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.

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