Thursday, March 28, 2013

Deus ex Machina: Saving Public K-12?

Can technology recharge American public education?  In spite of naïve punditry seeking to brand the evolution of technology in US public education as “magical thinking,” there is a strong case that pursuit offers a better chance of effective change than present reform.

But to even address the technology question requires positioning the major forces, or in cases inertia, that put American public schools in the cross-hairs of both a politically liberal administration, and ironically and simultaneously, of political conservative extremism.  Though the behind-the-scenes motivations for the thrusts may be complex to obscure, both sides now threaten the very goal they give lip service, creating more effective Pre K-12 learning.  It has been politically incorrect to speak to the realities that provoked NCLB and its progeny, but for understanding how technology might drive school improvement a prerequisite.

The question our media refuse to ask, or do so sotto voce:  Why did NCLB finally blossom, and why is a convoluted reform agenda being despotically superimposed on the nation’s public schools.  A full explanation is not that our alleged reformers are simply power driven ideologues.  One answer is that America’s public schools some time ago ceased to evolve in addressing contemporary knowledge and technological change – in sum failing for decades.  

For example, large scale and cost effective digital computing emerged beyond the Univacs in Census and the Defense Department over a half-century ago.   While adoption life cycles for new technology can range as high as 10 to 20 years, US public education must be classified in Rogers’ scheme as “laggards.”

The whys of public K-12 inertia are complex and may have more to do with the scale and complexity of that system’s infrastructure, systems theory, state leadership failures, the formats of local system oversight, collegiate education failure, and bureaucracy’s inherent flaws, than the integrity of most teachers and administrators.  But it is also not rocket science to perceive a massive contradiction in present reform, flogging public school teachers based on simplistic testing to extract systemic change, when the quality of leadership and management of public schools is flawed by human resource failures. Trying to reform public K-12 by only addressing teachers, without recognizing the concomitant need to reform school administration and board oversight is a fool's definition of a mission.

Obviously there is enormous complexity within the above scenarios.  So it is even less credible that a one-size-fits-all, and even more factory-oriented solution to public school reform is driving policy and tactics.  A last irony, the forms that alleged reform has taken now promise national disruption of a century of some evolving critical thought and problem solving via our schools, and at precisely the time in history, with knowledge and technologies increasing logistically, that the US needs a strategically aware and creative next generation.  That should scare the bejeebers out of the public education bureaucracy, its reformers, and aware parents, or perhaps all of us?

How does technology alter this conundrum?

Consider the core question, if the premise is that the goal of evolution of public schools is installation of high order thinking skills (HOTS).  What components of the Pre K-12 infrastructure model could be changed to affect greater learning outcomes?  Pragmatically, there are a limited number of factors sufficiently comprehensive and massive to nudge the 99,000 US public schools to a different place or level.  Not mutually exclusive:  Reduction in socioeconomic and cultural diversity powered by a more inclusive middle-income class; comprehensive change in the oversight of schools; re-education of a large fraction of over three million teachers; re-education and/or development of tens of thousands of school administrators to create more competent leadership and management; a trillion dollar increase of investment in all public schools; a sea-change in parental beliefs and values relative to many K-12 systems' aversion to real learning; the simplistic and untested assumption more standardized testing and penalties for teachers will stimulate HOTS; or more comprehensive applications of technology.

Equally pragmatically, and even without detailed assessment of how each of the first seven factors’ mass and internal structure block change, common sense and history mitigate against their remediation in less than multiple decades.  The proposition that bullying students and teachers with even more intrusive simplistic testing will ramp up learning beyond short-term memory of deconstructed knowledge fragments, and suddenly materialize education equity really is “magical thinking.”  Seeking technology solutions to enhance learning seems less a reach, but is not a free lunch.

Note this is a question even more basic than whether an education system finds a way to integrate technology into its pedagogical processes.  The nasty content question inside the process question is, if our public schools have inadequate mastery of technology, how do they create that learning in their clients and required to survive in a world that will become increasingly technologically driven by the time they enter its practice?  Public education appears to have missed the reality that it exists on technology:  Language, Gutenberg, graphics, black-green-or-whiteboards, the copying machine, transistors, calculators, the minimal statistical logic to keep score, actually understanding how learning occurs neural biologically as well as socially, the psychological modeling of teacher-student interaction processes that enable teaching, the experimental and math technologies to test pedagogies, and on?  Where was the progression of technology learning by our public schools short-circuited?

The technology pundit’s convenient ridicule of schools that spend millions of dollars on pads or laptops, or any other gadget isn’t misplaced, but terribly trite.  Any system that can’t envision technology beyond “stuff,” systems that invest without a glimmer of intelligence or awareness that it is not the hardware but the processes it enables, deserves not ridicule but replacement.  The technology now emerging from every conceptual discipline launching technology, from neural biology, through AI, miniaturization of technologies, social tools evolution, to quantum computing promises game changers in communication, learning protocols, and productivity.  But the devil gets an advocate. 

School systems that lack the intellectual capacity to see, and merge technology enhancements with the human component of learning, both from the effects of technology in mediating the learner’s senses that feed then permit neural plasticity, and that leverage the ministrations of a teacher, will misuse and waste technology.  Coming full circle, most of our public Pre K-12 schools are presently as well equipped to integrate advanced technologies into either curricula or classroom rubrics as they were adroit in recognizing the need for self-reform decades ago.  That suggests the issue is not “magical thinking” but the need for an Edisonian revival and some guts.

It is axiomatic, from the logic of science through how work gets done, that a prerequisite to achievement is true goal definition.  In the paraphrase of Lewis Carroll’s words in Alice in Wonderland – singularly pertinent in viewing present public Pre K-12 reform – “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” 

If the goal of public Pre K-12 reform embodies only test scores and phony state grades, Carroll’s wit may be the epitaph for America’s public schools?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The US Education Juggernaut: Too Big to Fail, Change, or Even Comprehend?


This post is a transition between the prior emphasis on K-12 and the future series on need for US higher education reform.  In this transitional offering, a key perspective is that American learning strategies need to phase out the assumed education strata, envisioning pre-K to postsecondary completion as fundamentally progressions within what is in complexity theory one massive US education system.

Big, Complex, and Beyond the Naïveté of Present Reform

Different origins have characterized America’s education journeys as discrete, separable institutional strata since the beginning of the 20th century.  A disconnect, between primary and secondary education, versus itself diverse American higher education, undermines calls for all students to be college-ready.  A proposition is that the various venues’ cost and performance challenges now call for thinking outside the box about future pre-K through postsecondary strategies.

Because present debate about education also tends to be stratified, the mass of education’s economic role is frequently obscured.  Some numbers help to both assess the economics, and realize the challenge of actually changing what is de facto one complex system, though its strata’s constituents may not think that way.

An approximation of the annual cost of all conventional education in the US is $1.1 trillion, approximately 7.3 percent of US GDP.  Comparatively, education equates to over nine percent of personal consumption, and 36 percent of the total cost of government.  All K-12 education totals over 132,000 schools hosting over 55 million students; total higher education only adds 4,495 institutions but 21 million students.  Add 3.2 million K-12 teachers, almost 1.5 million postsecondary faculty, arrayed across 50 states on different education vectors. 

Most of these data are within the awareness of US educators and some of the public, but in one block they send a message about the real complexity the nation faces.  That is why there is a mind-boggling quality to rhetoric about silver-bullets or quick change reshaping present performance.

Those tracking and seeking to understand our overall education system, increasingly invoke complexity theory, a set of propositions and approach to systemic leadership less dependent on managerial authority and programmed structure.  A vibrant example of that approach to reform – sharply contrasting with present US top-down autocracy – is Ontario’s primary/secondary success story, guided by an extraordinary educator, Dr. Michael Fullan.

Complexity theory offers a number of caveats about systemic change, but one applicable to current K-12 and higher education debates is that such change needs to happen on all fronts of a system simultaneously, governed by non-linear critical mass behavior of change factors, and order is emergent rather than pre-determined.  The current one-note substance of US public K-12 reform is totally out of synch with that model.

Perhaps the most discouraging property of present K-12 and higher education change reasoning is that America’s historical dependence on and affinity for good research and development doesn’t seem to apply to revising these core societal systems.   Even the most wildly optimistic estimate of total annual spending on R&D for all US education needs never exceeds one tenth of one percent of annual US education costs.

Currently churning the waters of especially higher education is debate about the future of MOOC (massive open online courses).  Not atypical, present rhetoric is bunched at the poles, the proponents seeing an opening for material increases in educational productivity, opponents seeing a fad or unsustainable enthusiasm as its efficacy is slowly understood.  A few see the likely R&D pattern of evolving merger of traditional classroom modes of learning and MOOC, sorting itself out via differential competitive advantage.  A strong case can be made that denying MOOC as invention contradicts America’s capacity for using creativity and invention to change the education game.

Is MOOC just the tip of what the US could produce to modernize overall education?

Starter Dough for K-12 and Postsecondary Change

The argument is most of the intellectual educational stem cells are already out there.  Thinking differently across the education spectrum, consider:

  • Higher education reform has already been seeded; revisit the recommendations of multiple Presidential Commissions on Higher Education, to resuscitate proposals that have simply been ignored or impugned by college and university leaderships.  The list starts, paradoxically, with Mr. Truman’s inaugural commission.
  • Follow up the groundbreaking research of Arum and Roksa (Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses), to verify or refute the finding that higher education participation produces little real postsecondary learning in the first two years.  Extend that inquiry to actual years to a degree, then probe why.
  • Retreat from the test blitzkrieg, and focus on K-12 school systems that are exemplars of excellent and flawed performance, not to simply beat the latter into submission or replace them, but genuinely research both poles, for answers why?
  • Let a thousand experiments bloom:  Create for all US K-12 systems, a package that motivates them to initiate controlled experiments on what actually works, with the protocols to make what is found sufficiently comparable to accumulate and build some empirically based models of learning that actually produce downstream performance.  That requires endorsing real longitudinal research.
  • On postsecondary, do the unthinkable.  Ask whether the college diploma on every wall is either sustainable or rational? 
  • Force US colleges and universities to go back to basics, assess whether the unceasing ratcheted organizational overhead and spending peripheral to education can be frozen, or even reversed over some temporal goal? 
  • On K-12 rethink whether traditional grade bands, and the traditional views of the classroom, versus digitally assisted, or self- or home-directed learning, are still productive or viable? 
  • Turn public K-12 schools’ physical facilities, frequently underutilized but sequestered by paranoia, into publically open platforms for addressing school transparency and lifelong learning (what Ontario did).
  • Lastly, radical change, envision hybrid combinations of present grades transforming into a system that reconfigures present 9-16 transitions into a learning system geared to individual learning progression.

The above are just the front edge of a list that most US educators of all venues likely already comprehend, but lack the collaborative support to push to the surface of professional practice.  Perhaps that status, as much as any specific tactic for change, should cause America concern.  In a world where open systems – UNIX, the Internet, Wikipedia, and organizational learning – have been shown to work, our top-down reforms sputter and are now trashing educator motivation.

Just Work Harder?

Reductionist views of phenomena, and our culture lead to the expectation that all issues have a best solution, action just needs to persevere to find that maximum, or the more sophisticated optimum – the American way.  Learning may be a major exception.  Neural science and related disciplines have just begun to understand how the species learns.  More telling, the combinatorial possibilities for how that occurs, means that there may be no single or even best model; there may be reductio ad absurdum, or perhaps not absurd at all, hundreds of effective models, or a unique model for every adult and child, a case of Gardner’s multiple intelligences just scratching the surface. 

The implication:  That current bone-headed and dogmatic corporate public K-12 reform is a potential American strategic as well as tactical education disaster; as is the view that all will be fine in US higher education if its institutions can just ramp up more endowment dollars to create more student recreation attractions or enable more marginal local campuses.  Simply hammering at obsolete or flawed education strategies has enormous opportunity costs and borders on US insanity.  Propositions are:  Time to put an end to the top-down, misplaced and ignorant testing movement, and seek more inventive solutions to public K-12 malaise; and assert control of and put a cap on organizational escalation and societal costs of postsecondary work.

US institutions have in perpetuity resisted change that upsets grooved routines, and parenthetically, minimizes the need to think and create or fractures power bases. Disruptive innovation throughout US history has always attracted dissent, but ultimately reinvented us.  An overdue vector for American public K-12 and higher education?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Six Education R&D Projects Horace Mann Might Have Endorsed

These will undoubtedly elicit some disclaimers, but it is arguable we now know more about the human genome, including most recently how five illnesses – schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism, major depression, and ADHD – are nudged along by genetic glitches, than how our kids’ learning works; and more about the science, organization and planning it takes to put robotic devices on Mars, than we know about how to make our public K-12 schools sustainably excel. 


One explanation is that US public K-12 education, and its schools of education, concluded a half-century ago that they literally “knew it all,” generating decades-long institutional paralysis that precipitated current reform.  Abetting was trying to deduce how learning occurs, rather than using science and inductive research to look for and verify causal models.  In 2013, the genre is still ignoring or struggling to incorporate the results of accumulating neural biological research on how learning occurs, and even using the empirical research tools available for decades to assess models for K-12 learning.

Another explanation is in the entrenched, frequently corrupted systems of textbook specification and sourcing riddling public K-12, now reinforced by standardized testing specified by the same marketers, virtually assuring in many states that the knowledge displayed in public K-12 is either obsolete or distorted.

The ossification of America’s collegiate schools of education hasn’t exactly helped.  In sum, US public K-12 faces a major research deficit; where is an "education sequestration" when we need it?  

We’re Reforming, We’re Spending, But Are We Learning?

The annual cost of all public K-12 education in the US is estimated to approximate $600 billion.  The US Department of Education’s 2011 discretionary budget (exclusive of Pell grants) was $46.8 billion.  That budget applicable to the K-12 components of the IES (Institute of Education Sciences), encompassing NCER (National Center for Education Research), was $200.2 million, just over four-tenths of one percent of Federal education spending.  For perspective, the average American household in 2012 spent four times that fraction of its income on cable TV.  Also partially applicable to K-12, the Statistics programs funded at $108.5 million.

Referenced against private sector R&D, our Federal commitment to K-12 R&D would not place the Department above a firm ranked 1,300th among US firms.  In turn, $108.5 million spent on statistics has been deployed in cranking out primarily politically correct trivia about public K-12. 

Beyond the litany of research shortfalls, the current reform agendas have amplified public K-12’s failure to “know what it doesn’t know,” by moving the goalposts from genuine learning and critical thinking to deconstructed alleged knowledge based on memorization rather than comprehension and learning progression.

Two overarching and intellectually disturbing patterns:  Designing public K-12 reform around what can currently be "data-driven," and for profit, letting testing drive the classroom, rather than what learning should encompass and how it should be assessed; and assuming that what we know about K-12 learning is all we need to know, refusing to invest in research to actually both improve curricula and pedagogy, and equitably measure higher order learning rather than funding research to justify the testing. 

There is of course more fine structure to the arguments:  Why test content has been heavily relegated to the private sector, thereby letting it pragmatically force what is taught; why simplistic test assumptions about factor invariance have the proverbial test cart dragging the test horse; why many of America’s public K-12 school administrators are in denial, dogmatically resistant to thinking as a decision style; and why 90+ percent of America’s parents, and even public school teachers appear insulated from or indifferent to reform’s attacks on their schools.

What Should Be Concluded About K-12 Education R&D?

First, that the fraction of the Federal Education budget deployed for real research is a national disgrace.  Had a fragment of the billions of dollars wasted on “Race to the Top” been allocated to genuine learning about learning, and that knowledge transferred to public schools and K-12 practice, current reform might have been tabled.

Next, even what is being researched by the Department of Education via IES/NCER needs to move from the naïveté of research models to application, by recognizing there is a development and transfer process that must be that bridge.  The Department’s IES funded in 2012 44 new proposals for K-12 related research totaling $82 million.  Excepting the grants that went to Washington insiders, the dollars went to college and university researchers who, based on two decades in academia as a researcher, rarely reflect in their research the complexity of application. 

The 44 individual research topics ranged from potentially practical, to theoretically tilted, to a grant and license to hunt, based on titling (the NCER provides no précis to assess their validity). Emphasis in the grants is on narrow to esoteric issues in reading, writing and math instruction, but that is at least consistent with urgent public K-12 need.  But there is room for debate whether the academic research model should be applied to this research.  The tools to do defensible research do reside in the places awarded; simultaneously, given the urgency and specificity of public K-12 challenges, an argument is that NCER should be methodically prioritizing those dollars based on need and the projects’ capacities for achieving real classroom change.

Also funded were nine thematic, and on the surface coherent programs, totaling $93 million and awarded for understanding in selected themes:   (1) science curriculum via related cognitive processes; (2) techniques for pre-algebra/algebra; (3) gaming to teach science; (4) discover how high performing schools occur with low performing groups; (5) local school policy effects on graduation rates; (6) how charters affect student achievement; (7) assessments of math interventions and English language learning; (8) how K-12 school districts can use data-driven reform (read that standardized test scores); and (9) measures of 4-5th grade math teacher effectiveness using VAM. The observation is, though there are clearly some defensible programs in the set, this is NOT A LIST OF BIG IDEAS for public K-12 breakout into systemic change or excellence, and many of the Federal dollars are also positioned to support test-based alleged reform.

The research above is not being dismissed or indiscriminately impugned, and summed and integrated, could be important to K-12 classroom tactics.  But to use the old Johnny Carson “Tonight Show” comedy gambit, where his sidekick says, they have thought of absolutely everything, wherein Johnny says, yes except for…

Six More R&D Projects With Strategic Significance for Public K-12

Proposed below are the six perceived currently most important R&D deficits in present K-12 inquiry.  As a former academic researcher, it is easy to crank up for one’s discipline a jazzy highly specific research idea and title; our education research universe reflects the genre.  Far more challenging is recognizing whether inquiry can produce actionable findings, scaled to fit real world practice, and a transfer mechanism created.

Proposals are categories; clearly within each are unnumbered specific research elements:

One:  Over a decade the Department’s NCER has accumulated the results of hundreds of research projects/programs, with little documentation of their accountability.  Except for a dissemination program literally a twig, called “Doing What Works,” little of that potential knowledge appears to have reached the K-12 classroom.   Perhaps the research flopped?  Even if so, those results are critical to not repeating choices or mistakes in future research.

This proposal is for a comprehensive “meta study” (a study of existing studies) of the last decade of NCER research, by an independent panel of qualified researchers.  Subsequently, use the qualified and prioritized findings to drive a development and technology transfer program to get high value and replicable findings and rubrics to our public schools and into classrooms.

Two:  A project in two phases, to start assessing public K-12 as it really exists.  First, pilot field and experimental studies of sample systems to derive surrogate and non-intrusive variables that describe and position a school system multi-dimensionally, and specifically, by whether it needs remedial efforts or intervention.  Second, using the variables of the first stage, execute a benchmark census of all public K-12 schools, resulting in a full grid and definitive knowledge of where the US public K-12 system stands on need for that change.  Current reform is simply discharging a shotgun in the general direction of public K-12 to see if anything bleeds, or cherry-picking schools for promoting an ideology; a second national and epistemological disgrace.

Three:  Five years ago, NCER had a marginal (its most mediocre offering) research component on school organization and leadership.  You can’t even find that now.  And arguably, the failures of public K-12 now being addressed with the grapeshot of standardized testing are, first and foremost, failures of local school leadership and poorly vetted managerial resources.  Launch a major project to, first, concept then experiment with alternate organizational designs for a public K-12 school; second, do the research to revise the preparation and vetting of superintendents and principals; and third, conduct field experiments with leadership options to identify best models and practices.  One specific project that should be a priority, do experiments with the private sector’s most advanced managerial concepts applied to K-12 school management.  Even the least advanced business models appear superior to the retro management concepts still dominating present public K-12 administrative practice.

Four:  Other than local school leadership, the greatest barrier to intelligent public K-12 school change is the governance model; school boards that can be intellectually stunted, to overtly political, to corrupted, and virtually always ignorant of in-depth understanding of K-12 education.  Change the game; require better qualifications to run and serve; do the necessary field experiments with board designs to determine best models; and do the experiments to find best practices in the roles of board versus school administration.  As board qualifications are state-determined, this is research necessarily engaging our states.

Five:  Blatant, in the failure over decades of public K-12 to be equipped with the very best learning tools, is the need to develop and test a multi-level model or models to continuously process future research findings and technology changes, whether from NCER, or neural psychology, or any other science or social science origin, and install that transfer function at both Federal, state and regional levels.  Its purpose, again fully subject to field evaluation, is the conversion of concepts, research findings, and technology tools into applicable school or classroom scales.  Ideally, that function (in other public-private settings labeled technology transfer) might be embedded in a state’s higher education resources with highly specific formatting.  Parenthetically, the mechanism might also serve as an evolutionary bridge between K-12 and postsecondary cultures, still a major disconnect in the US.

Six:   Six only in order, at the top of the chart in priority:  Invest promptly, and deeply, in research (and the pre-testing) to identify and create assessment measures for complex learning; at each grade band, for each segment of a diverse student population, for relevant core content, and for the various phases of learning.  This is not the narrow standardized testing of a Pearson, or other testing companies, or of states’ homegrown versions of those tests, all based on the flawed assumption that there can be factor invariance in real testing of complex learning.  A starting point is (Harvard) Howard Gardner’s concepts of multiple intelligences, and the procedures that flowed from that conceptualization.  To move out of what has become America’s education dark ages, it is going to take pragmatism and intellect to recognize that the diversity we have fostered cannot be made a homogeneous learning mass, and that both learning and its assessment must be viewed and treated as segmented markets to be effective.

It is not politically correct, it contradicts the White House’s simplistic and utopian vision of our society, but there is no such thing as a standardized child; in our present and foreseeable society socioeconomic factors and cultural conditioning affect how learning occurs, how it can be tested, and how its various causal variables produce learning effects.  Current simplistic standardized testing, based on the psychometric assumption of factor invariance is naïve and destructive; the worst education scam in US history.

Shadow Item Number Seven

The prominent exclusion in the above is the third national education disgrace; the massive and undiscriminating imposition of politically motivated standardized testing and VAM on the nation’s public school teachers and children, using tests and techniques rooted in corporate greed and hidden agendas. Very disturbing, this assessment was launched by resources with the capacity for thought, but without executing the basic modeling and pre-testing any competent and ethical educator would demand before imposing the process on the nation’s children.  The hope is a rising tide of civilian and professional disgust with this basis for reform is gathering, that could push the model into history’s dustbin.  Even if the testing persists where it is selectively applicable, its advocates should bear the responsibility for funding and backfilling with the research needed to qualify that testing’s and VAM’s validity, reliability, and limitations.

You’ve Left Out Some Other Hot Button Research Issues?

True.  Left out, for example, MOOC (massive open online learning), belittled by some educators who may be short of understanding of how innovation happens.  Online is not going to disappear, nor will digital learning applications, nor will applications of social media, nor will concepts like the flipped learning/school model (the flipped model has become a growing success story in the education trenches in Wisconsin), nor will models of learning that abandon traditional grade bands, and even traditional physical school infrastructure will continue to evolve.  First, all of these have bright advocates, who are future-oriented, and tend to be technologically prepared and savvy.   And second, all creativity and invention goes through a gestation period that takes years if not decades, and that is more likely than traditional or historical concepts to automatically call out the need for research and pre-testing.

The six projects above, some doing what should have been accomplished decades ago, seemed of greater import in first filling craters, than addressing new tactics stacked on top of, or being discrete challengers to existing rubrics.  However, the product of doing the right research on K-12 greatly expands the classroom toolkit, and one has to assume that given some slack and support, instead of pink slips, the real public K-12 education performers – its teachers – are motivated to equip a classroom with concepts that work when they are offered ready-to-serve.