Saturday, December 29, 2012

Changing the K-12 Reform Game:  Ten Cardinal Proposals

Reading "The Answer Sheet," or any of a dozen other knowledgeable sites critiquing present alleged school reform, then observing almost demented progression of K-12 standardized testing across over 40 states, along with simplistic VAM assessments of teachers, is a bit like encountering a novel without a plot, by a mad author.  One recoils, thinking, my God, has the US finally become an African nation devouring itself, or recombinant-modified by some rogue Texas RNA, or now been fully contaminated by spun-off machinations of the US House of Representatives?

The Gap and Bigger Gaps

A recent "Sheet" post is a jumping off point for this blog.  Jack Jennings, founder and former president of the non-profit Center on EducationPolicy, recently authored a post titled:  "The fundamental flaws of 'value added' teacher evaluation."  His ending counsel was temperate, even muted, calling for reconciliation of what research on such measures has demonstrated versus the aggressive and unqualified use of VAM.

And so it goes in present debate about alleged reform; the "Sheet," other vehicles, other media, and a litany of blogs continue to post reasonable questions about present reform tactics, their effects and effectiveness, and about reformers' motivations.  Parents are increasingly questioning present K-12 change tactics, in Indiana even voting to reject them.  The words are either beyond the cognition of the alleged reformers or their ideologies simply create selective perception in comprehending the arguments.  

The very best authorship and assessments have not even slowed the stupidity of present corporate reform, now threatening to debase US K-12 education by distorting it beyond practical short term recovery.  In turn, the reform call for school "accountability" reeks of hypocrisy, as our alleged reformers disavow their own accountability for short-circuiting higher order thinking skills, and for creating school environments where cheating has become the norm to avoid being torpedoed by ersatz state grades.

Even if the insanity of present reform was called for a grievous foul tomorrow, and that team ejected from the game, an assertion is it will take at least the rest of this decade to restore real learning and sanity in K-12.  Quickly add, that is assuming that most of our public schools will actually have an epiphany and find their self-diagnostic and change bootstraps.

Cutting Through the Bull

There has always been a no-man's land, between the presumption that morality, reason and ethics ultimately prevail in a society, and Lord Acton's dictum that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Present reform of K-12 is an expression of raw power by a combination of the conceited, the ideological, those seeking to create profits from demonizing or privatizing public K-12, and even the utopian well-intended who missed the classroom lesson on the law of unintended consequences.

The proactive goal for American public K-12 education, however, should now be to drag it off the battlefield of ideologies, and create the opportunity for rational strategic change.  So let's chum the waters

Below are some unabashedly aggressive proposals for changing the present reform game without giving up the quest.  They are envisioned as a five-year to decade's plan.  They require digging deep for the courage and bipartisanship to break some proverbial eggs to get to the omelet.

Smile, These May Sting

One, call a prompt time-out on expansion of standardized testing and VAM, backing up the testing to prescribed summative testing within 5-8 and 11 or 12 emulating the NAEP.  That pause remains in effect for at least three years while meaningful research and development are executed on learning performance measurement.

Twopromptly replace Arne Duncan as US Secretary of Education, and replace the cadre of test and charter advocates brought into that Department by Duncan with competent educator/theorists and educational researchers (perhaps this is really priority #1, followed by priority #2, finding Bill Gates a different hobby).  

Three, put the billionaire dollars being expended to undermine public schools to better use by funding legitimate research on better alternative methods of both testing students for genuine learning, assessing professional performance in K-12 classrooms, and developing true longitudinal assessment of learning transitioning into adult performance.  Subsumed, rediscover the work of psychologist and former Harvard education professor, Howard Gardner

Four, the most egregious links in the present chain of reform implementation are our state governments' education departments.  Almost invisible to most of the public, they have become depositories of educational bureaucracies that are like cancers, resisting transparency, and representing the opposite of our best and brightest in K-12 education.  Many of the practitioners are doubled-down versions of the "Peter Principle," including prior school administrators either ignorant, unethical, or sociopathic, rewarded for those virtues by promotions to county superintendency, or oversight of RttT spending, or to a state's department of education.  Oversight of standardized testing and grading has given state departments power over public schools they didn't previously have, inviting Lord Acton's dictum.  Harsh?  Yes, but states - Ohio for example - have exhibited state education department performances that represent outright corruption. Start a process of withholding all Federal funds from states pending complete housecleaning of their state education bureaucracies. In the case of Ohio, that reform could also save millions of dollars of school funds being skimmed by duplicative and corrupted educational service centers.

Five, by legislative action, require all subsequent K-12 testing be created within the education community, by some combination of K-12 and US collegiate assets; the present publishers may in the traditional sense competitively publish the material, and mechanically score tests, for profit, but cannot create or scale any aspect of those tests or results.  All tests need to pass muster, first, within applicable state K-12 infrastructure, then by a reformed US Department of Education, then finally be certified by the academic source of accepted knowledge, i.e., chemistry by chemists, physics by physicists, maths by mathematicians, history by historians, and on. Erase the present alleged common core (that are neither national knowledge standards, nor contrary to myth a product of the US Department of Education, nor represent the contributions of our intellectual best and brightest), creating national subject matter task forces to develop both a compendium of present knowledge scaled to K-12, plus mechanisms to periodically update both curricular contents and networks designed to extend changes in knowledge to classroom teachers.

Six, launch a true national K-12 school census, managed by a reformed US Department of Education, that actually measures at least once what is happening in all material aspects of our K-12 schools, going beyond the bureaucratic minutiae gathered by the present NCES.

Seven, launch state-by-state legislation that requires all K-12 systems to go beyond present alleged open records requirements to make transparent all aspects of both system operations and board deliberations excepting only those topics prescribed by law as confidential.  Make proactive school sharing of teacher qualifications, school policy deliberations, curriculum, textbooks, lesson plans, and handling of all stake holder relations with a school, mandatory on a par with Title I enforcement.  In related state action, increase the requirement for school board election to minimal possession of a post-secondary degree, and require a program of educational indoctrination before the elected can be seated.

Eight, first, create a set of national managerial standards for school administration, based on the best knowledge of managerial performance from US B-schools, public administration academic programs, and the principles that have evolved from work on general systems theory.  Second, over a five year period, require state vetting, recertification, retraining, or repositioning of all existing public K-12 superintendents and principals.  The premise is that this process would be powered by interdisciplinary and public-private human resource teams recruited for excellence from a state's successful practitioners. Third, all future candidates for K-12 school leadership (CEO) positions would require in addition to the requisite teaching education, the MBA from an accredited B-school or a masters in public administration, and all PhD work would be steeped in educational and organizational psychology, administrative science, research methodology, and neural science.  Subsumed, coincidentally establish non-profit research programs to develop and test alternative organizational forms for K-12 schools consistent with contemporary management theory.

Nine, require the comprehensive reform or restructuring of US collegiate schools of education, potentially changing their position to a function within colleges of arts and science.  Require all K-12 candidate teachers to complete an accelerated four-year program featuring the contents of a minimum of three full years of subject matter education, and one year of teaching methods/rubrics, classroom research tools, and learning assessment.  Set new and demanding national SAT, ACT, and other admission standards for acceptance in any K-12 'teaching prep' concentration.  Extend the concept of nationally board-certified teachers to every public classroom teacher before a status beyond probationary can be vested.

Lastly, ten, create a national inter-institutional task force, to attempt to bridge the last great gap, the disconnect between K-12, especially secondary versus collegiate education in the US.  Reconcile their values and goals that have diverged for over a century, along with the critical deficits of K-12 knowledge and its currency resulting from that conflict. Pragmatically, its time is now, because sans critical thought and initiatives some amalgam of private sector interests and non-traditional education -- at the minimum massive online learning expansion and ad hoc and for-profit postsecondary programs -- will further fracture and muddy traditional education infrastructure and the 12 to 13+ transitions.


There is no conceit that the above are either comprehensive, or actionable without great organizational and political pain, or are fully and properly targeted.  But the sincere belief is, that without some major vector change, the present alleged public school reform movement is capable of and already delivering more strategic national harm than remediation, and continued on its present trajectory, producing the capability to disable rational US K-12 learning.

The present K-12 reform movement viewed from an elevated vantage point -- akin to witnessing present dogmatic and destructive beliefs of the extreme ideological wings of both US political parties, but on a balance scale already bottomed out on the right -- appears just a micron short of some national madness.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Public K-12: Corporate Reform – “The Wrong Stuff?”

The Edunationredux blog of 16 December 2012 promised a Part Two of “the other reform.”  That post was waylaid by an exchange with Ms Strauss, master of the prolific “The Answer Sheet.”

First, Apologies to Valerie

In sum, two of my assertions were critiqued:  That my prior blog underrepresented the negative role of our corporate population in present public K-12 reform strategies, and also misstated “The Answer Sheet” coverage of criticism of public education’s own performances.  The latter criticism was on the mark. Ms Strauss said:  “…you seem to have missed my frequent comments about how desperately many schools have needed reform for years, how unions have brought their troubles on themselves for being so late to agree to address major issues including evaluation, how teachers have allowed themselves to be infantilized, and how some of them ought to be fired immediately…”  Stronger words than even past posts from this blog; this writer sincerely apologizes to this column and its amazing editor for not doing sufficient homework.

Second, Not So Simple Valerie

The context of the second point is more problematic.  Ms. Strauss said:  “…I am not talking about industry directly but about the corporate mentality that the four options show. They represent bad corporate thinking: Shutting something down, getting rid of employees, etc., rather than a more humane approach of retraining (where necessary), adding the kinds of supports for students that would really make a difference...”  With respect, factoring out our diverse universe of corporate actors versus the “corporate mentality” of K-12 critique is challenging. 

There are roughly 200,000 American companies with over $10MM in sales.  I would argue that a limited fraction of those firms – at least the successful ones and industry exemplars – operate as described above.  Technology – heavily factory automation – beginning in the ‘70s and over four decades massively replaced human low-skill jobs; world markets have replaced former American industrial exceptionalism; and comparative advantage has rearranged where production is now clustered world-wide.  But the displacement of human labor goes beyond an act of corporate mentality; it has frequently been undesired but a company’s productivity and survival imperative, and actively stimulated by tax policy.  Taken over the universe of US businesses, the issues are more nearly national industrial policy challenges – and the US doesn’t have a national industrial policy.

Noble words, but the test of meaning is in the experiences of the viewer of the issues.  If you have never had to fire employees – I have and it extracts a personal psychic toll – the above distinction may not fully register.  The argument here is that my own experiences are far more common in the ethical strata of our corporate communities than an undiscriminating “corporate mentality.”  But that coin has two sides; not all of our present private sector or even corporate actors influencing K-12 have the same image of the mission, its goals, or what processes are kosher.

Representative of the Corporate Mind?

Reform options offered by current questionable Federal education policy (the same options forged for Bush’s NCLB) have been stated as below:

"The "turnaround model"  in which the LEA replaces the principal and rehires no more than 50% of the staff, gives the principal greater autonomy, and implements other prescribed and recommended strategies.

The “restart model” in which the LEA converts or closes and reopens a school under a charter school operator, charter management organization, or education management organization.

The “school closure model” in which the LEA closes the school and enrolls the students in other schools in the LEA that are higher achieving.

The “transformation model” in which the LEA replaces the principal (except in specified situations), implements a rigorous staff evaluation and development system, institutes comprehensive instructional reform, increases learning time and applies community-oriented school strategies, and provides greater operational flexibility and support for the school."

I suppose if you are intellectually limited, and managerially myopic, the above options might seem apropos.  Their prescriptive dogmatism, wholly unqualified by the diagnostic work that precedes good organizational decision-making, is jarring.  One has to assume that there is more political Machiavellianism in the list than rational evaluation, or the list was fashioned by some educational ideologue living in some utopian space?   Except for option four, that with tweaking should arguably always be in some dress the applicable reform option, the unqualified options one through three are infantile.  That they allegedly were crafted in the US Department of Education is even more bizarre – is that Department still vying with the US House of Representatives for national stupefaction?

Different Folks, Different Strokes

Let’s change the goalposts, to that “corporate mentality;” and the issues are prominently, who are the players, and what are their positions?  Even this mission must be bisected into the present status of corporate reform, that might be described as knee-jerk myopia, and versus an extended history of attempts to upset public education that also have a corporate aroma.

You can't lay the current entire K-12 reform debacle on "corporate mentality" – ignoring the pivotal roles played by dug-in public K-12 systems in denial or dogmatic, bottom-feeding collegiate schools of education, and simultaneously a utopian and hypocritical Federal stance – but to give Ms Strauss her due, there really is a current euphemistic corporate dirty dozen.  The challenge may be ordering the current mischief.

The list starts with players, who like the fable of the scorpion and the frog are just practicing their nature, the firms dominating K-12 test and text businesses:  CTB/McGraw-Hill; NCS Pearson (including Harcourt); Riverside Publishing (Houghton Mifflin); SAP; et al.  Their performance reflects a lack of social responsibility, vulture capitalism, unknown damage to our concepts of knowledge and learning, and cynicism and arrogance that used to be unacceptable in a younger America.  Only occasionally visible, their lobbying and influence efforts may relatively top all industries except our military-industrial complex and big pharma.  Their manipulation of K-12 textbook markets constituted ethical issues long before the current reform wars ignited.

Also on the primarily corporate ladder are the facilitators of corporate activism: The US Chamber of Commerce that hasn't promoted legitimate business and managerial excellence in decades; the Business Roundtable; the virtually undocumented collections of firms and consultancy formed to benefit from charter takeovers of public systems when they can be undercut; and also still largely undocumented, the extent that state departments of education have been infiltrated and corrupted by the testing companies, e.g., Ohio.

The Rise of Controlling Philanthropy

Then there are the billionaires, seeking to privatize or twist K-12 into a version of the 20th century’s business thinking, stuffing it down the nation’s throat.  Funny thing, no one recalls voting for their installation as K-12’s public leadership.

Perhaps the most egregious of the billionaire edu-gorillas is Bill Gates, his Foundation potentially controlling an alleged $60B.  Gifted with the operating system that became Microsoft by IBM (apparently not heeding their own THIMK anthem), supplemented primarily from ideas copied from more creative firms, Microsoft’s former market position and Gates’ fortune were built on monopolistic practices and pricing, plus antediluvian management featuring “stack ranking” that now appears in testing and the VAM models of teacher assessment.  Ironic coming from that source, anything that is a paean to K-12 competition, never practiced at home.  Education historian Diane Ravitch called Gates’ self-anointed K-12 change efforts “puzzling.”  A less kind assessment is that it represents a conceit and ignorance of genuine learning as well as retro managerial theory, now damaging all American K-12 education.

The corporate gang also features Walmart, the Broad Foundation, Michael Bloomberg, Michael Dell, and more hiding in the shadows, self-styled activism some now term “philanthrocapitalism.”  Famously, Mr. Broad stated in a 2009 speech:  “We don’t know anything about how to teach or curriculum or any of that.  But what we do know about is management and governance.”  I would argue that Mr. Broad’s command of contemporary management theory is on a par with the self-stated assessment of educational literacy.

The sting isn’t just from corporate power, it reflects:  The capacities of that wealth to influence our states; funding an ALEC to write state legislation undercutting public schools; enabling the National Governors Association (presently a right wing dominant entity) to shape school policy; imposition of the alleged Common Core (the CCSSI, representing more reintroduced K-12 methods garbage than needed contemporary knowledge standards); and funding of ad hoc experiments and publications shaping educational civilian beliefs, but too frequently without the controls on genuine scientific publication and standards of proof.

The current reform narratives, under the heading “corporate reform,” have to raise the question, where is that theory of successful work originating?  The strategies and tactics advocated are archaic, reflecting F. W. Taylor’s once “scientific management” and related theories of management and organization, mostly made obsolete last century.  Where are our B-schools, who have to be seen as complicit in fostering these views in training our corporate executives?  In fact, most US B-schools are at least three decades overdue for their own second round of reform, currently reflecting leaderships focused on flogging endowments and self-promotion rather than intellectually-driven business theory and ethical management concept development.

Lastly, though present vision of K-12 reform starts with NCLB, or for some with “A Nation at Risk” during the Reagan Administration, the hijacking of public K-12 by a mix of ideological beliefs has been underway since WWII, perhaps even earlier.  That the need for self-initiated change should have been obvious to both public K-12 leaders, and the teachers’ unions, is also obvious.  The old saw, “you gets what you pays for,” applies in spades to many present US public schools delaying over the same decades needed self-diagnosis.

The Dirty Underbelly of Corporate Reform

Summary observations:  “The Answer Sheet” is truly addressing in a faction of the private sector one of the three most destructive forces currently crucifying public K-12 and potentially strategically effecting the nation’s learning vectors.  The second force – call them America’s odd couple – remains in too many cases the dug-in, self-righteous, sluggish targets of so-called reform, many still in denial of the conflict, or lacking the courage or intellect to self-assess their profession.  The third force, incongruously, is our own US Department of Education, on course with the apparent goal of choosing the worst of all K-12 worlds and blowing billions of tax dollars on those options to entrench bureaucratic solutions and low order learning in the belief it will ensure utopian equal opportunity.

Consider two simple questions:  First, why would a nation dependent for progress on creativity and intelligence in pursuit of STEM, social, and political achievement, delegate to a dozen or so self-serving corporations the de facto definition and implementation of what constitutes universal knowledge? Add, where their claim to fame is basically peddling other people’s ideas, aggressive lobbying of governments through the White House, colluding, corrupting educational decision-making while metaphorically avoiding the sheriff, and publicly applauding that the US has a $500B K-12 education market waiting to be exploited?  With standardized testing perverting genuine learning as their primary assault weapon, the net of “corporate reform” by an ideological and/or profit-driven corporate minority has become another American tragedy.

Second, metaphorically, who is watching the watchers, or more apropos, who will reform the alleged reformers?  Finding a compromise that will get the nation’s public K-12 schools off the battlefield seems a goal as contentious as the present debacle of the “fiscal cliff.”  Anyone who understands the roles propagated throughout a society and economy by an educated workforce and electorate – roles that in future must extend beyond assembling some “standardized K-12 graduate” in the historical version of early 20th century thinking – has to ask whether the US, in knee jerk fashion, is myopically jumping off an educational cliff to solve a problem of learning inequality that is embedded in societal issues extending way beyond the classroom.  History teaches that the strategy of hoping the [educational] phoenix will rise from the [public K-12] ashes may not be a prudent bet. 

How escape the K-12 deadlock and cliff?  A contention is that it will take major intervention to sort out what has become America’s most convoluted and dangerous mess after sustainable employment of its citizens and fiscal reality, and likely to peak to crisis ahead of climate change.  Needed:  A call for a "time out" on dysfunctional standardized testing intrusion; strategic thinking instead of trial and error; for the corporate community that does not endorse present methods, a mechanism to speak out; research on more effective methods for measuring learning effects and assessing accountability; start the accountability exercises at the level of school leadership where K-12 shortfalls really originate; valid experiments and data beyond test scores and state school grades; and way overdue, what might be termed some “slow thinking.”

The Mayans did not predict our demise, but the US is increasingly demonstrating the capacity to update the prediction.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Public K-12: The Other School Reform – Part One

For well over a decade there has been something akin to the figurative admonition that thou shall not pass gas in church; an almost national tacit conspiracy to speak no derogatory truths about America’s public K-12 schools.  Until recently, that reluctance extended to most media, but it is now commonplace for pundits to simply write off US public K-12 en masse as a failed effort of another century.  Arguably one result of the failure to have that national conversation is the present broad assault on public schools with standardized tests, VAM, vouchers, and charters as metaphorically the war’s drones and missiles.

The alleged purpose of the K-12 wars has been to “reform” those schools.  Curiously, reform is defined as:  “…the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory, etc.  Reform is generally distinguished from revolution. The latter means basic or radical change; whereas reform may be no more than fine tuning, or at most redressing serious wrongs without altering the fundamentals of the system. Reform seeks to improve the system as it stands, never to overthrow it wholesale. Radicals on the other hand, seek to improve the system, but try to overthrow whether it be the government or other group.”


Snowballs can turn into avalanches.  Someone should have stomped on the simplistic test and accountability snowball rolled toward public K-12 long before it became an avalanche of naïve and/or ideologically motivated tactical thinking; poorly thought out, narrowly conceived, inaccurately formulated, and in many cases now outrageous test and VAM protocols.  Unfortunately that avalanche is almost self-perpetuating, accelerated by a platoon of reform factions governed more by self-interest and ideology than national interest.

Would it not have been much more intelligent, mature, and less damaging to our children, teachers, and the nation’s future to have just had the conversation before declaring war?  Can that conversation still be held, heading off the worst of the strategic consequences of the current knowledge definition, testing, and VAM debacles?  How might that conversation unfold in a rational and strategically perceptive world?

Having the Conversation

Anticipating the need to support argument for such a conversation, research instincts prevailed and the search was launched; however, the criteria for “conversation” proved elusive, not so simple at all.  Perhaps why having a conversation about the US “fiscal cliff” has been so spare, or why generating a community conversation about school modernization with a school board or superintendent is a non-starter?

Way beyond the scope of this post is fully addressing that riddle, but some issues pertinent to our school woes strongly surface.  Communication breaks down because of differences in cultures, values, goals, perceptions, and an array of biases.  Even the nomenclature that evolves around functions becomes a constraint.  A short tale illustrates the challenge in education.  A few years ago an education professor authored a rare journal article on management in our K-12 schools.  Basically, he simply reinvented many of last century’s business and managerial concepts issuing from our B-schools, but wholly rephrased each.  School of education arrogance?  Perhaps, but a competing explanation is that was the only way to communicate with an educational establishment that has limited cross-discipline history and awareness.

The rest of this post suggests that schools, in spite of the bias to see them as a different functional species, are conceptually just another specific type of organization, subject to all of the general concepts that make one organizational form perform more effectively than another.  Particular to the genre, K-12 school organization has not fundamentally changed in a century, though virtually all successful management around them has, in major ways.

K-12 Systems as Organizations

Pragmatically, the nation’s K-12 public schools, because they are not private sector entities start mission/decision life with some large constraints.  Perhaps seen by alleged reformers as a key issue, they are not accorded the institutional freedom to parallel private entrepreneurial paths.  They are publicly funded.  They don’t appear to the casual viewer to be subject to market influences, not wholly valid.  They are frequently overseen by boards with far less comparative expertise for the genre than private sector firms, and usually chosen outside of school control (though such influence is frequently attempted with less than admirable intentions).  They can’t necessarily select to whom they will offer their outputs, though many currently try to avoid assessment penalties by related fraud.  They are not free to hire the best and brightest, and the sourcing of their “production professionals” is constrained as well as potentially warped by present education school mediocrity, union rules, and states’ political and bureaucratic values.  And increasingly destructive over the last decades, they are lassoed, capacity for creative change neutered, with unfunded mandates; a number in Ohio – cited in a recent conversation with an elected Ohio school board member – now tallying allegedly over 75 per school system.
Small wonder school administrators start to erect barriers to transparency, to inputs from external sources, to in any fashion changing their infrastructure; coping is daunting enough.  Coincidentally, few of those administrators, because of root managerial training unless occurring outside of the education community, could effectively manage a contemporary business.  The “catch 22” of K-12 reform that our aggressive reformers have simply ignored, substituting attempted forcing of change by attacking the nation’s teachers under the guise of “accountability.”  Tragically, this alleged “business-like” strategy is not at all business-like as management is conceived in the 21st century.  Real accountability starts at the top where organizational design and process originate.

Bottom line, even with the constraints above acknowledged, and education biases notwithstanding, our K-12 schools are still organizations, and subject to the same general principles that govern all formal organization.  Public education’s categorical failures, to heed the lessons of other private and public sector entities that have re-conceptualized how work gets executed with greater effect, have arguably precipitated the present warfare.

Almost 75 years ago, Albert Einstein said:  “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.  Can you straddle the concept of an entire national K-12 system built around the same protocols lapsing into obsolescence by lethargy and dogmatism, and honestly point to US public education arguing the above anthem has been its overarching goal over the last few decades?  Circle the wagons, up with the drawbridge, grab the levies and run, canonize sports, and demonize any detractor, come much closer as systemic character assessment.  And the real tragedy, rarely articulated out loud, these folks are responsible for launching the education of America’s youth – too frequently, they have not been able to secure their own intellectual currency, with student learning deficits the sequela.

If the present reform movement is potentially structurally destructive (for example, just in, Indiana’s legislative downgrading of requirements for K-12 teachers), and too much of public K-12 is still intellectually self-destructive or managerially inept, how can you reform the beast?  Present testing is one option, but carrying the present course of that testing logically through not-ready-for-prime-time VAM, to reductio ad absurdum – every element of K-12 learning is simplistically test-based and short term memory – courts strategic disaster.  The other possibility is, genuinely revise and reactivate public K-12; and that starts with rethinking both organization and functions, as well as its rubrics and what we know as knowledge dynamically changing versus don't know.

Real Corporate Reform

The contention is that a more rational and productive approach to achieving the legitimate goals of NCLB, responding to “A Nation at Risk,” is true structural and managerial reform of present public schools.  It will make enemies.  It will scare millions of teachers asked to both create and manage their own learning spaces and be accountable for learning performance. It will produce howls of protest by those who have used K-12 positions and boards to acquire power and stroke egos, or insulate themselves from accountability and even visibility.  It might even cause America’s schools of education to quit bottom feeding and lift off the bottom of the pond.  The argument is that format is far preferable to the just noticeable tactical success, but strategic failure built into present reform/testing modes, because the opportunity costs of present reform tactics are levels of magnitude beyond the corporate profits and Federal dollars of present action.  Present reform is institutionalizing substitution of low order thinking skills (LOTS) for high order thinking skills (HOTS), not the path for a society that must reassert intellectual leadership in a global society that is definitely not your grandfather’s world.

What would real corporate reform of public K-12 entail?  Not surprisingly, the US isn’t short of prototypes.  Most if not all of the highest growth and technologically sophisticated companies in the nation feature managerial concepts applicable here.  The building blocks consist of, as implied, at core some contemporary form of organization.  From there the list includes most concepts already out there and being continually revised: Support creativity; a research mindset; design excellence; sensitive recognition of stakeholders; conscious product positioning; modeling of productivity and cost effectiveness approaches; contemporary understanding of employee recruitment and motivation; continuous human resource development; leadership styles matching need; quality assurance via process control; leadership that now goes beyond "command and control;" and embedding continuous planning, product refinement and assessment into the basic fabric of an organization, in this case all the way to the classroom. Every K-12 function has an image that can be expressed in business/managerial and behavioral terms to drive pursuit of excellence.

Any contemporary K-12 school also needs to be at the cutting edge of digital technology, Internet use, incorporating online or self-directed learning, embracing and employing social networking as potential for learning rather than banning or fumbling it.  One disgusting example from a local school system was its being gifted one gigabit Internet capacity – then used to videoconference area pro forma teachers' meetings.  A benchmark, 20 years ago, a southern Indiana high school (with fiber) was via videoconferencing holding real-time joint classes in French here, and in English in a comparable school in France.  

The automatic contempt for many current retro public K-12 systems seemingly living in bubbles is explicable; letting that contempt drive US K-12 into a last century learning mode based on naïve testing and teacher intimidation, and not differentiating public schools that are succeeding in creating HOTS versus their opposites, are not explicable.

A Rip In Our Social Fabric Larger Than Tactics

Reflecting on the present status of “reform not,” it’s as if an ideologically driven and delusional part of this nation, seeing it and all of its works zero-sum games, can’t tolerate one of the two most successful social experiments of its history.  Present alleged reform on one side seems intent on purging public K-12 seen as "socialistic," and learning with its teachers unless they can be assessed in a pedestrian conception of cause and effect, or a monthly P & L statement. The other side, equally autocratic and dogmatic, is pressing a utopian belief with hypocrisy and multiplying the first effect.  Both, seemingly unthinkingly, may strategically hamstring future US K-12 education rather than improve it.  Dr. Diane Ravitch, who originally helped fashion NCLB, now an opponent of both NCLB and its testing obsessions, in her first book -- whether for effect or feeling the oppressiveness of current reform -- stated she felt “…like she was living in a period of national insanity.”  Winston Churchill, in responding to a constituent’s verbal barb, once said:  “Madame, you may very well be right.”

The current K-12 reform movement is long on self-righteous chutzpah and simplistic ideology, inching toward oppression, and critically short on wisdom.  That is why present allegedly “corporate reform” is pure fraud, and potentially a strategic disaster for this nation.


Part Two of this series will go functional, looking at a K-12 school's functions in terms of basic organization constructs.  An immediate difference in the approach is seeing an organization as more than a graphic depiction of boxes and lines, or a table of organization, but as a process model.  Metaphorically the bones, biology, neural nets, and even DNA of the organization are the result of encompassing and designing around its core processes, visualizing it as a system.  That would seem to offer the diagnostic opportunity for real, sustainable public K-12 reform without the gangs with spiked clubs.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

SQUINTS 2 December 2012 -- Public K-12: Zombie Reform?

Zombies have been hits in this season’s digital games, so it seemed fitting to address so-called corporate K-12 reform for pretty much what it is.
Multiple Culprits, One Villain, A Cast of Fools
Make no mistake, the roster of culprits for the present road to a US learning cliff goes well beyond a segment of the business community that is almost delusional.  It includes:  States slavishly doing the pseudo-reform dirty work; America’s parents who have yet, except in a few states, to wake up enough to express outrage at the standardized test avalanche; our President and the US Department of Education appearing clueless, irrationally committed to a utopian vision of education, or politically driven; and obviously many public schools so in denial or delusional the mythology of "breaking dawn" seems non-fiction. 
Factor in some of our corporate entities who are anything but clueless, indeed quite accomplished, but better depicted as corporate vultures; the handful of firms aggressively lobbying every government level, dominating the textbook, test construction, and scoring businesses, now costing the nation's public schools over $1.7B annually in direct test costs, with unknown but major opportunity costs.  Inferentially, those firms employ some of our best and brightest, but have studiously traded profits and market control for any sense of national educational responsibility, and ironically, true accountability, the reform movement’s eponymous anthem.
The giant rotten spot in the corporate reform apple for our teachers has been simply ignored in a nation bouncing from one miscue to the next. States like Ohio have fashioned seemingly logical rubrics for school grading, but all wrapped around the assumed validity and reliability of standardized tests; early digital folk wisdom applies -- "garbage in, garbage out."  

But the core issue is, no self-respecting corporate executive advocating excellence, no business theorist, no organizational theorist, no real educational scholar, and no contemporary public administration advocate  would hang out their shingle based on the strategic and tactical malpractice being advocated as “corporate reform.”
Testing As Strategy?
In today’s knowledge environment ensuring absolute equality of US education is daunting, encompassing over 49MM K-12 public school students.  It is utopian.  Pragmatically, it may parallel the feasibility of zero unemployment, those measures recognizing that 100 percent employment is unattainable in a real world.  Pushing any one button or assessment venue that can even nudge that K-12 mass is docking a supertanker with a bass boat.  But present unthinking standardized testing and VAM – whether a barely disguised vendetta against public education for allegedly growing Democrats, or gaming public systems to allege failing public K-12 schools, driving privatization – have actually accomplished the unthinkable, it has that tanker on a course to destroy the refinery.
Assessment is a necessary strategy in managing any process, including learning, but reflects complex design; testing is a tactic that ranges from unobtrusive measures to examination that foots highly skilled professions.  Formative testing in K-12, now a fancy term, has been around since teaching, and left in the hands of teachers is a flexible and vital tool for gauging learning progress.
The question is, can you test your way to creating utility and value employing the present standardized testing logic and models?
Challenging that argument, the elements of K-12 learning encompass:  Subject matter that is comprehensive set against “knowing what we know as well as what we don’t know,” quality controlled for accuracy; students partitioned to reflect comparable states for absorbing and integrating knowledge, including the levels of prior learning; a medium that manages the process of discovery and assimilation, teachers to online instruction to self-designated paths; the core of real learning, blending memory of micro-knowledge and constructivism to create neural nets serving critical thought and problem solving; methods to assess attainment that persists; and not to be underrated for significance, a social-organizational setting that enables and motivates the process but also stimulates creativity that bypasses programmatic learning.  As it turns out, the latter process may weigh in as equal, or more important than all before.
Envision bypassing most of the above in favor of narrowly, mechanically, repetitively testing for marginally assimilated assorted micro-components of knowledge.  How many trials, how many tests would it take to intuitively arrange a couple of truckloads of parts into a supercomputer without a comprehensive design; how many replications of process blocks and connections would it take to create an optimal organization by only testing its subsequent capacities to deliver selected functions?  Even if a product accidentally results, the process may occur unpredictably or too late or never, and carry with it participant repulsion from the process.  Present standardized testing and VAM, riddled with design, validity and measurement error, offering no learning as an outcome of the intrinsic process, pushed as strategies to improve K-12 learning is education reform’s “emperor parading with no clothes.”
Orthodoxy, Modernity, and Creativity 
Three overarching issues challenge US education:  Accountability in K-12 organization, and of course it is a given that must be present but is part a political battle, part the function of intelligent organization design; knowing what we know; and where does this position America’s greatest need, to field human resources who can become a major source of the world’s innovation, driven by creativity.  The third issue far and away carries more strategic portent.
Intelligent public K-12 reform could have been launched more productively with multiple ways and means than by the testing/VAM bulldozer.  Cutting to the chase, an hypothesis, it was because that might have featured preservation of public education – waking up public K-12’s bureaucracies, it failed the ideological delusions of an extreme right wing, and it would have blunted the profit opportunities for a cabal of corporations.  But in choosing the testing route, this reform bandwagon elected the least managerially competent and most potentially damaging path it could have taken, reflecting the 100 year old performance model emanating from the origins of manufacturing, “…do things with perfect replicability, at ever increasing scale, and steadily increasing efficiency.” Your grandfather’s America.
A few years ago management guru and author Gary Hamel and McKinsey partner Lowell Bryan were interviewed about the role of creativity in a future America.  With profound apologies to both for paraphrasing their words to avoid the naïve charge that management excellence applies only to companies:
“There are three reasons the technology of [organizations] may well change radically over the first few decades of this century as it did during the adolescence of the last one.  The availability of powerful new tools for coordinating human effort will profoundly change the work of [organizations].  Then we have a new set of challenges:  The increasing demand for [organizations] to be adaptable, innovative, and exciting places to work.  A third force for change is a revolution in expectations.  Take a look at our kids – the first generation that has grown up on the Web.  Their basic assumption is that your contribution should be judged simply on the merits of what you do rather than on the basis of your title or your credentials or providence or anything else.”
There is no element of present reform dogma that embraces that needed creativity, nor that shouldn’t be labeled “zombie” reform.  Present method is neither excellent management, nor even credible accountability because of gross fundamental sensing errors in resultant data to drive the present view of accountability.  On top of the mixed to unethical motivation of the national odd-couple of K-12 reform, America’s next generation of youth are (also) being set-up to plow the furrow of another century rather than invent a future.
How Did We Get Here?
In hindsight the question is rhetorical if one unflinchingly looks at the last half century of public K-12 education:
Exponential expansion of science and social science knowledge, accompanied by an unprecedented social delivery system in the Internet, literally denied or deflected by most of public K-12.
Public K-12 systems complacent and dogmatic, from the "buyer's" perspective frequently a geographic monopoly, unless a parent is willing to expend annually collegiate-level dollars on private schools.
That same public K-12, increasingly unaccountable to even its public because of state and school oversight ineptitude, accompanied by school administration rarely properly trained or vetted, creating marginally controlled fiefdoms.
Increasing levels of poverty and cultural deprivation as the US middle class has been compressed, income disparity fostered by right-wing ideologies, coupled with only superficially abated racism and bigotry.
The bizarre specter of NCLB continued, morphing into RttT, and a reasonably intelligent White House getting into bed with the most reactionary political extremes and a cabal of corporate vultures.  This beggars the imagination, perhaps the only hypothesis being that a liberal President refused to address the real issue because of fear of loss of teacher/parent/union votes from that confrontation; leaving public K-12 to do the highly unlikely, reform itself?
Lastly, but egregious for a nation that exudes education as a key virtue, is the virtual intellectual decay of its collegiate schools of education with nary a whimper by our university communities or any other stakeholder.
Our public K-12 systems remain a massive muddle, that won’t be assuaged even if they are tested until they drop.  Half of our public K-12 systems in America's "bubbles" will still be in denial and/or obsolete, hands out for the next levy, as they are carted off the battlefield.  At least a generation of Americans is going to be shoved into a world intellectual meat grinder until some sense prevails.  But perhaps the largest risk is to this nation’s core economy.  There are just below the surface of applicability pools of development from over a half century of research and science.  Without a generation of human resources that can grasp not just unrelated facts, but increasingly complex connections both technical and social, and get beyond orthodoxy via creativity to exploit that potential, the US is in great jeopardy.
Escape?  How fit extremes of two political parties, a squad of billionaire self-styled education experts, a platoon of educational demagogues rotating on talk shows and building contributions, a material part of the public education bureaucracy in denial or delusional, one President, and Arne Duncan, onto one mental health professional’s couch?  While that puzzle is stressing neural nets, there is a partial solution -- retrieve the testing from the private sector's de facto election of what is needed knowledge:  Put the creation of knowledge standards and assessment technology back into the hands of the stewards of knowledge, and its assessment back in the venue of education's teaching pros.  One example simply but powerfully makes the case – the AAAS and its Project 2061 – look and learn
As you view Project 2061, reflect:  The products of that project were funded with a diminutive $1.6 million from the US Department of Education (the latest Powerball pot was $588 million), that has under Duncan expended over $4 billion to produce its “race to the bottom, er, top,” based on  bureaucratic punch lists and tests.  The reform mantra, endlessly repeated has been, make public schools legitimately more business-like.  Point well taken, but shouldn't that also be the secret sauce of both the alleged reformers as well as the White House and US Department of Education?