Saturday, January 5, 2013

Reforming K-12 Reform: The Prequel


Two Puzzles

In the wake of the prior SQUINTS' ten proposals for reforming the reform, and all of the rhetoric on public K-12 reform sloshing around pitting its necessity versus its miscues, two questions and some answers appear elusive:
  • Why does the conservative base driving alleged public K-12 reform harbor so much contempt, even hate, for our public school systems?
  • How did a simplistic and threat-based model for public school reform manage to survive, multiply, and take on a life of its own?
Is it meaningful to retrospectively push this button; do we really need to know?  The case for awareness is because, just as America and its legislative enclaves have increasingly chosen denial of issues requiring action, or feigning hearing loss when a pet ideology is threatened, it has appeared politically incorrect to ask some basic questions about why public K-12 is being attacked.  Reality is contemporary social and infrastructure change are incredibly hard to achieve, even initiate, if the need and reasons for change are suppressed or our media misrepresent both causes and consequences.

Why the Contempt for Public K-12 ?

Unless one has lived for the last half century with their head in sand, the shards of explanation are visible:  The rise and power of the teachers’ unions, exacerbating already inept school management and school board performances; the perpetual and strident calls for more local school funding along with increasingly unethical and manipulative levy promotions; the sense of entitlement and self-righteousness public school administrators and even teachers evolutionarily wrapped around themselves; the continuing anti-intellectualism of collegiate schools of education, fostering a curriculum built around invented and specious methods, lacking core disciplines footing their curricula, while both outputted teachers and administrators frequently come from the bottom of the collegiate intellectual barrel; and a combination of sophistry and liberal silliness that permeated public school administration in the 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s.

Next growing conservative political momentum in the US increasingly became paranoid that public schools were allegedly raising and indoctrinating future liberals and Democrat voters.  The picture starts to form (notably, every few years there is a similar higher education witch hunt because of claims that collegiate faculty allegedly are overwhelmingly Democrats warping the views of their students).  Then fold in simplistic and na├»ve understanding of and fascination with “markets” and unrestrained competition as viable contemporary mechanisms for controlling allocation of resources and driving performance in all societal functions.  In sum, trash "the enlightenment," and resurrect metaphorically an early scene from the classic movie, "2001:  A Space Odyssey;" groups of apes lobbing rocks at each other.

Let all of the above fester below the surface for a few decades, then become oversimplified and translated into alleged US education failure by the demagoguery that started to issue with effect from the Reagan Administration, and present are the makings of major anti-public K-12 beliefs and motivation for change by other centers of US power.  Another theory that has been advanced is that prior US recessions and economic woes since 2008 inflated the sense of justification about launching reform, by ignoring structural economic changes and experiencing psychological transference of the causes of that economic performance from the real culprits onto public K-12.  By implication, joblessness was depicted as the unique product of public K-12 not properly preparing our youth.

Lastly, during the entire period from the launch of NCLB to date, America's collegiate schools of education have generally been absent without leave, hunkered down or impotent, in spite of a few standout individual education academic stars addressing alleged reform and public K-12 needs.

There is likely far more history that could illuminate the assumptions (if they exercised that discipline) and the belief structures about learning that have motivated the alleged reformers.  That understanding could even temper the present reform tactics, but it has been politically incorrect to even surface, much less push its media awareness.  A contemporary example is the reporting of a major Ohio newspaper, The Dayton Daily News.  Its present stories and headlines swallow whole, and never question the press releases and claims about Ohio's public K-12 schools and reform testing issuing from Ohio's Department of Education.  The agency has already been identified with reform/test-related corruption.  Conversely, before public K-12 reform became headline bait, the same press rarely questioned Ohio school systems' claims of excellence, the legitimacy of need for more levies, or that Ohio Department's long time refusal of transparency.

We are repeating a history that knowledge and critical thought might have helped depolarize, to defuse reformer-public education conflict and find more productive paths to public education change.  Let’s just say America has for some time failed miserably in creating and employing organizational learning and double-loop learning.

How Did Reform Become Mindless?

The second question is actually less puzzling than the conflicts over historical education philosophy and means.  It is, how did what started as pretty much a well intended conceptual mission in NCLB spawn reform with ever greater autocracy, then mutate into a multifaceted system of reform that has become dysfunctional, chewing up an elephantine double-digit billions of US dollars to basically give birth to a bizarre mouse.  Simultaneously there has been little if any improvement in genuine K-12 learning, indeed, some assert the opposite.

The scenarios that created present test-driven change are not pretty, nor complimentary of American exceptionalism.

The Story Launches With NCLB 

The first part of the story is that the precursors of NCLB had been brewing for some time, that the creators of NCLB were not stupid, and the concept likely reflected honorable and minimally Machiavellian intentions.  Faced with declining K-12 scores in international testing, declining graduation rates, and highly discrepant achievement a function of US racial, income, social class, and cultural differences – factually not being addressed by public K-12 self-improvement and performance – the call for some hard-edged program to force K-12 change made sense.  The explanatory theme in Mr. Bush’s launch of NCLB, addressing “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” authored by Michael Gerson, was brilliant.  Expressing the goal in grand terms and on a timetable that emulated our moon shot was clever.

But governments are rarely held accountable for proactively and fully publicly airing the assumptions and premises that foot program designs and spending.  So no entity with enough clout confronted the Bush Administration, and its producers of the NCLB model, to press for pretest of all features including the test logic.  The validity and reliability of the corporately outsourced testing for NCLB was never sufficiently questioned, and real world experiments to verify that testing never occurred before broadcasting the approach.  To this day, that testing lacks empirical verification except in the narrow terms the testing companies are using to control the incidence of test failure.  Education historian Dr. Diane Ravitch, who helped create NCLB, subsequently recanted and has become an aggressive critic of the testing format.

Where there was also one oar in the water was conceptualizing the strategic challenge of changing a public K-12 system with the history, mass, and inertia present; 100,000 schools, 3.5MM teachers, a century of evolution, unions dug in, school boards intellectually low and slow, state education cabals lacking real understanding and basically pandering educational bureaucracy, and school administrators steeped in tradition and reluctant to yield any power.  Imagining the lack of reform awareness encountered, it was logical to believe that only a narrow, hard-edged set of tactics could reach the breadth and depth of that infrastructure.  It is also arguable that a core belief was that the threats of NCLB, by focusing on the more vulnerable student and teacher populations, would be highly visible and sufficiently costly to schools that they would internally be motivated to respond to the occasion and reform from the bottom up.

Pretty much ignored in the reform logic was the reality that the desired changes had to start, or at least occur coincidentally at the tops of public schools with school management and leadership.  The dysfunction and arrogance qua ignorance in the leaderships of too many public schools, are a major barrier to improving learning at the operating level of the classroom regardless of the skills or nobility of a teacher.  Perhaps considered too politically risky to challenge the public schools in that fashion, and Constitutionally constrained, the need for across-the-board reform of a school’s systems and bureaucracy was simply set aside, and teachers were conveniently targeted under the guise of reflecting universal accountability for student performance.  It is also possible that targeting the teachers was an oblique way to also target the teachers’ unions, in effect challenging them to protest improving classroom performance thereby losing public support?

A long history of the difficulty of achieving social change, on any time frame measured in less than decades, was either not in NCLB (or subsequently RttT) thinking, or was and displaced by the political motivation to showcase Administration performance.  Factually, there is also evidence that the Bush Administration, linked to corporate entities that might economically benefit by NCLB’s testing, let the logic of performance measurement drift out of control and was bartered as business opportunity in exchange for political support.  

One of the enduring mysteries of Mr. Bush’s successor, is why the Obama Administration, at best, swallowed the prior reasoning and tactics in whole; at worst, cynically used them, turning an already flawed movement into an accelerated version driven by a utopian vision and the billions of dollars expended without rational strategic goals and controls.  Less than hopeful was the apparently politically motivated choice of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education over competent education human resources, including Mr. Obama’s then education superstar and campaign advisor on education.  Maybe her shots “in the paint”  and defensive arm-span didn’t measure up?

Enter General Systems Theory

The next major piece in the puzzle is systemic effect.  Powered by dollars – Federal alternative controls of present reform’s specific directions were limited Constitutionally – that reform gathered momentum, billionaire dollars entered chasing assumptions, pet beliefs and ideologies never questioned, attracting academic opportunists, and the entire movement morphed into a complex “system” with the capacity to evolve and warp activities in ways not anticipated.  This de facto system also failed over time to control wannabe reformers' tickets to play, allowing money and power to heavily prescribe direction, enabling ideologues more interested in dumping the public model than constructive change.  Lacking built-in feedback mechanisms necessary for control, this system produced the present odd fellows mix of reformers determining K-12 direction across states and cities without the credentials for competent prescriptions.

Add the bureaucrats directing K-12 functions at the state levels – presently overwhelmingly Republican dominated – and the lack of internal mechanisms to serve as check and balance on one of the easiest routes to more Federal dollars.   The result is what one sees, a reform movement essentially out of control, lacking a clear or even reasonable strategic vision, and punctuated with actors positioned to work the system for reasons of ideology, or personal gain, or political clout.

Public Schools Become Their Own Worst Enemy

The last component in the story is on a par with the rectitude of decision making surrounding the fiscal cliff, our public K-12 systems:  They have been, one, too paranoid or too ensconced in their comfort zones to recognize the strategic and even tactical privatization peril of present reform mantras; two, refused the self-diagnosis that might have deflected imposed reform; three, reflect ethical deficits that permit cheating to avoid the effects of state grading; and, four, too timid to create their own backlash against autocratic state tactics, or the failed collegiate education establishment and unions that have de facto set them up as reform targets.  The mantra of “go along, get along,” applied to American public K-12, has all the ambience of the American idiom, “whistling past the graveyard.”

Gaze over the present trends:  Standardized tests multiplying like rabbits, targeting alleged learning that can be tested mechanically and irrationally at the earliest grade levels, and chewing up classroom time to simply avoid a bad state grade; defective VAM logic being employed to cashier even performing teachers; hunkered down public schools and school boards; entrenched corporate test control falsely defining “what we allegedly know we know;” a US Department of Education and Secretary seemingly eligible for the “19th Century Frederick W. Taylor Award for Creating Educational Zombies;” the cynical bigotry and self-righteousness of big money unilaterally shaping reform; the gap between genuine K-12 learning and critical thinking development, versus the enshrinement of short term memory of fragmented globs of knowledge; and the reanimation of bizarre education methods seeking to sustain traditional education sovereignty at the expense of learning linked to effective thinking and substantive problem solving.

The all too frequent response of public school systems to state enforced testing and grades has been to acquiesce while occasionally grumbling about unfunded mandates, muddle through, keep their heads down, cheat when possible, shun creativity that engages risk, and hope that reform will run its course without requiring any real organizational assessment or change. Frequently buried as effect, has been the conflict between state standards (that is to say test standards) and creative programs intended to elevate 9-12 rigor.   One example is the New Tech STEM high school model.  Standardized testing dogmatism and delusions have the capacity to both block and destroy such programs, especially when school administrations and boards lack courage and are sycophant, or clueless how such programs must be managed to jointly achieve intended learning while satisfying the test threats.

All of the above are depressing, but the real world performances of the US Congress, the US Department of Education, our political parties, and virtually without exception the similar slogging performances of state legislatures, suggest the scenarios described are not materially overstated.  Nor is present alleged reform likely to support the nation's critical need for future adult human resources who can solve problems and implement pooled and rapidly pooling technology, that may well be America’s only hope of future world attainment.

Where To From Here?

Social systems are a complex interaction of players, processes, and behaviors that as they evolve in scope and complexity become diagnostic challenges. Such systems can be open or closed, denoting whether they exchange information and influence with their environments, can grow even exponentially, and with growth prove increasingly difficult to isolate the individual players or processes that drive the system.  A system lacking the needed feedback mechanisms for control can produce unintended consequences.  An emerging example of that in our real K-12 reform world is the drift of the "corporate reform system" toward being closed, that is, refusing acknowledgement of flaws in the missions or methods, refusing changes in course, now spreading across all of our states in an unthinking dance of standardized testing, grading, VAM, and distorted missions.  In an ideal world the US Department of Education and Federal dollars might be a stabilizer; unfortunately Mr. Obama's unknown or simplistic K-12 agenda and hypocrisy have become very much part of the problem.

In the spirit of equal opportunity critique, it is arguable that decades ago the majority of America's public K-12 administrators and school boards quit listening to parents, taxpayers and critics, and focused on suppressing transparency of their assumptions and beliefs, their understanding of their missions, their actual understanding of learning, what and how they're teaching, how they hire, how they make decisions, and how they spend.  That behavior is now reflected in corrupted systems, autocratic systems, systems following the "calf path," and systems in hiding, that one might have thought less likely by a professional human resource population once committed to intellect and learning?

Both the corporate reform movement(s), and still most of our public K-12 systems, have now metaphorically circled the wagons, the prototypical response of systems under attack, plan A.  In all but public K-12 systems with standout administration and with an extra helping of courage, and apparently for most of the alleged reformers, there is no plan B.  As both systems harden their positions the image is closing on that of the US Congress and middle-eastern conflicts. In perspective, offending Congressmen and Congresswomen may eventually get tossed out, but basic education for the US strategically has potential, perhaps even on a par with the deficit, for long-term national damage with difficult remediation.

Present public K-12 reform now appears to be an example of the worst of unintended consequences, what might be termed “a runaway, wrecking ball system.”  The challenge and extreme risk are, it is hard to stop a runaway system without the subsequent metaphorical train wreck.

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