Monday, November 26, 2012

SQUINTS 26 November 2012 -- Privatizing K-12 Education: Being Half-Pregnant?

Driving to privatized K-12 education, prompted by an elysian perspective of the wonders of competition, characterizes one major faction of the K-12 reform movement.  The anthem:  Schools need to be business-like and accountable.  Lost in the rhetoric of reform driven by the mantra, markets, and simply competing; you don’t get the pig without the squeal, anymore than being half-pregnant has credibility.

Markets and Schools

Competition in 2012, and for at least most of the 20th century, has veered away from the embryonic economic thought of The Wealth of Nations, to markets that are neither pure, nor perfect, nor even “free,” the latter a term one ideology likes to toss about but misunderstands.  Step away from the present debates and ask some simple questions:  If K-12 schools are made a private good, executed for profit, what does its organization look like; can they elect to refuse markets; can education reflect double-digit brands of knowledge, ala detergents; how are schools’ choices strategized and executed in the context of 21st century business theory and practice; can you monotonically transpose a school’s functions into business parameters; can you have educational market "yin" without the "yang?"

Let your imagination soar -- by roughly 2025 about one-third of our 98,000 public schools is privatized, performance and decisions driven by short run competitive behavior and profit maximization.  Immediately, there are two core market opportunities, market share to be pirated from other privatized schools, and growing the market by undercutting remaining public schools.   Tagging along, a host of functional market influences from envisioning strategic and operating processes of schools as firms.

Putting “Business” Into K-12

View through a business lens some market implications, both as assets and liabilities, as they impact K-12 as a firm.

Contrary to romanticized business, the overwhelming motivation of any firm in a competitive market is not the joy of competing, but to either drive competitors out of business or buffer decisions from competition, especially price competition; Microsoft.  One alternative is market segmentation, partition those markets so the K-12 firm can tailor learning products to more homogeneous market preferences and avoid competition:  Quality learning for the high-end market; "consumer" level learning for the mass market priced at what the traffic will bear; a paint-by-the-numbers knowledge package for those who believe learning ends with schools’ state grades, and mythology-punctuated curricula for the artificial reality set, the Bobby Jindal model.
A nagging question is product improvement.  Every product change is costly, and there is virtue in stretching the product life cycle if change isn’t compelled competitively.  Would new knowledge simply be inventoried until that need for new thought is forced?  Would national progress be narrowly relegated to only ideas’ next quarter’s NPBT or RONA?  Another is warranties; does the K-12 firm warrant its learning for more than a summer, and how?  A new market opportunity for the liability segment of the legal profession; class action suits for K-12 learning malfeasance, to buttress the familiar mesothelioma and mesh implant suits and add to TV advertising revenues?  Or, a post-sale market opportunity to offer replacement knowledge, at a price, for learning exceeding its shelf life?

Don’t ignore the market distortions of misleading advertising and price manipulation if needed market regulation is bypassed.  Sucker parents are created every minute, there to be tackled as a brand-switching opportunity from another local K-12 firm, or a remaining public system usefully demonized in promotion, or where bait-and-switch pricing works, or where you can price discriminatorily because of constrained parental options.  Greed-induced corrupt practices in present charters are already being documented.

The education production function in the K-12 firm offers many ways to max those profits.  As the overriding goal of the firm has become scoring on predetermined tests achieved using the latest neural findings, the teacher becomes low hanging fruit for cost reduction through automation.  This is not far-fetched, given avatar software development, and the latest breakthroughs in AI and shrinking microprocessors. The teaching staff can be slashed, remaining human resources positioned on the firm’s assembly lines to nurture student exceptions, while the teaching avatar/AI package drills students using the Kahn Academy’s, CCSSI’s, and other canned bites of alleged learning. Facial recognition technology takes attendance and registers whether the audience is appropriately responding, triggering any needed algorithmic change.  The avatar never tires, reprogrammable as needed to meet the current day’s change in what’s viral in the knowledge biz, and test productivity soars while health care costs and the nuisance of a union fade away.

Perhaps the greatest service to an education nation from privatization of K-12 would be the phase-out of most collegiate schools of education, arguably a critical cause in evolutionarily dumbing-down American public K-12, precipitating the present reform movements.  An open secret is the profound silence of those schools in responding to the challenge of "Teach for America" that simply bypasses them, to launching any credible defense of their philosophies and curricula in the face of the assaults on public K-12.  America’s teachers have been exiting those schools with sets of obsolete rubrics, little subject matter excellence, and with attitude sets that convey entitlement and suppress objectivity.  It is tribute to American perseverance and inventiveness that millions of K-12 teachers in their first half-dozen classroom years, if they don’t exit the profession, learn on their own how to expedite learning.  Simultaneously, troubling, is the statistic floated recently by a long-time educator, that our teachers on average spend 20 minutes per week reading anything about education.  Add that to frequent public K-12 administrative ignorance in promoting appropriate teacher development; managerial excellence in the private sector has for decades recognized the imperative of continuing professional human resource development.  Chalk up one for privatization.

Quality assurance, now and future, beggars the understanding the function has been accorded since the early 1900s.  Not initiated by W. E. Deming, but certainly multiplied by his teaching, contemporary QA has moved as far away from the present standardized testing debacle as a Prius or Fisker Karma differs from Henry Ford’s one color/model fits all.   Presumably a competently managed privatized K-12 firm’s early move would be away from the standardized testing employed initially to "set up" public K-12 for takeovers, and scrap the present costs of testing in favor of firm-wide process controls of all factors controlling test mission delivery and profits.  Ironically, another point for privatization, but one penalty for its ethics?

Customer complaints?  The K-12 firm might dramatically improve parts of the overall system, of competitive necessity being responsive to avoid share loss, but it also enables the customer service function to be outsourced cutting costs.  Via videoconferencing, business for Finland, Singapore, India, etc.?  Another advantage of the private model is that a large share of present K-12 superintendents and principals would finally be vetted for competency, improving school performance and transparency, albeit likely adding a fractional point to US unemployment.

Another effect of privatization might be the creation of sports business profit centers, eliminating the hypocrisy of trying to designate the function as education, reducing the need for systems to cheat by financially funneling education dollars to sports under the table.  Even present assessments of customer preferences indicate those activities in K-12 are significantly preferred to learning functions, commanding more organizational loyalty, and able to extract higher prices.

Lastly, a challenge is the creation of an entirely new organizational scheme for the private K-12 version.  Present public school organization theory is one hundred years old, obsolete even before the onset of the 21st century, but any urgency to experiment or innovate never prospered.  Privatization would offer freedom to escape the rigidity and obsolescence of the public model, invent with panache.  A downside, there is presently little robust theory and even less precedent for how alternate K-12 organization models might impact school performance.

Privatization Positives

Glass half empty, or glass half full?  The above issues have permeated the real world practice of American business for well over a century, manifesting in both the Fortune 500 as well as in our mass of smaller firms.  Some positives of the K-12 "firm" surfaced, but many negatives go with the territory of "markets" lacking rigorous regulation.  

Are there not comprehensive upsides?

Given enough mass and dollars, coupled with corporate responsibility, or at least intelligent selfishness, there can be.  An example is the corporate math and science initiative now being fielded by energy giant, Exxon.  Is this the model for a national K-12 system, total corporate ownership and stewardship of K-12 schools?  No question that corporate sophistication and the capacity to bring together the very best human resources, and focus those diverse skills on creating K-12 learning, could be a major step-up from what any local school system (or even rare intelligent state stewardship) can bring to the education party.  Currently, that stewardship is not only missing but being hypocritically perverted in the US Department of Education and by Arne Duncan.

Another patently obvious advantage of private sector vitality is the presence of entrepreneurship, risk-taking, and creativity in especially small to medium-sized US businesses, versus what evolved in US public K-12 education.  The paucity of both creativity, risk-taking, objectivity, and even transparency in many public K-12 systems is breathtaking, driven by many of the factors some see as presently public K-12 virtues -- local control and perspectives, hometown knowledge resources, boards elected for popularity, and we want the school system to "be just like us."

Still another plus for the K-12 firm could be, as noted above, more effective recruitment and training of key K-12 human resources, whether classroom teachers or administrators who can actually manage competently and ethically.  Our nation's K-12 teachers, on balance, may be a cut above other professions in their level of altruism and commitment, but not every teacher is saintly.  In parallel an argument is that the private sector has developed far better instincts for motivating its resources, and algorithms for assessing human performance, than either traditional public education or the naive and disastrous VAM models have introduced.

A Splash of Cold Water

That 2025 scenario a bit of a stretch?  Not even close to more creative or bizarre visions that have been floated for education as the requirement for success in a world “that is not your father’s economy,” as the idiom goes.  Rather, a cold shower for the naively enamored of fictional markets.

The less humorous, and more strategic question is, will America trash a century of experience in creating orderly and highly democratized K-12 learning – even if public education dropped the ball in the second half of that century – to pursue en masse a still untested but more dynamic model of K-12?  The bad news is that present so-called reform has managed some of that in icarian fashion with standardized testing and VAM and is failing.  The good news is, that for the major dollars expended, and all of the promotional hype accorded alleged reform and accountability, the real marketplace, the souls in those classrooms and paying the bills for K-12 education, are starting to ask some hard questions. 

Normatively, would our nation benefit more by having K-12 education organized and mediated politically, with a single strategic focus but the expected political baggage, or subject to the positive and negative dynamics, and risks of using market reasoning and forces to resolve its parameters?  There is clearly room for debate.  Not debatable, that using market concepts to mediate K-12 education precludes just cherry-picking their virtues in allocating resources and ignoring their consequences.  Buy the pig and you get the whole beast right down to the chitlins.

The "think" versus "thimk" option; is there a less structurally
disruptive way to boost American K-12?

Fortuitously, theories of human resource organization and management have evolved independently of the environments for execution; multiple types of markets, versus public sectors, versus armies, versus religions, et al.  The present reform premise – only privatization enables K-12 accountability and change – is both phony and bait-and-switch.

Now, almost routinely, media pundits feel free to cite the US public K-12 establishment as a failed American experiment.  The sense of the critiques seems to be, public K-12 ignorance and self-centricity over the last several decades created its own bed, let them sleep in it.  In a sense American public K-12 has failed, no mystery why "accountability" is the war cry of alleged reformers. A large swath of America's K-12 schools is still occupied by usually well-intentioned but self-righteous or dogmatic administrators, and even teachers, in denial of or resentful of change, sincerely believing that what they think they possess as knowledge is still good enough in 2012 and beyond, or paranoid that it is not.  With the phenotype of local school boards educationally naive, or worse, and states' controls wimpy or politicized, many systems truly believe themselves immune from more than imposed bureaucratic accountability.

The issue is this displays on both sides all the societal wisdom of "throwing the baby out with the bathwater."

Potentially, at least greater accountability of K-12 public education could be accessible now without massive systemic restructuring -- and at lower direct and opportunity costs -- if the retro human resources still entrenched in public educational bureaucracies and blocking its scrutiny were actually challenged by their constituencies or states' oversight, and contemporary organizational and managerial values replaced present K-12 bureaucratic practice.  The "other" reform mantra: US public schools could become managerially contemporary, and competent, without adopting the full mantle of profit-driven enterprise and competition.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

SQUINTS 19 November 2012 -- K-12 Reform: The Fog of War

The public K-12 reform movement that was initiated with NCLB has now been underway for a decade.  The perhaps unintended consequences of the alleged reform have expanded to expenditure of double-digit billions of taxpayer dollars without material K-12 improvement, and have taken on the properties of a cold war.  The protagonists have multiplied, in this election going beyond a government versus public education dyad, to engaging education's civilians, parents and voters as in Indiana's state superintendent race. 

As any conflict escalates, the categories of adversaries expand, and all can become enveloped in the "fog of war."  The term, coined by Prussian military analyst Carl von Clausewitz in 1837, "seeks to capture the uncertainty regarding one's own capability, adversary capability, and intent during an engagement, operation, or campaign."  Our reform conflicts have now reached a stage where a growing question is; who is doing what to whom, and inferentially why?  Intentions may not be what they seem.

The Protagonists

The expanding list of competitors in reform now embraces:  Public education unions; our K-12 teachers under direct attack on a battlefield tilted to undercut them, and virtually without defensive weapons; public education's administrative bureaucracies and bureaucrats, distinct from its teacher foot-soldiers, some gingerly responding to the attacks on public K-12, some in denial and acting out retro dogmatism; states' departments of education frequently politicized; the US Department of Education and an Arne Duncan who may or may not represent either intellectualism or Federalism; political advocates such as Jeb Bush, arguably using public education as a whipping-boy to press a political aspiration; billionaire zealots such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Mark Zuckerberg, and others, who have become self-anointed thought promoters in education; one-cause advocates such as Wendy Kopp and Michelle Rhee with uncertain motivations that may include personal self-promotion; a growing number of professional students of education championing learning ideals over pragmatism; a Common Core State Standards Initiative with a murky provenance and mission; our states' Republican governors pushing an apparently party line advocating wholesale privatization of America's K-12 schools; a cabal of corporations supplying for profit the standardized tests and related scoring inundating K-12 schools nationally; some cluster of collegiate academics marketing their alleged expertise to push VAM teacher assessment models; collegiate schools of education almost invisible in foxholes; and finally as noted above, the general public is now becoming directly engaged.

Even the above narrative may not capture the subsets of public education contestants, or the reform enclaves, with still other motivations.

In this evolving mass of protagonists, the motivations of each becomes more and more difficult to clearly discern; what has become evident is that many of the players have values and mission objectives for the competition that have little to do with improving our nation's K-12 learning.  One theme that becomes clearer with every escalation of testing and attempted privatization, is that critically, political ideology is in danger of trumping pursuit of real learning.

The Fog of War

Consider some of the bizarre contradictions littering the present US K-12 reform venues:
  • In numerous rural and suburban public K-12 systems and their bubbles, the public education enclave seems virtually oblivious to being challenged, covering their eyes and ears.  One explanation for the denial may be that one of the reform mission objectives seems other-worldly -- it would involve replacing almost 100,000 US public schools with privatized versions, and absorbing almost 3.5MM teachers, where there are presently few competently managed and successful takeovers of public K-12 systems.
  • Most public schools, in turn, are acquiescing to respond to every test demand, even sacrificing teachers to discredited testing and VAM models to not offend the reformers and jeopardize funding. Simultaneously, most public education administrators can't surface the courage to address the simplest question:  Why do all of those folks hate us?
  • Present organization of US public schools is over 100 years old, but has never been challenged, or allowed challenge, though behavioral concepts of organization have undergone major change and refinement.
  • Hunkered down in this milieu are public school boards, an electorate, and even our press, who rarely see their own system as a problem (it's always the other community's system, and ours is just fine thank you), and are frequently too intimidated or trusting to demand system transparency and accountability.
  • The so-called corporate reform movement, the authors of standardized tests and VAM teacher assessment, still lack credible research validating that standardized testing.  Yet the back room psychometricians in those firms are becoming the de facto arbiters of what constitutes K-12 knowledge in public schools.  That is frightening, not because there may not be reasonable knowledge awareness in that expertise, or even because the function is motivated by greed and control, but because the education system is essentially in danger of outsourcing without adequate quality assurance their basic stock in trade as an institution, and as professionals.
  • Appearing in this week's mail was a nationally promulgated and passionate assault on the Common Core Standards -- the highly indignant basis, that they are the product of an overreaching Federal initiative.  Except the actual title of the process that developed these alleged standards is CCSSI, standing for "common core state standards initiative." Its own web site aggressively, even sarcastically, proclaims that the standards have absolutely nothing to do with the US Department of Education, or any other Federal initiative.  Adding to the bizarre assault, the standards' contents were overseen by a committee of some of the least impressive and highly parochial educational resources in the US.  To introduce even more weirdness, public K-12 is gobbling them up, when the educational values being represented are proximate to ones being expressed by some of those trying to torpedo public K-12.  
  • Our collegiate schools of education, watching a Wendy Kopp and her "Teach for America" reap millions of dollars for advocating bypassing those same schools for our K-12 teachers, stay hunkered down and have shown even less visible awareness and defensive vitality than our public school bureaucracies.
  • Lastly, repetitive studies dating even before the onset of this century and NCLB, have asserted and demonstrated evidence that virtually nothing in public K-12 education tactics that can be reformed can materially change the learning of children lacking stable families, or socioeconomically challenged, or culturally challenged, or experiencing unattended physical or psychological challenges, short of changing those familial, socioeconomic, cultural, and health basics.

Digesting the above, one is tempted to actually believe that one sequela of quantum "string theory," that we may inhabit a multiverse, could humorously well be true. Metaphorically, the entire population of public K-12 education's protagonists and segmented participants in conflict could easily be viewed as existing in alternative universes.  The issue is, that as presently arrayed, public K-12 reform challengers and defenders are all over the map in mission objectives. Reform is still being positioned as a zero-sum game; public K-12 has to surrender for reform to win?  

On the other side of the skirmish line, a part of our public K-12 infrastructure and leadership is still living in a past century, self-righteous, resistant to learning innovation, many inadequately trained for the 21st century's knowledge and technology explosion, and either retreating into denial of the conflict, or willing to cheat and prostitute themselves to sustain control.

The US system of public school board oversight has its own challenges, either intimidated by system administration, or sycophant to an enclave that elected them, but regularly resistant to transparency and input.  Many boards enter their terms nobly, and with high aspirations, but are quickly subjected to conflicting local values and wants.  In many communities despite our states' low bar for candidacy, well educated candidates are elected, but still enter that service as educational neophytes.  What comes to dominate is risk aversion and concern with routine; versus properly vetting administrative hires, reducing K-12 school costs and resisting new levy solutions, modernizing budgeting and planning models, brainstorming how to increase learning productivity, lassoing out-of-control system bureaucrats, and putting learning objectives ahead of safe choices?

Where can you cut into the Gordian Knot?

Just appearing on the horizon, one factor that may change the game is a product of the 2012 election, not its outcome, but the grass roots processes it innovated, now virtually daily expanding and applied to citizens' capacities to be directly heard.  The Internet and social media have exploded the capacity to acquire within days and even hours, millions of virtual public signatures petitioning for redress of perceived wrongs, whether in governments or the private sector.  As person-on-the-street awareness of the public K-12 wars finally increases one game changer may be their direct entry into the fray.

At the opposite end of a continuum, it may take a top down political solution to end conflict, and restore American public education and K-12 stability and progress.

Growls and Fangs

This is like throwing one ribeye into a cage of hungry pit bulls, but reading of some real history of our founding suggests that the Founders, as prescient as they were, were clueless what would happen to knowledge of all aspects of this universe.  Imagine envisioning in the late 1700s, moving from buggy whips to Martian Rovers, to complex social diversity, to electrons replacing an abacus, the human genome and related genomes of all living organisms, to quanta to galaxies to dark matter/energy, or that an entire nation's citizens (in counts never conceived) would ever need a broad liberal as well as science-based education, and that it might need to be compulsory.

The Founders and Constitution did not factually and overtly dedicate public education control to the states, but simply had no basis for projecting learning for national parameters never envisioned, and that the process would need some central values and checks and balances.  It will infuriate our K-12 privatization and local control radicals, and it may not be the ultimate prescription for an entrepreneurial America, but any remediation of an untenable and unsustainable K-12 future, as being currently railroaded, may have to come from Constitutional change to allow more Federal integration and control of parts of our full K-12 education system.  

Education in America, standing just behind defense, and in close proximity to environmental remediation as a future harbinger, is arguably a function that should be selectively coordinated at a national level to end a war on learning.  The argument that genuine knowledge is now different in Mystical, TX versus Myopic, OH, versus Imaginary, IN, versus Funky, FL, or in any other population center in our nation, or materially depends on religious beliefs, is the thinking of those who categorically missed a genuine education.


Next week's SQUINTS will turn upside down this week's exploration of the systemic differences and delusions surrounding present attacks on public K-12, focusing on a totally different unit of analysis, the individual public school. Ramming our K-12 schools with a testing bulldozer may appear to their critics as the only mechanism to change the functional performance of almost 100,000 public school entities, but it is not.  Incentivizing or coercing states, corporations, and even the Federal government to trash public K-12 may appear a cleverly leveraged approach, but to repeat an old saying that fits the venue, it is trying brain surgery with a meat ax.

If truth could be mandated, leaders of excellently managed contemporary firms would likely look on the present corporate reform movement as management that ranges from naive to failed, reflecting none of the factors that create private sector strategic and operating excellence.  One reform claim, that our public K-12 schools should be more "business like" reeks of hypocrisy.  That reform's testing and VAM advocacy simply fail every test of contemporary management wisdom, including the imposition of a retro concept of quality assurance discredited a half century ago.

The next SQUINTS will step out of the box and try something different, though hardly novel; looking at a school system conceptually as any other organization designed to fit, and that evolves to track its missions, outputting a complex product, requiring managerial excellence and creativity, working to balance long and short term goal maximization, facing all of the same problems as any other organization competing for resources and market leadership, subject to regulation, and accountable to multiple stake holders. The premise is any school can be conceptualized as such an operating system with analytical benefit.  Tune in next week.

Monday, November 12, 2012

SQUINTS -- Election 2012: Public K-12 Fallout

Although the subject of US K-12 public education seldom surfaced with any real effect in the presidential race – save a witless quote from Anne Romney suggesting that a “proper education” requires “throwing out the [public education] system" – there were and will be outcomes.

The Indiana Effect

Perhaps the most noxious result came in Indiana, where a majority of Indiana’s voters booted its prominent K-12 corporate reform advocate and Republican superintendent of education, for an experienced teacher who opposes the testing and related form of change Tony Bennett has been heavy-handedly imposing on its K-12 public schools.  Stung, present Governor Mitch Daniels in a rare breakdown in damage control, and Governor-Elect Mike Pence – far more an ideologue than Daniels – went despotic in rejecting the majority voters’ dislike for those reform tactics, stating in effect that they would just ignore the voters.  You jest, right; this is America, not the term coined by William Sydney Porter, a “banana republic?” 

The arrogance, and contempt for democratic process demonstrated may be just temporal political sour grapes, but it should also worry Indiana’s citizens.  Apparently those officials’ reasoning is that Indiana managed simultaneously and paradoxically to elect a Republican super-majority to its legislature, giving them the power to just ignore the electorate.  

Press Delusions

Almost as disquieting was Bloomington, IN’s Herald-Times, burying the story even though it went almost immediately to appearing in the The Washington Post.  The major press in a supposedly liberal and education-driven community, home base of Indiana University, the H-T’s editorial brain trust has consistently been in denial about the K-12 reform movement, and sycophant to its local school system.  That large scale system, representative of many that are good but not great, is being managed to produce defensible bureaucratic control of all the traditional mechanics of education.  All the right buttons are being pushed by its retro leadership to avoid being publicly vulnerable to criticism.  After its fifth superintendent in a decade, the system is back on track to turn out overall kids who have all the currently right answers to the questions on the state's testing.  What it may never turn out, except for those who do it on their own or led by their parents' wisdom, is overall kids who will ever creatively, and with intellectual courage, figure out those future right questions.  This is a pattern of denial and mediocrity that appears almost epidemic in some of this nation’s rural and suburban bubbles.

Erosion of Public Education

The jury as of this writing is still out on Washington State’s nth attempt to permit charter K-12 schools.  Defeated four prior times, this election cycle’s effort -- which will likely succeed -- was pushed by the dollars of billionaires targeting public education, including the nation’s gift to reform self-righteousness and educational naïveté, Bill Gates.  There is likely a large component of this nation that wishes Mr. Gates would finally get bored with K-12 education, and find a new hobby.

In the South, Georgia voters with greater enthusiasm approved the advance of their charters.  Hard to comment without researching the trajectory of public education’s effectiveness there, but the overall countervailing results suggest the continuing unfolding of a national division on attacks on public education; not a comforting thought at all given that the unsettling effects of reform efforts, including school-to-school migrations, may negate any gains from standardized testing even in narrow forced learning results.

The Most Egregious

Demonstrating the same prescience, not, about the election’s outcome, many of our media are now with equal alacrity claiming Mr. Obama in this re-election gained “a mandate.”  Not quite.

Even in achieving victory by grass roots effort, President Obama has seemingly failed to hear the education hoof beats, or reflect on the two basically failed and costly prior Federal programs (NCLB and RttT).  Hypocritically, he has repetitively acknowledged the need for real learning and developing critical thought, but seems ready to endorse the continuing challenge of US public schools and the testing orgy by retaining Arne Duncan, his Secretary of Education, who needs one.  Raises a question:  Is a basketball net thicker than a neural net?

While revolts are finally breaking out around the nation, promising to add to national divisiveness, but at least challenging the testing, VAM, vouchers and charters, America’s majority of Republican governors continues attempted destruction of public education.  The intellectual deficits in these attacks are breathtaking in their crude reasoning, even leaving in their wake corrupted systems and ersatz grading schemes, and in denial of just about every legitimate educational scholar’s warnings of the strategic learning risks. 

There are competent educational thought leaders in the US who could restore sanity to the US Department of Education (including Stanford’s Darling-Hammond, who parenthetically was Obama’s 2008 advisor on K-12, dumped in favor of a politically correct Duncan, or Diane Ravitch, a former Assistant Secretary of Education and one of our most knowledgeable and articulate advocates of multidimensional K-12 learning, and there are likely many more) and still push the mission of achieving K-12 learning gains among minorities and the economically and culturally challenged.  Mr. Duncan seriously needs to become unemployed (though we suspect that period of unemployment would be brief indeed, until he resurfaces in the executive ranks of one of America’s corporate testing vultures, or some corporate reform think tank, or another politically influenced education slot).

Trying to fathom the justification for the delusional belief that public education needs to be thrown out, however, is not the mystery many of our K-12 bureaucracy might believe.  A just published article, about Washington State’s referendum and the charter movement in The Atlantic magazine, routinely notes in its concluding paragraph what equally delusional public K-12 administrators just dismiss:  Advocates for the schools, many of whom acknowledge the imperfection of the charter system, seem to agree on one thing: Public education in this country isn't adequate to its task, and it will take some trial and error to fix it. If nothing else, charter schools may be valuable experiments in how to teach.”

Why the Brouhaha Is a Quandary

Of all of the education miscues being recorded across the US, the ones of greatest portent and that have undercut many of this last decades’ attempts to grow and improve American K-12 are:  The ignorant and simplistic view that tomorrow’s effects of today’s decisions really don’t count (myopia); that our problems are just a matter of finding a silver bullet (the single-cause syndrome); and that we can restore 20th century society on the premise it was more efficacious than where we now live (Pollyanna syndrome)?  Just a sidebar for the latter, if many Americans had learned any real US history in K-12, they would likely be running hell-bent in the opposite direction.

At the risk of repetition, both public education as we know it – because of decades of self-righteousness, arrogance, methods myopia, paranoia, along with the decline of collegiate schools of education – and a reform movement that is driven by political and the most simplistic market ideologies (whether it emanates from the White House or US financial/corporate silos), are equally the major causes of present K-12 conflict and potential damage.  Restoring learning that can sustain the nation over the next couple of contentious decades is not a zero-sum game.

Propagating in this reactionary neck of the US woods, and even in places like Bloomington, IN, or a Columbus with an OSU, and on, K-12 public systems exist in a delusional construction of K-12, an error that will eventually come home to roost.  Creativity, cutting edge changing the game, demanding ethical choices, adoption of real learning technologies rather than just their artifacts, even discovering budgeting and cost-benefit models, and putting ahead of state subservience the absolute responsibility and courage to support teachers who have a better grasp than most retro administrators of what the classroom can do, have more frequently been trashed than adopted.  Our public systems’ alleged leaders and most school boards have tumbled down Alice’s “rabbit hole,” fanning the belief that levies can be approved forever, that sports and parading fictional excellence in the form of test scores are more important than learning, and that parents can be and will stay suckered forever.

Truth or Consequences

With all the votes in, this election unfortunately sorted little that promises to materially ease the attacks on US public K-12.

In turn, why public K-12 is getting mauled by a so-called reform movement is hardly a mystery, except to the strata of educational bureaucracy that have gifted our equally flawed “reformers” the opportunity and temporary credibility to try to destroy US public education.  When history records this sad period in American history, its epitaph may be that both sides shot themselves in a vital place in a war that should never have occurred.  But as in most contemporary wars, the principal victims are still the non-combatants, children, and a society’s future viability, in this war because of the cheapening of learning in a nation that will need to master explosive knowledge growth and oncoming choices still being defined.

Major elections are alleged to trigger reflection, or should.  A great irony of current American life is that our Founders relied on the philosophies of The Enlightenment to fashion a nation that was supposed to get beyond the legacies of hundreds of years of European mysticism, social/economic stratification, and suppression of individual rights.  In turn, American history records a century of success in building compulsory education for all, along with a once stable public system of learning infrastructure.  Its evolutionary retreat from its creative roots, petrified pedagogy, and diminished education for education sees America stumbling into a 21st century that will demand every neural net we can train.  Instead, our education wars now seem punctuated by a quote, circa 1546, attributed to English writer John Heywood:  "There are none so blind as those who will not see. The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know.” 

Election 2012 has left American public K-12 well off course from a vector for achieving real learning in an unforgiving and accelerating knowledge environment, that won’t be assuaged by throwing bubble tests and/or computer tablets at the learners, or turning K-12 education infrastructure into a parody of the financial derivatives markets.

Sunday, November 4, 2012


Edunationredux has been offline for a breather, stimulated in part by a wish to distance it from the deluge of rhetoric from a divisive Presidential political campaign, in part disgust with the heavy-handed imposition on public K-12 of a bizarre version of reform.  In that hiatus some important changes have quietly started to occur in our K-12 environment.

One of the more material has been the growing grass roots protest of the orgy of standardized testing being rammed into public education, including its use in ersatz state grades for schools, holding back students, firing teachers, and even attempted destruction of public education in favor of increasingly questionable charters.  What seemed to be public education’s indolence and resignation, to being dumbed-down to alleged learning based on corporately-devised tests, has broken out into the open as some dissent, even from usually politically correct superintendents.

One teacher’s disgust, taking the issue to the mat, is illustrated in this story from The Washington Post’s, “The Answer Sheet,” edited by Valerie Strauss.  Few teachers are taking the challenge to this length, but below the surface stories abound about how good teaching in K-12 is being undermined by the alleged reform movement, VAM, and on the flip-side in many cases K-12 administration and boards that can only be labeled yellow-bellied cowardice.

But all of this warfare in the trenches, while it focuses the adversaries and the skirmishes, also succeeds in giving credence to an age-old idiom, “being able to see the forest for the trees.”  If there is a term that describes the last decade of attacks on public education – recently witlessly reflected in Anne Romney’s quote that, for a "proper education"...“we should totally throw out the [public education] system” – it is America’s educational myopia.

Major Contradictions

Backing away from those trees to try to scope the K-12 forest, a flood of contradictions in present reform scenarios over the last couple of years assaults the senses.  In no particular order:
  • Charters are being billed as the key to improving US K-12, but except for a few such systems that are actually intelligent and well-managed, and would have been equally successful as public systems, charters have proven to both stimulate corrupt practices and produce learning near the bottom of the barrel.
  • While spending some of his billions to manipulate to his vision of K-12, Bill Gates is on the record as stating that he doesn’t see more than roughly a tenth of K-12 schools ever being charters.  Huh?
  • In uncharacteristic hypocrisy, President Obama consistently voices a message that K-12 reform has to go beyond testing to genuine changes that increase learning; but then hands the formulation of education policy to an Arne Duncan who has helped create the standardized testing overkill and choked off any real reform of public K-12, as well as decimated the legitimate research functions of the US Department of Education. 
  • Our once very vocal teachers’ unions have suddenly gone silent and impotent in defending teachers who have been gored by the simplistic and ignorant application of VAM models to teacher performance and retention.  Self-service and -preservation apparently trump doing the job that justifies their retention?
  • Not to be left off the list, public school systems that by chance are embedded in reactionary enclaves manage to avoid reality by teaching to the tests, avoiding transparency to their constituents, and simply continuing – frequently with more than a little arrogance – the same retro and ignorant educational practices they acquired in our challenged and equally retro schools of education.  Vying for stupidity, public K-12 education overall has simply let itself be raped by the corporate reform mantra.
  • The alleged education reformers stridently call for “more data,” metric processes they generally fail to understand or frequently subvert; simultaneously, even the NCES (National Center for Education Statistics) gathers so little relevant data about America’s approximately 100,000 public school systems, that coupled with purposeful local system obfuscation, we know virtually nothing useful about the operations and real performance of most US public K-12 systems.
  • Our states aggressively campaign for more local control of K-12, but as in Ohio, are generally either incompetently staffed to provide that oversight, or are riddled with corrupt and politically manipulated state-level K-12 functionaries.  Does the name Stan Heffner, Ohio's former Superintendent of Education, jog memory and an alarm klaxon?  School boards more incompetent than competent, and frequently dysfunctionally parochial, round out the local control challenges. 
  • Our nation is now spending billions of dollars on tests developed in the back rooms of corporations, by resources of unknown provenance, who may have never seen the inside of a classroom from the front, or had the responsibility for a student, for tests that were never adequately tested before being mass distributed as public K-12 fiat.  Meanwhile, virtually no effort is being expended to develop K-12 performance measurements that could assess real learning and are driven by neural findings; perhaps the ultimate “missing the forest for the trees.”
  • The demagogic play of a Wendy Kopp, “Teach for America,” essentially operates on the principle that the content of a degree in education can be encompassed in a few weeks of summer indoctrination of newly minted graduates, essentially bypassing all of US college/university work in education.  Not a peep has issued from our dyspeptic to moribund schools of education?  Paradoxically, this overkill is a direct response to public education’s historical (and hysterical) obsession with methods now regularly being invalidated by neural research, versus recruiting for subject matter excellence.
  • The generic hope for a less myopic understanding of education by our nation rests with its media, especially the intelligent and factual day-to-day coverage of real K-12 philosophy and its challenges by the local press.  Unfortunately, for example in a place where education might be billed as its most important product, Bloomington, IN and home of Indiana University, its major newspaper can't understand or refuses to cover genuine learning issues, and generally is simply sycophant to the local system and in denial of its instances of dysfunction.
  • Lastly, the drumbeat mantra of ideologically driven public education reformers, usually expressed in capital letters signifying shouting, spouts...LET THE MARKET DO IT.  As a professional student of markets and marketing for six decades, the suggestion is that these alleged market advocates are clueless about the actual behavior of markets in virtually any venue, with most of those mantras being akin to something out of a comic book.  Only in this decade have the explanatory components of behavioral economics started to provide some understanding of real market behavior and its complexities. 

The Forest

One could be forgiven if the sum of the above elicits either a sigh or curse.  What was once a stable national public education environment has been thrown into chaos by the above forces and contradictions.  There appear alternate trajectories for the venue:  Muddle through depending on what has been termed America’s “wisdom of the crowd,” the capacity for our grass roots to hang on to some common sense even when it’s missing at a state or national level; or severing the Gordian Knot of present reform and reforming the reform.

The former approach, that once worked, seems to have been impaired by decades of diminished excellence in that very public education system under attack.  Unfortunately, recognizing that our K-12 public education bureaucracy brought this grief on itself offers little in the way of solutions.  A strident example is the local system where this blog originates:  Ignorant administration; cheating; lame school board; misplaced priorities; indoctrination and mediocre curricula rather than excellence; lip service to needs such as STEM work, but adoption of mediocre content to achieve that; ignorance of contemporary learning; sports and physical plant overkill; even the possibility of being riddled with unethical practice; almost total opacity of what the system is inflicting on the community’s children because of paranoia about showing its pedagogy cards; and financial obfuscation and fraud in peddling levies.  The local popular response mirrors a national paradox; the other guy's system is flawed, but ours is just fine.

Looking at the other option, reform of reform, a visual analogy is imagining that forest with the trees upside down; the roots above, the branching buried.  That reform of reform would arguably need to fully reverse the present course.  Instead of starting with destroying teachers who ethically won’t make standardized tests the definition of knowledge or promote corrupt education (confirming Campbell's Law), start reform on top.

Reform with a vengeance our collegiate schools of education; increasing selectivity, requiring subject matter excellence, and introducing contemporary managerial theory and practice for would-be administrators.  Find Arne Duncan a new assignment, Bill Gates a new hobby, and Michelle Rhee some behavior modification therapy.  Reform how state departments of education choose their leadership.  Reform how a state board of education, for example Ohio’s politicized State Board, is selected, then require a legislature to give it some teeth to investigate and regulate K-12 system behaviors.  

Reform local school board selection by making it a properly functioning electoral process rather than a manipulated form of insider dealing.  Reform public education’s school leaderships by re-vetting and re-certifying its superintendents to some national managerial standards, terminating the losers, retraining the rest to install legitimate school leadership, and address creating a more contemporary model of school organization.  Give the classroom back to its teacher, with the authority to design and manage its activities to stimulate real learning rather than test scores.  Lastly, counter the usual simplistic criticism of reducing boilerplate testing by installing educational process control that mirrors modern industrial and technology practice, versus obsolete concepts of inspection, to minimize the mechanical need for testing to assess teachers and systems.  Restore the proper use of testing as a natural part of classroom assessment.

Preserving a healthy US educational forest versus chainsawing its trees is obviously not a chore for the fainthearted.  But the risk of not tackling that chore is being elevated by real science.  Relatively new to the study of societal change is “catastrophe theory.”  Not what you may think it is, the “catastrophe” referenced can be either a positive or negative function.  What the theory suggests, however, is that as a system approaches a tipping point small changes in that system can trigger both the tipping point and large systemic shifts.  The point is that the tacit assumption of the dug-in, that our nation’s public education system is too big to fail or flip, is highly flawed.

America hasn’t increased its attention span as evidenced by the current Presidential campaign, nor has its slogging in myopic thinking much changed.  It seems transparent that the wisdom of the crowd on education has dripped away, and that salvaging over a century of US public education development is going to take its key players stepping up to the plate with more courage, wisdom, and leadership than heretofore demonstrated since publication of "A Nation at Risk."   The alternative seems to be a “petrified public K-12 forest.”