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.

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