Sunday, December 4, 2011

SQUINTS 12/5/2011 -- READY, FIRE..., AIM

Good, Bad and Ugly:  Revisiting Ohio’s School Ranking Initiative

In the November 28 SQUINTS the story was related of Ohio’s attempt to upgrade its K-12 school rating scheme.  Basically this entailed moving from linguistic labels (excellent with distinction - excellent - effective - continuous improvement - academic watch - academic emergency) to a ranking of all of its districts required by Ohio’s FY2011 H.B. 153. 

The good:  The effort in isolation merits applause because of the misinformation about actual performance conveyed by the former qualitative scheme, reminding one of ratings half way between college degree notation and weather channel storm alerts.  In neither case do the qualitative descriptors convey valid meaning.

But at the risk of repetition of last week’s SQUINTS, the Ohio Department of Education’s own words tell the story best:

"In the current system, a school can be recognized as Excellent with Distinction while having nearly one in five students fail. Ninety excellent rated districts had ACT scores below the state average.  One excellent rated district had a college remediation rate of 81%. Sixty-five excellent rated school districts had negative value added scores.  Clearly, excellence doesn’t mean high student results in Ohio."

The bad:  The former descriptors were based on Ohio’s NCLB standardized test scores.  Adopting the new scheme, ODE based its rankings on the same test scores, weighted, with the addition of Ohio’s graduation test, running at about the same quality level in measuring learning as the other testing.

It should come as no surprise then that the first approximately 340 schools out of 940 ranked were the same as the prior positioning of “excellent with distinction” or “excellent,” that as noted above hardly designates excellence as one would ideally use the term.  Reminds one of one of the more humorous definitions of insanity.

The beginning ugly:  There is evidence from ODE’s own comparison of some of the excellent-rated schools with their ACT scores, that suggests a troubling discrepancy.  That was the basis for requesting from ODE, under the provisions of Ohio’s open records act, ACT scores by school district.  The intent was to attempt a reconciliation of the so-called ODE performance indexes with system ACT averages, obviously with appropriate statistical controls for other concomitant factors.

What was not reported was, that at the same time, similar ACT scores were requested under the open records act for a local system that has noisily and imperiously claimed excellence for a decade based on the same assessments that are now in question by ODE as well as by the kind of testing.

Full scale ugly:  Both ODE and the local system’s school board, demonstrating present contempt for Ohio law on top of a prior pattern of denial and/or hubris, have refused to provide the requested public data.  Their performances shout “cover-up,” suggesting agents vested with public trust that have violated it.

But if you want terminal ugly, there is a chance that ODE and Ohio’s other governmental functions have been egregiously distorting the performance and integrity of many of Ohio’s public systems, where bad or mediocrity is the new good, not fixating on test scores is actually courageous and meritorious, and claims of standardized test-based learning are the opposite of both reality and effective education. 

In parallel, ODE’s rankings are potentially also Ohio’s unintended but misguided reward for systems that massively cheat by employing curricula and lesson planning that has one overriding purpose, maximize the results of standardized testing, increasingly recognized as the enemy of real learning.

As detestable as the above performances, they are simply the tactical sequela of endemic flaws in the alleged public K-12 reform initiative launched by Obama’s administration, captured and amplified by the so-called corporate education reform movement along with the Gates’ initiatives.

A Very Timely Thing...

Admittedly this is a post-post, but so on target that it's appended.  Given the regular drumbeat of critique of standardized testing that saturates this blog, it's a surprise that no one has "popped the question:" "When did you take one of those tests, and how did you score?"  Candidly, no one has offered the tests, seemingly closely guarded lest someone critique them, but parts and questions have been leaked and seen in researching the phenomenon. However one accomplished school board member in one of the largest systems in the US did have the integrity to check the system.  This board member -- who holds a BS degree and two masters degrees, has 15 hours toward a doctorate, and helps oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion budget -- with courage and openness did take the tests. The results are narrated in this linked story in today's Washington Post. If there was ever a solid argument for seriously questioning and even prohibiting use of present standardized testing in our K-12 systems for high stakes evaluations, this story makes the case with gusto. Check it out.  A followup report appeared in the December 6 Washington Post, linked here.
When Myopia Colides with Education

The phenomenon that is baffling is how so many allegedly bright people have bought into the stupidity evoked by the narrow focus on allegedly standardized tests, and the alleged belief that the beginning and end of K-12 education bracket only its teachers.   A metaphor for this insanity might be asserting that your family physician is comprehensively the cause of all disease, or your plumber the cause of all drain clogs.  Absurd, of course, but no more so than asserting that teachers are the only fulcrum of K-12 learning, plus combining present standardized testing with short run longitudinal tracking to assess, reward or fire teachers.

There is, and has been for some time evidence that K-12 learning outcomes are a multivariate function of many conditions and school tactics, as well as real evidence of prior learning/knowledge being a major determinant of a learner’s current performances, potentially exceeding teachers' effects.  How and why these realities have been ignored in the race to phony performance definition are questions that should be addressed at some point.  At this moment America's public education systems, a product of a century of development, are being imperiled by misguided standardized testing that does not capture knowledge or its application to critical thinking or problem solving.

Simultaneously, probing the meanings and processes of learning and knowledge, attempted next, offers a glimpse into the shard of reasoning that produces the “teacher is everything” proposition.  That is, that part of the process of knowledge acquisition has a learning component based on socialization, with the capacity of being impacted by teacher personality, behavior, empathy, and other humanistic properties.  Based on that, it is tempting to attribute major effect to the human resource who can be identified and labeled accountable, versus other causal factors beyond organizational control even if they swamp teacher influence.

It is worth repeating the other variables that are impacting US K-12 performance and prompting the orgy of Theory X-dominant testing.  Below is an undoubtedly incomplete list of causal factors that goes beyond the naive view that teachers do it all, but it is a start: 
  • Socioeconomic and cultural attributes of students do impact learning in the classroom and in real time.
  • Managerial ignorance and malfeasance of principals and superintendents are as responsible for performance deficits as poorly equipped teachers, and far more dangerous to real learning.
  • Noted above, even the common core curriculum is being critiqued for missing rational learning targets, because it hasn’t been extended to social sciences, and because it offers no counsel on how to bring needed work to the classroom.
  • Technology in K-12 is still broadly misunderstood by educators, and becomes either showmanship, a sop for dollars, or is expressed in learning so naively that it becomes counterproductive.
  • With Ohio as a glaring example, schools are being misidentified for their learning outcomes resulting in misdirection from poor allocation of resources to destruction of successful learning systems by ignorance.
  • The textbook industry, largely invisible to the public, has been a major constraint on getting effective curricula into the classroom.
  • School systems swoon over new construction, the “community ego syndrome,” but the factors that determine real learning reside in days in school, hours in a classroom, how teachers engage students, access to quality curricula, access to and use of technology now available, how parents interface with their progeny and school pedagogy, and how alternative learning modes are integrated with formal classroom work.
  • Teachers, even when they are in the right quadrant of collegiate excellence, once separated from that learning environment are regularly shorted subject matter development required to support contemporary learning because of the accelerated rates of information creation. 
  • In many systems it is an open secret that teachers have little flexibility in fashioning their learning environment because of administratively-dictated lesson contents to achieve standardized test and state assessment mandates.
  • Many of America's school boards are populated by the educationally ignorant, those who run for all of the wrong reasons, and can even be functionally illiterate based on the weak requirements by states for school board service.
  • America's schools of education, with some excellent exceptions, are still intellectually nestled in some part of the 20th century, doing little meaningful research, and disinterested in reform even if higher education generically could be persuaded to try the genre.
  • As evidenced by Ohio's department, state departments of education are both politicized and all over the map in terms of employing strategically competent goals and education expertise. 
  • We are virtually blind to what is actually happening in many K-12 schools, and in their classrooms, because administrations and teachers are happy to have it that way, and because there are no national standards for the data that should be collected and automatically made transparent for parents and school taxpayers.
  • Teaching has been so distorted by the “consumer version” of K-12 logic that there is scant awareness of the real components of learning and knowledge, incredibly, even among K-12 teachers and administrators.
  • Elaborated below, there is widespread misunderstanding of the characterization of the knowledge schools are supposed to be creating, muddling virtually any real discipline to develop learning outcomes education pioneer Ausubel termed “meaningful learning” versus rote learning driving standardized tests. 
Nevertheless, though only partners in the symphony of processes that make up formal education, America’s K-12 teachers are important, new ones needed in future in quantity and at upscale quality levels, subject to rational accountability for classroom performance, and needing commensurate compensation.  But make them the only focus and cause of all K-12 learning?  This is myth and ignorance on the part of many so-called education reformers.

In Stumbling Pursuit of Learning and Knowledge

Vexing in the rhetoric thrown around K-12 change is the sloppiness of the definitions applied to the learning process and to a working concept of knowledge.

As philosophers have been wrestling with the concept of knowledge for a few millennia, it was presumptuous to assert this SQUINTS would suddenly clarify those processes as they apply to formal education.  That ambitious goal did, however, produce some self-awareness:  Equal and massive doses of humility about the writer’s ignorance of some of the roots of learning; but also of puzzlement about the same or greater ignorance throughout the ranks of those accountable for K-12 education.

After a pretty extensive literature review, a perspective emerging was that US public K-12 education through the last century simply vaulted most of the wisdom of the enlightenment and scientific method, and squatted on discipline-depleted postmodernism.  A view of contemporary K-12 output as a product metaphor:  Overreaching standardized testing of the parts and fasteners of a K-12 education that lacks a coherent product concept, lacks designs, lacks specifications, lacks a bill of materials, lacks assembly instructions, and can’t coherently describe or train the attributes of human resources who are supposed to assemble and support the product.

Any conceptual understanding of learning as a process, and knowledge as a mission, seem missing in many public K-12 administrators and teachers.  They are operating with pedagogy and methods lacking theoretical underpinnings, using rubrics repeated over decades that have neither been adequately deductively examined, nor represent any experimental or scientific basis for predicting resultant learning outcomes.

For emphasis, one atrocious example of the genre occurred this week in a place that should be operating on a different plane, Bloomington, IN, home base of Indiana University.  Its public school system’s recently acquired and press-hyped superintendent, in an initial speech to a local service club, described the system’s goals as:  “…the need to continually raise student achievement, including test scores the state uses to assess progress.”  Monroe County’s system is paying this alleged educator over one million dollars over four years to implement this questionable and naive mission statement and strategize for the system.  In sharp contrast, a recent New York Times article suggested “The Secrets of a Principal Who Makes Things Work.”  Astonishing, achieving on standardized tests wasn’t even mentioned.

Lastly, only in this year has a consortium of the US National Academies presented an improved prescription for a common core K-12 curriculum, and that common core though adopted by most of our states has not yet been implemented, nor does the prescription cover to date disciplines beyond the basics of math, literacy and some science.  With the good, the common core contents are already being excoriated because in their reverse development from 12 going back to 1 they created unrealistic early learning standards.

Knowledge Challenge

The above said, what should our K-12 systems be embracing, and what should their learning and knowledge strategies be?

Some good news is that over a century there has been critical thought about the K-12 education model; if anything, the issue is that the mass of ideas and conceptualizations were never thinned out by being subject to the next step in creating valid and reliable understanding – transformed into hypotheses that can be tested, then subjected to controlled experiments to relate concept, model, rubric, process, and human facilitation to real world learning outcomes.

Four core ideas are germane:  That many components sought in learning do not automatically constitute knowledge; that prior knowledge of the learner is a highly ranked factor in achieving new learning (Roschelle 1995; Meyer 2004), and that the skill to assess prior knowledge is a major discriminator of effective teachers that is correlated with time in the role; what legitimate attributes of knowledge are, even if a complete definition is elusive; and how some acceptable paradigm of learning can be used to link technology to learning processes to get beyond the simplistic hardware/software generalizations that feed technology skeptics (technology integration is to be a future SQUINTS).

The “knowledge is not” assertion of former professor and education guru Neil Fleming seems on the mark.  With apologies to Fleming, his rendition has been adopted but abridged to extend the logic:
  • A collection of bits is not a number.
  • A collection of numbers is not data.
  • A collection of data is not information.
  • A collection of information is not knowledge.
  • A collection of knowledge is not wisdom.
  • A collection of wisdom is not prediction.
  • A collection of prediction is not creativity. 
Then, facing head on the issue of characterizing what knowledge is, the following depiction -- authored by University of Melbourne professor Colin Reilly -- captures some consensus:

“Plato’s definition of knowledge as ‘justified true belief’ has been predominant in Western philosophy (Kakabadse et al. 2003), but limitations of language and the variety of discourse or practices that frame knowledge suggests universal knowledge spoken with a singular voice is unattainable (Agger 1991). Pragmatically, knowledge can be considered as understanding based on experience that can be shared or communicated (Firestone and McElroy 2003; Hirschheim 1985) and provides ‘capacity for effective action’ (Argyris 1993). Putting aside Kant’s contention that reality is forever unknowable, knowledge can represent reality (Spender 1996).

Knowledge may be recorded in an artifact such as a book or information system, but must be assimilated and interpreted by a person to become known (Boulding 1956); it cannot by itself enable knowing (Cook and Brown 1999). The individual possessing knowledge personalizes it in a subjective manner and such knowledge therefore ‘may or may not be unique, useful, accurate, or structurable’ (Alavi and Leidner 2001).

Recordable knowledge is referred to as explicit, can be transferred systematically, is seen to be objective (Nonaka and Takeuchi 1995; Polanyi 1966) and can subsist, awaiting discovery, without being known. But the greater part of knowledge is tacit, embedded in the minds and bodies of human individuals, perhaps semi-consciously (e.g. the knowledge of how to walk) and often not easily transferred to others (e.g. the knowledge of how to play the violin). Once embedded, however, tacit knowledge may appear to be effortless. (Grayson and O'Dell 1998; Leonard-Barton and Sensiper 1998; Polanyi 1966).”

Complementary, as philosopher Mortimer Adler so articulately asserted, opinion is not knowledge: 

“…the line that divides knowledge from opinion should also be clear. There is nothing self contradictory in the phrase ‘true opinion,’ or redundant in the phrase ‘false opinion.’ Opinions can be true or false, as knowledge cannot be. When individuals claim to have knowledge about something that turns out not to be knowledge at all because it is false, what they mistook for knowledge was only opinion.”

The challenge of digging deeper into how to organize implementing learning and knowledge creation is complicated by the sheer number of models proposed over a century.  A rough attempt to cite and annotate the major building blocks of K-12 learning follows.   Use of taxonomy has been carefully avoided, because of the dominance in the literature of “Bloom’s Taxonomy,” that simply either preempted other thinking or buried any other framework.  Additionally, because in spite of the definitional utility of Bloom’s model or its augmentations, it is not correctly a taxonomy as the term applies to defining speciation, but a glossary of verbs that linguistically may relate to learning effects but offer no prescription for their achievement.

Most deeply rooted education core constructs:
  • Stages of cognitive development (Piaget). 
  • Phases of learning (Gagne). 
  • Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives (Bloom, et al.).
  • Learning theory paradigms (Rogers, et al.). 
  • Explicit versus tacit knowledge. 
  • Meaningful learning – versus rote (Ausubel).
  • Theories of prior knowledge effects (multiple recent authors).
From these concepts a plethora of models has radiated alleging explanation of the influences on learning:
  • Learning style models. 
  • Information literacy and inquiry literacy models (more than thirty-three). 
  • Experiential learning model. 
  • Behaviorism (three major models).
  • Cognitivism (six models). 
  • Prescriptive design (fourteen models). 
  • Constructivism (twenty-five models).
  • Virtual learning models.
Finally, the above have generated a proliferation of instructional design modeling/prescriptions, the stuff of so much education training.  Examples:
  • Bloom’s taxonomy applied to methods. 
  • Parallel curriculum model; lecture, drill and recitation, concept attainment, Socratic, simulation, inquiry-based, problem-solving and problem-based, and independent study. 
  • Teaching methods only partially outlined from one source totaled fifty-nine options.
Reconciliation of the above competing models of K-12 education is daunting, but the generic critique of education for public education has to be its comprehensive failure on three fronts:  Failure to do the meta-research to compile and reconcile the above potpourri of theories and models; the failure of K-12’s designers to provide the derivations and intellectual justification for propositions and models that have proliferated; and referenced earlier, the virtual vacuum of testable hypotheses and experimental research at a classroom level to quantify what might work in creating better learning outcomes.

Summing, scan the current writing on K-12 education, and try to find more intellectual structure than the occasional differentiation between rote or behaviorism-driven teaching and alternative methods that assert creation of critical thinking or problem-solving.  Proponents of the present standardized tests, and systems comprehensively teaching to the tests simply evade answering the questions that challenge the genre.  More realistic conceptualizations of how learning actually exhibits effects over time are ignored or not understood.  Information, facts, data, dates, definitions, even formulae are confused with knowledge.  The role of pre-existing knowledge differences among learners is barely recognized, though highly significant in achieving current learning based on some recent hard research.  Finally, teachers have become the isolated focus of alleged reform efforts, when they are frequently victims of their own training, school organization and leadership failures or dysfunction, and failure of “education” as a cluster of disciplines to properly develop, understand, organize, and test its own propositions for practice.

Next Generation Learning

Coming out of a Gates Foundation initiative, below is a prospectus for next generation K-12 learning.  As bland and politically correct the statement, between the lines it still signals some sharp divisions with how public K-12 schools are largely delivering behaviorism, rote learning, and overdosing on the learning deficits that accrue to focusing on standardized test performance as their measure of learning achievement:

“Next Generation Learning Models share the following characteristics:
  • Differentiated content and multiple modes of instruction are provided to better meet the individual learning needs of all students;
  • Educators assess each student’s learning needs on an ongoing basis by comparing his/her current level of mastery of concepts or skills to rigorous college and career standards, then tailor instruction to boost achievement.
  • Teachers, school leaders, and other adults have the opportunity to assume different instructional and leadership responsibilities, and everyone contributes to student learning.
  • Inventive technology tools and models are used to enhance the quality of instruction and also provide students with different types of learning opportunities; and 
  • Educators use greater flexibility with regard to the content of instruction, the use of instructional time, and the allocation of financial and human resources to improve student achievement and promote school and district success.” 

There is likely much more to discover about US public education’s random walk among the elements that define its pedagogical core, but what is visible strongly reinforces the proposition that many of our public K-12 schools, their administrations, even many teachers lack the mastery of their own profession. US public schools, with exceptions, seem unprepared for reform, lacking coherent curricula, learning theory and knowledge change protocols to address their challenges.  This simply enables those who because of ideology would happily destroy US public K-12 education just because it's there.

The other side of the reform coin is equally onerous.  What the present reform movement is accomplishing is not improvement of learning and knowledge, but depreciating it by sanctioning its lowest common expression in the interest of political points and fictional educational hegemony.  The dark side of this form of reform is:  Misinforming and misleading parents and the public about what education should accomplish; installing another generation that will not be able to distinguish learning legitimacy from present demagoguery; and ultra destructive, creating forced acculturation of teachers that can move and distort teaching to veer from its prior nobility to the lowest level of its promise or another resource on a production line.

US education change strategies really have become “ready, fire…, aim.”


A final, retrospective note:  December 6th's New York Times featured a joint op-ed by Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, and Stanford's Linda Darling-Hammond, both education pros, but from opposite poles politically.  They, however, found agreement on "How to Rescue Education Reform."  Noteworthy, they advocate getting the federal government out of much of that needed change, except for four areas where it could serve.  This blog advocates expanding its first point, on ensuring school transparency, to include in cooperation with our states, defining what we need to fully know about our K-12 schools' strategies and operations, then being responsible for standardizing (finally a legitimate role for standardization) that data collection and dissemination.  In the case of an Ohio, and plodding local K-12 systems, where the Hess/Darling-Hammond recommendations might eventually seep into consciousness, it might make a difference between improving education rather than poorly educating another generation of our youth.

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