Monday, 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.

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