Thursday, February 28, 2013

Postscript: Concluding Thoughts on Public K-12 Reform

In the 24 February 2013 edunationredux blog post, public K-12 change proposals by Stanford education professor Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond (appearing in The Washington Post, "The Answer Sheet"), were severely criticized.  

Critique was not because the eloquent goals were inappropriate for present public K-12, but because the proposals appeared to be terminally short on actionable parameters, and offer the opening for simply more US educational bureaucracy, with expenditures unmatched by assessment protocols and accountability, and the opening for more opportunists to step onto the public K-12 reform stage with primarily profit-motivated entries.

Negativity may have also been influenced by the noted but never referenced appearance of Professor Darling-Hammond in the roster of educators who reviewed the Common Core State Standards for reading and math, standards criticized in yesterday's "The Answer Sheet" by Dr. Diane Ravitch.

But having historically visited much more of Dr. Darling-Hammond's work, the post seemed out of context with her immense scholarship.  Accordingly, back to the search engine to look for better understanding.  That awareness is found in many places, but one evocative of her erudition and educational excellence is the "Third Annual Brown Lecture in Education Research," prescient, published five years ago in 2007, and remarkable scholarship.  It is linked here, and should be read.

This writer still disagrees with the original proposals advanced in "The Answer Sheet," until they reappear wrapped in nomenclature that conveys a capacity for practical implementation, but apologies are due and offered the post's authors for the sharpness of criticism.


Saturday, February 23, 2013

Concluding Thoughts on Public K-12 Reform

Some people after a long career retire gracefully, finding Las Vegas, or the French Riviera, or the Caribbean islands, or even a lake, a boat, and perchance fish; some not so much.

This writer appears to fall into the latter category, with grandchildren beyond nurturing, or play, or even challenging, including some who can now gaze down at the top of my head.  That among other observations precipitated the edunationredux blog.  But its origins have never been really explained.


The story actually starts a half century ago, when I was a newly minted, green, and idealistic assistant professor.  Though committed to a view of academic business stressing research and theory, there was still youthful exuberance and innocence, and a belief that teaching was a worthy calling to be advanced.

Accordingly, an early realization was that there was a huge disconnect between higher education and public K-12 education.  Focusing narrowly, as is the wont of new assistant professors, the logical jump was that our B-schools should be seeking a conversation with especially public 9-12 education, with dialogue about the evolving study of business, and hoping to stimulate student interest among the best and brightest to see business as a postsecondary destination.

Rolling along, the initiative was launched to try to connect to some Indiana high schools via their embedded Junior Achievement programs.   The rest of the story is a gritty one of frustration, but the bottom line is that both the university/school, and the target high schools, viewed the goal with total contempt and bigotry, even expressing that aggressively.  The estrangement persists.

A half-century later, freed to explore the coming assault on malingering US public K-12 education, perceived gathering momentum even before launch of NCLB, ways of contributing to public K-12 were sought.  At the beginning of this century, in a new place, by invitation trying to assist the local school system in an alleged technology plan, that volunteer effort produced observations even more egregious than the half-century’s prior experience.  Encountered were a K-12 system’s dishonesty, refusal of transparency, ignorance, hubris, contempt for teachers, and the in-your-face dogmatism about any change, that present in enough places nationally, finally crystallized the present corporate reform movement.  The local K-12 system’s closed minds, control mentality, and tolerance for mediocrity had all the ambience of running your fingernails over the old time blackboard, for those who have occupied the front of classrooms.

That experience followed by a great deal of probing and reading eventually launched SQUINTS, while the prior recognition of system venality apparently induced an almost sociopathic mission by the local school board and administration to shun this writer, allegedly with defamation, and even refusal to honor the Ohio open records statute to get some system transparency until lawsuits were threatened.  In its last and most corrupted expression, its board (that has with the administration repetitively manipulated financial reporting) tried a levy scam that for the first time in the system’s recent history failed. 

Perhaps this is the dirty underbelly of current public K-12 mediocre and self-righteous performance in the nation’s reactionary places, but it signified that the present “reforms” of our public schools were in principle and initially legitimate and long overdue.  However, the forms that reform has now taken, and how it has been hijacked by ideology and greed, are of course the other half of the story unfolded across the nation over the last decade.


Not really good.  All evidence of the last year or so, featuring ramping critique of both present reform based on testing and VAM, and of the naïve (and in a few cases not naïve and profit-induced) motivations of the reformers, especially highlight the evolving corruption of the mission, also pointing to extreme hearing loss by both the White House and our self-appointed reformers.  Perhaps that is defeatist, perhaps just pragmatism borne of operating at an elevated management level in the real world for so long, or perhaps by analogy registering the political stalemate, myopia, and lack of corporate social responsibility crippling the US government, jobs, future creativity, and the nation’s middle class.

The latest shoe to drop, results of the 29th annual "MetLife Survey of the American Teacher," reported the lowest level of teacher satisfaction in 25 years, a decline of 23 percentage points since 2008.  The summary of all results is reported in "The Answer Sheet" in the February 21, 2013 Washington Post.  Too detailed to engage here, but a refrain that inundates the findings, school administrators report increasing complexity of the job, increasing stress, and articulate fixes that diverge from teachers' responses. Per past blog discussion of public K-12 school true reform needs, the gut question is: Is the K-12 management job truly that different, or have the role and tasks finally caught up with the organization of public K-12, the quality of human resources being recruited for school administration, and the shortfall of relevant training being offered them?

Top Lines

After 72 edunationredux posts since 2011, the process of probing and reading extensively material chronicling the flow of public K-12 reform moves focused some hard truths about the process, and about our nation’s public schools’ response to the challenges.  Here are a few that simply occur over and over, and that begin to create conviction that they are universal.

Getting the Whole Picture 

A first observation is that even our public school critics, and their critics, are subject to embedded biases based on research reported in Part Two of the public K-12 organization series.  It is the human condition to experience selective perception and cognitive biases.  So it is not unexpected to see selected observations one favors; the consequence, conclusions ventured from very small and haphazard samples versus reflection based on total populations.  This applies to present reform, where selected public and charter K-12 schools are featured as a basis for generalization, picked up and amplified by an undiscriminating media, distorting reality. 

Reality is there are give or take 99,000 US public schools.  There are exceptional ones, totally egalitarian ones, creative ones, courageous ones, ones that don’t need reform, ones that are desperate for the diagnosis, ones encountered locally.  The US education establishment, spanning all players, has not chosen to do the careful research to quantify precisely where 100 percent of the nation’s public schools fall in a reform needs grid.  In effect current reform is simply blasting away at K-12 public schools with about the same specificity employed in early embryonic genetic engineering of food crops, that is to say, aim a biolistic particle delivery weapon at the cell to see if anything changes.

When Listening Becomes the Loser 

The second observation is that reformers, public school bureaucracy, and the anti-reformers have now reached the stage where all hearing is shutting down, arguments are simply sailing past each cluster pair, never registering.  The power to control present reform rests:  With the White House; a few billionaires who should in a democratic nation have been prohibited by law or pressure from interference; featuring manipulative extreme conservative lobbying such as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) writing states' legislation; with state governors juggling growing challenges with shrinking dollars, limited education scientists, and forced to follow a party line, now predominantly right wing; and with some subset of the corporate sector led by ideology rather than intellect, and with the dollars and clout to manipulate and even corrupt governments and other institutions. 

Too much of public K-12 is either in denial about its targeting, or in cowardice hiding in foxholes, with even the best of our administrators and teachers continuously ignoring one of the cardinal missions of the profession they practice; “The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives,” by Robert M. Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago.  The notion of public K-12 actually practicing life-long learning, reading beyond the bubble, initiating self-reform, even to save their own bacon, seems farfetched except for that gifted magic five to ten percent or so that possesses both strategic vision, creativity, and the courage to push change.

Where Education Reform Should Start 

The third major crater sucking in public K-12 education is the nation’s mechanisms for educating teachers, vetting them, and supporting them with the needed hard research to actually improve the classroom, or fashion acceptable and better performing systems for triggering learning.  Take off the rose-colored or politically correct glasses, and America’s schools of education, from their “normal” origins, and except for a handful of academic stand outs, have been an evolving intellectual disaster since the 1950s and perhaps earlier. 

When I joined the Big Ten academic community the school of education was a standing campus joke.  If one probed even further, the school appeared to be an alleged discipline without a shred of true knowledge content, promulgating methods divined out of thin air or to try to claim some expertise, devoid of any hard research, and even contemptuous of the handful of genuine learning theorists starting to emerge at that time primarily from psychology.  Presently schools of education are either trying to be invisible, or incredibly, responding to reform by trying to invent even more absurd methods, or reinvent and/or re-label the known to hold onto some cachet as a school. 

The most effective reform option for most of America’s schools of education would be reform by dissolution, with mission incorporation into legitimate collegiate disciplines, e.g., a subset of psychology for teachers, a subset of public or business administration for future administrators, and a subset of informatics or information technology for technical administration and classroom innovation.  Add, all future K-12 teachers have baccalaureate mastery of at least one substantive science, or social science, or liberal arts discipline.

On the leadership side of the coin, there is demonstrable need for the public K-12 bureaucracies to take off the blinders and envision what is coming at America's education infrastructure, and beyond alleged corporate reform. One example of disruptive learning innovation is the effect of MOOC (massive open online courses) that is not a fad, but the early entry of genuine upscale learning.  The shape of that change is discussed in the 02.20.13 edition of WIRED OPINION by Harvard's change guru Dr. Clayton Christensen, and Michael Horn ("Beyond the Buzz, Where are MOOCs Really Going").  The impacts will first be felt in higher education -- among other reasons because the best US universities are advancing the modality -- then trickle down into public K-12.  Given present public education's intellectual and perceptual challenges, it may arrive unanticipated, and without even a shred of deliberation or planning in place.

What Will it Take?

Lastly, true reform – given timing and an environment that doesn’t quash change still embryonic – starts with actionable concepts, and the kind of strategic and action planning that happens in successful companies, almost never in our public K-12 schools; indeed, it is arguable those schools and their related administration don’t even know what the words mean.

The February 22, 2013 Washington Post “The Answer Sheet” featured a post by a Congressional representative and a well-recognized, premier collegiate professor of education.  Its 1,009 words, with quintessential school of education style, lacking the first rational elements of applicability, could be summarized in six words:  We need to create better teachers.   Fronted by such actionable thoughts as – “…it is clear that teacher preparation — even more than evaluation — may matter most for meeting the 21st century learning needs;” “…we need policies that incentivize a diverse and vibrant pool of talented and committed individuals to become teachers;” “…programs, offering guidance and feedback from successful master teachers to complement coursework on teaching, would be nationally accredited based on their ability to produce quality teachers through program models that emphasize research and practice;” and “By increasing collaboration among universities, high needs schools, and community organizations, the Educator Preparation Reform Act will create successful clinical teacher preparation sites and an educator workforce who will remain committed to their community’s schools and students” – the post on its face demonstrates why these exemplars are missing from our public K-12 kit.

Exasperation aside, with no words was the crux of this public K-12 dilemma presented:  The current reform dogmatism starting at the level of the White House refuses to even register that pie-in-the-sky rhetoric; US collegiate schools of education are in hiding and nearly creatively and intellectually moribund; with human resources roughly 80 percent of the cost structure of a K-12 school, and taxpayers tapped out by the school cost ratchet-effect, endless levies, and system financial naivete/incompetence/venality, adding even better and better paid teachers with overlap is going to happen how; there has been almost no consistent school-level hard research in K-12 education in a half century except for the US Department of Education’s NCER (National Center for Education Research) and that was, though populated with talent, a beehive of narrow, compartmentalized, and disconnected research gambits, since practically destroyed by Arne Duncan; and finally, K-12 public education and higher education have held each other in contempt for over that half-century, and this is going to miraculously change how?

Darling-Hammond got some of the goals more or less right; the mechanisms for achieving any of the three fluff expressions of those goals still reside in the literary nonsense realm of Alice’s journey down “the rabbit hole.”  If more dollars were to be poured into public K-12 they might be better placed where extant research suggests opportunity for advancing specific learning performance.  One example, the peripheral finding from ubiquitous system studies of grade bands (K-8 & 9-12, vs. K-n & middle school, etc.) that the student "transitions" had a greater negative effect on learning than what the typical band alternatives offered positively.  In perspective, every grade change is a transition.  Because those effects are arguably greater for kids socially challenged, a double whammy.  One fix, staged carry over of teachers across early grade bands to minimize the transition cost and facilitate registration of prior learning.  Teacher cost increases but the model could be combined with the above notion of teacher coaching.  The hypothesis is that this kind of fix is specific, with measurable effects, and could be subjected to small experiments for assessment.

But counterpoint, it is also easier to critique and even diagnose public K-12 woes – now contributed in roughly equal parts by both public education’s institutional paralysis and present reform – than prescribe.  In an earlier post ten very aggressive actions were proposed to change public K-12, each with some specificity.  But without the institutional footers for installing and stacking these changes, they are as ephemeral as the above referenced generalizations.  What would it take to nudge the present public education reform Titanic to a new course, perhaps a good metaphor for the character of present reform?

A proposition is that shifting the trajectory of present public K-12 to genuine reform would take, pragmatically, a change in some mindsets of major players:  By an ideologically biased and hypocritical White House, along with replacement of Darth Vader as Secretary of Education; by an Eli Broad, Bill Gates, and Walton Family Foundation, recognizing they are poisoning the well and then redirecting funds; by a collaboration of the CEOs of the US Fortune 50 or 100 corporations recognizing their future human resources; and by the presidents of the nation’s best 50 universities, recognizing they could force reform of their schools of education in the interest of the quality of their future all-campus student matriculation.  As low as the probability of this hat trick occurring, it is a level of magnitude more likely than 3.5 million teachers magically becoming Mr. Chips, and tens of thousands of ill-matched or marginal school administrators turning equally magically into managerial superstars.

To Sign Off on Public K-12 Reform

Clearly, this is not an optimistic conclusion to the 72 posts.  The two principal reasons for pessimism are:  One structural, there is too much petrified, ignorant, and cowardly public K-12 in place to change more than a fraction of the universe in less than decades, and the present White House drive to achieve the unlikely may preclude addressing real causes, rather than pursuing naïve and utopian grandstanding by addressing and throwing dollars at symptoms; and two, a truly perverse mode of thinking emanating from the major force that could reform the reform, the top end of our corporate sector. As a business professor for a quarter-century, then a CEO, it is antithetical that business would advocate in the 21st century a change strategy for US public K-12 they would categorically reject as obsolete applied to their own human resources and operations.

In closing, gratitude and applause for some real heroes and heroines who have attempted to keep some intellect and reason flowing applied to the contemporary public K-12 brouhaha: 

Self-evidently Dr. Diane Ravitch leading dissent, who practices with passion and intellectually sparkles;

Valerie Strauss of “The Answer Sheet” and The Washington Post, for extraordinary media persistence and education perspicacity (and I would suggest, channeling Jon Stewart, extreme courage for pushing the “Sheet” in range of a White House or Duncan initiated drone);

long time and quality educators such as Florida’s Dr. Marion Brady, and California’s Dr. Anthony Cody, along with others frequently featured in the WaPo "Sheet;"

and management advocates such as Steve Denning and Harvard’s Clayton Christensen, and before them a prescient Peter Drucker, all reaffirming belief that our business disciplines have wisdom to offer public K-12 education.

Since the onset of NCLB, perhaps even earlier, our public K-12 schools in developing a defensive posture have thrown up more barriers to understanding their performance, their bases and materials for attempted learning, their routine tactics, even who they are, than Fort Knox displays protecting the nation’s gold.

As a consequence, good research on and assessment of how public K-12 learning performance might be enhanced have been severely restricted by deliberate lack of transparency.  The same conditions become an even greater challenge for any parent, or student of education, who lacks a bureaucratic or higher education portal for potential access.

So applause as well for many other educators and civilian critics of test-based reform, and of public K-12 paralysis and defensiveness, who value America's strategic K-12 education mission and have had the courage to speak out.


After some breathing space, SQUINTS will be back, addressing what it was also intended to probe, the opportunity for achieving some change in our institutions of higher education, before their excesses/parochialism invite their own full-scale reform movement that carries as much or greater potential for strategic national damage as being leveled at public K-12.  Presciently, in the last week the faculty, trustees, and even the normally really cool president of Indiana University, wholly uncharacteristically, publicly struck out at Indiana’s legislature for starting to invade IU’s decision turf – even while reducing its financial support – in the name of, gasp, reform.

Perhaps there is a true utility in collegiate sports; having a basketball team provisionally rated number one in the nation instills institutional confidence?

Lastly, for all who have visited SQUINTS, thank you for viewing these K-12 blogs.  Thank you to the resources above where applicable, for exchanges and your thought leadership.  The site will remain online and supported, in future addressing some of our higher education challenges.  

If you are not routinely provided announcement of a post, and wish to receive that announcement, please email:, add as the subject "Add Edunation."  No other message is required.  If you have friends or associates who may enjoy this blog, please add their email addresses to your email.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Public K-12 Organization Models Part Three: What If?

This is the third and last in a series on alternative organization designs for public K-12 schools.  Parts One and Two proposed, respectively, theoretical or normative criteria for such organization design, and probing of design challenges at the “street level” of a system.
The latter post started to touch on the grittier aspects of present public K-12 performance one would need to reflect in organization changes, along with the negative effects of present test-based reform excesses and misdirection.  But the review also revealed systems where some learning magic happens even with the public K-12 model, in direct contradiction of arguments for alternative structure.

The Case For/Against Organization Remodeling

The original premise of this series was that reshaping a 150 year-old public K-12 school organization model is essential to genuine contra-corporate self-reform of public education.  That premise is challenged by some public K-12 magic that still happens within the present infrastructure.

Worth re-citing is one such success story, Union City, NJ, linked in Part Two.  Reported, the careful (and arguably sensitive and diplomatic) year of research by UC/Berkeley professor David Kirp.  The Union City success story appears to refute the premise of an organization change requirement.  Does it?

Yes and no.  Clearly, the commitment and creative leadership that produced Kirp’s story don’t appear to have required structure change, although as asserted in Part Two, there may have been informal organization changes supporting efforts.  And it is a remarkable story, with prior precedents. 

A similar story last decade was documented by a researcher working in the MIT-based Society for Organizational Learning, the creation of internationally known organizational scholar and advocate, Dr. Peter Senge.  That work documented a similar turnaround in possibly an even more challenged environment, a low income, minority-dominated New York City public school.  There are likely other similar cases, not highlighted perhaps because they contradict virtually all facets of the current test-based reform movement.

The counter to a “no organization change required” pronouncement is in the pragmatic frequency of this magic versus the US population of 99,000 public schools.  The probability of reform in multiplying systems, by exceptional human resources, accompanied by equally exceptional motivation and courage, if there were 99, or 990, or even 9,900 such examples, is not a cause for optimism.  So the argument is, it will take external stimuli, some KITA leadership, and even some rolling heads to nudge or drag present public K-12 bureaucracy and schools out of an enlarging crater.

Bases for Alternate K-12 Models

Per Part Two, we reject the assertions that the preeminent missions of US K-12 education are:  An entry level job; or being college ready, an unexplained mantra by resources who may not know what that means or whether it has future relevance; or scoring an illusory diploma; or even to sustain public schools’ state grades to fend off ideologically driven state administrations seeking hostile takeovers and privatization of public schools.

For purposes of driving alternate organization the following seem to best embody intelligent depictions of American primary and secondary education; first items are paraphrased from Part Two and represent the views of multiple credible authors:

Students must graduate prepared to be responsible citizens in a democracy.

Students must be able to read critically and think critically.  They must be able to distinguish fact from opinion, and have learned how to construct a rational argument to defend their opinions.

Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one, and it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives.

The one real goal of education is to leave a person asking questions (not memorizing minutiae for a standardized test fashioned by a non-educator).

Add one of the more powerful statements on K-12 goals, from Part Two’s referenced presentation by educator Anthony Cody in challenging the Gates Foundation:

“Education fulfills our social obligation, as a people, to transfer the wealth of human knowledge to all our children. The goal of our public system is to allow every child to develop his/her talent, and bring each one of them into full membership in our economic, cultural, and social national community. This includes music, the arts, sports, physical and mental play, communication and expression. We prepare children to become active contributors to our culture and full participants in our democratic institutions.

We have PUBLIC schools to create a common space where children of all races, creeds and income levels gather to learn together. Our goal is not only to educate the individual, but also to build our ability to understand each other.

When I think of my own students in Oakland, my goal was not just to teach them the facts of science. I wanted to give them power in relationship to the world they encounter. I wanted them to be able to ask their own questions, and use the tools of science to investigate the world. Our disciplines of science, language arts, social studies, art and math are not just bodies of knowledge to be memorized. They are ways of interrogating and changing reality. History is an inquiry into the past that helps us understand our present and change our future. Language arts allow us to understand the writings of others, but also to express our own ideas in powerful ways.”

Then Cody, citing Robert D. Shepherd:
“In other words, there are no standardized children. Almost every new parent is surprised, even shocked, to learn that kids come into the world extraordinarily unique. They bring a lot of highly particular potential to the ball game. And every one of those children is capable, highly capable, in some ways and not in others.

What if, instead of schools having as their purpose turning out identically machined parts, they, instead, existed to find out what a given child is going to be good at doing? What if children were carefully, systematically, given opportunities to try out the enormous range of purposeful human activity until we identified each child's GENIUS? What if we said to ourselves, presented with a particular child, I know that this little person is the product of 3.8 billion years of evolution, that he or she has gifts conferred by that history of fitness trials, and it is my responsibility to discover what those are?”

Lastly, citing management guru Steve Denning’s views on reforming K-12:

“To decide what is the single best idea for reforming K-12 education, one needs to figure out what is the biggest problem that the system currently faces. To my mind, the biggest problem is a preoccupation with, and the application of, the factory model of management to education, where everything is arranged for the scalability and efficiency of “the system”, to which the students, the teachers, the parents and the administrators have to adjust. “The system” grinds forward, at ever increasing cost and declining efficiency, dispiriting students, teachers and parents alike.

But given that the education system is seen to be in trouble, there is a tendency to think we need “better management” or “stronger management” or “tougher management”, where “management” is assumed to be the factory model of management. It is assumed to mean more top-down management and tighter controls, and more carrots and sticks. It is assumed to mean hammering the teachers who don’t perform and ruthlessly weeding out “the dead wood”. The thinking is embedded in Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind.

These methods are known to be failing in the private sector, because they dispirit the employees and limit their ability to contribute their imagination and creativity; they frustrate customers, and they are killing the very organizations that rely on them. So why should we expect anything different in the education sector?

This is a shift from running the system for the sake of the system (“You study what we tell you to study, when we tell you, and how we tell you, and at a pace that we determine”) to a focus on the ultimate goal of learning (“Our goal is to inspire our students to become life-long learners with a love of education, so that they will be able to learn whatever they have to.”) All parties—teachers, administrators, unions, parents and students—need to embrace the new goal.

Once we embrace this goal, we can see that many things will have to change to accomplish it. We can also grasp that most of the thinking underlying current “reforms” of the system can be seen in their true light as schemes and devices that are actually making things worse.”

An Irrefutable and Inconvenient Truth

If one reads, digests, and reflects on the distinction between the above goals for K-12, versus present reform mantras, a conclusion seems inevitable:  That present corporate reform, based on the premise that standardized test results and VAM achieve accountability, is not just critically flawed but close to insanity.  The manufacturing “inspection model” in business has been obsolete for decades except perhaps for the lowest quality quartile of American business – the concept that corporate reform of public K-12 be based on that model challenges credibility; American business is just not that stupid even when dominated by avarice.

The insanity starts with Goodhart’s Law applied to K-12 testing quantification: "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."  Then blossoms into ignorance and myopia, putting public K-12 and the nation at real future risk, far exceeding the original ANAR results commissioned (but rejected) by Reagan.  Insanity continues with focusing crude reform on the bottom of the silo, when it is arguable that the most dogmatic and defensive part of public K-12 sits at its peak and can deflect or constrain change.

What the seductive properties of present testing, and its ease of simplistic quantification underscore, however, is the strategic failure of the entire K-12 spectrum to invest in developing assessments that can reflect genuine learning – critical thought and problem solving.  Contrasting this with the psychometrician’s idealistic obsession with factor invariant micro testing, what’s needed are assessments that can equilibrate achievement across diverse K-12 learners.  One serious under-recognized body of work is psychologist Howard Gardner’s concept of multiple intelligences, and empirical research on and development of actual testing that works across factor diversity. 

The latest riff in the standardized testing scam, is the almost giddy technocratic promise of computerized test administration and processing that will make that testing even more constant, less explicable, and more perverse.

Some Reform Subtexts – Not pretty At all

Some observers of US education have proposed as another explanation that there is an agenda inside the reform agenda, operating with multiple subtexts.  Those postulated subtexts are squalid:  The White House operating in utopian and self-centric fashion driven at any cost or unintended consequences to try to turn around within a couple of presidential terms a cratering and still unequal public K-12 system of 99,000; the school administration embedded in 50 states, now overwhelmingly right-wing dominated, with even less intellectual and ethical awareness; ideologically driven attempt to privatize public education; the questionable educational literacy or mindsets of billionaire dictated interference in reform ala Broad and Gates; venality of reform as right wing and corporate revenge on public K-12 education and its unions for their half century of resisting change, while floating deductively-derived methods trivia and liberal foolishness; or the influence lubricated with lobbying dollars of a handful of politically connected testing companies putting profit ahead of social responsibility; or the self-serving agendas of a Rhee, Jeb Bush, Bennett, et al., through a legion of alleged academics who have sold out to the testing motif for research funds; or lastly, all of the above?

If that elicits a sense of blog paranoia, consider; the Senate Republicans’ current election to pseudo-filibuster Hagel’s defense appointment, allegedly in revenge, because even or especially as a Senate Republican he challenged some of Bush’s more disastrous policy decisions.  One might be tempted to just write off the performance, because after all, they’re the current Republican Party.  But equal time, the Obama administration has repetitively cited the need for genuine K-12 learning to parallel kids' equal opportunity, then hypocritically unleashed US education's testing Rottweiler on public K-12, squandering double-digit billions of tax dollars with a bureaucratic RttT. Both demonstrate that the halls of power are not immune to pettiness, deceit, and monstrous venality.

Lord Acton’s Dictum in action?

Organization Change Possibilities

Following potential organization options start with the assumption that the above preferred goals for K-12 are the platform for proposals.  The second assumption is that even under the most optimistic conditions, present public K-12 bureaucracy and leadership are incapable of creating the equivalent of the handful of K-12 success stories while embedded in present structure.  The third assumption is that our mostly vacuous and mediocre collegiate schools of education are more susceptible to overhaul than a massive and diverse public K-12 school population, if America’s universities found the courage to push that button.  While this assumption is vulnerable to challenge consider; its schools of education are at the bottom of the quality barrel, and likely generate the lowest campus research funding and endowments.  There would seem little risk in kick-starting US higher education reform with education, perhaps even getting ahead of and delaying the reform ax dropping on the genre?

Categories of organization realignment proposed are:  System governance; alignment of the roles of educators versus Federal/state oversight, of administration versus teachers, and of a community/parents/students versus present top down school direction; organization of accountability dimensions, from leadership and financial oversight, through how learning assessment needs to be researched and administered; technology insertion and management; and how the imperative of employing contemporary knowledge and learning understanding is balanced between national standards and local needs.

To avoid book proportions, only a sample of possible organization change is highlighted.

Organization Grand Design

The guiding premise, as an opening argument, is that the school organization model needs to retreat from is manufacturing logic origins, and start tracking the last couple of decades of actual private sector change; that means flat organization, move away from command-and-control, adopt open source and crowd-sourced reasoning, and totally reverse the present course of throwing an iron curtain around what happens in schools’ classrooms and deliberations.


Move to combined elected and appointed school boards, the latter including one primary teacher and one secondary teacher, with board leadership or chair an appointive position determined outside the board, and the school’s peak coordinator a board participant (at the will of the board) but not vested with board control or vote. Board membership requires at minimum a postsecondary degree, prior vetting by a state’s collegiate representation, and completion of a seminar on K-12 education before being seated.  Create a community K-12 council – consisting of both at large voters and private sector representatives – augmenting school board representation with an advisory responsibility to reflect community needs to feed the board, and be a visible and accountable intermediary for assessing community willingness to support levies.


Create sharper division between a system’s education function management and financial and operating management, each with a peak coordinator (if the term is strange substitute chief education officer (CEdO) and chief administrative officer (CAO)).  Eliminate the position of “superintendent,” replacing that role with a school chief executive who need not be a traditional educator, dramatically increasing the potential of recruiting competent management.  

Greatly expand national board certification, making it substitutable for uneven state requirements, and create provisions for resources not from a school of education, but with quality substantive discipline education, to enter teaching at 9-12.  Elevate teachers’ roles to a quasi-autonomous status, with a collaborative teacher council participating in school policy deliberation and election.

Add formal organizational learning, learning technology, and learning accountability functions to the organization, serving in essence as a R&D and an internal audit function, reporting directly to a school’s peak coordinator.

Grade Bands

Research the potential for the elimination of some (arguably post K-3) grade bands, substituting individual student tracking of learning progression with stepping stones determined by teacher developed and controlled assessment (the teacher owns their classroom and is accordingly accountable). (Parenthetically, this demands major improvements in teacher education, to include contemporary exposure to neural research results, research design, test design, and statistical and assessment modeling, either by changing their primary education, or by mandatory development participation; call this the anti-VAM vaccine.)

Common Curricula

Arguably, there is no basis for history being different in Texas than in Ohio, nor algebra or calculus being different in Indiana versus Virginia, nor for even social science to diverge geographically or politically, nor physics and chemistry not being identical across every public K-12 school.  Conversely, there is little learning intelligence in stripping the context from every element of K-12 learning, pursuing the bizarre track of the so-called CCSSI, or the ongoing attempt by one shadow education faction to scuttle the K-12 science (NGSS) theme and learning progression recommendations of America’s scientists who actually know science.

The proper role of the US Department of Education should be redefined, to continuously researching, updating, and communicating to public K-12 schools the disciplinary contents of latest knowledge, changing at an unprecedented rate, along with research-based findings on what works factor invariably in creating learning, classroom or implemented extra-school.   That seems a potent argument for one permissible mode of Federalization; our knowledge, including the correction of mistakes in prior knowledge that gets embedded in retro texts and local curricula, can now not be adequately tracked by any individual system, but the currency of that knowledge is essential to all national goals and national economic development.

Where the Tinker Toys Fail

The suggested straight-line thinking of present corporate reform and its testing cudgel is deceptive; a more apt description of the challenge of reforming public K-12 emerges from seeing any school as what it is, a complex behavioral system that actually determines how learning is achieved.  

Accordingly, when all of the discrete and mechanical aspects of potential self-reform have been put on the table, there is a major missing variable set – the complex and difficult to simply quantify, behavioral complex represented by even a single K-12 school:  The communication and collaborative links between leadership and teachers; the behavioral environment the school communicates to its principal clients, most not yet capable of decoding its intentions and tactics; the complex relationship between board and school operating management; and the equally complex links of a system with its public and private sector environments.  All of the organizational process variables of Part One become not just hypotheticals, but the real process substance of organizational performance.

Just one example of a school-external interface that I suspect occurs with high frequency; an influential local business, laser focused on its own needs, requests a 9-12 curriculum focused on entry job preparation, or a curricular offering that might serve its own immediate needs.  For example, from Part Two, an area system's misguided and mediocre to incompetent attempt at a high school marketing course.  Administrator cowardice to just say no, multiplied by thousands of such events, spells broad K-12 failure.

That behavioral set that drives creativity, and by example K-12 self-reform, may appear touchy-feely, but it is not.  It is a manifestation of the social and behavioral complexity that actually determines organizational performance across all venues, how work gets done and creativity is permitted. Paradoxically, those pressing current corporate public K-12 reform tactics would recoil from applying those tactics to their own organizations.  The greater management awareness of the communication, collaborative, and creative needs of their own business, the more bizarre the naïveté and despotic qualities of present corporate reform appear.

Nod to Corporate Reform Inclusion

In the ramping critique of corporate reform, though arguably justified, there is a counter issue.  Aside from educating our children to support a democratic society, the highest impact social role of K-12 is its contribution numerically and in impact to the US private sector.  Jobs equal America’s prosperity and even political integrity.

An issue is, as some commentators have noted, that does not mean the mission of training America’s business employment should be transferred to the public tab, or constitute the mission of a K-12 curriculum and education versus providing the general quality of learning to accept the specificity of subsequent business or any other focused training.  Attempts to interpret the K-12 mission as job training or positioning for an entry level job are nonsensical.

But all of the above do suggest for this outing a last organizational initiative recognizing the US private sector's achievements.  

That is, development of a national corporate/K-12 education council or round table, separated from the politics of K-12 education, independent of Federal control, that would regularly explore and sponsor/fund research on how our private sector's best and brightest can collaborate with and contribute proven managerial concepts to our schools.  Its constituency should be the most advanced, most creative from the corporate sector, the education quality levels of a Diane Ravitch, Anthony Cody, Marion Brady, et al., and the best of our educational media reporting.  

In fact, public K-12 and US collegiate schools of education have much to learn at least from the thinking segment of our corporate business community.  For how you actually manage and motivate K-12 human resources, stimulate creativity, and communicate with stake holders, is frequently missing or represented in the public education establishment's marginal reinvention of the wheel in most of America's public schools and even in its collegiate schools of education.

Parting Thoughts

Public K-12 education, its alleged leaders, it's unions, and even many of its teachers have for decades viewed schools as an entity totally unique, not amenable to the equal decades of discovery of how human activity in formal organizations can be changed and enhanced. The genre has also been contemptuous of, or oblivious to the trajectory of neural understanding of how learning actually happens, and how prior learning precipitates creation and doing work.  It has been defensive generally, and in minimizing or deflecting a digital technology trajectory that doesn't have a reverse gear, and if anything will show increasing rates of change and scope.

A major product of that digital technology growth is a change that goes beyond just augmenting traditional classroom activity; the mushrooming capacity of open-source online learning to materially change the ratio of learning via the classroom, versus externally sourced and self-directed.  Just as present public K-12 leadership has been deaf to technology generally, it appears regressive in recognizing the potential impact of substituting some of K-12 education's best and brightest via distance for the average classroom teacher as sage on the stage.  Re-envisioning how that development might, rather than replace teachers, open opportunities for all teachers to rewrite their roles and opportunities for enriching K-12, via new research, communications, intervention, and assessment roles, is another organizational opportunity.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Alternate K-12 Organization Part Two: Reality Bites

This is part two of a series, to try to assess other organizational models for public K-12, still mired in a late 19th/early 20th century “manufacturing model” of education.

The ultimate mission is to speculate about organization models that might better position public education to simultaneously deal with present invasive and despotic standardized test-based attempted change, and the real learning issues facing those schools in preparing their clients for a vastly different world beyond 2020-2025.

Part Two Vectors

For part two, the point of view attempted will be closer to the street level of a K-12 system, versus the normative introduction of part one.  This next in the series has been challenging, almost de-enervating, because of the chasm between the normative characterizations of part one, and the reality of how organizations – no matter the purity of original design – actually evolve.

The real world organization, irrespective of its venue, departs from design.  First, the formal organization almost immediately departs from the norm by evolving an informal structure, how work really gets accomplished.  The informal structure, if recognized by leadership, can be finessed to facilitate performance; unrecognized or ignored, it circumvents or warps processes and results.  Perhaps one of the more prominent recent examples of the syndrome was GM, where before and even after the bailout, and until rescue CEO Ed Whittaker’s changes, a massive informal structure and culture had crippled its capacities for competing.

Second, any organization in interacting with dynamic environments usually adapts, is twisted, nudged, or tweaked, and adopts exceptions to survive and achieve.  That is why classic simplistic depictions of organizations via boxes or tables of organization delude; it is why the 150 year-old model of public K-12 can still be offered up as functional, but create failure.

And third, while there is a theoretical independence between organization structure and the human resources tasked to manage it, reality is that the two can be highly interactive, where the character of leadership shapes effective organization behavior.  Risks in the latter mode in the private sector are usually recognized, for example, the firm that cannot survive the loss of its founder or peak coordinator.  A risk in public education is that while a corporate board, for example, can purge members, local school boards and their superintendent progeny can be almost immune from oversight in the short term.  

But if the goal is alternate models of K-12, where do you start?  One answer, and the preferred one for this outing, is with the organization’s missions and goals.  It is apocryphal that in the 21st century, many public school boards and systems have finally chosen to ask the question:  What is our mission?  Let’s be clear from the outset, the proposition of this blog is that the overriding mission of public education is not passing enough standardized tests to avoid a state’s F or D grade, or conditionally creating alleged “college readiness,” or even creating some target graduation rate unless the prequels to and standards for that achievement are fully designated.

Missions and Goals

The assertion is that the top of the chart of factors effecting organization form depicts the mission and goals.  Simplistically, would you organize a tactical combat unit in an active conflict zone as an academic learning community? Conversely, would you organize an academic and collaborative learning community along the lines of classic command and control?  Parenthetically, there are public K-12 administrators sufficiently ignorant of management to do that, but hopefully a minority.

While assuming the question of what a K-12 education should be and produce is clear, the answers to the question get messy very quickly. Google the goals of K-12 education:  One churns up 15,400,000 references.  But here is a start from a blog on “the trenches of school reform:”

“That’s been one of the unresolved issues in American education.  We have to teach so much content that we often end up teaching superficially and too broadly. What content must students  understand in depth? What can we leave out? As Sam Chaltain says in his blog on Huffington Post: “Of all the things we can do together, what must we do?” Not only does this quotation fit decisions about curriculum, but it is quite fitting for the school reform movement as well.

Goal #1:  Students must graduate prepared to be responsible citizens in a democracy.

Goal #2:  Students must be able to read critically and think critically. They must be able to distinguish fact from opinion.  I include two opposing points of view regarding critical thinking.  Some people, Lynn Cheney, fear that if American students learn to think critically that they will not be as patriotic as she would like. (If you have read Diane Ravitch’s, Life and Death of the Great American School System, you know that Lynn Cheney was largely responsible for putting the skids on school reform many, many years ago.) All of the items are there because we need to have a national conversation about what the goals of American education should be.

Goal #3:  “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire” (William Butler Yeats), and a life-time love of learning.

Goal #4:  “I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning to sail my ship” (Aeschylus).

Goal #5: “Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one” (Malcolm Forbes), and “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it” (Aristotle).

Goal #6:  “No one has yet realized the wealth of sympathy, the kindness and generosity hidden in the soul of a child. The effort of every true education should be to unlock that treasure” (Emma Goldman), and empathy – the ability to walk in another’s shoes, the ability to put oneself in another’s place.

Goal #7:  “The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives” (Robert M. Hutchins).

Goal #8:  “The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows” (Sydney J. Harris).

Goal #9:   “The one real goal of education is to leave a person asking questions” (Max Beerbohm).

Goal #10:  “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too”  (Voltaire).

Goal #11: “Students come to us having sat around for twelve years expressing attitudes toward things rather than analyzing. … They are always ready to tell you how they feel about an issue, but they have never learned how to construct a rational argument to defend their opinions” (R. Jackson Wilson, professor, Smith College).”

Parenthetically, being “college-ready,” being a high school graduate, and passing the last standardized test did not make the above list.

Quarreling With the Shakers, Movers, and the Myopic

In the real world of management – whether it is to direct the functions of a school, a not-for-profit, a business enterprise, or even an element of government – there are distinctions that permit the above three operational objectives to come to the front.  But the point is those objectives are the downstream products of the organization’s strategic goals, delineated to direct short term tactics, action plans, scheduling, and other disaggregated components of the larger mission, but in the context of the larger mission.  Not unexpectedly, the present reform mantras target tactics ignoring the rest of any intelligent depiction of management logic.

It has become clear that a few human resources – for example, Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation – are disproportionately driving present K-12 reform tactics; essentially imposing US school reform without representation.  It is equally clear that some or all of that few have not been educators, and even have difficulty comprehending the core missions of K-12 learning.  The reasons are not mysterious; a new book details the biases we harbor:

“For more than 30 years, psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald have been studying the unconscious biases that take root in our brains, coloring everything from hiring decisions to how doctors mete out medical care and judges pass sentence. If you don’t think you harbor any such mental stowaways…then log onto Harvard’s Project Implicit and prepare to be disappointed in someone you never knew held such appalling views: you.”

This is detailed in Banaji and Greenwald’s book, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.

But proposing alternate K-12 organization models demands, first, some consensus on goals as a prerequisite.  Fortuitously, there are US education resources far more eloquent than this blogger.  So here are some of the most impressive contemporary discussions of US K-12 goals as a platform for downstream proposals.

At the top of the list is a response to positions of the Gates Foundation by nationally recognized teacher Anthony Cody.  If you choose to only read a few of the following references, please read this one.  Cody eloquently addresses the issue head on, with effect. 

I would add only one observation to Cody’s effort to address K-12 purpose, the almost universal mantra of Gates, Obama, Duncan, and other alleged reformers, that the overriding purpose of public K-12 is a never defined “college readiness.”  For openers, it is doubtful those using the term know what that means, for the estrangement of US public K-12 versus US higher education is legend.  Next, the objective without major qualification is absurd, because of the diversity of postsecondary options now present.  Lastly, but perhaps the most potent reason, higher education is overdue for its own reform, and there is little consensus how exploding costs and technology may change even its basic parameters by the time K-12 candidates enter its input stream.

The second offering of K-12 mission is from an unlikely media source, Forbes, but featuring an opinion piece by management guru and author, Steve Denning, author of RADICAL MANAGEMENT: Rethinking leadership and innovation.  Denning believes a retro view of management being imposed by present reform has become a public K-12 poison pill.

A third offering goes beyond goals by operationalizing what middle primary and up US learning could and should be, by nationally-recognized educator and author, Marion Brady.  Marion, in education far longer than this writer, has created a process curriculum that is intelligent, creative, and doable, and develops genuine learning.  It might be termed the chemistry of learning 101 – just add content to his catalysts, where “content” is the substantive knowledge/principles/data constituents of the various disciplines applicable to middle primary through secondary education.  One could make a convincing case for dumping the bizarre methods-riddled CCSSI products steeped in political correctness, in favor of Dr. Brady's learning model.

A necessary fourth addition to goals is because our technology trajectory is real and will have to be mastered to support future R&D, economics, and even social interaction.   That technology will only expand, and will change the warp and woof of public K-12 and higher education whether it is resisted or not.  The offering is by Dr. David Thornburg, Director of the Thornburg Center and Senior Fellow of the Congressional Institute for the Future.  Prior to working in education, David was one of the first members of the Xerox Palo Alto Research (or PARC) Center, famous as the genesis of modern computing.

Trying to summarize these offerings diminishes them.  The complexity of their composite perspectives is what is needed to weed out of present reform the overly and destructively simplistic, the hypocritical, and the embedded biases many based on false premises.  Suffice to say, the sum of all linked is virtually the exact opposite of what present reform is superimposing on public K-12 and the nation’s children.  

Creation of the “standardized child” may be the noble goal of a White House steeped in utopian beliefs and a quest for social justice, linked with, paradoxically, less than noble corporate ideology seeking new markets and profits from exploiting public K-12 education and the good old days of creating minimally proficient human factory/office fodder.   But neither square with the world as it will evolve by the time its (uncontrolled, untested, and knowledge-challenged) ad hoc reform experiments have either run their course or undermined real learning.

New Inputs/New Debacles

Recently some new findings have been added to the stew.  Reported in the premier journal Science, a finding that reflects the risks of present reform tactics, and another development that undercuts the reform movement’s premises.

The first finding emerges from a study of IQ testing, and the question of whether, over time, our American society is getting smarter.  A finding is that performance on rote materials at the primary level is likely improving, but when students reach the secondary grades and adulthood, that increment disappears, based on testing.  The proposition is that later learning is highly dependent on constructivistic use of knowledge rather than recall of disaggregated materials and constructs.

The second emerges from study of K-12 science learning, and the development of “learning progressions” reinforced by practice, versus simply continuously layering facts or disaggregated concepts in greater detail or scope. 

This in turn has become a major issue in trying to improve science education via the NGSS, or Next Generation Science Standards, that are supposed to link with the so-called Common Core standards for reading and math.  Reported in the recent editorial in Science, the real scientists that evolved the NGSS standards:

“…put forth a vision of science education that is notable for emphasizing student participation in key science and engineering practices, such as asking questions and defining problems; developing and using models; engaging in argument from evidence; and learning cross-cutting concepts such as energy and matter, cause and effect, and structure and function. To allow room for these in the school day, the Framework stressed the importance of minimizing the number of disciplinary core ideas that standards require to be taught.

But the sheer volume of content referenced in the Framework moves to the foreground in the NGSS draft and threatens to undermine this promise. Any emphasis on practices requires a science-rich conceptual context, and certainly the core ideas and cross-cutting concepts presented are useful here. However, the draft contains a vast number of core disciplinary ideas and sub-ideas, leaving little or no room for anything else. 

The NGSS draft document addresses this challenge by delineating many performance expectations. However, current measurements and approaches do not allow these types of performances to be assessed easily; it is much more difficult to evaluate the quality of such engagement than to determine the accuracy of an explanation or a word definition. Urgently needed is a vigorous R&D agenda that pursues new methods of and approaches to assessment. This will be difficult but critically important long-term work. A systematic commitment to the wrong quantitative measures, such as the inexpensive multiple-choice testing of factoids, may well result in the appearance of gains at the tremendous cost of suppressing important aspects of learning, attending to the wrong things in instruction, and conveying to students a distorted view of science.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to discern what influences and what beliefs distorted these emerging science standards crafted by legitimate scientists, and how performance is to be measured.  Clearly, our best and brightest were not the culprits.

The Complexity of Organization Change

On the basis of what you will read from above, if you do, is a robust conclusion that continuing unchanged that 150 year-old model of public K-12 likely won’t pull America up by its K-12 learning bootstraps.  How could it change?  Is organization change per se the right or applicable mechanism for changing learning performance?  And, materially, what is the environment for evolving K-12 organization change?

Following are three vignettes that span the good, the bad, and the ugly, and underscore that envisioning alternate K-12 organization is not as simple as invoking the table of contents of a management text.  The first example suggests that present public K-12 can be fixed without structural change.  The second suggests that reform that simply targets the nation’s teachers is ethically challenged.  The third illustrates still another K-12 failure mode, the pernicious effects of ignorance and dogmatism.

The first example, by David Kirp, a public policy professor at UC/Berkeley, is reported in Sunday's New York Times.  It relates a genuine K-12 success story, in a very difficult setting, Union City, NJ, a poor community with an unemployment rate 60 percent over the national average, and where three-quarters of the students are in homes where only Spanish is spoken.  But the results belie the environment:

Public schools in such communities have often operated as factories for failure. This used to be true in Union City, where the schools were once so wretched that state officials almost seized control of them. How things have changed. From third grade through high school, students’ achievement scores now approximate the statewide average. What’s more, in 2011, Union City boasted a high school graduation rate of 89.5 percent — roughly 10 percentage points higher than the national average. Last year, 75 percent of Union City graduates enrolled in college, with top students winning scholarships to the Ivies.

What makes Union City remarkable is, paradoxically, the absence of pizazz. It hasn’t followed the herd by closing “underperforming” schools or giving the boot to hordes of teachers. No Teach for America recruits toil in its classrooms, and there are no charter schools.

Organization change here appears redundant; the subtle and creative capacities to manage and motivate within a traditional structure are a lesson in real management and leadership of public K-12.

Example two, reported by Cody, comes from Chicago’s K-12 system, not unexpectedly once Arne Duncan’s education domain.  It is self-explanatory: 

“Over the summer, teachers were asked to develop performance assessments aligned to the Common Core Standards. In some cases teachers were paid for their extra work, but in many cases, educators volunteered their time because they really wanted home-grown performance- and portfolio-based assessments. Those with whom I have talked - more than twenty - were excited that they were finally being deferred to on assessment development, that they felt that they were being treated as professionals, and they were glad to participate. They worked long hours over the summer, were proud of what they had created, and were excited to use it this year.

On Aug. 6th, teachers went back to school for five days of professional development. Over the course of that week, curriculum and instruction changes were implemented unilaterally, from the top-down. A very clear example is in a school on the southwest side where AP courses were taken away and replaced with remedial reading courses. The instructors were given 12 boxes of books with canned curricula from Pearson Education. It seems CPS made a contract with Pearson behind the teachers’ backs. Immediately all the teachers who had worked so hard over the summer to develop great assessments and aligned units, saw how CCSS was a ‘Trojan horse,’ for standardized curricula.”

Beat up the teachers to improve K-12; this suggests that alleged reform was launched at the wrong end of the education function silo?

The third set of examples is from the regional turf of this blog, a rural slice of Ohio that is highly politically reactionary and steeped in beliefs that are comfortable to self-rationalization, but unlike the NJ example is middle class, lacking minorities, with relatively high average family income and adequate school funding.  These are K-12 systems frequently quite savvy in at least one respect, proselytizing their parents to support the systems and levies without questioning the latter's true performance.  They can be identified by the almost dippy universal presence of school decals plastered on vehicles, their propaganda, and the proliferation of yard signs proclaiming a school mascot and their progeny’s sports association.

You couldn't even make up this stuff:  An area K-12 superintendent operating with a rigid command and control model, sarcastically vilifying and excluding anyone who violated the chain, including parents.  Add under that control, the system’s addition of a marketing course to the curriculum, accessible by 10-11-12 students, without any economics or behavior prerequisites.  When the course’s organization (and even relevance in those grade bands) was challenged, it required Ohio’s open records law and threat of a mandamus lawsuit to see the proposed course outline.  When revealed, and critiqued by two academic and practicing marketing professionals, the course was described as questionable for 10-12, and a collection of marketing buzz words, lacking any coherent structure, designed and to be taught by a marginally qualified teacher.  When that critique was communicated, and assistance offered, the superintendent misrepresented that the course would be reviewed, then immediately offered the course as is.

Next, envision an area K-12 public system detached from reality, existing in an imaginary world of its own construction, defensive, parochial, and resistant to transparency. This is a system that has since NCLB used test scores and "creative" data management to hype mediocrity as excellence.  Its last decade’s procession of four superintendents has ranged from being morally, and allegedly ethically, intellectually, and managerially to socially challenged.  Its graduates will exit to a real world they have never studied and futures never anticipated, a gritty but legitimate condemnation of such systems and their alleged leadership.

That system’s boards – also responsible for the vetting and those hires – have demonstrated dogmatism and resistance to public critique, and manipulation to try to control board membership.  The performances would appear incredible even as fiction. Its last levy attempt was allegedly laced with misrepresentation and fraud in basically trying to tax 150 percent of the funding sought for a new building, for purposes never revealed but rumored to be an attempt to fund another sports facility bypassing community scrutiny. But as explanation, albeit weak defense of the system and board, both are simply direct products of the community's ingrown culture, and a community-wide attitude that cannot admit it might ever be wrong.

The archetypes above are a tragedy of current isolated and bureaucratized public K-12 education in some of America’s non-urban heartland and bubbles. They demean local control.  They explain why high profile testing-based reform of selective or news-worthy systems will likely never change much of America's 99,000 public school population below the radar. Conversely, there are isolated local systems that are competent, transparent, and even creative, but have no way to fend off the invasion of testing and simplistic state grading (in some cases politically corrupted state departments of education) to continue to focus on what really works as learning and meets local needs versus political correctness.

Organization Change Opportunity

The citations above challenge any simple assertion of how to realign K-12 structure.  What is clear is that one-size-does-not-fit-all.  That speaks to the merit of allowing local inputs and environments to condition the specific organization for public K-12.  It also suggests some other forms of organization planning and control are necessary if local determination is to be preserved in the current drive asserting Federal, state, and shadow political controls.

Subject to more sorting, the prime candidates for K-12 structure change would appear to be:
  • Locus of system oversight, perhaps multiple points.
  • The way school boards are chosen; requirements to serve.
  • Oversight of school boards.
  • Restructuring reporting and oversight of school CEOs.
  • Alternative assessment/audit of education and finance functions.
  • Rethinking parental roles.
  • Roles and functions of a school CEO.
  • Functional assignments among system resources.
  • New roles for teachers.
  • Rethinking core processes.
  • Rethinking tracks.
  • Alternate grade bands; alternatives to grades.
  • Means of defeating learning costs of grade band transitions.
  • Envisioning new public-private alignments.
  • Structuring school-environment boundary management.
  • Outsourcing opportunities including instructional.
  • Division of instruction between classroom and online.
  • Instructional and testing technology development.
  • Outsourcing classroom research on what works.
  • Matching learning strategies to physical plant specification.  
Part three will seek a crosscut of the strongest K-12 mission/goals against the above elements of organizational design.  Perhaps, as the NJ example implies, the way to improve US public K-12 is in the soft but complex areas of how leadership is executed, a contrast with the hard(er) properties of change in structure?  

But the sobering property of that option is where change then has to be kick-started:  The sources of our public K-12 human resources, our MIA schools of education -- failing in screening selectivity and fully equipping potential teachers, failing to do needed research, and shorting contemporary managerial and leadership education for administrators; the complex process of recruiting and vetting school leadership, something few present school boards appear equipped to do; and the leveraged effect of poor leadership choice at a school level, then potentially reflected in suboptimal downstream human resource hires by that leadership.