Monday, October 31, 2011


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.


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?

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