Sunday, November 20, 2011


Not a momentous week for US public K-12 education, it still managed to produce some major groans.

Barbarians at the gates.

In what appears allegedly venal cronyism, Arne Duncan (and presumably Mr. Obama) awarded and gifted Microsoft with the US Department of Education’s “TEACH” program, and its website, a program intended to promote K-12 teaching as a profession to present and future collegians.

There is no issue with the need; through this decade the US may need as many as a million new K-12 teachers because of waves of boomer retirements.  The issue is that there are likely hundreds of US organizations with greater credibility and competence to promote K-12 teaching as a profession, including Apple where innovation and commitment to education were crafted that made Microsoft a distant runner-up that created little.

An assumption is that the gift is the quid pro quo for Gates’ billions spent on pushing standardized testing for the Obama-Duncan version of public education reform, opening a gate for Microsoft to prostitute public education to peddle obsolete software to future teachers – a class act?

The good news is that Microsoft may have as much success in the quest as it has had in writing bug-free code and delivering it at less that monopolistic prices.   The bad news is that the “TEACH” program is critical to future pubic K-12, and the opportunity cost of the cronyism to the US and the public education system is astronomical.

One could effectively argue that Arne Duncan has proven unfit to lead US public K-12 education reform, and should be replaced.

From rift to abyss.

The rhetoric, between accomplished education scholars such as Darling-Hammond at Stanford, professor, historian and author Diane Ravitch, and a small army of accomplished educators with decades of experience, juxtaposed against Duncan, the “billionaire boys club” (and more than a few naïve to destructive millionaires’ reform clubs), and the corporate reform movement of instant education experts, has become increasingly contentious. 

What seems clear is that the hypocrisy of the latter combination has reached new levels.  In a prior SQUINTS it was observed that the “corporate reform” mentality calls for using contemporary business logic in education, but then advocates a testing logic to inspect and penalize at the end of the line.  The blatant hypocrisy:  Contemporary management logic proposes that model of quality control is obsolete and advocates process controls that minimize or eliminate traditional inspection, i.e., in the case of K-12, simplistic standardized tests.

In a similar vein, Gates, Duncan, and that army of corporate reformers apparently missed entirely the epic work of MIT’s Douglas McGregor, on contrasting motivational approaches, Theory X versus Theory Y.  Theory X envisions beating public K-12 into submission.  Theory Y advocates a more intelligent approach, which by the way, works.  One educator, being far too kind, proposes that Bill Gates could be a hero by dropping Theory X and adopting Theory Y.  Pardon the demurral; spell that skepticism that Gates can distinguish X and Y any better than his leadership was able to distinguish an IBM giveaway and tax write-off of DOS from genuine invention, knocking off Apple technology and profiteering versus investment in innovation, or discerning competition from monopoly.

Lastly, as rift becomes abyss, hard documentation is quickly growing that demonstrates the present approach of NCLB is failing, along with the orgy of standardized testing.  A recent state level example was that state’s education department finding that at least 25-30 percent of its public school systems that had garnered ratings of “excellent” based on NCLB testing scored below the state’s average on the more defensible college admission tests.  What fraction of those “excellent” programs might show similar deficits if the collegiate test score reference mark was increased just one-half a standard deviation above the mean?  Phony excellence?

But an even testier issue with the escalating standoff between public schools and a small army of genuine education scholars on one side of the skirmish line, and the “Theory X” reform mentality on the other side, is they both embrace flawed arguments. 

Our public schools, by assuming entitlement, and by delaying for decades the self-examination and diagnostic assessment of their own structure and learning performances (along with America’s schools of education), gave birth to the present reform movement.  The public teachers’ unions exacerbated the schools’ performances with their own narrow missions.  That has been extended by the hubris still demonstrated by many dug-in public education bureaucrats and even teachers, who can’t fathom either present research on learning or how US need and technology have evolved. 

The present reform movement, in turn, is being driven more by ideology than strategic thought and intelligent diagnosis.  Even more destructive, virtually none of the standardized testing and teacher assessment modeling based on that same logic, has withstood either conceptual testing or empirical verification.  NCLB was simply allowed to snowball because of the ignorance and shallow thought now being projected by Duncan and the US Department of Education, then reinforced because it appeals to the political right wing’s view that we need to go back to school privatization shoot-outs that channel an old Ronald Reagan movie.

Ohio, thy name is ambiguity.

A pair of bittersweet policies issued recently from Ohio’s Department of Education, now overseen by Stan Heffner.

ODE has not proven historically a centerpiece of K-12 educational excellence – previously an inbred, bureaucratic division committed to protecting local schools from transparency and making it a challenge to find out virtually anything organized about Ohio’s public schools, in some cases violating Ohio’s laws to do so. 

But under its new state superintendent, Heffner, it has posted one of the more articulate yet readable prescriptions for proactively reforming Ohio’s schools.  The policies advocated are so evocative of common sense, and broadly applicable to US K-12, that a great deal of past misdirection is absolved.

But, also issuing – admittedly in response to a misguided Ohio bill, Ohio 2011 H.B. 153 – that same Department of Education just announced a new series ranking Ohio school districts, based on an alleged district “Performance Index” (PI), to be promulgated shortly in final form along with district per pupil spending.  

Sounds reasonable and responsible?  It might be if the Department had employed relevant data.  The alleged "Performance Index" is based on weighted NCLB standardized test results, challenged by virtually every real education scholar as meaningful learning, along with results from Ohio's graduation test (OGT) of questionable rigor.

In turn, the gross per pupil expenditures are an equally questionable measure, because of the effects of how those expenditures are allocated, for example, between dollars going specifically to instruction versus spending on administration, bureaucratic functions, and other non-instructional activities.  Inexplicably, the spending depiction accompanying the rankings is the opposite of the admonitions about Ohio school spending proposed in the prior and excellent policy document. 

Ohio’s Department of Education could adopt as a graphic the Roman god, “Janus,” though the real meaning of that symbolism is more intelligent than the PI effort.

Pizza and fries, the new health food?

Peripheral to K-12, but descriptive of Congress’ depiction as legalized bribery, was its response to an attempt to improve the quality of school lunches.  You have undoubtedly heard the groans from parents with wits, and any health professional who understands nutrition and America’s childhood obesity epidemic, mingled with the cheers from a phalanx of corporate lobbyists and a few select producers, and ultimately the ka-ching of money counting in legislators’ campaigns.

As cited by the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss:  “Despite public ridicule — including a skewering on Jon Stewart’s ‘The Daily Show’ — Congress has gone ahead and approved legislation that junks new standards the Obama administration was trying to set to make lunches healthier for public school children.”

The rest of Strauss’ op-ed is worth reading.  Any additional comment seems superfluous, except for the vague recurring dream that conjures a giant plastic spray bottle positioned in front of the Capitol and labeled for Congressional weed control, “Roundup/Spray On.”

Better parents.

In Sunday’s New York Times, author and columnist Tom Friedman reported on findings from a first study of 5,000 students in 20 countries that make up the O.E.C.D. (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), which internationally conducts the exams of 15-year-olds known as PISA (Program for International Student Assessment).  As Friedman points out: “America’s 15-year-olds have not been distinguishing themselves in the PISA exams compared with students in Singapore, Finland and Shanghai.”

The research, for the years 2006 and 2009, went beyond classrooms, specifically “…the PISA team went to the parents of 5,000 students and interviewed them ‘about how they raised their kids and then compared that with the test results’ for those years.”

The key finding: “Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all.  The performance advantage among students whose parents read to them in their early school years is evident regardless of the family’s socioeconomic background,” and “…just asking your child how was their school day and showing genuine interest in the learning that they are doing can have the same impact as hours of private tutoring.  It is something every parent can do, no matter what their education level or social background.”
Friedman’s argument is that the US reform movement should quit uniquely identifying only America’s teachers as the crux of US public K-12 reform, and start asking America’s families to “parent-up.”
So parents, if you don’t want a Bill Gates’ phantasmagoric manifestation materializing in your bedroom, entering through the seventh pane of the bedroom window, start addressing your child’s education with more robust learning support than junk TV, junk games, junk lyrics, junk food, and the belief that touchy-feely self esteem and sports are more important than literacy.
Were the latter Gates’ appearance not such a scary image, this might have actually constituted a “squib.”

Thanksgiving will intervene so the next SQUINTS will be posted on December 5. 

The topic will seek to address the diverse meanings of “knowledge” and “learning,” including the misuse/abuse or misunderstanding of these terms in much present K-12 reform rhetoric.  An attempt will also be made to relate one of the accepted depictions of learning processes (for example, “Bloom’s augmented taxonomy”) to evolving digital learning technologies, to get beyond the naïve views of technology meaning only whiteboards, desktops, laptops, even pads by the innovative, and their use frequently misconceived as simply add-ons to conventional pedagogy.

SQUINTS’ best wishes for a peaceful and pleasant “turkey day,” where for a brief period the turkey metaphorically is not wholly US public K-12 education.

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