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?

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