Sunday, September 29, 2013

Postscript: Reform and the Common Core – Disorder and Confusion in Public Education


In the last post critique of the “Common Core” was offered, based primarily on its origins, the validity of its alleged knowledge standards, and its politicized roots.  This post, originally unintended, resulted from coincident education reporting that just appeared in Madison’s (WI) Capital Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

The Capital Times is not at the forefront of everyone’s awareness as a mainstream press covering national issues, despite being the home of the University of Wisconsin.   However, in this instance it flagged the confusion and doubt that increasingly surround broad adoption of the alleged “Common Core.”  At the center of the controversy are two governors prominent in advocacy of the “Core,” Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and Rick Scott of Florida, the latter a major advocate of corporate reform based on standardized testing.

(It should also be noted in passing, that Governor Scott hired Tony Bennett as Florida's state superintendent after Bennett had been removed from that post in Indiana for falsifying Indiana school test grades for political purposes.)

Underscoring the troubled political heritage of the “Core,” both governors, originally “Core” champions, are now advocating against adoption.

Public Education and Disorder?

Confused now?  We all should be, because the chaotic alleged corporate reform movement interacting with the alleged common knowledge standards initiative has created really strange bedfellows: 

The Obama Administration in bed with testing profiteering; Republican state governments pushing NCLB and RTTT for dollars but otherwise damning the Federal government; and with CCSSI’s product (that early in promotion of the alleged “Common Core” CCSSI stated on its web site with overt sarcasm that those standards had nothing to do with the U.S. Department of Education) now blessed by the USDOE.

An assembly of billionaires funding the same distorted testing and VAM reforms of public K-12, but representing diametrically opposed social awareness and support of investment on health, civic and learning causes.

Our local public school bureaucracies that slavishly hop on every alleged reform gimmick, but are in bed with old-line education zealots still preaching discredited education methods from last century, consequently hypocritically conforming to reform but in reality changing little in the classroom.

Making sense of U.S. public K-12 education that has now become almost as dysfunctional as the U.S. Congress, requires lifting the covers.  Five potential causal clusters dominate what has become fragmented, contradictory, politicized, and fizzling public education reform.

Five Causes For a Learning Train Wreck

One – Dollars Versus  Education?

The first factor is illustrated by the two governors cited (linked here).  The explanation for the flip-flop of Walker and Scott is alleged to be as fundamental (and cynical) as who is funding their political ambitions.  In this case it is allegedly money that traces to a desire to squelch public schools’ teaching that intersects evolution and climate change.   What is part of the puzzle, and why making sense of present reform is problematic, the same sources of dollars used to influence were directed initially to building the “Core” but now disabling it?  A conclusion one can draw from the episode is that the leadership and conceptualization by the reform movement have frequently had one oar in the water.

Further illustrating the assessment that confusion reigns, the Capital Times today featured a second story on the "Core," that ironically, it is now being attacked from the political left as well.

Two – Uneducated Schools of Education?

The second factor is displayed in an editorial by the NYT’s Joe Nocera (linked here).  This op-ed hits a theme repetitively touched in past Edunationredux blogs, the role, or more accurately the lack thereof in any constructive sense, played by our collegiate schools of education.  They might be termed the silent scourge of public education; they remain virtually untouched by the reform zealots, though their responsibility for the deficits of learning in our public schools may equate with the impact of children’s socioeconomic and cultural deficits in effecting K-12 learning.

Three – Education Bureaucracy Run Amuck?

A third cluster, displayed in The Washington Post article by Patrick Welsh (just retired, who taught English for 43 years in Alexandria, VA’s T. C. Williams High School), and linked here, cites the overall blundering by the entire U.S. public education establishment in incompetently launching one ill-considered reform after another over a half-century.  Give U.S. public education at least a B+ or A- for recognizing reform need; but an F for the consummate ignorance of how you diagnose, plan, research needs, stimulate creativity, manage systemic change, and incorporate neural science in learning.

Parenthetically, our physical sciences contain the concept of entropy, “that nature tends from order to disorder in isolated systems.”  One can argue that the concept albeit not the precise math, can be applied to public education: Expansion, increasing diversity; lack of coherent strategic management because of the failures of local oversight; all drive the overall system to disorder.  In turn an objection, that public education is not isolated, lacks credibility.  Because of public education’s frequently dogmatic commitment to being opaque to its publics for decades, it can be argued it has de facto isolated itself.

Four – Ouija Boards?

The fourth factor might be called one of public education's “third rails,” and why critics veer away from touching it.  That is the control (used euphemistically) of our public schools by local school boards, usually elected.  America’s public school boards range from just ignorant disgrace to outright venality, with occasional sanity.  Requirements to serve are minimal, and literacy isn’t even required (in spite of efforts by the National Association of School Boards for decades to get state legislatures to raise the standards).  No real education for education is required to be seated and subsequently learning about contemporary K-12 is usually optional and rarely exercised.  School board elections are regularly rigged, to maintain some ideology, or to promote some local venue, or to promote sports instead of learning, or to disable effective oversight of school administration, or even by a parent to right some individual conceived wrong by getting on the board.  Boards are rarely professionally equipped to recruit and vet administrators, even when they occasionally attract degreed professionals, or specifically to assess education and administrative performance. 

Consequently, a subsumed theme, a large measure of those who gravitate to public school administration arrive without competent managerial education, can quickly develop self-righteousness and ego, and rarely encounter the oversight and external leadership that exists in any sophisticated and well-managed private sector enterprise.  One can find even in this blog’s bucolic neck of the woods, system public school superintendents ranging from a convicted child pornographer, through alleged education fraud, to an alleged sociopath.  In parallel, in the same bucolic villages, are boards that have no understanding of contemporary learning, flaunt state open door and open records laws, rig elections, fudge financial records, fraudulently manipulate levies, and rank blocking transparency next to Godliness.  In the vortex of such dysfunction, many of these boards revel in self-righteousness, delusional in believing they are serving a community, if not its children?

Fifth – Middle Majority Miasma?

Lastly, a fifth cluster is also clearly third rail material.  While a small minority of U.S. public schools is so awful that they merit being shut down, it is arguable that a middle majority of our public system population is more responsible for American public education challenges than the outright disasters.  These are Potemkin Village systems in bubbles, pumping sports, test-based claims of excellence, self-esteem, symbols, and hype, to inflate local and civic egos, to justify levies and deflect hard questions.   Meanwhile these systems seek opacity of what is being taught and how dollars are used, and frequently discriminate in linking in a community's citizens/taxpayers to control and manipulate school agendas or levies.

Many of these systems – also visible in Ohio's neck of the woods – will commit a community to tens of millions of dollars of school construction, while operating with distorted priorities, fielding buildings that are functionally needed but educationally obsolete before the footers are poured.

Bottom Line

The reason that so-called corporate reform of public K-12 schools is not working – aside from the reform insanity of trying to achieve it by attacking its teachers and students using pedantic testing models, obsolete widget quality control logic, and threats of student holdbacks and system takeovers – is that it can’t work.  Does the concept of politically holding public schools hostage for some end that defies reason ring a bell?

Equally, on the other side of that coin, are too many public K-12 systems dug in, circling the wagons to protect their genre, and where the reform mission does surface trying to resurrect what worked in the 20th Century, but now seriously challenged by both new knowledge and new demands on U.S. learning.

Reality is that our Constitution ignored education, the Founders so adept politically (and educated as elites and by tutors), not unexpectedly could not conceive of the need for universal education, nor the magnitude and demographic, social, and economic complexity of a world and the U.S. by this century. 

When the only tool you can envision is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.  Orderly change to all of the factors above plus others is needed to change an education system that is as complex as ours, and where at least four of the major forces effecting performance are simply presumed off-limits for fear of political consequences, or it requires strategic work not even conceived, or because to do so would interrupt self-serving goals.

Check out the above links; do your own research.  If the realities don’t motivate you – to attend school board meetings to ask for accountability, or request transparency of what your system is actually teaching and using to teach, whether your system is teaching to the tests to inflate performance, how your tax dollars are being spent, whether your board or administration is even cognizant of what has been happening nationally with public school reform, or to civically stand up and protest rigged school board elections or a flawed or fraudulent levy – below the hype, you deserve pretty much what you get. 

Tragically, and unconscionably, your children do not.

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