Monday, January 28, 2013

Alternate Organization of K-12: Part One – Scope

The purpose of this first blog in a series is to propose that the present US model of a public school has hardened into a stereotype.  That model seems based on the assumptions that a K-12 school system is somehow unique, unaffected by organization theory, developments in research on human behavior irrelevant, and the only way present K-12 learning can be structured.

Paradoxically, that homogeneity of public K-12 systems contradicts the mantra of local control invoked by most public education defenders.  The specific strategic and operating environments of any organization are not usually subject to manipulation to accommodate an extant organization, though in monopolies that anti-social attempt may be made.  Normatively, the organization is structured to deal with its environments.

This follows as well from the observation that public education in general, including its collegiate schools, has too frequently isolated itself intellectually from the basic disciplines that actually foot its practice.  Causes may be defensiveness, ignorance, fear, or just the sociology of protected, strongly associative reference group behavior augmented by the teachers’ unions?  An answer would help understanding, but reality is that whatever drives present beliefs has cemented in place an over one hundred year-old model for formal organization and for envisioning critical public K-12 learning.

Subsequent posts will propose alternative K-12 models, and their implications for management of the resources powering present public primary and secondary education.

The Game’s Rules

It is not absolute that the present grade, curricular structure, management arrangements, or other systems structure generally employed or present in public K-12 are wrong or automatically demand radical change.  What is assumed is that there has been far too little work executed to test the logic of present K-12 public organization.  Indeed, in the literature search for this post, fewer than 10 percent of the references viewed – chosen from work in this century because of some reference to alternate K-12 structures – actually explored that question.  There were five times as many references to the organization or critique of online learning.

The key suggested rule for this journey is central to creativity in any venue:  The need to temporarily suspend disbelief in options to truly scope the issues.  Detailing, critique, challenge, spotting logical holes, all come in due course to assess thinking out of the box.  But not enabling initial openness for options, simply chases any exercise back to what is already in place, creativity’s automatic disruptor.  This was illustrated this weekend by the musings of an otherwise competent, nationally recognized educator, Larry Cuban, in a post to “The Answer Sheet,” creating a straw man to critique in the current evolution of MOOC (massive online open-source courses), versus reflecting how that innovation might in some form interact with, and nudge K-12 process.  This may be a challenge in our present US knee-jerk society, so sharpen the knives for critique, but keep them sheathed until the options are on the table.

What’s In Play?

Conventional wisdom would suggest that this journey’s topics are primarily grade span and the titles on the blocks of a school organization chart.  But conventional isn’t the melody for this song.

Organization of any human activity in both the private and public sectors in this century is either a replication of past patterns, or evolution of a past formulation, or by design, or simply occurs in an unplanned trajectory.  The latter is not as uncommon as one might believe.  Many 21st century start-ups just happen, without deliberate specification of a model for creating work, and a preconception of needed change to accommodate growth; they wind up requiring painful realignment with growth, or the lack of resilience of the start-up model drags the firm down.

Public K-12 education, not pejorative but pragmatically, has overall both ignored modern organization theory and demonstrated little awareness that, though their “numbers” as a system have not experienced dramatic shifts, the environments for their functions and for the product they were created to nurture have dramatically changed.

For perspective, the nation’s children entering K-12 in 2013 will (at least a fraction) exit secondary education in 2025, postsecondary education and the job market by 2030. 

A data point is the sum of outputs from The World Economic Forum, meeting this past week in Davos, Switzerland.  Whether one applauds or scorns our industrial largest and most influential, their beliefs and choices will power most of our economy into the future.  Their views:  “Climate change…will cause tremendous economic upheaval;”  “water is the new oil;” “one of the great concerns should be the employment effects of technology, with so many jobs being rendered obsolete by scientific or technological advances;” new technologies for analyzing the brain will change how we learn.  Pointing up the education challenge was former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown:
“…huge advances in the Internet and technology are enabling young people to connect with each other and this is opening up the world in a way that has never happened before.”

“Young people are beginning to see that the gap between the opportunities and rights they have been promised and the opportunities and rights that are delivered to them is wholly unacceptable. And the sense that they are being deprived of these opportunities and rights is, I think, going to be the big motivating force over the next few years.”

Our scientific, technology, and even business literature now regularly assert that the knowledge and economic world, as we presently know it, won’t be a smooth extrapolation of the present.  Should it be business as usual for K-12 public education, and how it has been organized and strategized?
In the absence of public K-12 reinvention, a new word may be needed to describe its relevance by 2025-2030.  The calls for change in K-12 education, as perverse and ignorant as the present reform movement has been in creating the challenge, should not be a mystery.  Based on the trajectories of what today’s K-12 matriculating students will inherit by the time they are job-ready, some genuine reform is way overdue.

Redesigning K-12 Systems

There is a rich literature on organization theory and caveats for designing organizations.  Still, few students of the genre think in those terms, rather, using the principles and models of organization to try to explain behavior within an existing organization, or internally adjust one’s parameters to improve its outputs, or assess participant satisfaction, or its learning, or explain why one is not performing as anticipated.  But the notion of actually designing a system to do work is neither new nor does it require new tools.

What it does require is a very high tolerance for inputs.  Once past the fiction that an organization is effectively described by, for example, the typical organization chart, the building material explodes.  The variables effecting an organization’s specifications are complex and layered, subject to both the internal missions of the firm and its actors, and equivalently effected by all of the exogenous factors that portray an organization’s environment, present and projectable.  The following figure tries to portray at least the chapter titles of the factors influencing an organization’s survival properties in its venue:
Most of the factors are self-explanatory though subject to major contents expansion.  The figure is color coded to try to portray the different classes of factors:  The largest frame of society and national strategy; subsidiarity, a term recently employed by California’s Governor Jerry Brown to indicate the functions that can be appropriately dedicated to the Federal or states’ governments; learning variables, where DOUPP refers to knowledge – defining, organizing, updating, prescribing, and protocols for dissemination; factors potentially controllable by a system; and the local environments that face a system.

Isn’t this unnecessarily complicating the issue of K-12 mission delivery?  Unquestionably it explodes the determinants, but when digested and hardened, the factors that impact a local system could be many of the above, but are more likely selectively and variably material to the local system.  The factors sorted can be reduced for a system based on their specific materiality.

Design Process

How might the actual process of organization design work?  Again, at a conceptual level, one perspective is displayed in the diagram below.  Key assumptions of the mission, and deployment and management of resources come from recognizing the school’s major environments.  More finely tuned “goal criteria for organization design” were detailed in the last post.  “Organizational process” considerations were also detailed in the last post.  The triangulation of the three inputs produces something not magic, but likely some alternative forms a system might take to best reflect its environment, using the practical dimensions of what the organization is and does.
At the risk of repetition, isn’t this unnecessarily complicated?  Why change what more or less works?  Why chase scarce human resources, with time constraints through this complex process? 

Multiple answers.  The process stimulates recognition of variables that impact learning goals and subsequent performance.  It would necessitate that those who manage the massive resources America devotes to public education, actually question their own beliefs and assumptions, a reality check.  It kicks those managing the system out of their comfort zones.  And it is a discovery path for alternative and more creative or productive ways to achieve learning goals consistent with a rapidly changing environment, and to use the scarce resources invested.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Readers with a conscientious distaste for theory and conceptualization may not find the above very satisfying, perhaps impractical, perhaps spacey? 

In fact, as a long time consultant dealing with corporate strategic planning, teaching it at a high level, and doing it in my own firms managed, the process works.  Per force, the models that one can employ at a grass roots level need to be shaped and polished to work in the real organizational environments.  This post simply introduces the sweep of issues that might impact reformulating K-12 efforts.  The next several posts will seek to bore in on how some of the historically highest impact factors might fit retooling of public K-12 schools’ organization.

Further, little reinvention of educational wisdom is necessarily involved, excepting the ramping discovery of better explanations for how learning works, from the neural biological and neural net simulation work underway.  In the course of research for the series, a powerhouse of existing principles for improving K-12 learning could be found.  The unifying attribute of much of that work; it did not originate in our schools of education, or in the material most frequently cited as the bases for present K-12 pedagogy.

Lastly, an example to set up the next post and demonstrate that the kind of probing above has merit.  It is likely that the closest things to widely attempted (but difficult because of uncontrolled variables) experiments to specify K-12 organization change have been the studies of grade span.  They are everywhere, even in the last century, and proliferated in this one until NCLB took hold and dominated priorities.  In the literature review for this post, one finally quit counting those studies typically executed at a system level. 

But the research results have been anything but consistent, though generally favoring a K-8/9-12 stratification over the various middle-school options.  The lack of some definitive answer has been almost universally attributed by study authors to the lack of sophisticated statistical tools that can account for concomitant and intervening variables in creating performance differences from alternate transitions.

Another point of view, the wrong question was emphasized.  The most robust finding from this population of studies has been that student performance is primarily impacted by the transitions introduced by grade span elections. Studies show transition effects appear to dissipate within roughly a year, but seemingly never asked, what specifically are the behavioral causes and effects on students from the transition(s), and precisely how do they impact current learning?  For as long as there are grades, without some functional mechanism to mitigate the losses of learning performance traceable to any transition, the child will see not just the grade span effect, but a dozen transitions.  

One cogent explanation resides in the socialization between student and teacher that must be rebuilt at each transition; cumulative effects of transitions might also be expected to peak for students where learning is challenged by socioeconomic and cultural status that impedes socialization adjustments.  Another explanation is the effect on present capacities for teacher recognition and use of prior learning, a factor that has been repeatedly empirically demonstrated to greatly influence present learning.

Viewed from the above perspectives, there may be organizational fixes for the problem; one that incorporates a longitudinal strategy will be advanced next post.

Last Words

And oft-used quote, but one that never ceases to challenge how we measure accountability for K-12 by something with greater validity than a state’s school grades based on standardized tests.  By Irish poet, William Butler Yeats:  “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”  Designing public K-12 for that destination should be the mission.  Part two will dig deeper to suggest how real world school organization can still be adjusted to improve the learning that will be needed in our futures.

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