Sunday, March 25, 2012


In a prior post to the Washington Post feature, “The Answer Sheet,” “Fourteen reasons schools are troubled (and no, it’s not all about teachers),” it was asserted that U.S. classroom teachers are neither the only, nor even the most heavily weighted variable effecting overall learning in formal K-12 systems.  The point of the opinion piece, American teachers are being witlessly and unfairly targeted in present massive and nationally orchestrated standardized testing, along with deployment of simplistic VAM (value-added measurement) assessments of teachers based on those test scores.

The “Fourteen reasons…” post understandably attracted some critique, one the lament that while 14 issues were outlined, no solutions were offered.  A practical response is that the “The Answer Sheet” did not offer a level of magnitude increase in posted words.

A more compelling explanation is that K-12 school reform – “improve…by removal of faults or abuses, beneficial change” – is complex, systemic, neither as simple as bubble testing of memory of reductionist information, nor achievable by imposing on a public school population of almost 100,000 entities one-size-fits-all prescribed actions.  In sum, our odd couple of ideologically diverse reformers huddled in the same space capsule, a back-room horde of standardized test designers, and VAM modelers and consultants, et al., cannot basically change U.S. K-12 education.  Short of K-12 nationalization, or a hostile private sector takeover, only individual schools as systems can craft sustainable organizational and related performance changes.

Channeling Adam Smith

There are two major arguments (usually not forthrightly stated) offered to push present tactics:  The market, if allowed to work, will drive out poor performing schools and lift all K-12 ships; and if enough pressure is put on schools, teachers, and even children driven by fear of reprisal, vilification, or dismissal, the quality of learning and its universality will automatically improve.  Self-evidently, most of the standardized testing crowd is not big on Douglas McGregor and “Theory X Theory Y,” or the argument that learning and knowledge don’t come bite-sized packaged in one flavor.

The assumption that markets will function “efficiently,” and competition will mediate excesses and abuses, simply by waving a market wand over the lot is a grossly naïve view of economic theory as it plays out in real-world markets.  It worked for pins, why not schools?

Not the least of the overlooked assessments of this simplistic view of competition (ignoring the litany of assumptions footing predictable market behavior and exceptions fragmenting real markets) is what happens after the first round of competitive shakeout of public systems.  A thought experiment, charters become a major factor, and already occurring, they start failing because they are premised not on creative learning achievement but brand switching, profit opportunity, and the exploitation encouraged by that goal.  How do nascent public schools, shorn of assets and support, then become second round corrective competitors?  They don’t; it becomes charter versus charter (perhaps fought with promotional dollars and vouchers), competitive warfare not in the public interest at least for a nation’s mandatory education. 

If, however, the underlying motivation is less changing learning than making public schools obsolete, it is raw and destructive ideology, not reform.  Taken far enough it has the aroma of autocracy and an attempt to circumvent how K-12 has been interpreted in conforming Constitutionally.  An unintended consequence, virtually every regulation governing public K-12 institutions would need to be rewritten to create the necessary oversight of a vastly different, more heterogeneous, even less transparent, and unpredictable population of charter schools.

The questions keep coming:  Who conceptualizes the most efficacious organizational forms for privatized K-12 schools; how does individual system oversight operate; how does certification of teachers and administrators occur; will unions for teachers and administrators have to surge to provide countervailing power for what are now all employees and middle management versus corporate management?  How long will it take to rebuild an environment of parental trust and stable operating strategies, given that it required over a century to arrive there the first time?

Some Potential Solutions

An alternative is the overdue, properly defined reform of the major body of K-12 education, still your local public school.  The present reform movement won’t get you there.  Suggested action, including some solutions for issues bypassed in asserting the “fallow fourteen:”


We know less about most of our public schools than is known about over 117MM U.S. households.  Execute a national benchmark census of U.S. K-12 schools, with uniform categories of questions and data.

Stopping the Bleeding

As reported in a recent post by educator Anthony Cody, a 15 point decline in teacher satisfaction in the last two years – driven by increases in U.S. poverty, but also arguably exacerbated by the haphazard punitive effects of VAM teacher assessment – may foretell the loss of almost one million teachers in the next half decade.

“Teach for America” won’t fill that hole, even if one buys the simplistic reasoning that developing the science and art to teach is just a five week briefing before occupying a classroom.  Microsoft won’t fill those classrooms though the classrooms they invade may see a surge in hype for Microsoft’s products.

What might both stop the exodus, and build a new American teaching corps, are reforms advocated below for schools of education, obviously a “Teach for America” that gets a lot smarter, and a sea change in the manner teachers are perceived in the U.S. – throttle some American exceptionalism, and use Finland’s model as at least a values’ guide.

Lastly, rethink and revisit the earlier proposed initiatives to make it easier for already accomplished professionals and even retirees to enter K-12 teaching.  A decade ago, when that concept had started to gain some traction, and the writer had just relocated, via dialogue with the state superintendent an offer was extended to apply for certification to teach in 9-12.  Not exactly a new experience, after 25 years in the classroom teaching all from 12th graders just three months prior, to doctoral candidates, to executives, the effort was started.  Tilt; it was an exercise in futility to traverse the bureaucracy, powered in many cases by factotums who had never been in a classroom or were even capable of conceptualizing education as a process. Less ethically, there seemed to be the intent of blocking entry to the K-12 sorority/fraternity.

Education for Education

Initiate major reform of our collegiate schools of education, with comprehensive revision of their curricula based on cross-discipline awareness and all findings from ongoing neural biological and experimental research on learning.  Eliminate the bachelor's degree in education; require for a master's in education an acceptable bachelor's degree in a discipline of the intended teaching venue.

Certification for Administration

Require to assume superintendent responsibilities, the EdD or PhD, plus two years of internship as an administrator under the direction of a certified administrator, plus certification peer review based on national standards for school leadership.

Education for Administration

Require for an EdD, work taken in neural and educational psychology, and in organizational behavior and development from an accredited B-school or school of public administration, as well as upgraded thesis or alternative experience emphasizing classroom research capability and technology applicable to the classroom.


Launch a major research effort to develop and validate assessment instruments beyond present standardized testing, and by law require origination in either USDOE, or accredited colleges/universities, or in qualified K-12 systems, or in legitimate research foundations, and prohibited for private sector companies except as supervised by accredited academic or public research institutions. Phase out present standardized testing; shifting strategy to a TQM (total quality management) and process control quality assurance logic, plus the few properly constructed summative tests to maintain national assessments of progress.  


Return to the prior USDOE strategies of researching what works in the classroom, but with a national program of mandated K-12 school involvement in field experiments of alternative pedagogies.

Communication, Acculturation, and Interaction

Create multiple online networks for K-12 teachers, allowing exchanges of experiences, ideas, techniques, attitudes-opinions-beliefs and without administrative censorship.  Restore the U.S. Department of Education program and site, “Doing What Works,” to the format that was maturing, and add to that program the capability to engage more of America’s parents in a separate version scaled to parental interests.

Local School Boards

There are at least 15 widely cited opportunities for reform of selection and operations of local school boards on the table (SQUINTS 3/12/2012), some for decades but not pursued by our states; mandate pursuit of those changes by the states as part of any Federal funding for K-12 education.


Turn all present charters into essentially private K-12 schools, allowing phasing out of present tax-based funding; simultaneously, establish in every state effective oversight of present charters to enforce the same standards being applied to public schools, including prohibition of selectivity in enrolling students at any level.  Ongoing research and media disclosure suggest, excepting some excellently managed chains of charters, that episodic charter takeovers are educationally underperforming and producing fiscal improprieties.  As in other examples of U.S. market-based enterprise, it may take “chain” scales for charters to attract the quality of management and exhibit the scale efficiencies needed to excel.

Public K-12 Reform

This conundrum has been so long in gestation that a fix is likely to be both painful and extended, but a place to start beyond changes already advocated above might parallel the proposed reform of collegiate schools of education.  That remediation might take the form of requiring every public K-12 system to be partnered with some U.S. college or university, with that institution having the power to form “boards of visitors,” with the authority to periodically visit, require full transparency, and assess a system’s strategic plans for change and performance against those targets.  Peripherally, it also would help to address the long-standing critique of the chasm between secondary education and postsecondary work.

Rediscovering the Wheel

In the course of researching the contents for this post some previously unseen citations were found, but their significance didn’t fully register until the publication dates were noted.  One was “Change in School Systems,” a document resulting from a grant from the “U.S. Department of Health, Education & Welfare.”  The acronym for the project was COPED, standing for “Cooperative Project for Educational Development.”  Its participating professionals read like a who’s who of pioneers in educational psychology, including psychologists Ronald Lippitt, Goodwin Watson, and others who shared the stage with Kurt Lewin among others at the time.  The document with a little tweaking could be a roadmap for reforming public K-12 – its publication date, 1967, forty-five years ago!

A second, later report but preceding NCLB, was authored by Colleen Lannon-Kim, titled “Revitalizing the Schools: A Systems Thinking Approach.”  Even more tuned to the K-12 trenches, the article reports a number of successful system transitions to contemporary perspectives of learning that may have – one has to presume, as with other pioneering efforts – been obliterated by the undiscriminating hammer and hypocrisy of NCLB. The date of this publication, June/July 1991.  Parenthetically, Lannon-Kim subsequently partnered with MIT’s Peter Senge on additional publications advocating a highly praised, perceptive, and widely used approach to organizational assessment and change.

A third piece of history, less salubrious, was the 1999 advocacy of a VAM approach to K-12 assessment, by a Virginia-based management consulting firm.  Footed by a pedestrian view of systems theory, and though authored by a former educator, the paper managed in 26 pages to avoid any reference to learning or the education challenge of K-12 except invoking Virginia’s SOL (standards of learning) at that time.  Recalling Yogi Berra’s classic quote:  “Déjà vu all over again.”

Change-Blocking Majesteria

The U.S. Department of Education, and Friends with Privileges

Fully restore the U.S. Department of Education’s functions of research, as an educational data bank, as arbiter of standards of real learning and knowledge, and as accountable for public education advocacy.  In a prior attempt to interest the Department in a research effort, it was observed that the most impoverished sector of the Department’s NCER programs was its coverage of K-12 leadership, potentially the most important substantive topic for both research and advocacy by the Department.

For its “direction and friends,” it is dispiriting to see the postures of Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Wendy Kopp, Joel Klein, Condoleezza Rice, Michelle Rhee, and others, resources of high standing and arguably with the intellect to know that present standardized testing will strategically prove both educationally destructive and is cognitive malpractice, and even more egregiously, that the use of VAM to assess real teaching is both educational, organizational, and behavioral science fraud.  Some, including Duncan and Klein, if prior statements and writing are reviewed, have carried hypocrisy about the reform effort to new levels.  Find the lot new hobbies, or obsessions, or modes of display, and the Department the ethical core to discontinue the corporate patronage that may be undermining the legitimacy of even competent testing.


There has been a quickening of rhetoric about K-12 curricula since the publication of the so-called Common Core Standards (CCSSI), initiated by the NGA (National Governors Association), and now adopted by most of our states.  Are these alleged standards a step forward for U.S. K-12 education?

To most casual viewers of education’s current dystopia, and apparently our media, the initiative may appear a rare instance of American solidarity in an otherwise partisan period of our history.  The standards must represent consensus of our best and brightest in every relevant subject matter discipline, and based on the media hype, U.S. knowledge crème-de-la-crème?  Well, not so much.

The NGA, billing itself as “bipartisan,” might be if states were presently equally apportioned between our political parties; they are not, nor are the human resources staffing NGA’s functions a very bipartisan mix.  The organization is now guided heavily by conservative staffing and other organizations that have been identified as part of the so-called corporate reform movement, and advocates of charters and vouchers.  To further complicate the milieu, most of the experts enlisted to shepherd or validate the standards appear to disproportionately represent the methods mantra that has too long characterized U.S. public education and, more, contributed to its present challenges.  The group of 30 resources, comprising the CCSSI validation committee, seems an inadequate representation of the disciplinary breadth needed to frame what U.S. K-12 should be communicating as learning.

The alleged standards promulgated to date cover “English language arts” and “mathematics.”  Alleged, because there is a question whether the first category consists of any proposition meriting representation as a "standard." Much of that category consists of fuzzy methods reasoning, and repetitive mantras that raise the issue whether their authorship actually grasps the use of language.  A recent article in the Washington Post feature, ”The Answer Sheet,” by an educator seeking in good faith to apply the standards, says far more than this post can convey.

The mathematics standards consist of a hodge-podge with some legitimate math constructs, but predominantly the lowest common denominators of math reasoning, more methods froth, and little that might satisfy the mathematically literate as the norm that should be sought in K-12.  The section of the mathematics set that relates to statistics and probability is so questionable that it might have been constructed by simply paraphrasing (poorly) the table of contents of a random introductory statistics text.

All of the CCSSI reflects the potentially obsolete view that seat-time must be the mediator of when the various behaviors it ambiguously describes as “standards” are to be achieved, an assumption that is at odds with virtually every behavioral construct of how learning evolves.  The point of view is automatically an impediment to any creative thinking applied to improving the K-12 genre.

Perhaps the most distressing – and illuminating – indicator of the origins of the CCSSI, and the biases reflected in the NGA, is the repetitive statement on the NGA website that the Federal government (we assume including the U.S. Department of Education) had nothing to do with the creation or validation of the standards, and further, overt advocacy there be no Federal input in either the implementation or oversight of their use in the states by our K-12 schools.

There are in this nation multiple bodies of competent discipline experts, both academic and in areas where knowledge is applied, who have the genuine competence to assemble needed learning standards for K-12.  One very prominent, simply as an example, is AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and publisher of the premier journal, Science.  Its equivalent already exists for virtually all knowledge areas that need to be embraced in K-12 education, numbering in the hundreds, and representing the legitimate sourcing of American education standards.  The question is, why have the genuine keepers of knowledge not been enlisted to create proper learning standards for K-12?  And where is the U.S. Department of Education hiding?

The CCSSI alleged K-12 standards, how they were contrived by NGA, their adoption by most of our states without critique, and the abdication of the USDOE, may represent a new low point in America’s education intellectual integrity.

Solutions are challenging, implying now literally educational warfare between our states (at least as represented by NGA) and federalism, even when sense favors the latter.  One solution is a consortia of representation from the bodies and organizations that set the criteria for U.S. and even world knowledge and serve by consent as its oversight. Examples are our national academies, an AAAS, the LSA (Linguistic Society of America, with 5,000 members), the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English, with double-digit thousands of members), the AMS (American Mathematical Society, with 30,000 members), the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, with 90,000 members), and the additional multitude of both academic and private sector professional associations that surround our major disciplines and areas of practice.  Collectively created and promoted, competent knowledge standards could push the politicized artifice of CCSSI off the table before it further debases American K-12 education.

Technology in K-12 Classrooms

This topic cannot be addressed in any meaningful way without far more words than the present format can support.  Certainly there are K-12 schools that have shown leadership in integrating digital technologies into their classroom practice, some likely as advanced as our technology creators.  But, assessing the entire population of U.S. K-12 schools, using sociologist Everett Rogers’ construct for describing the diffusion of innovation, an assertion is that the vast majority of those schools and their leaderships are either “late adopters” or “laggards.”

The insanity of this posture is that digital technology and STEM, in addition to being the additional languages of our world, are perhaps the premier hopes for America’s thrust to recapture historical levels of creation of new product and service utilities and their growth factor as economic stimulus.

Bottom lines are:  That much U.S. public K-12 leadership is not only ignorant of contemporary technologies that might assist learning, but also either fearful of such exposure and deflecting it, or dogmatically denying its materiality; and that to date when many products reflecting such technology have been employed in K-12, they have been layered on top of existing rubrics rather than recognized as calling for ground-up rethinking of how learning can be enhanced or even redesigned by the usage.

In a real sense, the broad failure of public K-12 to not only accept these technologies, but to have actively allowed the egregious opportunity cost to the nation from not actually leading in their adoption, constitutes education malpractice.

Solutions are elusive, in part because they may only emerge from the proper training of a future generation of teachers, or ironically, because the developmental and entrepreneurial dynamics of the technologies have not yet slowed enough to see a coalescence of one leadership cluster.  Perhaps, only partially in jest, this is where the student teaches the teacher; arguably, virtually every American student possessing the ability to thumb a smartphone, or manipulate today’s gaming that rivals professional simulation (many 8th and even 7th graders now possess the skills to write simulation models), likely possesses technology awareness that exceeds the vast majority of their teachers?

Alternatively, our collegiate schools of education could widely elect to transition into the 21st century.

No Easy Fixer-Uppers

Action and the Even Larger Unknowns

What are simply chapter or even book titles above, will never be easy when filleted out to become strategies, tactics, then action plans, fitting the old corporate saw, “says easy, does hard.”  The reality is that advocates on both sides of the K-12 reform challenge are guilty of expressing issues in discrepant scales, exaggerating or denying both problems and consequences, and underestimating the complexity of creating operational solutions then unfolding them among our complex of still locally overseen systems.
Lastly, the elephants in the room – America’s increasingly lopsided income distribution, finding some political sanity in Congress but even in local cultures, and creating greater parental awareness of the potential malpractice in their local school systems – go well beyond what can simply be referenced as subject to “fixes.”  They are tectonic drift compared to problem solving at an organizational level, manifestations of increasingly disparate cultural shifts in American life that beggar the imagination, both in their implications of cumulative failed K-12 education for decades – with higher education rapidly overtaking the latter – and in future portent.

Journalist and author Thomas Friedman (The World is Flat) penned March 25, 2012 a perceptive piece on U.S. foreign policy relating to "...Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan."  Key points:  "What the Middle East needs most from America today are modern schools and hard truths, and we haven’t found a way to offer either."  Then:  "...the requirements of a forward-looking society — which are institutions that deliver decent government, consensual politics that provide for rotations in power, women’s rights and an ethic of pluralism that protects minorities and allows for modern education."

Oops -- are these not values that one might want to effectively install first or at least concomitantly in the USA?     

Genuine and sustainable remediation for K-12 will require strategic time scales and culture changes, the latter something that can never happen without broad-based professional and citizen willingness to do the hardest intellectual chore they may encounter in a lifetime -- confront and challenge their own assumptions and beliefs.


As far afield as the above prescriptions are, compared to standardized testing and VAM teacher assessments being promulgated as K-12 education's "silver bullets," they are still discrete concepts.

Extending the above, the challenges of basically changing U.S. K-12 performances might be more effectively expressed and understood by viewing our states' funding of education, their structures for facilitating education, means of providing and qualifying school administration and teachers, and oversight, as a problem in general systems theory.  The approach has application all the way to the organization of individual systems, schools within, and even in the relationships that local systems forge with other systems and organizations within a community.

The beginnings of a such a systemic approach to understanding K-12 appeared in the latter decades of last century, but never reached a high level of maturity or widespread awareness before the alternative vision of forcing overall change in our public schools emerged as a political rather than a functional or technical imperative.  NCLB arguably squelched many such efforts that might have been embryonic at the onset of this century; present strategies almost preclude that modernization of thought.

A subsequent effort down the line will be an attempt to review past efforts to view K-12 in that fashion, to see where the reasoning might clarify and amplify current issues and debate.  One provocative area of inquiry is the organization of our K-12 institutions, essentially unchanged at their core literally since their emergence as the present public school model.  Tantalizing, in that century, organization theory, understanding of human interaction, organizational designs, motivation and management of human resources, technological linkages with human performance, and now even core neural biological understanding of how learning works have undergone a revolution, or even successive revolutions.

Most of America's state-by-state embedded beliefs and protocols, and too many of the nation's elementary and secondary schools seem a petrified forest in that landscape.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


(Note:  This post was also published in the Washington Post on 3/17/2012, education section, in the feature, “The Answer Sheet," edited by Valerie Strauss.)
It is both bizarre and egregious to see a big lie used in the movement to allegedly reform America’s public K-12 schools: That is, America’s teachers are the fulcrum and sole arbiters of whether U.S. public K-12 education is working.
Some underprepared and underperforming teachers are undoubtedly in the roster of causal factors for schools’ learning deficits. Juxtaposed against approximately 3.5 million U.S. human resources practicing the profession just in K-12, and the propositions by J. C. F. Gauss, it is amazing that the franchise is as excellent as it has been.
After a decade of studying U.S. K-12 education, in some cases up close and personal, I think it is likely that a larger fraction of underprepared, besieged, or dogmatic K-12 principals and superintendents are accountable. The two former conditions trace to marginal preparation for the organizational and management tasks faced, a product of sub-par managerial training, and an organizational culture that is more complex than most private sector firms a multiple in asset size or head counts.
The latter condition is more problematic, a function of Lord Acton’s most famous lament (“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”), and the discontinuity between qualities required by a de facto educational CEO versus how they are recruited and hired. Few local school boards have the experience to hire a superintendent, who may hold an EdD or PhD, and needs the vetting aligned with the management challenge of a complex system.
Aggravating the challenge, in the writer’s home state the only requirement to become a superintendent, given prior district or system service, is a one-page application and check payable to its Department of Education, along with a job offer as a superintendent. The department lacks even the manpower to verify degrees claimed.
This is just a beginning to understanding why our teachers should not be burned at the stake. There are 12 other entities that play a major role in whether a district, or school, or even a classroom can meet our learning goals:
  • Inept local school boards; this is not just an off-hand pejorative, but the result of decades of refusal of states to attempt serious reform of how boards are chosen and held accountable. There is also this puzzling conundrum: How does a group of intelligent, generally public-spirited, and frequently professional citizens taken individually, turn into a paranoid, secretive, and self-righteous organization, that either micromanages, plugs minutiae, or hides and is intimidated by school administration?
  • Politicized state boards of education as a byproduct of the mashup of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and ideology, leaving even educationally aware departments caught between the U.S. Department of Education, state legislatures, and limited dollar resources and information to assert better strategies.
  • A corporate testing and textbook oligopoly, producing testing that bypasses genuine learning; now suspect of even rigging some testing to assure failures, to sustain the demand for tests and scoring.
  • A small army of opportunistic charter school and voucher entrepreneurs.
  • The U.S. Department of Education, that as late as a couple of years ago was actually focusing on legitimate classroom research on what actually works.
  • The political right wing’s sworn enemies of the U.S. system of public education, who would prefer to see it replaced by a market-driven system, plus eliminate the U.S. Department of Education.
  • A pedantic or “tracked” Arne Duncan, and misinformed President Obama, who in a liberal surge to erase educational inequity have paradoxically adopted the conservative and corporate reform mantra and rendition of accountability, smashing head-on into the “law of unintended consequences.”
  • Naïve advocacy by Gates and Kopp, et al., including even the now highly praised Kahn Academy and its bite-sized learning menu abstracted from MIT’s free STEM and other curricula, that still manage to bypass genuine knowledge creation as defined by students of learning.
  • A sluggish and partisan U.S. Congress, that could have made No Child Left Behind into something rational.
  • The K-12 public education establishment itself, and its unions, that delayed far too long to start internally reforming their strategies and rubrics to respond to both market needs, organizational innovation, and the neural science of learning firming up in the last decade.
  • Most of our collegiate schools of education that have taken a knee or run for cover rather than stand up and execute needed self-reform.
  • Growing American economic and cultural poverty surrounding too many of its children, and that even when it was earlier improving, was still an acknowledged tactical impediment to learning for many children at the classroom level.

The observant reader may note that the above list is one short. Here it is, though it is not politically correct to say: “America’s K-12 parents.”
So, metaphorically, kill the bad teachers and learning will automatically improve? More likely, do that and in ten years the United States will have to have most K-12 education online, or home-schooled, or see a doubling of class sizes.
Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp can work like a demon to extract more grant and foundation dollars, and the United States will still have a teacher crisis because every TFA teacher will likely need to have their hand held by a master teacher for at least several years to become effective in a classroom, or the cultural impact of demonizing some teachers will halo to all teachers — already happening — throttling motivation to even approach the profession. Another unthinking victim of the aforementioned “law.”
The arguments to date about the flaws in present standardized testing are damaging enough to be grounds for getting back to sanity. But even these arguments pale compared to the misdirection of reform created by simply ignoring that K-12 education is not a one-cause system, and that it will take a balanced portfolio to change U.S. K-12 learning performance.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

SQUINTS 3/12/2012: K-12 – IS SCHOOL BOARD REFORM AN OXYMORON? (Update 3/13/2012)

There are allegedly around 13,500 of them.  

Politically, like death and taxes, they will likely be with us in perpetuity in one organizational arrangement or another.  They are the Rodney Dangerfields of our K-12 school systems.  

At the same time, though earning widespread disrespect, they are rarely mentioned in the ongoing assault and alleged reform of public schools.  They are the frequently elected, sometimes appointed, sometimes qualified, rarely properly vetted electorally, rarely trained/prepared for their functions after installation, rarely perform transparently or are made accountable, and the alleged community representatives we love to hate -- your local school board.

This topic is easily worth books; in fact, there are 37 relevant books on school board governance in the first dozen pages of Amazon listings for a search on “school board reform,” and some multiple of that in relevant journal articles, few of which if any have ever been read by school board members seen to date in this neck of the woods.

To keep this post manageable, the topics are restricted to some high- or perhaps, low-lights:  Empirical knowledge about our boards; what happens to school boards; possible board reforms; boards as factors in K-12 reform.

What do we know?

The first item; what do we know about board performance?  The answer, virtually nothing based on good research methodology.  Compounding the issue of how to gauge board performance is the need to cover years of actions to assess the concordance of board behavior with related school performance.  Further complicating assessment, the effects of a board’s function are played out in the diverse operations within a school or district and may show up as delayed effects.  One obvious, politically incorrect example, is the board that insidiously puts a school’s sports’ values ahead of learning, even to the extent of choking off spending for learning infrastructure in favor of sports complexes to feed parental and community sports egos.  It may take years for the cultural impact of such a value system to be seen in graduation rates, or meaningful assessment of real learning.  When it occurs, the board that spawned the degradation of real education is frequently long gone, the link erased to protect the ignorant and guilty.  Most schools and boards aren’t believers in “double-loop learning.”

Board research also needs to be longitudinal, and the cost to secure sustainability of current longitudinal research is high, both in maintaining organizational relationships with systems to allow study and the lack of funding for such research, versus the episodic issues seen as central to classroom function.  It takes strategic perspective, not big at any recent time in US K-12 education.

What is it about school boards?

Other boards work, why not school boards?  This question puts you into the heart of the issue.  For example, how can five or seven literate, intelligent, frequently professional human resources seen individually, turn into a board that becomes paranoid, secretive, unresponsive to those who elected them, possibly micromanagers of a system, or alternately so intimidated by a superintendent that they have little effective oversight of that system?  Witness to the latter syndrome, boards where the minutes of a board meeting are prepared by a superintendent in their totality and never amended – well in advance of the meeting in question – or where responsibility for strategic issues is simply delegated to a superintendent because board members are risk averse.

The above immediately directs the discussion to the roles of the board, versus roles of a superintendent.  Related, whether many school boards, even when they represent reasonable elected membership, are equipped without further professional counsel to hire a superintendent.  A local system over a decade has hired in succession three superintendents who were, respectively, unethical, sociopathic and unethical, and educationally incompetent.  One reality is that even when you have a competent board, matched with a competent superintendent, the roles to be played are not simply ones that can be easily codified, but represent a subtle dance of the two entities and sets of functions. 

One of the most frequent criticisms of boards that are populated by the generally competent is that they are still predisposed to micromanage, or focus on minutiae instead of policy and larger issues.  This speaks to whether most boards, even consisting of competent members, have the organizational awareness to fashion the playbook to stay out of most school operations and within the agreed board policy and decision boundaries.

The other side of this coin is whether a board is predisposed to get between school leadership and its community to protect a system from funding and other topics that take on community-wide disagreement.  That is one of the roles, but one that is a hard sell when a board lacks confidence in its policy positions, or is more interested in re-election than supporting learning. 

Another of those realities is that too frequently school board seats are sought for reasons other than service to K-12 education:  For ego and social self-promotion; to pursue special interests, or in many cases a prior grievance with a school; as a stepping stone to other public office; and even as a way to practice nepotism or award the “good old boys’ (or girls’) network” in bringing human resources into a system.   As there is little oversight of a school board once installed, unless there has been state reform to enable a malfeasant member or even board removal from office, who watches the watchers?

At the end of the trail in trying to assess board quality, the issue comes down to a combination of how human resources are chosen for any material assignment, and whether after they are chosen, there is in place the necessary developmental work to create the expertise for the role, akin to the fashion of boards in other venues.  In sum, you don’t invite the incompetent to become the basis of organizational oversight in good corporations, or in boards of professional associations, or in pubic sector organizations where legitimate oversight is sought, or the illiterate or naïve to serve as oversight of K-12 education.

Reform possibilities?

Is school board reform possible?  A raft of optimistic educational researchers, pundits, the National School Boards Association, and related assets still believe it is.  Below is an abbreviated list of proposals that have been floated for school board reform.
  • Move to appointed boards, or a mix of elected and appointed boards, where qualifications of appointed members can be required.
  • Change the electoral patterns for school boards, requiring the testing and debate in the public square characterizing most elective competition. 
  • Statutorily increase the educational requirements to run for a school board.
  • Require mandatory training for elected board members; possibly even certification by testing before a board member can be seated.  Add mandatory periodic developmental training for currency.
  • Require a code of ethics and conflict-of-interest policy for all boards.
  • Statutorily provide for removal of a board member, or an entire board for cause. 
  • Better define the roles of a board versus a superintendent, even express these contractually. 
  • Specifically define the duties of board members, with provision for requiring performance to maintain position. 
  • Create a school board report card, with annual assessments; a recommendation of the NSBA. 
  • Merge districts for board representation, to reduce the number of boards, increase the pool of competent candidates for election. 
  • Pay board members at a sufficient level to create performance incentives and provide disincentives for malfeasance. 
  • Organizational training in addition to educational indoctrination, to improve the actual conduct of board operations, including awareness of the needed transparency and communications relationships of a board with its constituent community. 
  • Require qualified advisory groups from a community be used to provide professional assessments of superintendent hires, forecasting and budgeting, school design and construction, and social and behavioral issues within a system. 
  • Take on the voter educational task of explaining K-12 pedagogy and reform needs to parents and the community, because a board is an intermediary between system and those funding it.
  • Establish a solid pattern of communicating with parents and the community; one strategy that automatically improves both the contents of school board meetings, and the community’s interest and attention to education, is using the CATS provisions of local cable operation.  Put your meetings online, in real time; where this is employed the whole spectrum of quality of content through quality of board deportment improves, and a community in turn learns why there are school challenges, and why their support is important.
Do any of these recommendations, drawn from many sources including ones representing school boards, have a chance in the present reform environment?  They are all pretty rational, none really extreme judged against the contents of professional standards expected in other venues that have a lesser impact on American society.  Answer:  Highly unlikely in the present US education environment.

Bitter addendum from the search.

In the process of researching this post, an opinion piece by nationally known educator Larry Cuban was noted.  Always informative, this one captured the writer’s attention, not by its erudition that was substantial, but by the large number and the contents of comments it had elicited from parents with children in our public schools, including many parents who were also educational professionals in some capacity.

The parental comments went beyond troubling, indicating broad frustration and discontent with their own public schools, even myopic teachers, but especially dogmatic, myopic and self-righteous boards, principals and superintendents, more concerned with rules, risk aversion and deflecting transparency and critique, than whether the children involved were ever being educated beyond achieving on standardized tests to keep school images, and their own reputations intact.

Astounding was the sameness of the critiques of public K-12 systems widely scattered across the US, reflecting vitriol for public education professionals who just wanted those parents to go away, let them practice what they knew, even if it was last century’s education, and expressing either disinterest in or contempt for internal creativity and change in any facet of their systems including greater teacher involvement in the core processes.  If there is any question why the bizarre combination of a liberal President and a profiteering and potentially dirty segment of the corporate sector, with a few narrow or billionaire do-gooders thrown in, are the merged driving force of alleged K-12 reform, our K-12 public education establishment doesn’t have to look beyond some its own door jambs.

Simultaneously, not new news, perceptions that the teacher is the fulcrum for all alleged reform of US K-12, and the present strategy of whipping schools into compliance with a bizarre and narrow concept of learning represented by standardized testing.  What is apparent is that simplistic view of how K-12 learning infrastructure works contains abominable oversight of its own.  That greater threats to US K-12 recovery than the VAM scores of even our worst teachers include:  Our frequently mediocre to virtually paralyzed school boards; school administrators untrained in contemporary management and ranging from Mr. Chips to Machiavellian and sociopathic; the failure of oversight of both those educational bureaucrats and those supposed to be their watchers; the failure and total absence from the public square of most US schools of education, even in the face of Teach for America; and the continuing poverty and discrimination of too many of America’s children.

Along the way in researching this issue, rediscovered after posting is the appended quote from a working paper.  From a PhD researcher at the Intercultural Development Research Association, a bipartisan Texas-based organization working on quality of teaching and learning, the prescriptions for school boards’ efforts to improve performance were both stimulating, then immediately a source of frustration; for the following are what most smaller system boards work diligently to avoid.
“1. Become better informed of community assets and needs, student characteristics, and implications for a quality educational program. Although most states require that their school board members receive training during their tenure, the training rarely targets knowing their communities (assets, needs, student characteristics) or basic knowledge about a quality education program. How can we entrust the education of our children to persons who are responsible for school policy but who have a limited knowledge of quality education and quality teaching?
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for school board members to become totally disconnected from their role and the duty that they are elected or appointed to carry out. The community that elected them should demand greater interest, action and leadership from them.
2. Engage in constant dialogue with community leaders and parents to ensure that schools work in partnership with community members and parents to enrich the quality of education to be provided. Successful school boards meaningfully engage their communities in periodic forums, meetings and reflection sessions to check the pulse of schools in graduating students who are ready for college, in ensuring that schools are holding on to students, and in creating school environments that are safe and responsive to the needs of all students.
Building community consensus and support for school transformations based on research and compassion are powerful methods. It also can neutralize the effects of political rivalry and enmity that cause school board paralysis, deadlock and inappropriate action. Too often school boards engage community only during election times.
3. Promote and facilitate partnerships with community members and parents as a powerful way of creating and sustaining educational change. Recently, a leading school superintendent was lamenting the lack of knowledge and commitment of school administrators to value and partner with their communities and parents to create a learning community that works and supports a quality educational program.
Effective school boards are strong advocates of meaningful engagement. They promote and facilitate partnerships with community and parents as a powerful way of creating and sustaining change that leads to student engagement and success. School administrators must realize that total student success will not be achieved until the school partners with all sectors of the community and parents and has the full confidence of students.
4. Become an integral part of a leadership team responsible for designing school reform efforts. Many times, school boards underestimate their contributions as citizens and elected representatives of the general public in school reform efforts. They bring different, essential perspectives into the planning and design phase of school reform. They are in a position to change policies to enable schools to make the necessary changes.
The total disengagement of school board members from school reform efforts can have a detrimental impact on schools’ success. By disengaging, board members abdicate the power and responsibility entrusted to them through the democratic process.
5. Be accountable to the community for excellence and equity in the provision of services and the resultant academic accomplishments. If systemic changes were well-defined, understood and supported by an informed school board, they would be less vulnerable to disruption of educational services to students created by school leadership changes like a new superintendent or new principals. Many times, leadership vacuums left by superintendents’ or administrators’ sudden departure lead to complete school disarray and dysfunction.”    

Sunday, March 4, 2012

SQUINTS 3/5/2012: K-12 -- WHAT WILL IT TAKE?

Trolling for US K-12 news this week netted some junk catches and bottom feeders.

Penned a couple of days ago, today’s SQUINTS assumed it had caught the bottom of the week’s education barrel; “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride” (Scottish Proverbs, 1721).

Three late posts illuminated some critical topics in the quest to reform US K-12 systems:  Testing insanity, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, North Carolina – 52 high-stakes standardized tests – and a superintendent corporate shill; US parenting dysfunction; and why US public K-12 woes have more to do with incompetent K-12 administration than its teachers; all linked, worth reading.  Even when the standards game is made rational, the results remain unclear.

Earlier NYC, irresponsibly, released the ratings of 18,000 K-12 teachers; ratings based primarily on questionable standardized test scores and so-called value-added modeling.  There was immediately evidence that the bases for those ratings ranged from marginal to false, unfair and dysfunctional branding of even highly qualified teachers as fodder for criticism and possible loss of positions.

A long time educator and author discovered in Florida's K-12 systems the possibility that corporately-vended reading standardized tests are being rigged to facilitate failure among students to maintain the corporate markets for that testing.  Coincidentally, Indiana's Department of Education (managed by Tony Bennett, who has been active nationally in promoting use of corporate standardized testing, and pushing charters to replace public systems judged or rendered failing by state-defined standards) is now requiring IREAD-3, a high stakes standardized reading test for third graders.  Is there a "red line" out there as a cutoff for testing absurdity; pre-K and K language measurement next?

Florida seems unable to crawl out of America’s intellectual sinkhole; its Legislature is preparing a bill that may well be unconstitutional, and many consider a ruse to get prayer back into our schools.  A small catch, it may permit satanic inclusions.  But for efficiency of legislative thinking, can Florida be faulted; gets both sides of the magic coin with the same bill.

Meanwhile, an Ohio local K-12 system is seeking to bully through a belated levy submitted to manipulate voting in the March 6 primary election, for a new K-8 school building that is either being over-funded or is attempted fraud to facilitate building something else without voter approval.  The proposed building plan, in turn, is last century's K-12 thinking and is obsolete before being constructed. Added to a decade of education deceit by this system, and administrative malfeasance, the case is a prime example of failed oversight by one of Ohio’s and America's “Mark Twain school boards” in action.

Rick Santorum is on the record declaring postsecondary education is "for snobs."  Perhaps we should not let this get out to the 3.5MM K-12 teachers in the US, lest even more abandon or bypass the profession, and you have to home school your offspring.  What makes that a bit dicey is that roughly 40 percent of US adults are now allegedly barely literate; not politically correct but that is, of course, one of the reasons public K-12 education is currently under heavy attack.  But Santorum's rant also contained hidden grains of truth; that not all work need be for a four-year degree, and that our especially 9-12 education is failing America.

As this is written, somewhere in the US, education’s Darth Vader, er, Arne Duncan, is spreading the hypocrisy that has been his trademark since becoming US Secretary of Education, giving lip service to genuine learning but using the disastrous and costly “Race to the Top” and alleged “NCLB Waivers” to push even more corporate standardized testing into public K-12 schools.

One nationally recognized educator finally came out and asserted it in print; the Obama administration has allegedly for political support sold out public education to the $600B+ corporate testing oligopoly, to corporate misoneist commitment to a retro production model of K-12 education, to charter corporations and operators, and to sundry other enemies of US public schools. So much for the present administration's concern with supporting public education and improving real K-12 learning -- the nation doesn’t even need a Republican presidential candidate.

With the wrong reform testing beast at the doors, too much of present K-12 public education – witness the  Ohio local system referenced above – is so encased in hubris and self-righteousness, and in the above case educational incompetence, that in denial the beast is being offered a place at the head of the table.

Florida -- sorry to have to revisit you -- is also pushing through the "parent trigger bill," that will allow parents with low performing systems, as designated by the state, to require they be taken over by privatized charters. Sounds like a reasonable enough option, until one recognizes that many US parents are in denial that there are corporate, right wing, and incredibly, US Department of Education assaults on public education.  Add that charter schools with some exceptions produce no gains over public systems, are in effect conscripting public assets and taxes for profit, can discriminate in accepting students, and are avoiding oversight once entrenched. 

In Ohio one out of three K-12 schools is now a stealth charter – out of sight being pushed by Ohio’s politicized department of education while piously pretending to support public schools – and with rare exceptions are at the bottom of the performance barrel.  Generally linked to Ohio’s charters are politically- or corporately-inspired sponsors, and a cadre of repetitively appearing alleged “consultants” who are also tapping public funding and appear to be permanent charter lobbyists.

Lastly, in researching the "learning space" options to what has been proposed by the above referenced Ohio local system, a revelation was that other nations are making the US appear an educational farce, pioneering and constructing learning facilities mirroring 21st century learning needs.

The questions on the table are:  What will it take to shock into retreat or at least stasis the political-corporate cabal pushing the punishment model of US K-12 reform; and what will it take to animate many present public K-12 systems that either “don’t get it,” or if the reform challenge is sensed, lack the smarts, and/or ethics, and/or courage to initiate change?  

An answer rooted in the recent history of US adaptation to its environments and challenges is that it will take a full scale learning disaster, major overshoot, accelerated departure of teachers from the profession because of the bullying, and a larger international education gap to trigger rethinking of the present trajectory. There are still excellent US public K-12 schools, but usually cases where competent administration has both coped with standardized testing, then set it aside and promoted creativity, technology use, and genuine learning.  

The obvious issue is, will the roots and shards of remaining US public education by that point be viable enough to rebuild a public system?  Add to the stew systems like the Ohio local above, that can't fathom the meaning of reform, in the specific case even spell learning much less ethics, and the outlook is one very dark cloud.  If there is a ray of light piercing the overcast, it may be in returning some common sense to K-12 education, harnessing technology, and maintaining balanced learning.  Revisit needed research on learning, its legitimate testing, and how both teachers and administrators need to be contemporarily educated to be effective.