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.