physical infrastructure that still blankets the US. 
  • Though subject to periodic abuse and deception, a generally accepted mechanism for stable local tax funding.
  • A public model of universal education still accepted by most of our citizens.
  • A large human resource base of teachers that on balance remains wholly committed to teaching, not just as a job, but a calling.
  • One half of the US Department of Education.

Weaknesses
  • The other half of the US Department of Education.
  • Systemic dogmatism trained into the profession that is a barrier to self-assessment and objective, research-based search for better learning protocols.
  • Century old system organizational model in need of change.
  • Teachers’ unions and their inherent adversarial function inserted between teachers and organizational and managerial engagement.
  • Misplaced dogma embracing reductionism and obsolete classroom methods.
  • Inadequate teacher training and subsequent development.
  • Lack of training, vetting, and oversight of the managerial role of superintendent, permitting the engagement of unqualified and even corrupted management of systems.
  • Local school boards ignorant of contemporary educational needs or expressing self-serving or inappropriate values.
  • Lack of courage by public educational administration to stand up and be counted in resisting the testing motif being indiscriminately imposed on their systems with dysfunctional effects on genuine learning.
  • Producing graduates unprepared for post-secondary work.
  • Endemic cheating on standardized testing.
  • Virtual paranoia about exhibiting transparency of what is being taught, how, human resource credentials, how funds are allocated, and suppression of parental and taxpayer critique.
  • Public K-12 is losing its best teachers at the rate of 14-20 percent per year.
  • Overall rejection of even centric progressive education in favor of the classroom management paradigm.

Opportunities
  • Evolve an enriched common curricula because world information is allegedly doubling every 18 months and isn’t formed or footnoted by state, county or district.
  • Embrace neural biological learning findings to modify classroom effectiveness.  (A graphic example of how far we have to go, but how much is now unfolding, is recent research with infants 6-12 months exposed to bilingual versus monolingual language in the home.  Researchers most recently used EEG caps to measure infants’ brain responses to those language options, finding that all could distinguish the cadence of different languages up to 12 months of age.  But in monolingual households the ability then disappeared, suggesting “neural commitment” with the brain wiring itself to understand one language.)
  • Research and adopt digitally-driven critical thought and problem-solving based measurements of classroom outcomes.
  • Redesign K-12 organization to reflect modern managerial thought.
  • Aggressively reform US schools of education.
  • Nominate Dr. Diane Ravitch as US Secretary of Education.
  • Take a fresh start to blend progressive education principles with direct instructional logic to match the complexity of today’s learning needs.
  • Go digital, because the technology will not go away and promises revolution in learning modes that need to be integrated into the extant model of K-12. Importantly tools and protocols need to be forged around software rather than seen as simply hardware – future pedagogy will combine diverse modes of communication and learning to create knowledge formation. 
  • Smash the model of political correctness that suppresses publicly identifying and awarding systems that are differentially successful, and equally, identify and publicly expose the systems that are not performing, along with the symptoms and human resources accepting and accountable for those failures.
  • Except for “Teach for America,” the issue of recruiting into teaching more resources with subject matter expertise and comparable experience has virtually disappeared from the national scene; perhaps because those presently in the profession fear competition, and loss of class “specialness” perceived to come with the profession.  Are teachers born, or educated to create learning experiences?  Are managers born, or educated to perform effectively?  Is one born a medical doctor?  Improving schools of education is one solution to improving K-12 learning; creating a national movement to expand the supply of human resources with subject matter and experiential competence, supporting classrooms, in the short run may have even greater impact on K-12 quality.
  • Piggybacking on the earlier noted neural finding, advance early childhood learning in reading; for an example of places and systems already providing US leadership in the quest, a today education post.

Threats
  •  OD&G:  Obama, Duncan and Gates.
  • Congress, both houses, both political parties. 
  • The corporations dominating standardized testing and scoring, and their lobbyists, willing to undercut US K-12 learning to protect and expand those markets and revenue. 
  • K-12 educational mythology and bureaucratic self-interest, and despotism at the level of local systems. 
  • Continued dysfunctional nomination and election of local boards of education, without upgraded academic requirements for running, and without required training before service can be rendered.
  • A frequently educationally na├»ve and uninformed parent base, educated in the same K-12 systems where change is now demanded, and bouncing between helicopter parenting and remanding their progeny to the schools in loco parentis
  • Continued indifference and contempt by US higher education for the antecedent 9-12 education that forms the pool of their matriculating student market.
  • Continued denial, intransigence, and resistance of most US schools of education to reform, including vetting of candidates, updating learning theories, and doing the preparation of graduates needed to be effective in the classroom with fewer self-learning years of trial and error.
  • More standardized testing of the same genre.
  • Assessment of teachers with more standardized testing of the same genre.
  • Continued privatization of US K-12 education without the necessary QA and oversight features of even present public systems.
  • Texas. 

Synopsis.

Even if perceived Weaknesses and Threats are off by a healthy fraction of a level of magnitude, US public K-12 change appears to represent metaphorically two monoliths flowing inexorably around an island of common sense but repelled from contact.  Our public K-12 systems spending annually over $625B -- admittedly with exceptions, but also with those exceptions minority -- have dogmatically erected barriers of denial and intransigence to changing their assumptions and methods. 

An inexplicably hypocritical President Obama acknowledges the inadequacies of the present model of testing to force change in K-12, but with the power of government, spending over $75B annually in Federal K-12 funding with strings, and inexplicably a Congress that is a throwback to another century behind his strategies, continues to impede and disassemble genuine learning via standardized testing illogic.

Also caught in the eddies from the plowing of the two behemoths are many of our society's parents, not knowledgeable about the intricacies of current learning theories, pandered by local systems feeding a blend of complex to phony performance results, sports diversion, emotional appeals to local control, and the admonition to "trust us" plus, oh yes, approve the next levy.

Lastly, there is a need to segue to our US public colleges and universities because of the repetitive assertion that our public high schools are failing to prepare graduates for post-secondary education.  Those public colleges and universities, spending over $285B annually (before endowments) for a higher education learning vaccination, that according to recent credible empirical research hasn't taken, have compensated by building bigger and better edifices to student entertainment.  But the dual findings if valid -- inadequate 9-12 preparation for collegiate work, coupled to the research by Arum and Roksa inferring truncated collegiate learning -- present a pretty pessimistic and nasty scenario for American education, that appears to reflect the only thing funny recently to come out of Texas, "all hat, no cattle."

A bottom line?

There needs to be one, or to lapse into edu-speak, some summative assessment.  The assessments are a call for accountability.

Boots on the ground, a quote from Sunday's NYT's op-ed by Tom Friedman brings the issue home:

“I had two young C.E.O.’s in the health care software business in the other day, sitting at this table. I asked them: ‘What can I do to help you?’ They said, ‘We have 50 job openings today, and we can’t find people.’  Doug Oberhelman, the C.E.O. of Caterpillar, which is based in Illinois, was quoted in Crain’s Chicago Business on Sept. 13 as saying: 'We cannot find qualified hourly production people, and, for that matter, many technical, engineering service technicians, and even welders, and it is hurting our manufacturing base in the United States. The education system in the United States basically has failed them, and we have to retrain every person we hire.'"

Juxtaposed, but intertwined, are the two juggernauts:  A still massive public education system slathered with bureaucracy and some incompetent human resources, and subject to unpredictable course perturbations by local control; and the focused but misdirected drive by the Federal government to reform K-12 by bludgeoning it into programmed zombie learning.

The issues are stark.  Our public systems range from excellent to disgusting, in education practices, management competence, and ethics.  For systems that are thinking out of the box, the present Federal standardized testing agenda is a major barrier to real learning.  For systems similar to some viewed in the area, the testing agenda simply ossifies mediocrity with cover for administrative incompetence or worse.  Finally, add the politicalization of state education oversight.  The good Dr. Wood may see a glass half full; the facts suggest that even if that is so, the present chances of filling it are roughly equal to the probability of OSU football winning the 2012 BCS.

Are there fixes?  Conceptually yes:  Development of testing for knowledge acquisition versus temporary memory of fragments; aggressive reform of schools of education; raise the standards for admission to a school of education; raise the qualifications to be a local school board member and nationalize those standards; redesign K-12 system organization; new standards for vetting peak system leadership; retrain two-thirds of our public K-12 teachers, and seek the creativity to retain the best; get the US Department of Education out of the testing production and system assassination business and back to research, development of standards of learning, experimentation to develop best classroom learning methodologies, strategic envisioning, and data gathering and mining to create meaningful measurement of overall system performance; reconcile common core curricula with the contemporary understanding of true knowledge creation; create state oversight of local school boards and system leadership performance, with the power to sanction; legislate controls and prosecute commercial fraud masquerading as online and alternative education; engage public higher education as a partner in addressing the issue of failing 9-12 preparation for post-secondary work; think outside the box (rather than the old IBM joke anthem, "thimk") by switching the misplaced digital emphasis on hardware to the logic and related software that can enable better combinations for learning delivery.

There are likely many more -- a wake up call?


Monday, October 10, 2011

EDUNATION EARLY WAKE UP SQUINTS - WEEK OF OCTOBER 10, 2011


A postscript 10/11.

Postscript may not seem apropos at the front end, but its definition is actually "something written after," and this is definitely after, so perhaps that's forgiven.

This addendum is prompted by a 10/11/2011 letter-to-the-editor in an Indiana city's major press.  The city should be a model of creativity and objectivity.  The letter was prompted by some of its citizens branding an innovative 9-12 New Tech high school STEM program -- that selectively ran afoul of Indiana's bone-headed standardized testing -- as an "alternative high school," apparently intending the reference as pejorative.

Anyone familiar with the New Tech model for STEM education, pioneered in California in conjunction with higher education, will recognize that the model is intellectually a step above even the some of the best present public 9-12 work, much less an alternative program in academic content.  For a perspective on the New Tech model, from the New Tech Network, click here

Slow week?

Perhaps mercifully the streams of K-12 reform rhetoric chilled a bit in the last week.

Still, there was enough exchange to work up some flow of adrenaline:  A rejoinder to the assertion in the “parent trigger” that parents “own” public schools; a rejoinder to the flow of argument that only K-12 teachers are the key logs in learning; continuing debate about what should, and should not be in a rewrite of NCLB; the GOP and the Tea Party, in a demonstration of why public education needs more than a facelift, discovered the future chasing K-12 education back to that little red schoolhouse; and finally as counterpoint to put positive spin on otherwise troubling issues, an example of content that is, in unaffected wisdom, an allegory on real education. 

In retrospect, not so quiet a week after all?

First, a thought experiment.

In last week’s SQUINTS a quote was posted by former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: "I wouldn't give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity; I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity."

Multiple correspondents weighed in on its meaning and implications.  The intended meaning was that in a search for explanation those searching move through levels of understanding, downstream from the early stages of scientific method first seeing explanations as fairly simplistic.  As evidence and linkages among variables accumulate explanations tend to become complex, seeking to capture some holistic understanding of the phenomena studied.  As explanation matures, and the components of explanation become visible and/or are tested, the complexity of the entity starts to become again clarified and seems simple; of course, by 20/20 hindsight.  In effect an inverted “U,” where simplicity versus complexity is sketched as a continuum on the Y axis and time or proximity to the end product is represented on the X axis.

The end of last week another view was reviewed, by a physicist working on our conception of our universe.  This writer proposed a more complex pattern, where simplicity versus complexity forms a distribution “M” shaped.  Explanation moves from simplistic to complex to a temporary simplistic conclusion that is an imperfect or even false product.  As the simplistic is embraced and applied new connections and even variables emerge and those seeking explanation are dragged back into complexity.  As explanation evolves to address the prior regression, a more complete, wiser, but simplistic holistic view emerges that is closer to knowledge and full explanation; the ultimate triumph of Occam’s Razor?

The utility of either concept in the present forum is in placing our K-12 systems of learning in such a conceptual model, as a basis for diagnosis and possible change.  One assessment is that public K-12 managed the trough of the “M” and has stalled for some considerable period, explaining why the debates about change are raging.  No fault of their own because it has only been the last two decades that neural biological research assisted by fMRI has enabled learning to be studied in real time.  The question is, how should the public K-12 education establishment respond to get over the second hump?  Thus far, the response has been more denial than entrepreneurship.

Finally, even more egregious than education’s response are the assumptions that root the massive push for simplistic standardized testing as the mechanism of learning reform.  The approach doesn’t even envision the complexity that makes present method so inexplicable.  It is hard to envision a more ignorant and evasive solution to needed change in how we educate than the methods and dictation coming out of Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan, both by their own words, and hypocritically, acknowledging the inadequacies of the sledge hammer employed, but dropping it onto public education anyway?  The US Department of Education’s policy actions on testing even denigrate the Department’s own history of some successful research on what works in the classroom. 

Explanations, not pretty, abound for why the standardized testing approach to reform has been permitted its take-over.  The larger questions are:  How do you pull the plug on testing tactics that reflect naive simplicity; move beyond the phony mid-course education simplicity manifested in reductionism and related "methods;" make the game plan transformation rather than reform; and install some genuine understanding of how learning is created and matured into knowledge?

Who owns our public schools?

We the people?  We the taxpayers?  We the parents, with possibly the most direct real time connection?  We the football, or basketball, or cheer, or band, or simply unthinking booster zealots?  A school’s superintendent or school board?  A school’s teachers?  Want a fight, ask that question at your next school board meeting, assuming its membership actually publicly tells you when and where it will be, and allows you to speak?

Six of the above regularly assume they are its owners, and frequently with a measure of arrogance and dictatorial attitude that can temporarily make that a reality and a system sick.

The question surfaces because of the 2010 enactment of California’s “Parent Empowerment Act,” and Federally as part of the “School Improvement Grant” program.  Succinctly, these actions, called the “parent trigger,” empower parents to change their school given exceptional unacceptable performance.  Sounds fair?  For a discussion of the many facets of this bit of “reform,” Dr. Diane Ravitch’s take (former Assistant Secretary of Education, and education research professor at NYU) is worth a view.

But here’s a first hand perspective that Dr. Ravitch may not have seen, because it has little to do with schools in low income and/or metro environments where schools disproportionately suffer learning quality issues.  In fact, this misadventure is quite the opposite, at least relative to the socioeconomic environment.

The far less principled version of this question has been observed in otherwise economically healthy area public systems with no free lunches.  It frequently takes the form of a self-righteous and manipulative superintendent consciously working a school's parents to believe that, indeed, they do own the school because their children are presently there.  Those parents in a smallish community, attracted to the notion that they are part of an elite membership, become a powerful voting block, to elect a desired school board, to force levies (that may persist well beyond their child’s tenure), to even ramrod commitments to new construction not needed.  If the administrator is dirty enough, parents that might hold different values are kept in line by the intimidating threat of having their children identified.  The power block becomes protection for administration -- and where oversight values fail, applicable to a system's board as well -- from transparency of what a system is doing, how funds are being allocated, criteria for hires, and even evasion of accountability for complaints or malfeasance.

Unfortunately and outrageously, this scenario is not just a theoretical construct, and can be seen from this area.

As a society we seem to have suppressed the core civic values that grew this nation, and how they assure representation of the various public stake holders.  Paradoxically, in Ohio the guiding principle is even embodied in the preamble to its open door and open records acts, that for example, a school and all permissible information about it's operations are a public trust. Those in power positions to administer those systems are simply custodians of the assets.

NCLB revisited?

Fairly quietly, because the bills are still in committee and not yet subject to expected markups by both parties, NCLB is being rewritten.  While much of its changes is still uncertain, what seems probable is that even more standardized testing will become part of those provisions.  There seems no way to stop this misguided strategic overkill to try to force-feed change.  The reality may be that it ultimately can’t force constructive public K-12 change, because there is an intellectual hole where contemporary learning awareness should be in our public educator thinking, even in its schools of education.  A reflective exercise is using the logic of reductio ad absurdum:  Carry the present standardized testing to every grade level, and to every phase of K-12 education, to the point that the only survival course for any school is to reduce the classroom to 100 percent preparation for standardized tests.  Using your wits, envision the end human resource product of this extreme?  Would you accept them into post-secondary work; would you hire them; would you start electing home schooling?

A point-by-point analysis of the NCLB changes is available here.

It’s all the teachers?

This brouhaha has been unfolding for some time, driven by the assertion of those pushing standardized testing as the main engine for evaluating teachers using the euphemism “value added;” essentially longitudinal changes in test scores.  A necessary assumption that is the scaffold for this approach is that 100 percent of learning is attributable to the teacher’s actions in the classroom.  In prior parts of this blog, and from many other resources dedicated to rational K-12 education, the difficulties with this narrow proposition have been displayed.  For two other views of this issue:  It’s also about students; and it’s also about documented socioeconomic variables; neither are acknowledged by the aggressive views on standardized testing.  

Finally, this morning, three posts tell a far more nuanced story about how teachers need to be supported, rather than dragged into teetering on the precipice of the next round of test scores:  Meeting the market; dollars or passion; and California's Governor weighs in on the model placing teachers on a production line.  The first item is viewed with a bit of irony; an area superintendent, apparently in fear of being exposed to something, maybe the contents of SQUINTS, has refused a simple conversation for four years.  The objectivity, openness and intellectual entrepreneurship of some of our K-12 bureaucracy are indeed a marvel to behold.

Turn out the lights?

A number of would-be Republican candidates for president have now zeroed in on education for an anti-government push, reaching all the way back to Mr. Reagan’s misguided wish to dissolve the US Department of Education.  The vision, all K-12 education is comprehensively locally controlled -- fast forward to the past?  The news item is here.  Paradoxically, Dr. Chester Finn, Jr., president of the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, challenges the view:  "People want government money, they want higher standards, they want accountability.  None of those things in most places comes from local control."

In spite of the US education train wreck subsequently resulting from NCLB, and the disaster for learning in K-12 being forced on America’s public schools by Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan, that Department is still one of the few safety nets keeping US K-12 from tumbling even lower in global quality than its present diminished status.

Parts is parts.

The above title may not register for most of you “youngsters,” but it is the punch line in one of the funny and disarming ads for the world of fast food (Wendy’s) that seriously dates this writer.  It featured a funny line with such effect and irony that it became a colloquial phrase for a generation.

Ironically, the line should be resurrected, to parody both the whole charade of standardized testing as developmentally productive, and to describe a large share of present K-12 public educational reductionism and methods, even characterizing some post-secondary education.

For those with any acquaintance with the pioneers of operations research in business, and inventive work on organizations, the name (Dr.) Russell Ackoff (who died this month in 2009) won’t be a surprise.  For those for whom this will be a first, it is worth the time it will take to view the short videos below.  It might be the best 47 minutes and 35 seconds of learning with plain talk you will ever experience:







Better than Starbucks?  No further wake up call should be needed.