Sunday, October 16, 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:

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  •  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 naïve 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. 


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?

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