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.

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