Sunday, February 26, 2012

SQUINTS 2/27/2012 – K-12: END OF REASON?

Today’s SQUINTS is intentionally brief, to provide links to thoughts expressed this week by resources with views based on long tenure with K-12 education.  The various thoughts also underscore the extreme, frequently thoughtless or distorted views of those driving present public K-12 education into an abyss rather than truly reforming the genre.

Continuing the theme of the transmittal email, an article not previously seen appeared in the influential magazine, the Atlantic, circa January/February 2008, by Matt Miller:  First, Kill All the School Boardswas its provocative title.  The point of view, and presciently, underscores the current insanity of chasing down for metaphorical slaughter our K-12 teachers who can’t either condone cheating, or are dealt a hand and classes that won’t produce politically acceptable standardized test scores.  Subsequent reporting of NYC's results for their 18,000 teachers suggests how complex assessment is, and how the VAM model can distort reality.

Acknowledging that in practicality our nation is politically stuck with school boards, Miller’s views also underscore that the alternatives are not supportive of maintaining local control of education.  Another story, for another day, the naïve interpretation of “local control” and how school boards are elected are major barriers to fashioning K-12 reform that might work.

Diane Ravitch, in turn, asks 13 questions of those pushing the testing model of reform; the questions go in, but no answers come out?

Lastly, a K-12 educator, curriculum designer and author for over a half century asks a revealing question:  Why are strong readers being labeled remedial?  The possible answer is not an endorsement of what is issuing from a corporate education sector that is starting to exude the same aroma as the firms that were earlier wallowing in derivatives termed "credit default swaps" – you recall those honorable folk who contributed to the last several years of US economic tranquility?

Inevitably, the question is also asked, are our public schools that bad?  Purely a vignette, but a February 25, 2012 New York Times op-ed by Dick Cavett, touching on home schooling, rings a bell:  Surely, there are parents caught in mediocre school districts with little choice but to give their kids the best shot at a rounded exposure to arts, letters, the sciences, and so on, and are admirably able to do so at home — thereby sparing them the teachers who can’t spell and who tell the kids, as in one friend’s case, that the band around the center of the earth on the globe is called ‘the equation.’”

So, is home schooling the answer?  Mr. Cavett is not an advocate:  “Especially when parents, complaining of their kids’ schooling, wrote in report card responses things like “I am loathe to critacize…”; “my childs consantration”; “normalicy”; “my daughter’s abillaties”; “her examatian grades”; “she should of done better”; “greater supervizion,” etc., into the night.”

But a voice of reason was just posted amid the scattershot of increasingly contentious views that are emerging, now almost daily, pitting critical thought against a liberal political obsession to by force eliminate differentials in learning concomitant with race or income differentials, and do so by ramming standardized tests through the system until that artificial goal can be claimed.

The author is “John Merrow, veteran education reporter for PBS, NPR, and dozens of national publications. He is President of Learning Matters, a 501(c)(3) media production company based in New York and focused on education.  His February 2011 book, The Influence of Teachersis published by LM Books.”  Jim Lehrer, former host of PBS NewsHour, said:  “Nobody reports on the treasures and traumas of public education better than John Merrow.  He is, quite simply, the leading education journalist in America.”

Mr. Merrow’s post is linked here; view it even if you check out nothing else.

US public K-12 education has created its own purgatory by decades of dry rot, self-righteousness, and rejection of both intellectualism and creativity; in turn, the extreme corporate wing of reform is being driven by retro thinking and charters forged by ideology, then by avarice of corporate testing firms that appear capable of educational fraud.  America's teachers are caught in an undiscriminating crossfire, while who should first be in the crosshairs are K-12 bureaucrats who have embraced hubris and abandoned ethical behavior, and many slack to incompetent school boards.

The question in introducing this SQUINTS was, is there a center? Without movement in that direction, renewing the public model, eschewing single-cause explanations of what's wrong with K-12, recognizing simultaneous multiple influences, and differentiating standardized tests from real measurements of complex learning effects, once viable American K-12 education by the end of this decade may reflect the present coherence of our financial markets and our political parties.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Today's SQUINTS was prompted by a collision in the rhetorical parking lot, of K-12 reform ideas coming from every quarter, many being expressed in all-or-nothing terms with absolute assurance of ultimate truth.  

But rather than more rhetoric, submit the proposition to a test; after all, is that not the current educational coin of the realm?

Take the Test

Below is a series of propositions.  Keep your own score, but your fate, unlike the fates of teachers being evaluated with standardized tests and VAM, is in your own hands.

True or false?

The best definition of learning is the memorization of dates, facts, formulas, etc., drilled until they become part of permanent memory and can be retrieved on demand.

Charter schools represent freedom of choice, while public schools have become examples of socialism.

The best way to improve teachers’ performances is with monetary incentives tied to test score performances of that teacher's classroom.

Value-added assessment of teachers -- looking at period-to-period changes in test scores -- is a valid way to assess school performance even if a teacher doesn't teach a grade tested, or subject matter tested, because it reflects the school's overall quality.

Charter schools are intrinsically less prone to non-educational influences and the most altruistic because they aren't linked to local or state governments or other topside groups.

NCLB standardized tests are valid and reliable because they are constructed by university schools of education and master K-12 teachers.

Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates have demonstrated the most nuanced and philosophically diverse understanding of US K-12 education, and its need for self-determination, with Rhee a pinnacle of classroom excellence and honesty; both should be candidates for Nobel Prizes.

The best performing schools in the US are private sector-sponsored K-12 charters, the worst, private and religious K-12 schools.

The very best way to develop learning in K-12 classrooms is to script common curricula, script lesson plans, and script the way a classroom is managed to assure reliability of the lessons created there.

Our university schools of education are at the top of the intellectual and ACT/SAT scores' heap in recruiting into their degree programs students who will become America's teachers.

NCLB was the noblest piece of educational legislation written in the last century, with practical and realistic goals, and carefully thought out processes for improving K-12 classroom education.

The myth that some American corporations are massively profiting from proliferating standardized testing is just that, merely sour grapes from public education defenders and advocates.

The sure-fire way to improve our classrooms is to fire the bottom ten percent of all teachers each year for the next ten years; put a stake in the ground for evidence-based accountability not unlike the goals the US private sector uses.

America's public schools have been in the forefront of every effort to introduce and integrate technology into our K-12 classrooms.

Public K-12 schools have some of the best managerial talent in the US in their principals and superintendents, trained at the highest levels of organizational and managerial theory, equivalent to advanced management or public administration degrees.

America's elementary and secondary education gurus have spent decades working on alternative models for testing K-12 learning, and finally demonstrated via countless classroom experiments that present standardized bubble tests perform best in measuring K-12 learning.

The rumor that one of the agendas of present "K-12 reform" is to undercut public K-12 education is just that, a rumor, started and mistakenly pushed by some in our private sector to protect their access to human resources from our public systems.

The configuration of our public K-12 schools was determined a century ago, heavily influenced by the Carnegie Foundation, with the goal of matching every child with a classroom experience that mirrored their individual attributes.

Standardized tests are the gold standard for assessing learning and teacher performance because they accurately and reliably measure hard performance, evidence-based learning.

Public K-12 education's administrators must pass rigorous testing, professional board assessments, and show high performance internship experience before they are allowed to manage a school or system.

Proven over and over, the very best method of creating K-12 learning is putting the teacher -- the sage on the stage -- in the front of the classroom with absolute control of its students and proper discipline.

America's K-12 public schools and their leadership have led all other organizational forms and venues in flattening organizational designs, and including the classroom teacher in school strategies, operations planning, and assessment designs.

America's teachers' unions were formed without real purpose and have simply been parasites feasting on school taxpayers' dollars.

For their levels of education and the need for its maintenance, public K-12 teachers are actually some of America’s best compensated professionals.

The USDOE Secretary Arne Duncan has been an unstinting and inspiring champion of public K-12 education, eschewing hypocrisy, and recognizing and supporting those schools' needs to creatively and entrepreneurially devise curricula that fit their cultures, design their own assessment models, and be protected from political influences.  He also has a future in stand-up comedy based on his recent performance on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.”

Your Score?

If you judged all 25 of the statements to be "False," you are a winner.  But if you recorded a "True" on any of this list, you may need to put the other oar back in the water, get out more, or cultivate Google.  A few are tricky, but every item above has been challenged or refuted by legitimate research, or by properly informed critical assessment, or by empirical testing, or is orchestrated and frequently paid propaganda.

But the more important implication of this roster of propositions is that a frightening proportion of the list is considered true or is faked being true, and forms the basis for much of present K-12 reform strategy.  

The assumptions rooted in the above statements are going unchallenged by many education professionals who may ultimately be gored by them, with most of our public K-12 bureaucrats and educators either cowering, or dissembling with parents and taxpayers who are depending on their judgment and courage.

The Education World Is Grey

Full circle to the focus of today's SQUINTS, the K-12 education world does not consist of zero/one outcomes and black/white thinking.  US education has always been riddled with nuance, starting with its birth in the early US as elitist, through its mechanization and homogenization in the early 1900s, to counter movements during the latter 20th century that swung too far in other directions setting up K-12 public education for present attacks.  

There are good schools in some dimensions that also sustain inadequate performance in others, or simultaneously serve well some categories of students but short others.  There are schools that work in one local or educational culture that will fail in another.  There are public schools that have told NCLB to take a hike and are exceeding in performance our private K-12 academies. There are charter schools that are achieving, ones that are failing beyond any level that would be permitted in a public format, and ones that are profiteering at taxpayer expense.  

There are school administrators who come close to being Mr. Chips, through some qualified but aspiring to emulate Machiavelli, to some that might belong in our penal system.  There are teachers who won't make it as rocket scientists, or who don't wring out the highest standardized test scores, but who do perform learning magic in classrooms that require empathy, patience, and unstinting emotional commitment to their occupants.

Most importantly, there are multiple definitions of, and kinds of learning, some not yet even properly defined, that require equivalent diversity of testing and other assessment to make the full education process work.    The very nomenclature hypocritically promulgated by the reform gauntlet, "standardized testing," has never been standardized as the term properly defines controls that create needed equivalence for testing hypotheses and reaching conclusions about human groupings and complex learning.  

Do the Reformers Need Reform?

Current K-12 reform has our public K-12 schools being driven, like a herd of cattle, using standardized testing and VAM as a cattle prod, unproven common curricula for standards, and state ratings for grading, to what may ultimately be slaughter of an American system of education, that was basically still working though in need of improving the breed.  Simultaneously there are public K-12 systems so lame -- this blog emanates from one -- putting bricks and mortar ahead of learning, and so self-righteous or lacking morality they are condemning children’s futures and merit that earlier meat ax.

Current reform strategies have labeled the best through the worst of the US public K-12 breed as common reform fodder, zero/one, to be intimidated into excellence.  Funny thing, bullying is being decried by our society, but alive and prospering in both the worst of our K-12 systems, and paradoxically, in their worst reform enemies.   The latter two sides may deserve each other; but the fallout and devastation as in any war impacts mostly the innocents.

The answer to the question stated in the above subtitle, with no hint at all of nuance:  Yes.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

SQUINTS 2/13/2012: K-12 – WOULD YOU KNOW IT IF…?

Two offbeat press posts this week on K-12 education prompted the reflection producing today’s SQUINTS.

Adult ADHD?

The first was a belated report of a survey by a nationally recognized survey organization, posing to a sample of Americans the question whether they approved of NCLB.  Of those with an opinion, over half approved, but saw a need for changes.  Had the question been better structured, it might have sought to discriminate among approvals of its goals, versus approval of its punitive approach, versus approval of how it was being implemented via monolithic standardized testing. 

A second bit was from an opinion piece in a major press.  More than a trifle surly, but revealing, its essence was:  Most Americans wouldn’t recognize a good education because they’ve never seen one.  Ouch and overreach, but it is arguable that a large fraction of present US adults isn't exercising the awareness to see the implications of NCLB’s double-digit billions of dollars creating bizarre K-12 practices and the decline of K-12 ethics, or summoning the outrage to protest that Federal imposition and usurping state and local control.


What eventually boils up into a mass of contradictions is the capacity of US and state public policy makers, and almost universally public K-12 administrators and teachers, to simply look the other way, zombie-like, pretending that public education isn't being emasculated, or that they have no stake in or control over the looming perversion of K-12 learning.

As the chasm is widening between our new dictators of K-12, versus resources who actually understand the role and acquisition of knowledge, the language of both sides is becoming increasingly clipped and more intolerant, the origins of a now blossoming war – hence maybe some clues to sustainable solutions – reside in how we got here.

The increasing tempo of the Administration’s assaults on public schools and teachers has focused all on the latest targeting, but how we got here is critical.  Examining the history, not with the detail of the historian, but looking for the large movements and their motivations, starts with a long sweep of public K-12 education tranquility and growth.

Long Trail A-Winding

Beginning post WWII, education became the discriminating feature of upward class mobility.  US parents trusted K-12 public education (and reveled in its sports offerings), and the public education establishment though not financially rewarded was preening itself and leaning on its unions to extract some rewards, using the “love” to ramp up school levies.  That funding ultimately became almost frenetic and corrupted as states under fiscal duress started to shift K-12 education’s cost to local communities.  Local public schools became feudal cultures, with only lame oversight by boards frequently clueless about either their responsibilities or learning processes.  “Power corrupts” and it did.

Quietly, in the background, K-12 education of a different kind grew; church-sponsored and private K-12 schools and even campuses.  In the former, dedication to beliefs justified the cost of that education tacked on top of public school taxes, and achievement both then and now has continued to exceed US public system performance.  The latter schools, usually powered by affluence, higher levels of parental education, and parental professional careers, produced even higher levels of learning, further displaying contrast with public education. This wasn't easily seen or critiqued by a majority of our population, but most assuredly was noticed by those ideologically preferring a society scripted to manufacture greater social and cultural equality.

Bypassing most of the social implications of the above, a key scenario in public education was also nearly total passivity to what was emerging in other disciplines and places:  Explosive growth of information; digital technology; the emergence of science-based concepts of learning from neural science to replace education’s baseline deductions; and the US had its exceptionalism humbled.  The overwhelming dependence of public K-12 education – for putting the sage on the stage, classroom processes, learning materials, mechanizing and subduing classrooms – on so-called “methods” that dominated US schools of education evolved into growing public K-12 obsolescence.  It started to show up in negative comparisons with other nations’ elementary and secondary successes and international test results.  US public education bureaucracy became so self-centric or self-righteous it didn’t notice; but its lifelong ideological critics and US policy wonks did.

The end of the beginning was enactment of ESEA (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) in 1965, known now as NCLB.  The act may have been properly intentioned to reduce differences in K-12 education in black and Hispanic versus white students, and between the affluent and poor, but there is room for speculation that it opened the door to other, even simultaneously juggled motivations in the G. W. Bush administration:  A chance to kill two birds with one stone, or a double-barreled Cheney, undermining both the teachers’ unions and an assumed liberal K-12 establishment perceived as socialism by more extreme conservatives.  NCLB in its current colors was launched.

The more opportunistic and nihilistic side of corporate America pounced on an ideological and market opportunity.  What could be more enticing, in one swoop getting that good old 1900's Carnegie Foundation production model back into the K-12 schools, installing discipline punishing those student laggards and their desultory teachers, destroying the teachers' unions, letting the market work, getting hard numbers on that alleged learning – hey, we do it with widgets, bills of material, flow charts and automation, and hard-nosed quality control in our plants.  Along the way, “public K-12 reform” became a business model and profit opportunity to oligopolistically take over design and scoring of now mandated standardized tests, also privatize schools scoring public tax dollars, with a lobbying infrastructure in place, approved and protected by Congressional conservatives.  Throw in a little prayer and vouchers for those who believe in magic  --  reform nirvana. 

Public K-12 education still didn’t take much notice, especially in America's heartland and parochial rural enclaves.  Too infrequently acknowledged in the race to standardize US K-12, on the premise that is the most effective way to reduce learning performance variance, are the individual system cultures that root how systems think and execute.  The challenge is to maintain that diversity, and its related commitment, while adjusting cultures to shed dogmatism blocking acceptance of protocols that do improve learning.  The process can work, but can also be short-circuited or even destroyed by top-down simplistic thinking, forcing change, and by equivalent dogmatism and reactionary attitudes and beliefs of local educators and school oversight living in a bubble.

A California school system is now being sued to force it to employ the so-called "VAM" model, using change in standardized test results to evaluate and potentially terminate teachers.

Education metaphorical "SS" squads, euphemistically called "walkthrough-teams," are now being employed to intimidate teachers and enforce scripted K-12 classrooms, scripted curricula, scripted lesson plans, scripted "what a teacher may even put on their walls or how they may arrange their furniture."

Oops.   The issue with hiding one's K-12 head in the sand is that the rest of the anatomy is unprotected.

Unfolding and Deepening

Despite public education's continuing adoption cycle status as laggard in using emerging tools to reduce the variance of K-12 learning achievement, and close a world gap, a continuing mystery is why the Obama administration chose to get into bed with both sworn enemies of public education, a retro corporate army, and simple-minded advocates of learning by counting bubbles, to chase change?  Chasing a liberal dream of equality of K-12 learning performance with a twisted and dishonest concept of reform, destroying infrastructure that still worked and even committed professionals, are not acts signifying leadership or even reason? 

As education's doublespeak champion Mr. Duncan increasingly channels Darth Vader, two contrasting explanations surface:  One, Mr. Obama has lost control of his own policies, USDOE, and rooted liberal and confused extremes, and can only mouth what is put on the teleprompter; or two, that Mr. Obama's messianic drive to change K-12 education within an assumed two terms (that could be one term) has ignited autocracy and left critical thinking, realism, and common sense in the dust, just as NCLB’s original mythical goal was created then fumbled by his predecessor.

Up-to-date, expanding K-12 national insanity is USDOE’s NCLB "Waivers" by Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan, that aren't gifts at all but the deepening of the hypocrisy and increasingly suspect control values reflected there.  A state’s NCLB waiver is bought with the payoff of throttling local control of education to impose still suspect common core curricula, and even more standardized testing and protocols, that do not create effective learning and further spear or hamstring local schools and their teachers as professionals.  This now fully mocks state and local control of US K-12.

Has the corporate/Federal/Obama game plan worked?  The gap between black and white K-12 test achievements has allegedly narrowed significantly, but that achievement gap between rich and poor has allegedly grown and is now double the racial gap.  Lacking competent measures of real K-12 learning, that neither public K-12 education, nor our universities, nor the USDOE have bothered to research and develop, it is impossible to know how much damage has been inflicted on present and future US K-12 products by the biases and cheating introduced and reinforced by present standardized testing.

Repeating a last puzzle; why a small army of states’ officials who have some intellect, and an even larger army of K-12 administrators, many of whom still share that property, have simply stuck their respective heads in that same sand pile, pretending that there are no barbarians at the public K-12 gates?

Out of a Crater

If any change in the present crooked course of US K-12 change and cultures is to occur it may have to emerge from a popular uprising of America’s silent and gobsmacked majority and parents, outshining the dismal Tea Party, by launching an attack of awareness and protest that finally takes back US public education.  A key to that may be creatively and entrepreneurially practicing what the Obama/Duncan, corporate, and simple-minded testing cabal are trying to accomplish by brute force – reading, learning, integrating, and knowing.   Change the game; let your fingers and synapses do the walking.

Linked here is just a sample of very recent posts that offer intelligent and, amazingly, even an occasional humorous assessment of our US public K-12 Hydra.  Read one or two.  You may find that one solution to present US K-12 education challenges starts very close to home.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


SQUINTS has in many posts been harshly critical of US public K-12 sports emphasis, seeing it as an impediment to reform of public schools, versus better balance with academic emphasis, especially 9-12 performance.

Pure chance recently, in an adjacent community’s coffee shop, half listening to a conversation between its proprietor -- originally trained as a quality control engineer, now a creative chef -- and a local teacher, an idea was expressed by that resource that landed on and did some damage to the above POV.

It was that especially high school sports, if served by coaches who are first teachers, hired accordingly, make an important academic contribution to core education; by frequently engaging and keeping in schools students who would otherwise add to our nation’s dropouts.  Without the attraction of that activity, carrying with it the opportunity to incent students to be and remain eligible for team participation, our nations’ schools take another hit in sustaining the learning process long enough to convey some life preparation for students that struggle with traditional learning challenges.

It was a perceptive observation that sent this writer humbly back to the drawing board from simply assigning low weights to school sports as system attributes, seeing that participation as another set of useful learning experiences, social acculturation, and disciplines.  The companion thought, however, is the critical phrase in the above paragraph; “…coaches who are first teachers.”

The contingency is whether a school system is perceptive enough, and has the integrity to hire such personnel, versus hires that have only one function, win games, pander to parents trying to relive their lives through the sports successes of their children, or simply inflate local egos by whipping other teams in a league or area.  Sadly, there may be more public systems that practice the latter patterns, manifested in "booster" promotion designed to insulate a school from criticism or deflect inquiry, and promote levies, than the former strategy.

It appears that the sports card, and especially how it is played, needs to be added to any assessment model for rating public K-12 schools.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


Quickly, without consulting Google, define “learning” in a few words.

If you find the question disconcerting, provoking the protest that it isn’t that simple, consider; the answer is not being able to regurgitate the memorized responses to 30 or more out of 50 multiple choice questions based on reductionist fragments of information or simplistic relationships taken out of context.  This is now supposed to be the learning coin of the K-12 realm, driving firing teachers, killing schools, and prepping the nation’s children to make better decisions.

Defining Learning and the Problem

Here is a definition expanded combining multiple sources:  “Learning is acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information.”  But “…if we are to say that learning has taken place, experience should have been used in some way.  Conditioning may result in a change in behavior but the change may not involve drawing upon experience to generate new knowledge…or ways in which people 'understand, or experience, or conceptualize the world around them’…”

If that seems to complicate the issue, courtesy of Wikipedia, consider what happens when the single concept, learning, is dissected to find a practical way to study and apply the process or its products.  Learning can be:
  • Simple non-associative learning
  • Habituation
  • Sensitization
  • Associative learning
  • Classical conditioning
  • Imprinting
  • Observational learning
  • Play
  • Enculturation
  • Episodic learning
  • Multimedia learning
  • E-learning and augmented learning
  • Rote learning
  • Meaningful learning
  • Informal learning
  • Formal learning
  • Non-formal learning
  • Non-formal learning and combined approaches
  • Tangential learning
  • Dialogic learning
  • Team learning
  •  Organizational learning

The above are behavioral concepts in their own right, to distinguish them from the evolving disciplines of neural biology and psychology, exploring the brain chemistry and physiology of learning.  Somewhere down the road there may emerge hybrid concepts of learning representing the marriage of the above conceptual schemes with neural processes.  Recent research reported indicates that using brain activity sensing technology, unspoken words and thoughts can be predicted, in an elemental way mind reading.

In sum, learning has been described as both product and process; the hypothesis here is that it is both – a process, for resolving extant meaning and creating new meaning, that is the product of a series of processes.  The fairly obvious sequel is a bald question:  Just how and why has K-12 reform – that should embody all of the above nuances of learning and more – been reduced to sledgehammer administration of the most simplistic form of testing alleged to now be the lingua franca of US learning? 

Answering the question may be as complex as understanding real learning, but it may reflect our society’s attention span that makes the life cycle of some insects appear glacial, or the profound decades-long silence of a failing institution – our alleged higher education schools of education, or the historical quest for power by US teachers’ unions, or corporate greed by those who have lobbied to become the oligopoly supplying standardized testing, or the extremism – both liberal and conservative – that values ideology over the true education of the nation’s children, or the corruption of in-school values that has overtaken a nation that bet on “local control of K-12 education."

What constitutes real K-12 "reform?"  Is it the simple-minded notion that annually firing the bottom 5-10 percent of teachers will raise the level of all standardized test scores, or the equally simple-minded assumption that standardized tests equal learning, or that the difference between good and not so good schools is a product of using a "to do" list?

Small wonder that the intellectually lazy are in constant search of that magic “silver bullet” that will transform a half-century of public K-12 diminution of learning.  The next couple thousand words or so hardly offer a fix for the gnarly puzzle that our nation has now allowed, or abetted, but there are some normative processes that in an ideal world could improve K-12 in the trenches, by engaging solutions that bridge trenches.

Processes Versus Institutions

The subsequent ideas veer away from changes in K-12 structure, already made complex and volatile because of the promotion of charter schools.  That changing mix of America's K-12 schools is destined to be an issue, for the concept of a charter, tapping public education tax funds, bypassing teachers' unions, with diverse oversight opens the door to profits over education and values that are not transparent.  But the thrust here is learning productivity.

Ideas below involve models for institutional cooperation, but otherwise focus on understanding what happens in US classrooms.  Following is the proposed trinity of needed K-12 knowledge and strategy change:  Characterization of schools; discovering what excels; measuring outcomes.  The fourth factor or capstone is the assumed engine of K-12 teacher/teaching delivery, our MIA university schools of education.

Characterization of Schools

We know less about the structure and operations of roughly 100,000 K-12 schools than we know from the US decennial census the particulars of the demographic makeup of our smallest incorporated communities.  The reasons candidly are twofold.

First, local control has been misinterpreted to mean local imperialism. Across the US there are K-12 systems that will lie and even refuse to honor state open records acts to deflect stakeholder and even parental attempts to figure out what their children are being taught, how, by whom, or how they are being indoctrinated.  Schools’ locked doors appear increasingly in place less to assuage paranoia about physical security than to keep what goes on inside, inside or censored.

Part of this has been influenced by how K-12 funding has changed, with states’ reduction in school funding, pushing the funding burden onto local property and income tax levies. Schools are loathe to share any information that might be grist for taxpayer revolts over perpetual levies, or that might contradict the elaborate consultancy and hype efforts to reel in levies by any means possible.  This is the dirty little secret that has become habitual among local school boards that lack the knowledge or integrity to think beyond the simplest dimensions of systems they are supposed to oversee.

Another part is defensive, or hubris, the belief that only the educationally anointed are capable of prescribing how K-12 education should be executed and what it should contain.  This, in turn, is the product of the attitudes inculcated in US schools of education, the belief that control, of the classroom, and of all of the mechanisms of learning need to be manipulated by a system. Loss of that absolute control has been perversely depicted as diminishing performance, rather that seen as a means of creating a learning community and collaborative educational problem solving.  Indeed, it is arguable that education for K-12 education is at least a quarter century behind any contemporary view of how organizations and organizational behavior have evolved.

The first proposal is based on the belief that organizational transparency trumps secrecy. It is that there be a national census of US K-12 schools, gathering comprehensive data about systems' constituents, administrators, teachers, students, vendors, as well as about all operations of a school.  That spans funding, budgeting, compensation, training of resources, teaching processes, curricula, technology, class contents and rubrics, testing results; in short, based on a taxonomy of school variables to be developed, a comprehensive look, at least once as a baseline, at all US K-12 schools using the same measurements.

Whether the census should be periodic is an open question.  The key point is that we possess no uniform baseline for projecting change from any initiatives superimposed on America's K-12 schools.  The task is not only practical with state consent, but the scale is hardly daunting; the census of fewer than the roughly one tenth of one percent of the entities covered in the US population census.

Results would enable large scale data mining that should have been the precursor to the untested and naive testing that has permeated NCLB.  At core, the database would serve as a platform for genuine research on school performance, enabling findings to be associated with descriptive or classification parameters and extrapolated to comparable school sub-populations.

Discovering What Excels

Accustomed to the research philosophies practiced over many decades in both the academic and business research arenas, the dearth of defensible and projectable research from education on what actually functions in creating learning in the classroom and beyond was both unexpected and pejorative of the K-12 educational community.  Searching over two decades of writing about classroom strategies and tactics, it was deflating to see how few properly designed and randomized experiments have actually been reported to assess the relative effectiveness of competing teaching/learning methods.  This is in a profession that has eschewed content, and bet the store on methods deduced from last century’s, and even the prior century’s academic deduction.  Education in the US has followed the historical lead of legitimate education scholars, but their imaginary depictions of neural processes and learning can now be replaced by neural science.

The second proposal is for a national level, but locally executed year or more of aggressive K-12 classroom experiments to test what passes as accepted classroom method based on deductive reasoning of over a half century, to test defender-challenger methods in the classroom to achieve better learning performance, to test how integrated digital technologies perform in the classroom or enhance learning outside the classroom, and to test means to assess teacher performance via better protocols than the bizarre “value-added based on standardized testing” (or VAM) prescriptions being demanded by "corporate reform" advocates.

Needed to implement something like the above is more conceptual taxonomic work on learning method options going beyond, for example, Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Examples include the “flipped classroom” being tried across the US but without the experimental controls to reach projectable conclusions.  Another ad hoc experiment lacking controls is reported elimination of seat-time staging, highly creative, but lacking research controls.  One of the few systematic experiments reported in any detail in a search for recent K-12 trials was a trial with 9-12 learning using debate versus extensive in-class writing; the debate model proved more effective in subsequent testing, but the trial proper was a naïve test-control design, lacking random assignment, or any other control for competing explanatory factors.

From the point of view of technical capability, there are no barriers to replacing the simple-minded assumptions of NCLB testing with valid learning assessments.  Practically, there are.  Unfortunately, a first one is the paucity of research competence of most K-12 administrators and teachers that has undoubtedly contributed to the superimposition of present testing.

Other barriers include the prequel to the above, K-12 educator basic awareness of the need for putting methods to test – a school’s culture – and the pragmatic issue of developing classroom and student subjects for testing.  The latter spans both the need for test options that do not put students at risk of being in deficient learning settings as controls or used as placebos, and having group test opportunities.

A solution to the above would mean a transition from the common “we are an island” mentalities of local systems.  That could be overcome by building voluntary collaborative testing consortia around either area or regional systems, or via a clearing-house among systems throughout the US.  The point is creating multiple but comparable classroom settings and groups (a raison d’etre for the proposed census) that could be the basis for randomly assigned alternative learning treatments using identical and agreed protocols.  This envisions a level of collaborative learning that has not historically characterized US public education, but as public education is being methodically attacked and shunted aside by a combination of ideology, ignorance, and charters, the present might be a propitious time to float the strategy.

Measuring Outcomes

This is not an anti-testing screed; of course we need ways to assess genuine learning outcomes!  On the contrary the argument is that more testing is likely needed, but 180 degrees from the present “corporate reform” tests driving NCLB, RttT, and now Waivers, an onerous Duncan and USDOE fraud.  A much earlier SQUINTS surveyed the intricacies of K-12 testing, not repeated here.  The core of the present argument is that, one, a level of magnitude more meaningful K-12 testing is needed, and two, the process needs to return to an earlier time when the logic of that testing was not punitive, but diagnostic, and what is now given the fancier designation, formative assessment.

We also need creative longitudinal work to measure the strategic effects of a stream of learning.  We don’t need the recent media-hyped academic and macro fishing expedition for attribution to teachers of decade or more downstream effects compared to historical standardized tests and cross-sectional data, politically spun, and sans “competing explanations” from the scientist’s tool kit, no matter how novel the design. 

Among many other measures of what constitutes good instruction, there needs to be recognition of those learning outcomes in personal performance assessments.  But even simple common sense, and even if the reader just emerged from hibernation, the present proposed mechanics of assessing all teachers based on the primitive tests of a few seat time classes, and selective subjects, stands out as either demagoguery of the first order, or stupidity.  Are these advocates of that form of testing drinking the same Kool-Aid as Arne Duncan, or also positioning their futures to join one of the corporate test oligopoly?

Texas is not normally perceived as a fountain of K-12 education wisdom, however, its Republican education chief recently provided a scathing assessment of present K-12 standardized testing overkill; worth accessing.

Harvard education psychology professor Howard Gardner, author of the concept of “multiple intelligences,” over two decades ago demonstrated alternative testing protocols that could tap real learning and differentiate types of learning.  In the interim, developments in the testing actually employed in K-12 stagnated, and even prior to the drum beat of NCLB.  But also in the interim, neural science, digital gaming and simulation, and even AI (artificial intelligence) have suggested sophisticated platforms and evidence-based methods for testing learning.

Central to improving testing for K-12, and its urgency are multiple premises.  One is differentiating information from knowledge:  While lacking full agreement among scientists and philosophers, there is general consensus that information and data are not knowledge, and that they become knowledge only when assimilated by the learner and merged with conceptual schemes and models that give them applicable meaning.  Another is that “information” in our societies is allegedly doubling roughly every 18 months.  Using testing of recalled information or data, rather than evaluation of knowledge created and capable of recall to think critically, is analogous to sampling and quantifying some molecules from your steak to assess its sizzle and gastronomic result.  Sure, they are related, but the number doesn’t have a lot of flavor.

There is virtually nothing that stands in the way of developing better measures of learning, both formative, and summative when needed, except the dogmatism that has permeated public K-12 choices, and reflected in its own practice, the dearth of what that genre is supposed to be imparting to the nation’s children and adolescents, the capacity to think, solve problems, and create.

The Fourth Factor – Delivering Teachers

Laying a foundation for this last proposal is not as complex as it appears – simply take a hard look at what is being peddled by “Teach for America,” and the teacher recruiting program of the USDOE recently outsourced and gifted to Microsoft.  Their messages:  Look to US schools of education for future teachers?  “Fuhgeddaboudit.”

Some charters are doing just that, based on the USDOE’s and Mr. Obama’s cuddling up to those programs and the belief that the US is better off simply bypassing a century of university education for K-12 education.  That may in fact seem legitimate contemporarily, based on US schools of education literally going to ground for several decades:  Creating little; perpetuating liberal digressions from learning; practicing dogmatism; taking no responsibility for the disaster of public K-12 they have created by failing to either do usable research on learning, or modify entrance requirements, or modify their curricula to reflect the critiques of teaching methods accumulating for decades.

The only, and modest defense of the cowardice and parochialism demonstrated by most of the nation’s schools of education is that to reform them means also addressing reform of the nation’s universities.  That is a major constraint and story for another day, but a balanced review of books critiquing US colleges and universities, by Stanley Grafton, Princeton professor of history, is enlightening reading and linked here

“Another day” for K-12, however, is sooner than one might wish. It is asserted that by the end of the decade the US will likely lose from retirement almost 30 percent of its K-12 teachers; more if the “value-added” slaughter of teachers is permitted to widen.   Given the disincentives to enter the profession, and the "opportunity" to face assault from many directions, that deficit in teachers will be filled…how?

This last proposal reflects both the TFA strategy, but also preservation of our university schools of education.  It proposes:  Eliminate all undergraduate degree work in education, offering only a masters degree for teacher tracks; require for admission to that program satisfactory BA or BS work in a content field that is aligned with the teaching goal; require that masters in education to be certified to teach in any US K-12 program; differentiate the required bachelors level work to specify the fields acceptable for teacher tracks into K-5 or other early education, versus 7-8 and 9-12; mention only, because systems are already in place, mentoring of new teachers by master teachers; and reform the EdD for those seeking K-12 administrative certification to require at least half of that work in public administration or business administration, beefing-up dissertation requirements to reflect contemporary K-12 needs.

Finally, require K-12 administrators to serve in a graduated internship program before certification for a principal’s or superintendent’s assignment is allowed, and be periodically re-certified by formal hearing and performance review.  An argument for this is that those accountable for the K-12 education of the nation's children should be subject to at least as rigorous regular assessment and updating as your local building inspector, contemporary auto mechanic, or IT vendor.

Reform Roadblocks

Postscripts, because these reforms constitute other chapters, are:  One, changing the game for oversight of our K-12 schools; two, US curricular reform; and three, reform of the US Department of Education (USDOE).


School oversight presents two faces, influenced by Pollyanna syndrome and a venal reform tactic.  Local school boards, stridently demanding local control, are frequently clueless how to employ it.  They are also virtually never mentioned in the present reform ground game of beating up America’s public K-12 teachers.  Yet they may do more damage to US K-12 education than a host of other factors.  The oversight is arguably intentional by the "corporate reform" movement; avoid offending anyone that can’t be sanctioned by a system but might have the clout to challenge “corporate reform.” How the US/states might balance achieving competent oversight, versus tradeoffs to local control of its systems, may be an even greater challenge than fishing Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee out of the national public K-12 stew.

The second face of need for K-12 oversight change is reflected in the recent British finding that about one-quarter of its equivalent school administration should be given the boot.  The US proportion may be even higher because of the confused modes of K-12 system bureaucrat accountability, versus Britain's use of a "school inspector system" that produces regular review or visitation by intellectually competent and ethical inspectors.  Discounting failed school board control, US practice relies on politically motivated state departments and boards of education, or county superintendent positions that are frequently disguised unemployment for discredited or double-dipping former system administrators.  A fix might be employing the British experience -- but still respecting state control of education -- a state-by-state system of school inspectors or visitors, protected from political or educational bureaucratic self-interest, chosen by a state's supreme court, and reporting to a state's inspector general.

K-12 Curricula

Curricular reform is also central to K-12 reform, but it is also a threat to the present standardized testing mantra because it might open the door to debates about what constitutes learning.  Additionally, the issue is major, with the areas of knowledge representative of real K-12 education scattered across myriad professional bodies, some competing for influence, as well as fierce resistance to national standards for what is to be universally learned if it can even be determined.

However, the notion that knowledge in Texas, is different from knowledge in Ohio, is different from knowledge in Colorado, is different from knowledge in London, is different from knowledge in Finland, etc., etc., beggars common sense.  Those Finnish neurons have little tags that say, can’t be used anywhere else in the world?  State parochialism or political/religious extremism that tries to assert that argument is simply seeking to ideologically block learning that has irrefutable roots in science, or it is code for attacking some federalism that needs to be elected to restore American educational excellence in not just the nation, but in “a world that is flat.”  A very large topic, for another day.


Former President Reagan was disappointed his blue ribbon commission (ANAR) didn't recommend abolishing it; most of the present extreme political right wing and some presidential candidates want to either abolish it or burn it down; and even those slightly left of the latter position want to de-fund it.

But in fact, USDOE reform is not terribly complicated, given that in its trenches and invisible cubicles there is competent and dedicated educational expertise producing solid research on what actually works in K-12: Generate a K-12 neuron infusion for Mr. Obama, and timely dismissal of Arne Duncan as US Secretary of Education, while there is still a chance of preserving American K-12 public education and learning that doesn't metaphorically mimic playing with intellectual LEGOs.