A favorite anthem of those applauding alleged corporate reform, and the alleged “common core,” is that public K-12 is usefully moving via those initiatives from education “a mile wide and an inch deep” to learning “an inch wide and a mile deep.” Unfortunately, the only real content in that simplistic assertion may be that our educators may now need hip boots.
The debates over NCLB, RTTT, the “common core,” standardized testing, VAM, and a virtual landslide of barely coherent state grading of public schools, mercifully fall short of the intensity of our recent Congressional war on budgets and the debt limit. Also mercifully, the debates have never truly touched the issue of widespread shutdowns or privatization of public schools in spite of the rhetoric.
Perhaps the closest present reform has come to provoking some real energy – it certainly hasn’t happened in our public schools, where our ‘edusheeple’ have generally capitulated to testing, VAM, and related demands – emerged in Buffalo, NY, where 2,500 teachers, parents and administrators recently turned out to protest more highstakes testing.
At the other end of the polar energy scale, is our U.S. Secretary of Education, who recently used a large measure of his ‘state of education’ report to attack his critics. As Valerie Strauss – The Answer Sheet, The Washington Post – pointed out in a review, “…the education secretary still doesn’t seem to understand what many of his critics are saying.” Curious, our alleged national guru of learning doesn’t get the essence of the gig.
But the whole corporate reform movement has managed to oversimplify virtually every material issue surrounding U.S. public K-12 performance. That oversimplification to a large extent accounts for the blizzard of alternative versions of “public education’s problem,” equally becoming a roadblock to fashioning either consensus or durable solutions.
This post of Edunationredux is the first of a multi-part series seeking to probe the full U.S. public K-12 reform jigsaw puzzle.
The Eye of the Beholder
Incredibly the largest stumbling block to moving forward to shore up public education and create rational true reform was articulated in the 9th century; the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Most adult Americans have at some time been exposed to the lesson imparted. In the Jain version of the parable, the king responds: “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features you mentioned.” It says much about both our educators and their critics, that as simple a lesson has been ignored in most of the rhetoric of the last dozen years about public K-12 performance and change.
Let’s take a better look at that assertion; certainly all of the bright people in America’s education systems couldn’t be that prone to tunnel vision?
There is a constant stream of comments to online press stories from usually parents, in denial, trying to put some feel good spin on the reform news, by claiming that our public schools have no problems, that the alleged reforms are bogus or politically motivated. Years of results from the U.S. NAEP, from the international PISA testing, and just issued results from OECD testing are not perceived. Nor is the polling effect noted that has respondents condemning Congress, but fully supporting their local Congressional representative even if they’re a jerk; the same effect applies to views of “public education” versus Pollyannaish assessments of a local school.
Too many of our public K-12 schools, tuned over decades to never being challenged, now facing critique, exhibit behaviors either paranoid, or circling the wagons, or denying transparency of what they are actually teaching and how, or simply rolling over and in many cases denying their own values and integrity by simply slavishly putting testing ahead of learning. Where there is a modicum of courage it may manifest itself in the guts to aggressively teach “for” the tests to get state education bureaucracies off their case, then going back to real learning. Related, America’s collegiate schools of education are hiding in the weeds, making every effort to deflect the reality that their failures in creating fully competent teachers and administrators are part of the cause of public education’s stall.
The combined mess – of NCLB, RTTT and its wasted double-digit billions of dollars, Obama-Duncan acquiescence to the mass of standard testing, the CCSSI and its alleged knowledge standards conjured up in secrecy, and testing companies driven by profit and de facto specifying what is knowledge – lights up the scam meter. An hypothesis is that Obama is pragmatically willing to see public K-12 tortured with testing and VAM in the idealistic to delusional belief that the universal testing challenge might force greater integration of low income, racially discriminated, and culturally deprived children into mainstream school performance. What appears to be missing, in what is a legitimate if brutal trade-off, is recognition that the testing/VAM strategies might collide with the law of unintended consequences.
The mainstream of the reform movement is the in-your-face ideologically and politically inspired goal of privatizing public education. As in the case of the conservative effort to scuttle ACA, it is delusion that privatization could be pulled off in any foreseeable time span, or without simply despotically riding over democratic process. The issue is that the ideologies breed destructive tactics, precisely what has occurred with the imposition of unproven testing logic, Draconian and unfair teacher assessment, and opening the door to waves of demagoguery on public education that benefit a few, much of that for profit or to acquire power.
Motivations of other reformers, especially the cabal of billionaires dabbling in public K-12 reform, are particularly curious. Some like Bill Gates, reflecting intellect and a history via his Foundation of tackling major societal and technical issues, are predictable. For others less transparent there appear multiple hidden agendas. Some reflect strategic thinking, albeit not praiseworthy, for example, seeking to influence public K-12 education to suppress the teaching of evolution, or seeking to suppress consideration of climate change in K-12 curricula to cynically protect business profits. Even in Gates’ case, tens of millions of dollars have been invested to promote standardized testing and VAM, a case where an argument might be that the knowledge is missing to impose that assumption on a nation’s school system. Parenthetically, no one invited him to that party.
Students of our systems are, of course, ignored as sources of insight about questionable learning. Parents in turn are suspended in a state where legitimate education assessment is hard to acquire. They believe what local systems pump out as propaganda. The media is almost as vacant of insight about public education, only rising to the bait when some school issue can be sensationalized. The chance that any local public school system will currently have at its head a human resource advocating servant leadership and participative management is not robust. How public system administrators are trained, then hired, vetted and overseen by amateurs virtually assures that.
To add to that roadblock to change, public school superintendents are literally unaccountable to anyone if they can bully or con a school board. In that environment, there is no check and balance on the evolution of self-righteous behavior, or dysfunctional ego, or poor leadership compared to our better private sector organizations where stakeholders can’t be easily frozen out. Public school administrations, even the better brands, find it inviting to invoke executive privilege or misstate privacy concerns to block system transparency.
Lastly, a small army of professionals who should know better have bought off on the belief that poverty and culture really explain all test results, thereby asserting that the grand fix is reinvigorating the middle class and assuaging poverty. The schools and the teachers and the administrators are just fine. This issue is important, because many allegedly data-based research findings and correlations seem to support the contention, but pretty much ignoring a major admonition of that statistical genre, that correlation is not causation. That finding also depends on the unit of analysis and level of aggregation of data. Does it explain all deficiencies measured in learning performance? Hardly, because as the analytical focus goes from macro to micro, that next level of explanatory variables kicks in.
Summing up, all are blind to some parts of our massive educational complex. Thus problem definitions and fixes get defined by what is locally perceived. Words so often spoken, but rarely fully registering, there are no silver bullets for changing public K-12, and no single-cause system that encompasses why schools perform sub-optimally. Because public K-12 is a system of systems, nested in variable environments, engaging diverse human educators, there are complex interactions among the determinants of good learning issuing from a school. That means that success factors can be additive, substitutable, canceling, with great explanatory difficulty in sorting out causes and effects without some hard science for testing effects. Unfortunately, doing good research on public K-12, testing assumptions, using experimental design and multivariate models, has rarely been in the teachers’ or administrators’ tool kits for professional practice.
Where does this leave the potential public school reformer? A short answer is, either doing more harm than good, or up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
How Do You Eat An Elephant?
Is there a way out of the conundrum suggested above; a way to address a system as massive as public K-12 – 100,000 schools, over 14,000 school boards, state variability, and a now misdirected and massively intrusive Federal invasion – with some common and replicable sets of variables that when massaged improve the end product?
One approach is obviously what is being loaded unto our public schools, assume that demanding highly stylized quality control of the end product, down and dirty quantification, with major consequences (high stakes), will force change in the upstream determinants of classrooms’ and human resources’ action sets. The people pushing this have a cerebellum – they know that the process has concomitant effects, and that they are injurious. The argument has to be the end justifies the means. Add that the groups pushing present reform formats must have concluded any other approach is far too slow, or evolutionary for political goals sought. The crux of the issue is whether the entire reform model simply tumbled out of disparate political events and ideology, experienced little logical or empirical testing, attracted the private sector testing vultures, and was simply picked up and advanced by every entity that saw a stake for personal gain?
Our states have simply performed solely as their political funding and national attachment dictate. The testing strategies, purchased tests, corrupted lobbying surrounding that function, flawed and simplistic state grades that distort educational achievement, with state educational bureaucracies that represent politics more than critical thought, have become the wholesalers of the ersatz reform movement. Most appear clueless what the words mean for the measures being imposed on local schools.
Is there an option? Ideally there are many, but the Catch 22 is in the “ideally.” There is no ideal core to U.S. public education in spite of the lip service given to its being one system. It is not homogenous in spite of the similarities of practice enforced by history, unions, or states’ similar models for funding and flogging the function.
One nasty element of the public model is the local school board, the third rail in public education. In no other American human endeavor are so many assets, and so much national and personal portent, delegated to so few human resources competent to offer that oversight (if you discount superior competition from the U.S. Congress). This may be the most egregious act of our state governments, failure for decades to correct the way public school oversight is determined, and even retaining the local board solution, refusing to update the requirements for serving in that role. There is apparently no obvious research that has ever been permitted or created to definitively assess this issue, but the hypothesis is that incompetent school boards are a root cause for a major portion of U.S. public K-12 underachievement.
About that metaphorical elephant; by getting it into much smaller and manageable pieces.
Hit the Pause Button
The next Edunationredux will try to identify the variables sets, structural linkages, and layers of influence in our public system, and also try to show how the large components of public education interact or are contingent, to suggest some pressure or action points for achieving productive change with less damage to our human players. The assumptions, variables, the environments, and the human resources that are stirred together in U.S. public education are truly a mile wide, a mile deep, and with daunting entanglement.