Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Reforming (K-12) reform; stepping outside the box


Intending repositioning of edunationredux to issues of higher education reform, public K-12 challenges continue to rattle cages.  The latest, initial confirmation of a perspective reflected in this blog’s critiques for over three years; the roles played by collegiate education for education in reform of public K-12 systems.  This week’s Washington Post focused on one aspect, linked here.  The study still missed other key ingredients in tackling an overall still underperforming and defensive system of US public schools.

One is the extension of that study’s focus to management education for K-12 school administration, arguably a more convoluted mess than even alleged for our teachers.  The extension of that failure is a complicated structural enigma, spanning how administrators are sought and chosen frequently by ad hoc committees or boards lacking the competence to do the chore, possible organization obsolescence, overzealous focus on local egos, followed by the consequences when self-centric and corruptible administrators are put in place with virtually zero oversight.  Far fetched?  Mid-America’s public systems are saturated with the breed, effectively neutralizing many legitimate attempts at learning improvement and adoption of relevant technologies.

The bottom line is that all of the reform rhetoric, from extremes of for-through-against, has been naively focused on a small list of factors, that equally naively, are assumed capable of changing the game and performance.  The common sense depiction of the failing is tunnel vision.  The more accurate roots of the behaviors are ignorance of the concept of systems, and an intellectual failure to assess the issues as complex, systemic, longitudinal, and that cannot be addressed by randomly seeking even a six-pack of silver bullets that will magically reform public K-12.

"The Answer Sheet," the Post's daily messenger about all things public K-12 reform, has almost uniquely been outstanding in addressing most of the reform issues.  It is also keyed to single issue revelations, and veers toward attack of the present reform movement, only rarely addressing a question that merits reflection:  If public K-12 overall has been doing such a magnificent job for the last quarter century, why do they need to be reformed with the hammers being used, and advocated by both liberals and conservatives?  This additional post on public K-12 reform addresses the top lines of issues that still need the light of day.

Reforming (K-12) reform; stepping
outside the box

"The Answer Sheet," Diane Ravitch prominently, and a cast of media, collegiate and occasional K-12 critics have been hammering on present test-based reform as a not-very-bright approach to correcting learning progress in US public schools.  But the passion accompanying that critique at the onset of the worst of testing imposition may need adjustment.

There has been effect:  Education gurus, parents and systems are now questioning the wisdom of the narrow approach; some of the most strident advocates have proven demagogic and self-centric; the Obama Administration appears willing to run the risk of compromising a major societal system without a plan B; there is embryonic evidence narrowly targeting our K-12 systems' teachers and students has produced little real progress in learning beyond transitory rote effects; the principal beneficiaries of the reform agenda have been testing company bottom lines and bloated state education bureaucracies; and the pedagogical sterility of the reform mode may have if anything deepened the chasm between K-12 output and higher education's preparation expectations.  The latter is deeply ironic given the Administration's marginally thought out and simplistic conviction that all should aspire to a collegiate education.

Has present reform and a loyal opposition accomplished lasting positive change?  Conditionally, yes.  Many public K-12 systems with dismal learning values and zero accountability have been brought to heel, with positive effects on classroom rigor.  (Parenthetically, however, system administration and boards lacking a viable concept of learning have made “reform” just another unthinking act of bureaucratic plugging with muted effect.)  Our testing companies have now been forced back to the drawing board to construct better tests.  An alleged common knowledge base (CCSSI) not ready for prime time has been slowed, and may get needed review, along with perhaps commitment of smarter and less ideological resources to develop a next generation.  Even some state governments that ideologically or mechanically bought the reform Kool-Aid in exchange for dollars are rethinking; what is real reform?
Some things have not changed.  The present reform motif may be morphing into something more palatable if one is optimistic, but the Obama Administration appears dogmatically committed to the belief that only the present strategy can modify educational inequality. Paradoxically, the Obama-Duncan version of remediation is also a form of extremism backed by the power to buy off or coerce its recipients.

The rationale for many of the attitudes and beliefs that inundate present reform are simply amplifications of the 50 or so forms of cognitive error and distortion.  Are its practitioners aware of these logic flaws?  To cannibalize a major press' feature, there is probably room for debate.  On the side of benefit of a doubt, the menagerie of testing advocates simply can't be that stupid about how real learning happens, and is translated into sustainable capacities for problem solving and creativity.  Better angels say they must be better than that?  That debate may be relevant, but the reality is that the present reform thrust will not change under this Administration, nor will it abate.

Stalemate?  Very likely, manifesting an agonizingly slow unfolding of more testing, more ideological righteousness, more gaming for self-promotional position, punctuated by episodic minimal relief when the model threatens to provoke real revolt.  The obvious question, is there any opening for real, needed reform of a public K-12 system with constituents dug in and defensive, or as obsessive or myopic as many of the alleged reformers?  Perhaps there is.

One scenario hinges on anti-testing advocates accepting that the model is not going away, and that it may actually increase public system accountability and instills a narrow form of public K-12 education rigor.  Change the game plan, from protest to proactive advocacy making the rote components of reform maximally productive with every technology assist practical, and minimal resources, then focus on using better knowledge components to install as another layer a rich learning model.  To keep this from simply being Alice's rabbit hole, other major reforms would need to descend on our collegiate schools of education, and testing for advanced learning would need an evolutionary leap.

Another powerful argument is reconciliation, or perhaps major repositioning of present public school missions versus the environment of post-secondary education.  These two systems have been passing like ships in the night for most of their joint existence, with measurable deficits in higher education outputs and student drop outs at the baccalaureate levels of that venue. Arguably, public K-12 failure contributes to those performance deficits.  A true revolution might create a national effort to over time propose a better composite model of US education that recognizes what the nation will be and need by 2025 and beyond.  In parallel, extract the de facto role of defining knowledge from the corporate sector, and make that the exclusive province – along with related testing – of joint ventures between our collegiate system and K-12 public education.

All of the above suggest another revolution, recognizing that research on learning at all levels has been shorted for a century, only slowly gaining purchase because of the breakthroughs in neural science in the last decade. These are also developments that are literally opaque for many of our public K-12 education system because of that flawed education and the knowledge gap it has perpetuated.

Lastly, there is no way of avoiding the issue of challenged local oversight of most public schools.  The elective school board model as effective leadership and oversight of schools has been broken for possibly its entire life, too often fostering ignorance and self-promotion rather than studied assessments and administrative guidance. It has resulted in human resources lacking the competence to even know they may be wrong or destructive. Minimal state requirements for board candidacy, lazy and popularity-based voting, and virtually no requirements of training to serve are as devastating to public K-12 quality as incompetently educated administrators and teachers.  Fix?  One concept is linking boards to states’ higher education resources, for both vetting of boards and required training.

If the US was a nation at educational risk almost two decades ago, it is arguable that NCLB, RTTT, an academically flawed CCSSI, substitution of ideology and greed for wisdom in pushing charters, and pedestrian concepts for motivating a nation’s teachers and learners, have made the original titled "A Nation at Risk" massive understatement in 2013.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Higher Education Reform for Dummies

There is angst in advocating reform of our colleges and universities while public K-12 is in throes of either intellectual devolution, or soaring to new levels of rote achievement, depending on perspective and ideology.  But, one, there is an intimate connection between K-12 change and higher education’s future; and two, our post-secondary institutions are tracking vectors leading to a cliff.

'Tis the Season

The love-hate relationship with our colleges and universities by its students, parents, private and public sectors absorbing its output, and critics, waxes and wanes with the seasons.  When graduation looms optimism and favorable attitudes blossom, buoyed by parental pride and the eloquent but generally meaningless rhetoric of ceremonial speakers; and perhaps the hope that the end of large cash outflows is imminent (discounting subsequent decades of loan repayment). Shift to the glories of autumn, where college application, matriculation and funding challenges give way to the football season. American competitiveness and escapism again elicit good feelings for our institutions, followed by March Madness. Behind that facade of twisted appreciation of the US academy, the real higher education beat goes on.  Is optimism justified, or is virtually every version of cognitive distortion acting to postpone or divert the need for core change in collegiate direction?

Comparing and contrasting reform of public K-12 versus post-secondary, major differences are immediately evident.  With the exception of the bursts of publications excoriating the teachers’ unions, and defending (or damning) test-based alleged reform, there is little material addressing the long standing issues with the public K-12 bureaucracy that produced the present reform movement.  In contrast, there has been an outpouring of critique of our collegiate institutions, reaching as far back as the first Presidential Commission on Higher Education (Mr. Truman’s), and now ubiquitous in both higher education journals and seemingly endless blogs.  The difference, the latter critique has deflected few of the alleged excesses overtaking US higher education.

Change Needed?

Current critique of the academy increasingly prompts headlines such as “radical reform of higher education is inevitable,” or “higher education is in crisis;” the latter spirit reflected even in survey of higher education administrators, with high percents of agreement.  Nevertheless, our collegiate presidents are going where few academic leaders have previously ventured.  That is:  The aggressive pursuit of not just dollars, but of major campus diversification veering away from the classroom; decision styles that conflate academic with corporate management; more bricks and mortar; higher administrator salaries; slack learning accountability; expansion of non-teaching human resources; and insensitivity to the calls for major tuition reduction, faculty productivity analyses and improvement, even deflection of the question whether four years of college are producing minimal learning as inferred from research by Arum and Roksa.

A recent ACT study demonstrated a major disconnect between K-12 educator, versus collegiate educator assessments of student readiness for college:  Of K-12 resources, 89 percent asserted their students were “well prepared” or “very well prepared” for college level work; for those responding in our colleges, the number was 26 percent. One implication is that higher education has failed to perceive the K-12 linkage that impacts their own success, another that our public K-12 systems are wading in cognitive bias.

The question also bores down on not just the academic culture, but into its major disciplines.  Are our collegiate schools of education responsible and accountable for the shrinkage of public K-12 learning performance that precipitated present reform?  Are our B-schools responsible and accountable for the values and ethics that marinate our corporate behaviors, and for the behaviors of our financial institutions?  Have the liberal arts simply dug a hole and crawled in to avoid critique and deny change?  Has a more than century-old organizational model of our academic disciplines ceased to deal with advocacy and assessment of actual learning, and impeded or blocked adoption of technologies that integrated into classroom models can improve that performance?

Have collegiate classrooms become “endowed,” coupled to reduction of accountability of faculty via traditional tenure?  Has the traditional depiction of collegiate learning driven by lecture and sometimes professor-student interaction become so entrenched that productivity change is frozen?  An organizational issue, has a faculty as a source of veto power on administrative change simply hardened into the inevitable roadblock?

Recent developments in online learning suggest change may be forced onto the academy by learning methods bypassing traditional channels and orthodoxy – MOOC, decline in dependence of job sourcing of graduates based on traditional credentials, and continued evolution of private and community post-secondary programs. The generally conservative leaderships of our collegiate enterprises, even while adopting some of the growth strategies of the private sector, did not typically get to those positions via managerial apprenticeship and success; they frequently fail in strategic positioning and leadership.

Are any of the present trends on traditional campuses sustainable?  Can a trillion dollars of collegiate student debt just be written off?  Has Federal funding of higher education without controls actually precipitated the academy’s ills by enabling tuition inflation?  Will token tuition decreases stop critique?  Will collegiate leaderships emulate the doctrine of “too big to fail,” or perhaps, “too smart to fail,” or experience some of the other perceptual failures that lead managements to defer needed change until capacity to intercept markets is too little too late? 

A trenchant, albeit futuristic scenario is depicted in EPIC 2020 from a TED presentation titled “2012 The Tipping Point.”  Our colleges and universities may be impotent to intercept change that is emerging entrepreneurially from outside the academy, excepting only the handful of “A+” institutions that can likely survive any generalized post-secondary denouement.  Deniers may write it off as fantasy:  Reality is that Taleb’s “Black Swans” happen; US financial giants can collapse; GM did declare bankruptcy; Khan Academy endures; Coursera, Udacity, and edX have launched; and public K-12 education allegedly had such a secure monopoly that privatization couldn’t happen?

There seem some pretty robust arguments that US higher education must adapt.

The Shape of Reform?

The elements of reform are not a surprise.  The National Association of Scholars in a post offering “One Hundred Great Ideas for Higher Education” conveniently addressed them.  Augmented with additions, they run the gamut:
  • Comprehensively privatize non-teaching functions.
  • Creatively invest in productivity change.
  • Scale missions back to education and essential research.
  • Change the criteria for promotion and tenure from low value research and publication to classroom performance.
  • Make faculty and classrooms accountable.
  • Reform tenure.
  • De-emphasize the most corrupted collegiate sports.
  • Focus on learning instead of buildings.
  • Recruit and hire more effective senior management.
  • Reduce or eliminate non-instructional headcounts.
  • Set higher standards for grading; reward rigor.
  • Teach graduate students teaching how to teach.
  • Teach faculty how to teach.
  • Adopt value-based budgeting, versus incremental budgeting methods that retain the status quo and invite organizational gaming.
  • Move more quickly to research, qualify and implement digital technologies that can augment the classroom.
  • Update curricula where many (especially professional) schools’ concepts of relevant knowledge are still rooted in the last century.
  • A veritable explosion of tactical changes related to how teaching is planned, executed and assessed.
  • Find a model of communication, involvement and compatible values to bridge the chasm between K-12 and the pedagogy of higher education. 
They also challenge accomplishment because of the reluctance of higher education leaderships to acknowledge the need for change, or failure to see change in realistic terms.  An example was the assessment of a well-known educator, Chester Finn, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  Dr. Finn’s prescription:  “Less booze.  Less sex.  More Studying.  Problem eased if not solved.”  With respect, demonstrating the distinction between normative and pragmatic solutions, the probability of that solution set getting traction is roughly equivalent to Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner exchanging valentines, embracing each other, and linking arms to anchor the politically-centric dream team.

The Process of Reform

The reality of US higher education reform may mirror in jeopardy and sweep the Voyage of Ulysses.  Higher education’s institutions, though fractionally less than five percent of public K-12’s, are a level of magnitude more diverse and complex. Those public have evolved in order to survive drastic reductions in state funding, but that autonomy begets hubris.  Additionally, growth linked to external and sports funding may now seem irreversible.  Accountability is even more of a challenge because oversight is frequently with politically-sourced trustees, and because their chancy tenure drives more tactical than strategic problem solving.  Methods of faculty creation, career evolution and performance assessment may be too entrenched, and research and publication too linked to external organizations to be easily transformed.

There are also contradictory effects and land mines in any reform agenda.  What-if, some of the same forces and motivations that have produced test-based public K-12 reform take root?  For example, a frequently cited element of reform, elimination of tenure, may be counterproductive, because tenure may be the last line of defense against the imposition of test-based attempted reform of collegiate classrooms.  Another, the speculation that the reform mode in public K-12, with its rote indulgence, will when it expresses in future college readiness, vastly increase the chasm between secondary education and collegiate learning values.

The above just skim the challenge of higher education change.  It is a no-brainer to articulate the non-prioritized “should be” that link to and could modify higher education, but charting the critical paths that reform must take to either achieve anything, or avoid tipping a still working system into turmoil is clearly “not for dummies.”  The irony of this reform venue is that it will take layers of creativity, wisdom, servant leadership and some extraordinary courage to either change the existing infrastructure, or fashion some non-destructive institutional bypass solutions for needed post-secondary change.

Lastly, all of US education is standing on pillars of questionable thinking, and false dichotomy.  K-12 education and higher education are two tectonic plates, sliding past each other with neither recognizing the interdependence.  Equally debilitating, even our core concepts of education look like Swiss cheese.  Reflecting the item that usually heads the list of cognitive distortions, “all-or-nothing-thinking,” where is it written that one can’t be an educated welder or plumber or technician or service worker, et al.?  Does the name Eric Hoffer trigger some recall?  America has slouched into a paradigm where a job has come to define who we are and basic values; compounded by, as the New York Times’ David Brooks noted in a recent opinion piece, we become those who surround us.

American educational leadership at every level needs to rethink the assertion that the ultimate goal is (present) college for all, versus training qua education that supports sustainable careers and civic intelligence.  On the table as well, what an “education” really means, and whether our present stratified systems need to be subjected to hard analysis and review, and creatively repurposed for potential economic and social futures those strata seem to have myopically ignored in a race to their respective short run utopias.