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.  

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