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?

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