Saturday, April 21, 2012


TO:      Valerie Strauss, “The Answer Sheet,” The Washington Post

SUBJ:  Preaching to the choir?

As an active social science researcher for decades, an observation that took almost that long to mature is that explanation starts with perceived and frequently naïve simplicity, logistically moves to complexity as interacting mechanisms of cause and effect and concomitancy are revealed, then as robust theory emerges, trends again toward simplicity. 

Mountains of rhetoric are being expended to try to make the current public K-12 reform tactics and allegedly standardized testing appear sophisticated and righteous, to sell the gullible it is complex and meaningful, and to promote the alleged magic of markets; or create imagery that invoking longitudinal measurement, or citing a model, or chanting pyschometrician connotes understanding and test relevance (witness "the talking pineapple").

The issue is that sell-job, sometimes simply educational ignorance, can also be a deliberate attempt to deceive the untutored. Presently with the topics K-12 and standardized testing, it has become malevolent and deception; and a large swath of America’s parents, voters, politicians, even its educators are being deceived. The elementary function and learning narrowness of present standardized testing, being billed as K-12 education’s reform silver bullet, become tacitly accepted as state-of-art and fact.

Not politically correct, but too many of America’s citizens and parents – challenged by present dysfunctional politics, U.S. economic woes, and youth on new trajectories – have been steered to view public K-12 education focused on, instead of learning performance, school sports, mascots, inter-community competition based on school bricks & mortar, school protocols, paranoia about their progeny’s self-esteem, and specious omniscience of superintendents and school boards. Many view K-12 only through the filter of their own past experiences or local culture.  The knowledge, technology, and even literacy can be missing to challenge propaganda from a politically subservient state department of education, or an uncomprehending but dogmatic school administration, or headlined in a sycophant local press.

Human fallibility can make the “big lie” seem more attractive than the truth, tapping the demonstrated capacity of the human brain to create its own reality consistent with personal beliefs.  It is a sour commentary on American maturity as a nation and a society that the above technique has become an operating tactic of its politics, governance, and now public K-12 reform hyperbole.

“The Answer Sheet” plus other Washington Post blogs offer arguably the best national coverage of contemporary K-12 education issues.  But as multiple professional and truly knowledgeable bloggers writing there have observed, the messages seem to bounce off U.S. policy makers and self-proclaimed experts driving America’s K-12 reform epidemic.  Even in the District, the messages delivered by a Diane Ravitch and peers, by award-winning teachers, and by accomplished school administrators appear ignored.  As presented in your recent post, “Education reform protests pick up steam,” some broader awareness beyond education resources is emerging, but the total count might not elect more than a few metropolitan school boards.

A reasonable hypothesis is that the Post has attracted to this feature readers who are already knowledgeable about primary and secondary education, and about the discoveries and technologies of the last several decades that should be shaping school learning strategies.  Critically, they are also likely more aware of the potential strategic downstream impact on a generation of youth exposed overwhelmingly to fragmented and undigested material being imposed on our classrooms by present testing, literally being made those classrooms' raison d’être.

This week’s post from Alabama, “Testing day: ‘More like lockdown than an elementary school’,” has the ambience of George Orwell’s 1984.  The destruction of genuine K-12 learning and knowledge creation from a distorted and naive conception of reform may even be an unintended consequence of present tactics, but it is a consequence its proponents appear too ideologically, politically, or profit-driven to ethically note or trigger pause.

What is perplexing is that those in positions of leadership with the power to amend the present trajectory, and who arguably are smarter than most, have expressed total indifference to the unintended consequences of present tactics, or have demonstrated egregious hypocrisy.  Or as Diane Ravitch pointed out in another post, about Michele Rhee, they may be driven more by self-promotion than altruism.  Perhaps, as in the case of the Obama Administration, and an Arne Duncan, the extreme liberal dogma and social entrepreneurship driving their vision of reform, focused on some utopian universal classroom equity, simply overwhelm good leadership and even common sense?  

Limited broad public comprehension of the diverse motivations driving present alleged K-12 reform, many buried or disguised, presents a dilemma.

Because of the pattern of most media coverage of K-12 reform issues, a reasonable assertion is that most of our media also lack the awareness of the technology of learning to fully understand the standardized testing issues, what is being installed by literally every politicized state department of education, by a NGA, by profit-driven corporate market aggression, much less offer critique.  Without greater mass communications coverage, given near cluelessness of the majority of U.S. citizens about the real K-12 action underway, you have a formidable roadblock to slowing alleged school reform.

Our states – Ohio’s education oversight has become a corrupted and destructive example, littered with failed charters and financial improprieties – using glowing language are acclaiming the present testing as the solution to needed U.S. public education reconstruction, doubling-down on bubble tests, creating elaborate rating schemes for their systems, labeling and misrepresenting those schemes to appear indicative of learning quality.  But stripped of the verbiage the issue is narrow, simple, and venal – the testing being employed is misinformed, detached from the thinking classroom, naïve, punitive, and based on test designs with psychometric roots*, but not measuring extensible learning.  Hypothetically, the only thing that might change that arguably political partisanship motivating many states’ testing prosecution is the reality of a bipartisan voter revolt. 

There is even reason to believe that a disturbingly large percent of especially rural and smaller community superintendents, principals, and teachers actually buy that the present standardized testing blitz will advance U.S. public K-12 education.  Repetitively, public systems' pronouncements suggest limited awareness that they are under attack, and that present testing is the weapon of choice.  Too many public systems continue to dismiss self-assessment, and fail living within budgets, fecklessly chasing more levies, affirming their critics.  That is the unfortunate status of much public K-12 hidden from wider viewing accorded selected urban systems and genuinely quality public systems that do get elevated press coverage.

Lastly, what should be embarrassing America’s private sector, is either the ignorance, or awareness matched with ethical degeneracy, that describes the dubious corporate brain trust on the right, supporting the present attempted destruction of U.S. public K-12 schools to install charters, and slavish pursuit of profits from perpetuating the testing scams. 

As a former B-school professor, that is not how our markets should operate; generations of management scholars have offered value systems, strategic logic, and organizational learning that can balance the profit motive and social responsibility, seemingly a vacuum in present thinking.  Even the most basic premise of a sustainable business system – delivering output that meets genuine consumer needs – is being perverted by our test oligopoly.  That isn’t the creativity, entrepreneurship, and market dynamism rational conservatives perpetually extol.

The bottom line, a small army of knowledgeable students of education, most with credentials that eclipse those held by an Arne Duncan and other names that frequent reform (mis)reporting, have been shut out of the reform debate.  Indeed, dystopian, the public square has been suppressed and censored, there has been no debate, and the standardized testing mechanisms driving alleged reform were imposed without logical or scientific pretesting.

“The Answer Sheet” has been offering thoughtful answers to what needs to be curtailed, and what needs to actually be changed to put America’s public K-12 schools back on course – but few except for the choir appear to be listening and comprehending the sermon.

*Note:  One of the more egregious effects of present test design occurs because designers must choose questions to force large variance in responses, to create discrimination among test-takers.  In the case of this application of large population measurement, it means questions designed to spread responses, or to test for facts that may not be uniformly available from relevant instruction, or questions unethically designed to create broad failure to perpetuate the market, or questions that just reflect designer bias or ignorance as depicted by the "talking pineapple."  This may be commercially acceptable or do minimal harm, for example, in marketing research where consumer preferences are being sought, and the application of results is to classify or stratify markets.  But applied to K-12 education, and high stakes testing, where students’, teachers’, and even schools’ futures are on the line, it represents out-of-control technocracy with questionable ethics.

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