Saturday, April 14, 2012



The following post is a modified repeat of the prior sequel to "Fourteen reasons..."  It focuses, amends, and further details proposals that might represent actual reform of U.S. K-12 schools, versus the present menu of punitive standardized testing, and replacement of public schools with privatized education and charter schools.

4/15/2012 Post

In a prior post in The Washington Post, “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 unilateral cause of classroom learning success nor the controlling factor in impeding K-12 learning performance.  Following are thirteen strategies -- and one lament -- for addressing those issues, offered not as ideals, but to provoke debate. 

No one in our public policy halls of power apparently wants to hear applause for anything beyond standardized testing and VAM, and more test business for the corporate oligopoly of Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Wireless Corporation, et al.  But neither set is arguably part of a strategic K-12 reform solution.

The reality is genuine K-12 school reform is systemic, multidimensional, and evolutionary, each of those concepts having extensive operational contents.  It is not channeling Ayn Rand and emulating chimeric dogma.  Neither the odd couple of ideologically diverse reformers huddled in the same space capsule, nor the back-room horde of standardized test designers, nor VAM modelers and consultants, nor a Bill Gates, should be permitted to unilaterally shape U.S. K-12 reform.

Potential Solutions

Only schools as systems can craft sustainable organizational and related performance change.  The present reform movement won’t get you there.  For debate, proposed strategies for changing the game:

Let the Competitive Games Begin?

Two major arguments are offered for 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.

The assumption that markets will function “efficiently,” and competition will mediate excesses and abuses is a grossly naïve view of economic theory as it plays out in real-world markets.  Brand substitution is constrained by location; entry and exit are restricted; product utilities are complex, socially mediated, and time-referenced; the price mechanism is either disabled or institutionalized, and reflects virtually the opposite of classic diminishing marginal utility.

In managerial terms, 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 private sector regularly demonstrates that Theory Y and participative management work, and drive creativity.

The false premise, that markets and Adam Smith can or will mediate the multi-layered and socially complex system of U.S. K-12 education, its governance and development adjudicated by the buffeting of an "invisible hand," needs to be scrapped.  Our schools aren't intended to produce interchangeable "widgets" although standardized testing may be closing the gap.

What Isn't Known Beggars What's Assumed

We actually know less about most of our K-12 public schools than is known about U.S. households.  Execute a national benchmark census of U.S. K-12 schools, with uniform categories of questions and data, to provide a baseline assessment of status and need.  Utopian?  The decennial U.S. Census manages to assess over 117MM households; there are roughly 100,000 schools.  We are hammering K-12 education wearing a blindfold.

Support But Reinvent Teachers

As reported in a recent post by educator Anthony Cody, there has been 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 – that may make teachers an endangered species within the decade.

A half-baked “Teach for America” won’t fill that hole.  What might both stop the exodus, and build a new American teaching corps, are reforms of U.S. schools of education, 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.

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.  This deficit has been on the table for decades in U.S. schools of education, untouched.  The result is the goal of a Teach for America, but properly executed.

Lastly, rethink and revisit earlier proposed initiatives to make it easier for already accomplished professionals and even retirees to enter K-12 teaching.  That concept had started to gain some traction, but has been starved by state education bureaucracies seemingly intent on blocking entry to the K-12 sorority/fraternity.

Education and Certification for Administration

Few K-12 school administrators have been trained to manage anything, primarily because U.S. schools of education have barely discovered management as both B-schools and sophisticated practice have refined it.

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 a certification peer review based on national standards for school leadership.

Require in the above work neural psychology, 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.

Testing -- No One is Advocating Eliminating the Right Brand

Launch a major research effort to develop and validate assessment instruments beyond present standardized testing, and from the get-go key that testing to digital capabilities.  Phase out most present standardized testing. Return to human gestalt assessment of classrooms, and shift 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.

Revisit the prescient work of Harvard's Howard Gardner, the critiques by Diane Ravitch, and the testing scholarship of Harvard's Daniel Koretz.  

Pedagogy & Classrooms

Return to the prior U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) strategy of researching what pragmatically works in the classroom, with a national program of mandated K-12 school involvement in such research.  Make controlled school and classroom experiments of alternative pedagogies a standard of both administrative and teacher performance.

Estrangement of education research from the real world is endemic; for grants starting mid-2011 to mid-2102, just for education research related to STEM, the National Science Foundation lists 50 individual grants totaling over $48MM – a few pass the “sniff test” for practical effect. 

Meanwhile the USDOE program, “Doing What Works,” has just announced, nationally, a massive six grants, none to a school system proper, totaling perhaps less than $.5MM.  Some of these were to education service centers or their equivalent – in this blog’s home state some of the most corrupt education bureaucracies going – where those dollars will produce little beyond more bureaucracy.

Make an arm of an aggressively reformed USDOE the focal point for coordinating a national assessment of U.S. schools of education, creating standards for products, and being a catalyst for education schools' periodic review and certification.

As a dystopian reform movement has unfurled, critique of both testing and learning protocols has taken on the ambience of drinking from a fire-hose, but frequently short on scholarship.  An example is the critique of "constructivism," an anti-"standardized testing" vaccine.  The issue is, as in virtually all cases of pedagogy, context is critical.  In the specific case, constructivism isn't a nostrum for all learning, but needs to be tailored to stage of learning and its context.  In contrast, examples such as "reform math," and Indiana's "IREAD-3" testing logic, evoke the sense of intellect interrupted, to be generous.

Lastly, the drumbeat about tests, teachers, and classrooms has drowned out the 21st century issue that seat time and the traditional classroom may be on the verge of obsolescence.  An unintended consequence of the standardized test-based reform binge, the question of what future schools, and more effective teacher-school-student-parent links should be has been shoved to the back-burner?  These issues need to return to the head of the class.

Communication and Interaction

Create multiple online networks for K-12 teachers, allowing exchanges of experiences, ideas, techniques, attitudes, opinions, and beliefs without censorship.  Model self-help online offerings via the USDOE program and site, “Doing What Works,” after cleaning up its act. Add to that site online social networking programs to engage more of America’s parents, with contents scaled to parental interests.

Local School Boards

There are at least fifteen widely cited opportunities for reform of selection and operations of local school boards, and on the table for decades, but not pursued by the states; mandate pursuit of those changes by 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.  Ohio’s stealth program to install charters has resulted in their occupying the bottom of the education performance barrel, even using the State’s own challenged rating system, and recently revealed millions of dollars given to failed and discontinued schools.

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.

Driving Public K-12 Reform

A first proposal is that U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan be removed from the driver's seat of K-12 education reform, before it is driven by naive standardized testing into a crater without an exit ramp.  Mr. Duncan may have all of the instincts for social altruism and entrepreneurship, but as the New York Times' David Brooks pointed out this week, "...important issues always spark disagreement.  Unless there is a healthy political process to resolve disputes, the ensuing hatred and conflict will destroy everything the altruists are trying to build."

Additionally, Mr. Duncan's tenure has been associated with:  The failure of intellect to understand the systemic and strategic nature of public K-12, or what the naive testing motif will ultimately reap; repetitive hypocrisy in giving lip service to proper evaluation and supporting public education but doing the opposite; and the credibility of that altruism by allowing a cadre of corporate profiteering and manipulation, and personal agendas and demagoguery to kidnap alleged reform.
There is a strong argument that what are emerging as the products of Mr. Duncan's reform fantasies -- widespread cheating, undercutting public education, states' slavish and unquestioning adoption of narrow testing for dollars or NCLB relief, charter scandals and theft of tax dollars, unethical defamation and dismissal of teachers from VAM, and an unknown future epidemic adult learning deficit -- constitute both necessary and sufficient condition for seeking new USDOE leadership.
The second proposal for remediation would require every public K-12 system to be partnered with some U.S. college or university generally in its state, 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.

Curricula -- What Gets Tested Gets Featured -- View Cart Pulling Horse

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).  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, in addition to reflecting the major inputs from Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Bill Gates, et al., objective and disinterested players?

The NGA, billing itself as “bipartisan,” is not, guided heavily by conservative staffing and other organizations that have been identified as part of the so-called corporate reform movement.  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.

Whether one philosophically believes in common K-12 standards or not, 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 U.S. Department of Education, may represent a new low point in America’s K-12 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.
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 solution is a consortium of representation from the professional bodies and organizations that set the criteria for U.S. and even world knowledge and serve by consent as its oversight; for example, AAAS.  Created and promoted, competent knowledge (not methods) standards could push the politicized artifice of CCSSI off the table before it further debases American K-12 education.

Technology Is Everywhere, Except K-12 Classrooms

There are public 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.

Integrating digital technologies with K-12 curricula and into both classrooms and non-classroom delivery should be one of the prime directives for the Department of Education, not the misguided and utopian attempts to use K-12 education to address U.S. social injustice – make technology integration a core mission.

Congress -- Solution or Problem?
The elephants in the room – America’s increasingly lopsided income distribution, finding political sanity in Congress but even in local cultures, and greater parental awareness of the potential malpractice in their local school systems – go 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, with implications of cumulative failed K-12 education for decades.

In a recent editorial, a national pundit in commenting on NCLB change, and noting the Act’s increasing attention and criticism, observed that those factors damn its correction in Congress – the “hot button” quality promptly sends the U.S. Congress into its foxholes.

Solutions?  There appear none in the present political morass; a lame duck with a nine percent approval rating in a poisoned partisan pond, where the busy paddling under the water is mostly by lobbyists.

Parts Are Parts?

The above prescriptions -- compared to standardized testing and VAM teacher assessments being promulgated as K-12 education's "silver bullets" -- are strategies, but still discrete concepts.  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 beginnings of 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.

One provocative area of inquiry is the organization model for our K-12 institutions, essentially unchanged 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. Organization of our K-12 schools by and large remains a petrified forest, and the basic format of K-12 organizational design needs to be re-imagined.

Cultures and Mindsets

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.

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