Sunday, October 23, 2011


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.”

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