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.

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