Sunday, April 21, 2013

US Higher Education: Too Big to Fail; Too Endowed to Be Nudged; or Too Tracked to Be Sustainable?

Today’s post starts a series on what reform of US higher education might be if the current public K-12 reform mania starts invading the former venue. 

Even using the word “reform” applied to higher education requires some chutzpah. Our colleges and universities have historically been the envy of other parts of the world; society and corporations genuflect, parents assume major debt to place their progeny, alums throw endowment dollars at them, they are big business, and change is a word that evokes something between distrust and condemnation.  An old academic joke resonates:

Q.  How many academics does it take to change a light bulb?

  A.  Change?  Change?  Who said anything about CHANGE?”

What could precipitate such a reform movement?  Consider some of US higher education’s evolved current numbers for starters:

  • The cost of a US college degree has increased 1,120 percent (almost 12 times) in the last three decades, since records began.  Higher education’s total cost has risen in the same period from one to three percent of US GDP.
  • Related change in cost per student has been five times the rate of inflation, and twice the increase even in medical spending.
  • Tuition to reach a degree can range from $10,000 (Texas Governor Perry’s wish list), to $15,000 (Western Governors University), even less for a community college, to over $215,000 (Harvard).
  • National student debt is now over one trillion dollars.  That number is equivalent to almost six percent of the total US deficit, and greater than 2013’s estimated Federal deficit.
  • But “you gets what you pays for?”  While a degree still carries the much promoted salary premium versus a high school diploma, in that same three decades salaries of college graduates in real dollars haven’t increased.
  • Over the same period, higher education productivity – the ratio of degrees granted to total sector expenditures – has declined by over 50 percent; while mean non-faculty and administrative human resources employed per faculty member have almost doubled.  The explanation is bureaucratic growth and collegiate expansion into non-education functions.
  • Add that it is estimated that tenure-track faculty now teach as little as a quarter of US collegiate course work.
  • Lastly, the generally authoritative McKinsey consultancy estimates the nation will need one million more college graduates per year by 2020.  At the present cost of creating a graduate, that would represent an additional $52 billion per year on top of present total annual cost of higher education of approximately $300 billion.

Putting together the latter two factors, adding the other financial trajectories, would appear to translate into something best described as mission impossible without wholesale higher education change.  A needed research effort is an econometric analysis of these various post-secondary cost and performance trajectories through 2025 to try to verify the threshold where present US higher education policies may become unsustainable.

In spite of a being a 5 percent fraction of public K-12’s institutions by count, US higher education expresses as much heterogeneity as K-12 systems, perhaps more; and higher education has become even less constrained in operating styles because of the retreat of public funding.  Estimates are that public sector support of American higher education, once over 50 percent of funding, now approximates 20-22 percent.  That retreat, of course, also precipitated today’s present crises in parental/student funding, consequentially tuition and related debt inflation, as well our institutions’ capacities to ignore calls for reform.

None of this is new news, but our public’s acceptance of higher education intransigence for over a half century seems still something of a mystery.  If “intransigence” seems too loaded a word, reflect that starting with President Truman’s creation of the first Presidential Commission on Higher Education, there have been six similar commissions.  That includes the President H. W. George Bush mystery commission, purged from the record, its findings literally buried because they were politically unacceptable.  Few of the recommendations of any of these commissions, including the Truman commission, have ever seen full adoption by America’s colleges and universities.

Parenthetically, the never released report of the H. W. George Bush commission (seen in draft form), that included at least five Nobel laureates, stated in its concluding paragraph:  “…America’s colleges and universities are riddled with dry rot.”  The blatant censorship of that commission’s findings was explicable, albeit not a merit badge for the integrity of that administration.

However, that public acceptance of higher education’s self-centric leadership may be changing.  In 2012, TIME and Carnegie Corporation of New York sponsored a poll of both a sample of the public, and a sample of senior college/university administrators, posing identical questions.  Narrated without the full qualifications of sampling variances that can occur, the results were still illuminating:

  • A key finding – 89 percent of the public, and 96 percent of the administrators, said “higher education is in crisis.”
  • Referencing average student debt load in 2010 of $25,250, 74 percent of the administrators said this was “reasonable,” versus 38 percent of the public.
  • To the question of whether college is now worth the cost, 80 percent of the public respondents said it was not, versus 41 percent of the administrators.
  • On the issue of capping tuition, 73 percent of the public said there should be Federal price caps, versus 16 percent of the administrators asserting that.
  • To the core of the issue, 90 percent of the public sample respondents stated that colleges/universities aren’t doing enough to improve affordability.
  • Then two currently highly material findings:  On whether funding should be tied to how much students learn in college, 61 percent of the public respondents said yes, while the same percent of administrators stated the opposite; and whether teaching on campus can be replaced by online courses (MOOC), 68 percent of public respondents said yes, versus 22 percent of the administrators.  In the famous words from the classic movie, Cool Hand Luke, “…what we have here is a failure to communicate.” 

Aside from the above differences, another finding was very troubling.  On the role of a college/university education, only 26 percent of public respondents ranked as “first” or “second,” “to learn to think critically.”  While 62 percent of the collegiate administrators did rank that value accordingly, the glaring contradiction is that it was only 62 percent.  Perhaps the greatest threat to the future of higher education is the undiscriminating unfolding of layers of intrinsically competent post-secondary learning, but without the careful discrimination of what the missions and learning paradigms are for each of those strata.  To further complicate the discussion, our class one research universities perform functions beyond churning out degrees, and the amalgam of teaching versus research roles further roils the debates. 

The prior paragraph is code of sorts for a contemporary core higher education issue that gets divisive very quickly:   What is the purpose of US post-secondary work?  Is it getting an entry level job?  Is it to support a higher salary?  Is it simply a four-year introduction to a good life for those who can afford the experience?  Is it to acquire HOTS?  If that acronym eludes you, back to school to acquire some.   Coincidentally, today’s New York Times featured an op-ed by NYT columnist Frank Bruni that addressed that question, linked here.  Interestingly, the stimulus for the post was Texas, where extreme reactionary Governor Perry is being challenged by his own legislature for trying to dumb-down collegiate education, and challenging Texas’ excessive K-12 standardized testing influenced by Pearson, linked here.

The collegiate issue, however, is even more complex than Bruni’s interpretation.  US post-secondary offerings are experiencing major diversification, from classic university education, through high level online work (MOOC), for-profit traditional collegiate work, career intensive work, to community and technical (not necessarily STEM) colleges.  Along with that diversification have come built-in differences in the quality of instruction.  Is that course from a MIT tenure-track professor (or a Big ten university) equal to the same title from Anyplace Community College?  This question goes way beyond the emotional issue of egalitarian values; to be developed in a subsequent post, an almost universal property of post-secondary teaching is that regardless of level it has thus far been endowed with a classroom independence and freedom lacking performance measurement.  As collegiate level work has been democratized, and moved outside the “academies,” the quality of faculty has changed markedly.  One example is in community colleges, where many “faculty” are moonlighting high school teachers, or professionals lacking terminal degrees and classroom experience.

Diversity of teaching resources is only one of the higher education challenges.  A half-century ago economists William Baumol and William Bowen identified the higher education productivity problem later dubbed, “Baumol’s cost disease.”  It states that education is “…a profession where labor productivity was not amenable to improvement through technological advance.”  Baumol’s disease was likely applicable to higher education (as well as to public K-12 education) for decades following their observation.  But contemporary understanding of neural biology, communication theory, and the explosion of digital tools since the onset of the 21st Century have changed the game.  What has not changed, even in higher education that should be leading the charge, is that overall venue’s unwillingness to commit to changing what are becoming unsustainable campus parameters.

What was likely not missed by the reader from the earlier reported survey – that the public’s belief that funding should be tied to what is learned in four years of college is analogous to what has occurred in the alleged ongoing reform of public K-12.  Federal, states’, and the Gates Foundation‘s propaganda, that standardized testing, VAM, and state’s school grades actually represent valid learning measurement, has convinced too great a fraction of the public that is reality.  If the now solidifying professional understanding, that significantly different testing needs to be created to measure real learning is imperative for improving K-12 performances, then the issue of how to do this in the far more complex setting of collegiate courses and teaching is an even larger problem.  The public may be totally wrong in assuming that such performance measurement is either a given or an easy acquisition, but a movement supported based on that theme and belief set would be a major threat to intransigent collegiate leadership.

The sum of these observations leads self-evidently to the politically incorrect question:  Why are so many of our collegiate leaderships so committed to blocking needed change in US higher education?  Any answer to that is as complex as higher education that has become more massive and diverse.  Contributing is that colleges/universities are inherently managed in a decentralized fashion, and increasingly insulated from many prior sources of institutional oversight. 

The next post will seek to summarize the answers to the above question from a large contingent of higher education watchers and critics.  Subsequent posts will summarize the recommendations over six decades of the Presidential Commissions, to sort what has been adopted but mostly dismissed, look at possible organizational reforms, and speculate how technology might leverage the future academy.


A footnote:  Addressing higher education’s challenges and possible reforms in this blog is without question a bold venture, competing with mushrooming press interest in the issues.  But it is rooted by a quarter-century in university classrooms, as an administrator, as a researcher, in assessing other faculty and administrators, and as a contributor to academic curricula design and assessment.  Then the academy was also seen from a totally different perspective, from an additional dozen years in senior private sector management where collegiate products were recruited and diverse senior academics were hired for consulting inputs.  That was capped by additional years serving in an advisory capacity to university resources.  Observations over this series will reflect the awareness of being, for a major part of a career, on the inside and hands-on higher education roles.  RPW

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Cosmic View of Public K-12 Reform

When, in the reactionary belly of America’s heartland, college students take to the streets and confront university administration to protest "...high tuition, outsourcing of university jobs and low staff wages, among other grievances," one has to surmise that things may be a-changing.  Thus was the scene this week in Bloomington, IN, home campus of Indiana University’s sprawling higher education domain.  The events reinforced this blog’s election to start looking at what might be confronting America’s colleges and universities, if the same concerns that permeate US public K-12 go viral at the next education level.

But before changing vectors today’s New York Times broke the spell that has dominated much of the public K-12 reform debates – that the only learning goblins to be confronted are the alleged reformers.  Titled “Teachers:  Will We Ever Learn?” by a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor, the op-ed questions whether public K-12 education is not its own partial enemy (this blog might question “partial”).   From Jal Mehta’s arguments:

“…American education is a failed profession. There is no widely agreed-upon knowledge base, training is brief or nonexistent, the criteria for passing licensing exams are much lower than in other fields, and there is little continuous professional guidance. It is not surprising, then, that researchers find wide variation in teaching skills across classrooms; in the absence of a system devoted to developing consistent expertise, we have teachers essentially winging it as they go along, with predictably uneven results.”

What Mehta fails to confront (he does cite our schools of education for their roles in US failures) is that our K-12 teachers do not administer our public schools; that falls to a generation(s) of K-12 administrators who have proven overall managerially challenged, lacking creativity, leadership and occasionally integrity, and local school boards that can make those same administrators appear rocket scientists.  Our schools of education could address administrative values and competence in our public schools if they discovered management; but making school boards educationally literate gets very political.

Regardless of your perceptions of who bears the responsibility for the present public K-12 education blues, two realities are hard to deny:  One, current reform resembles the attempted humor of a “whack-a-mole” bit in a commercial, one-note reforms that flop between flogging our teachers, then launching criminal investigations of human resources and systems that not unexpectedly have consciously chosen orchestrated cheating (Atlanta, now Washington) to avoid the federal and state penalties for missing testing targets (or to puff a leadership reputation); and two, that the real causes of US K-12 performance deficits are still not being recognized – by leadership that should have already known – as the metaphorical equivalent of Medusa’s “do.”

Take a giant step back from the present highly focused debates surrounding standardized testing, state grades, and the lurking threat embedded in NCLB and RttT to topple a public school in favor of charters that do no better than a public system (with the potential of decayed performance being hard to detect and remedy), and given the same student environments.  The resulting vision of interacting and layered multiple causes and catalysts has the look of the results issuing from the Large Hadron Collider.  Just a sampling:

  • A public system that beggars in size and heterogeneity the systems thrown out as exemplars – Finland and Singapore for example.  Rational?
  • Our fifty states with equally heterogeneous systems for training and certifying teachers.
  • Those fifty states with 50 versions of what qualifies a school board member.
  • Those same 50 states with great differences in the integrity and competence of the human resources who (usually via the “Peter Principle”) get into those K-12 education directorates.
  • Schools of education that outside of the coasts are frequently the definition of mediocrity and intellectual dogmatism.
  • Those same schools of education, even less well equipped to train school administrators who operate – contrary to the popular belief that there is some magic associated with school leadership – by the same principles that govern management of any complex organization.
  • Alleged common core standards that have little to do with knowledge, too much to do with obsolete education methods applied to disaggregated fragments of learning, and being pushed to overshoot (with disregard of the input of the real scientists who do harbor knowledge) in the same ritualistic fashion as the testing.
  • A US Department of Education that has largely abandoned learning as a modus operandi in favor of pursuing tactically a utopian quest that is strategic; that formula for most of history has been a synonym for disaster.
  • Our corporations pushing the behind the scenes buttons on what shows up as knowledge in school texts, and the insidious standardized testing overshoot, both for profit, and with a level of hubris and indifference to consequences that challenge even most public bureaucratic stalwarts.
  • US public K-12 schools have pragmatically simply been behind the technology power curve since digital technologies blossomed.  The reality, not magical thinking, is that there will be few areas of future gainful employment that will exempt the digital clueless.   Whether digital learning tools are fully adopted or not in public K-12, the system will have failed if that knowledge isn't a core part of future learning.
  • The increasingly threatening diminution of US middle income families; and the harsh reality that income, family structure, social class, local cultures and values, how much a parent talks to their baby, and a host of other factors beyond the reach or control of a public school system, or that can be retroactively modified by that system, have more to do with K-12 academic achievement, and pivotally the kind of specious testing now dominating, than even the best classroom tactics.  

The list goes on, but three additional properties characterize the chaotic quest for magical US school PISA results.   One is incredible; in a nation with cloud computing, doing teraflops, and “big data” the newest buzzword for what our society needs to learn, the knowledge of what our 99,000 public schools are actually doing is virtually non-existent.  The second is the need for our media to hold the attention of audiences with 15-minute attention spans, meaning that the critiques of our K-12 woes must compete with the last viral Facebook or YouTube post.  The result is single-issue rhetoric, the more dramatic the better, but rarely thoughtful composite assessments of those issues. 

The third simply defies common sense.  For decades the US Department of Education has had a component of superior educational scholars who constituted its research arm.  With Duncan’s ascendance that group’s research has insidiously become focused on “data” that support the standardized testing mania.  Creating a research philosophy and resource base that can address real learning issues is no different than research in any area of science; it requires the consistent application of judgment and properly sequenced research projects to establish a reliable knowledge base.  Even if Duncan were properly booted tomorrow morning, it would now take years to restore that Department’s former human resources and research momentum.  That is as criminal as the Atlanta cheating scandal, or the likely revelation of similar culpability in Washington’s case.

There are in the real world no single-cause systems.  When some of our alleged reformers, public K-12 leadership, a few billionaires, and Mr. Obama finally wise up to that reality the US may have a chance of strategically restoring some of its former world leadership in learning that matters.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Technology and K-12: Sanity and Opportunity

01000100 01101001 01100111 01101001 01110100 01100001 01101100 0100000 01110100 01100101 01100011 01101000 01101110 01101111 01101100 01101111 01100111 01101001 01100101 01110011 0100000 01100110 01101111 01110010 0100000 01001011 0101101 0110001 0110010

– translation, “technology for K-12.”  

The above is presently the natural language of computers, binary arithmetic, that quickly gave way to assembly/optimization routines and creative “languages” that allowed computer instructions to be more easily created and applied.  But the evolution of over 50 computer languages over six decades has enlarged the gap of understanding between computer professionals and civilians, lasting into the present.

Digital thinking for education is robust and evolving, with the capacity to radically change learning protocols, and is not “magical thinking” as attributed by some retro educators.  The question is:  Are there presently in our public education systems, in the schools that prepare teachers and administrators, in the US Department of Education, and in state education bureaucracies, the wits, objectivity, and creativity to use these evolving tools?

Technology Issues

If there weren’t use challenges, NCLB, RttT, and a toxic brew of standardized testing and state school grading tactics would likely not exist, slowly dissolving rational learning in our public schools.   Central are:  How digital technologies are translated into practical teaching/learning protocols; the chasm between the technology microcosm that created our computers and applications versus users; the low overall level of education’s human resources awareness of digital technologies; and the convergence of pressure on public K-12 to adopt technology (too frequently hardware for “show”) versus the paucity of decision tools to guide those investments.  The result, predictably, has been investments typically in hardware divorced from the knowledge and experience to productively use its products.

The digital revolution actually spans over 65 years, with institutionally available large scale computing since the early 1960s.  Next generation and mini systems populated the 1970s and ‘80s.  IBM launched then prematurely abandoned the personal computer, leaving in that wake the origins of Microsoft’s monopoly that actually drove and impeded US digital development (while creating Gates’ fortune).  Jobs' commitment to humanizing computer operations launched the next growth phase.  Lastly, originally via ARPA, the invention of data “packet” logic enabled the Internet. 

The combination of Moore’s Law, the manufacturing experience curve, new materials, and the genius of Apple enabled present mobile devices with the computing power of earlier decades.  But that miniaturization and mobility also moved the center of digital gravity, from places created for processing to anyone’s hand and any time; “Google Glass” even promises to take the need for a hand out of the formula.

America has developed, only really noted in this century, a developer class; this is a cadre (in still short supply) of human resources with technical savvy coupled to creativity, creating source code that powers the entire digital industry.  This factor has an upside and a downside:  The upside is that America is still leading the world in creating digital languages and applications; the downside is rooted in a vision of the ‘90s, that a new breed of object-oriented programming – going beyond specialized coding to manipulating next generation function blocks described in recognizable linguistic terms – would emerge that would make virtually any professional capable of creating digital applications.  It failed to materialize.

The result was that places where digital applications could be most contributory – K-12 education, higher education, professional development, job training, and learning communities – are still dependent on that professional arc of developers.  If you can’t immediately discriminate a bit, byte, word, flops, and processor architectures, some of the 50 computer languages that have been created, and a slug of other digital basics, you bypass digital literacy.  Simultaneously, that level of machine familiarity isn't a governing condition of recognizing and applying applications that can only exist because of the processing speeds now achieved.

To add even more distress to adapting contemporary digital technology to education, our public schools have been laggards in employing even last century’s statistical and research tools, much less the now tens of thousands (not overstated) of “apps” for laptops and pads in education.  Apple alone has 20,000 apps available. In the present mix of chores facing both K-12 teachers and administrators, there has been little effort to create curricula using those tools.

The unfortunate results are that to catch up schools are adopting heat-and-serve, profit-driven, and pro-forma packages.   An example is PLTW (Project Lead the Way) for project-based constructivism, with less than noble origins and characterized by mediocrity and misdirection, versus creating targeted courses that fit local needs. Ironically most digital technology was in reach of public education for at least two to three decades had there been self-assessment and technology learning entrepreneurship.


The litany of digital technology developments underway is finally via open source values, and via Google and other search assets, available to any who choose to do the work.  At the front of the advancing edge are:  Practical payoffs for over five decades of work on artificial intelligence; even more mobility and flex in hand-held and hands–free processing and communication; falling costs of these devices a logical consequence of their manufacturing experience curves and market expansion; and the emergence within the various spheres of application of some of the technology translation human resources needed by those specialties.  The latter are still in short supply in public education.

On the horizon, but now visible are mind-boggling extensions of present computing:  The continuing evolution of digital tools and learning applications that are moving the center of gravity off the school and classroom stage and into student and parental control; the potential of new materials and manufacturing refinement that would allow Moore’s Law to continue its prescience; and even quantum computing that could obsolete the opening zeros and ones as the currency of processing while creating levels of magnitude greater processing power.

Here and Now

Futures are exciting, but the here and now of US public education are destructive reform constructs. They are finally being recognized in the public square, with cohesive and broad-based protest developing.  Perhaps the tipping point will be the belated recognition that the first products of NCLB’s misdirection and all that followed will soon be issuing as products of our high schools.  If the public education establishment has the wits to create legitimate longitudinal research, a question can be answered:  Has the entire reform agenda improved, or potentially worsened the genuine learning of K-12 products unleashed on higher education and the nation’s needs for creativity and problem solving?

But in that same here and now, what technology contributions to public schools could pay off without the future invention?  Not amazing at all, there are practical applications of educational technology that could be adopted.  Below are a few that depend less on arcane technological prowess than technology reaching the education street and touching real learning needs.

What Can Technology Do for K-12 Today?

AI (Artificial Intelligence)

AI has now launched in a large venue with panache, refuting the observations that its potential for wide application, or even demonstration of functionality has been overrated.  Hitting the press April 4, 2013, was the announcement that Harvard and MIT (two reasonably respectable institutions of higher education) have introduced an AI system that can be used to grade essay questions and short written answers, dubbed EdX.

Educational Luddites will quickly go into low earth orbit with criticism.  In fact, with an aside that this application is early times and subject to the ever-present experience curve, AI is widely misunderstood, being misperceived primarily as a computer technology. Computer processing power enables the field, but AI is powered conceptually by logic, linguistics, human heuristics, relevant specific knowledge, probability, knowledge engineering, natural language processing, speech recognition, vision processing, and other knowledge sets.  Key is that this application signals a breakthrough.

At the practical level, this writer recalls grading thousands of blue books, engaging days and even weeks.  Typically, only a handful of key points were conceived in the testing, but even with that compromise it was virtually assured that over many hours of grading those value judgments drifted and were likely biased.  The strategic implication is that the AI application illustrated, engaging likely the same heuristics as the human grading, could increase reliability of assessments, while more time could be employed to upgrade curricula and teaching prowess.

This specific AI application could also be a measured opening and catalyst for public K-12 education to recapture the testing initiative, to both create and implement more complex and meaningful assessments for learning.  The model could wrest testing away from present corporate scams and put it properly back into the purview of public education’s teachers – if there is the wisdom, creativity and courage to grab the opportunity?


Massive online open courses have become the favorite whipping boy of every critic of opening up educational process.  Yes, they are a threat to dug-in educators who cannot perceive learning outside the artificial boundaries of school or classroom in spite of contemporary wisdom to the contrary.  It is apparent that for some stratum or progression of learning based on highly effective transmission, a MOOC can select and offer the very best delivery of materials.   The argument for rejecting the opportunity to raise the level of that presentation suggests defensive or self-serving motivations and disinterest in real learning goals.

But there is an opportunity to apply MOOC logic so obvious that it is almost embarrassing to relate, falling into that hopper metaphorically labeled a no-brainer.  Arguably the most critical and current need for public K-12 learning that could be conveyed by MOOC work, and with an almost perfect fit to its clients, is:  The augmented educational development of our over three million public school teachers.  While spending millions of dollars on a precious minority of TFA teachers, the venture itself seemingly turned into profit-seeking, the educational development of our already experienced public school teachers has been virtually ignored.  (Correction:  Well, not exactly ignored; they are being beaten with personal assessments based on VAM, flawed testing, and administrative ignorance.)

Infrastructure is frequently already in place; the model minimizes the overhead of development; development can be scheduled around personal timetables; the audience is already learning-aware, ideally positioned to internalize new learning; present teaching responsibilities need not be jeopardized; and there should already be in place professional third parties who could provide oversight and verification of assessments of MOOC performance by a teacher.

Pragmatically, the teacher MOOC effort might need to be preceded by similar plenary development of public school administrators, who in many cases, and egregiously, perceive teacher development as updates on bureaucratic reporting.

Buying Hardware

One of the more discouraging performances in public K-12 has been the willingness of local boards and system administration to spend millions of dollars on laptops and pads, while avoiding the due diligence and lacking awareness of how that physical technology will be employed to increase learning, or improve its productivity, or reduce other costs.  The issue goes beyond just the software enabled, and gets into core understanding of how the functions – communication, processing, self-study – offered by the technology actually enhance short and longer term knowledge?   

A logic and method that has served in other venues for decades in evaluating capital investments, and that might be adapted to K-12 technology is termed the "defender-challenger" concept.  Essentially any investment, for example in one-to-one pads, is based on the assessment of whether that challenger is more cost effective than what it replaces, the defender. Not particularly novel in manufacturing and manufacturing engineering where it has been applied for decades, the calculations would presently lack metrics for learning effects from alternate modalities. However, that measurement development is now needed across all of K-12 inputs to address issues raised by the reform movement.  

But How Would I Use Digital Technology?

The NEA estimates there are currently over 100,000 apps for mobile computer devices, in addition to entire education venues such as the Kahn Academy, MIT’s curricular export efforts for high schools, et al.  The issue is not whether there is an adequate inventory of teaching materials for development, but whether there is presently in public education the intellect and will to “create” better curricula.

A case can be made that the present CCSSI (common core) standards for reading and math – not created by America’s educational best and brightest, and laced with ideology – should not be the nation’s learning standards.  More egregious, the current proposed common core STEM standards – that were created by AAAS and America’s real scientists – are being overridden by the same mentalities that produced the former alleged common core. 

The case can also be made that America’s public schools and teachers should be granted the responsibility to develop the curricula they must teach, and equally develop its assessments, informed by nationally recognized knowledge content as developed and protected by those who oversee the various disciplines.  The true knowledge sources in the US, its social, biological and physical scientists, have been shunted aside by traditional “education” practicing the same disaggregation of knowledge that created our K-12 failings.  (For Ohio's latest contribution to education insanity, click here.) Self-evidently, an argument can be made that the first player in public education to be held accountable for doing it better should be the majority of America’s intellectually bankrupt schools of education.


The continuing expansion of connectivity fueled by penetration of smartphones, pads, enhanced bandwidth, and VC opens the gate to socially-based learning, to learning communities, and to learning that can be tapped virtually at any time and from any locale.  Is it time the traditional view of a “school” as the place of learning be replaced by the view that learning is ongoing, can be spontaneous, and needs to be conceived as accessible whether in a dedicated building or wherever the learner is sensitized to the process?

The major opportunity to link teachers in diverse learning communities by using the Internet and VC has been largely ignored or underutilized.  There may be greater effect in achieving curricular common cores of knowledge by putting together in supported social networks, teachers from geographically and culturally diverse places, utilizing the capacity to have genuine exchange of knowledge and experiences.

Blended Learning

Even where students are ensconced in, and now even (in paranoia) locked down in schools, there is using the same communications and social tools as above the opportunity to pursue blended learning opportunities.  That means linking especially 9-12 curricula with real world practice, using communications capabilities to leverage the experiences.

Related, the same technologies support the “flipped classroom,” now proving an alternative to the traditional view of classroom versus extra-school learning.  If this is not recognized, it entails using distance, video, and self-directed learning to create exposure to material, using in-school time to create interactive learning and development of HOTS.

Technology Enabled Tactics for Learning

Psychology demonstrated long ago that, for example, reading instruction that utilized multiple senses – visual decoding, concurrent aural exposure, and even visual object associations – produced greater short- and long-term memory acquisition and recall.  The tools to make that primary in the classroom are all present, but still not fully exploited.

Related, gaming and simulation now virtually blanket the adolescent world, with software and even hard processing capacities that beggar allegedly serious computer enterprise.  It is not uncommon in better schools to see elementary simulation modeling being taught, even AI in higher technology high schools.  Where is public education in general capitalizing on this student digital literacy, using variants of that modeling to create more student interest and focus?  This is not a technological failure, but rather a crisis of objectivity and creativity in our public schools’ leaderships.

Differentiated Instruction

In sharp contradiction of the present testing mentality, one-size-fits-all, digital technology is the opening and enabler to creating differentiated learning (and differential assessment) that reflects the real world heterogeneity children bring to artificial grade bands.

This application takes a more expansive mindset, using the potential of the sensing, sorting, scheduling, assessment, and data mining tools now actionable to create individual instructional plans and assessments for every student. 

Better to Give Than Receive

In virtually every critique of US public education the point is made that our students’ capacities for expression, critical assessment, and both critical and creative writing come up short. Incredibly, the technological revolution and the Internet have spawned arenas where writing can be stimulated while engaging both high student interest and creativity.  

The wiki, the web page, the blog, all open a door to engaging students in writing and publication experiences.  Motivation to create is enhanced and nurtured when students are given vehicles for presenting rather than just tuning in.  The massive popularity of Facebook and YouTube are testimony to generations that expect greater connectivity, and can be motivated by that potential.  All of the tools are readily available, most free, to fully engage students across the grade spectrum.  The gut question may selectively be, why does your classroom not have any or all of the above?

Rationalizations and Other Buts

In a universe of 99,000 public schools there are obviously administrators and teachers who have already exceeded the above near term opportunities to use digital technologies.  One issue is, that with the advanced capabilities of industry to use data mining, our public education venues, including its misdirected US Department of Education, flunk the information course.  The public education bureaucracy appears clueless about the precise realities of technology adoption and use in that universe of public schools.  We know more about the incidence of toilets in America’s residences than we know about how technology is being employed to support public K-12 learning.  That is criminal.

Lastly, a common refrain from the FCC concerns the nation’s “digital divide,” the chasm between the segments of our society that have high bandwidth Internet and those not served.  But that divide has another connotation.  A proposition is, that too many public schools, not on the deficit side of the Internet divide, are still deficient in utilizing the connectivity they are frequently gifted.

As in any societal milieu where complexity reigns, and specifically in our present public educational infrastructure where unanimity is a rare commodity, one can expect there will be protests about any action that is change.  But given the present dynamics of digital technology development, with US public schools under concerted attack, there is an imperative to discover and employ every tool they can master to reform themselves.  The technology is already there; the courage and creativity to use it are an open question.