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.