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.”

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