Sunday, January 15, 2012

SQUINTS 1/15/2012: AMERICA's K-12 QDD

AMERICA'S K-12 QDD = our schools’ “question deficit disorder.”

Today’s SQUINTS is an interim opinion piece, a consequence of the scope of the next post; an attempt to link a learning taxonomy to the intrinsic functions of the technologies being dropped onto US K-12.  Still, the issues raised below enter into the upcoming product.

Likely before puberty of some readers, and after the bedtime of others, there was a classic gig by the master of late-night comedy, Johnny Carson.  His sidekick would cite a seemingly commonplace fact or answer, and Johnny would by osmosis from a sealed envelope divine the unexpected question.  Always good for a laugh, but being played out in real time, in the real and earnest world of US K-12 education, there is a perverted version of the game.

Call the performances answers without, first, the needed positioning questions; those questions are in turn the currency of meaningful hypotheses necessary for critical thought and problem solving in our schools.  The failings of process have impacted all areas of K-12 education, even provoking the present assaults on public K-12 by that bizarre consortium of the White House, the USDOE, the Gates, the Tea Party, and sundry ultra-conservatives who normally can’t collectively agree what day of the week it is.


Trimmed of all the rhetoric, NCLB literally evoked all answers without first posing any of the right questions, ideologically brushing off the reality that socioeconomic attributes of the nation’s children have a significant impact on their opportunity to learn in the classroom.  In present search of the literature surrounding the passage of NCLB, actually a rewrite of a program that couldn’t make it through an earlier Congress in the ‘90s, there is no indication that responsible parties truly called US public education, its alleged schools of education, and its unions to the table, and candidly asked the needed questions about public education’s failures to achieve needed change.  NCLB simply emerged with ideological zeal to stick it to public K-12 by flogging it with standardized tests, that by the way, became a revenue growth and profit center for some of the Bush Administration’s favorite political lobbyists and corporations.

To public education’s discredit, a disproportionate share of public school administrators have become sycophants to testing demands, or have demonstrated cowardice in defending real learning, or are simply in denial of what the testing genre has displaced, reducing needed US K-12 learning to reductionist drills; the testing tail wagging the learning dog.  Learning that should be in place, installing critical thinking, understanding how facts and context are linked, teaching problem solving, and stimulating creative expression have been reduced to strategically meaningless bubble tests.

Digital Technology

There may well be extenuating circumstances in this area, because there was no way to control the developmental sequences that produced both digital hardware and models/software potentially applicable to US classrooms and K-12 learning to synch with timing of those needs.  However, from the emergence of those technologies and up to the present, the game has been played by dropping those technologies on US classrooms typically without the benefit of the first question about how they integrate with the detailed processes of learning.  Not unexpectedly, schools, administrators, and teachers lacking technology backgrounds simply bought off on the “stuff,” but were clueless how it could be most productively used.

Pejoratively, many systems mirror the pattern of a local system; technology plans were faked, hardware was bought for display without a clue how it would impact either learning or system management, and in doing so it deepened the fraud that was already thick around NCLB compliance and the organizational thrust to block transparency of how educational processes and funds were being deployed.  

With the economic effects imposed on K-12 systems by lingering recession, even more constraints have blocked or at least deterred getting contemporary technologies into the classroom, and better, integrated into the active learning process.  That has also brought out those proclaiming that digital technology isn't necessary, or doesn't enhance learning, or is too costly, the modern Luddites.  But lurking behind that froth is a major reality; virtually every aspect of both present and future economic and social structure is now dependent on being technologically current.  The recent CES, or consumer electronics show, the showcase of virtually all consumer technology destined to reach our markets, was marked by a citation from a major corporate player; that literally every product on display at the CES would disappear without the Internet.

A more complete position assessment of the need for US K-12 educational technology to get back on track is reflected in a presentation to the AAAS, or American Association for the Advancement of Science, also publishers of the major US journal Science.  This presentation is linked here.


Perhaps the most onerous and potentially destructive spin-offs of NCLB are the attempts being made to assess teachers using year-to-year change in standardized test scores, euphemistically called "value-added." This is an answer without a glimmer of a question about what the teacher brings to a classroom beyond the capacity, and forced or perverted values to drill students to pass tests on reductionist bits of memorized material.  For anyone who has actually logged time in a real classroom, committed to learning as a complex process that installs a range of human values and virtues as well as real understanding, the deliberately titled "value-added" is a hallmark of hypocrisy.

How teaching and teachers are viewed and valued in places that are eclipsing US K-12 is instructive; one of the best recent posts elaborating that is linked here.

Three questions, that likely never preceded the adoption of the value-added calculation to be used to penalize or fire teachers, stick a fork in the balloon: Rationally, what are the variables and stimuli that can be present in the dyadic relationship between student and teacher, in interactions among students, trailed into a classroom from past learning, from learning beyond the specific classroom, from home, and from all other environments that impact present learning; what is the definition of value in "value-added" based on bubble testing; and why has a national "value-added" war been declared on America's teachers, potentially doing great harm, with literally no serious scientific assessment in advance of its assaults, to properly theorize about its relevance or pre-test its validity and reliability?

Perhaps there is a fourth question, though it challenges the perspicacity or motives of those advocating the value-added model; when did a simplistic, production-derived model of performance and mechanistic measurement become an intelligent expression of the complex human relationships embodied in fostering learning?  Neurons aren't widgets?


A question may have been asked before this movement was cranked into high gear, but one with little moral virtue.  It likely went like this:  “How can we create a device that will cripple the silly alleged liberality of US public education, tap the public purse of school tax revenues, and kill those rotten teachers’ unions that get in our face at every turn.  Voila, let’s call them charters (or in Ohio, “community schools”).   The question that was not asked was, just how will those schools differ in meaningful substance from a public school except for allegedly being an escape from the warped perception of dreaded “socialism” of public education and its unions?

The question was never seriously considered even in retrospect.   The subsequent answer appears to be that they really don’t materially differ, except for operating beyond the checks and balances that help control public systems.  They could stimulate innovation in creating learning, more easily innovating without union interventions and other constraints public systems face.  They could also prove ineffective and cavalier about learning values, primarily benefitting their varied sponsors’ political or profit missions, and related consultants’ returns without much fear of assessment.  Only now is some legitimate research being conducted on the performance of US charters (upcoming issue of SCIENCE), and it is acknowledged to be incomplete.

The 21st Century Classroom

This entry in the ask-no-questions sweepstakes is still in early times, but the negatives of the failure mode are already on display.   One fault is immediately viewing the answer as real estate, rather than an expression of the larger question of what functions occur in what space configurations, and how the space should conform to function rather than the obverse.

The second fault; instead of the logical series of questions about how learning processes will evolve – over the life span, for example, of a multi-decade and double-digit million dollar investment in school bricks and mortar (along with more tax levies) – inappropriate or retro school design and construction answers are being put in place, that may obstruct change needed that might have to engage those physical facilities.

The failure mode here is in many ways more serious than the errors manifested even in poor choices of teachers or administrators.   The latter are major, and involving human resources should vault to the top of the list in importance, but mistakes in building facilities outmoded before they are even dedicated debilitates local capacities to innovate; the building cart is positioned ahead of the educational horsepower.


The last joker in the current K-12 card deck is described eloquently by Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, in an article in The Nation.  "Redlining" in this venue refers to drawing a line around the "so-called bottom five percent" of America's K-12 schools -- the most vulnerable, segregated, low income, and with limited resources -- and imposing punitive sanctions up to and including "transforming" them, code for closing them, firing their human resources, turning them into charters, in sum, further destabilizing the neediest communities in our country.  (Parenthetically, it may have slipped by the authors of this strategy that some of the worst performing K-12 schools in the US are turning out to be, go figure, charters.)

Darling-Hammond is low key and not pejorative in her assessment, linked here, but that reticence may be a function of greater tolerance than merited.

Apparently the rational strategy of asking the right questions, likely evoking improving those same communities with jobs programs, or assistance that would raise socioeconomic standards, or providing them the best rather than worst paid teachers, or anything else proactive, is either too slow for the liberal agenda, or too complex for the USDOE rocket scientists, or too proximate to humanism and thinking -- therefore not sufficiently reflective of social Darwinism -- to not be promptly blocked by extreme conservative enclaves.

The sum, over months, of trying to assess why Obama and the USDOE have metaphorically linked arms with US public education's avowed enemies, to in effect flog US K-12 public schools with unproven methodology for learning improvement, provokes another hypothesis.  It is cynical, but reflects the facts of how NCLB and RTTT have been administered by the current administration.  The hypothesis is that Obama and Duncan are executing a classic liberal venue as extreme as the opposite Tea Party, to try to mandate educational equality and install it within two assumed presidential terms, but doing so both cynically and with little intellectual capital applied to the evaluation of how genuine learning will have to be supported in US schools to achieve lasting gains.

Reflecting a statement by education professor and historian Diane Ravitch, the US appears to be in the midst of either an educational national nightmare, or moment of national insanity, or the viruses accruing world headlines have morphed into another genetic form, "stupiditis duncanitis," and settled in our nation's capitol.


Cutting to the chase, the question ahead of a need for an answer is, how did American society, and its educational institutions work into the binds expressed above?  The beginnings of a multipart answer are applicable to other questions troubling the last and this decade, ranging from how did the US economy and jobs come unglued, through how did the US manage to engage in multiple wars that have had devastating human, economic, and social effects, to why can’t an alleged representative US Congress find ways of communicating and fashioning solutions without engaging in ugly verbal and counterproductive warfare?

The list of current human foibles that form answers is pretty noxious; readers can do their own thesaurus work, but the comments of newspaper readers in anticipation of MLK Day suggest anything penned here might appear wimpy.

A larger functional hypothesis is that our society, systems, technologies, histories, resource needs, connectedness, information expansion, diversity, tastes, needs and wants, expectations, range of ethical dilemmas, societal attention deficits, media prevalence, income disparity, class distinctions, and the bureaucracies developed for governance at every level have simply multiplied more rapidly than the choice mechanisms available or invented, or the civic and leadership awareness and motivation to deal with those issues and create effective societal decisions. American public education not unexpectedly appears immersed in this same stream.
If this seems too hypothetical, consider a tiny sample of "street" examples:  Count the pages, and their expansion, in the US Tax Code; or take a year off to read a week’s output of verbiage in the US Congressional Record; or try to get on a commercial airplane out of Las Vegas carrying an iced cupcake; or try contemporarily to prevent a highly successful, parent-managed/funded, elementary school chess club in Bloomington, IN, from being shut down by a seemingly control-freak public school principal; or reflect that there are now some uncounted number of computer hackers around the planet with the "noble" goal of breaking into digital enclaves, to steal information as fun, or for extortion.

In the present venue, you likely wouldn’t have to look far in your own neck of the woods to find scaled replicates of bureaucracy and misdirection of school priorities and tactics expanding faster than insightful questions, followed by the hard work of developing pertinent answers.

A shorter generic assessment, our nation has experienced evolution and expansion of all of its infrastructure and needs for mediation of its functions faster than learning and wisdom have matured to control those forces.

So there is a massive paradox in where our nation is poised.  Short of a super-intelligent visitor from another star system dropping in and offering packaged magic addressing those conundrums, one answer to the question of how the US gets better is by better education, creating far more effective learning for those destined to ultimately inherit the challenges, and likely the urgent need for solutions as a matter of future survival.  The applicable expression of the paradox appears under many labels, but one that resonates here is, “K-12 = Catch 22."

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