Saturday, October 19, 2013

A Mile Wide, A Mile Deep -- Part 2


Briefly reviewing the last post, this series is an attempt to start describing the salient features of the U.S. public K-12 education system potentially impacted by misdirection and error in current corporate reform.   The point of the last post was that our public school universe is a systemically connected but not homogenous mass of 100,000 schools and thousands of oversight entities, intersecting still more types of organizations and institutions exerting influences on their operations.

The resultant interactions are beggared by 49.5MM students served, in turn represented by high double-digit millions of parents.  Then, periodically, at places where representation and levies are on the ballot, these numbers rocket to a couple hundred million actors.

Obvious core questions are:  (1) How to define and describe this complex a public education system in a fashion that enables analysis; (2) what are the functional linkages among parts and players in those systems that must be understood; (3) how do you keep score in this milieu?

Part 2 opens that discussion with the proposition that understanding the resultant systemic structure of public K-12 is critical to mediating it.  A logical consequence of that proposal is that present corporate reform lacks credibility, and has already damaged U.S. public schools by focusing wholly on one narrow and partial measurement of learning emanating from black boxes of unspecified students and teachers.

“Dem Bones”

We live in a hyper-connected universe, where material is neither created nor destroyed, and where every atom has had a precursor history and is on its way to another assignment.  Simply mouthing “education” with serious demeanor does not communicate a sense of full understanding.  Nor does it disconnect the contents of that noun from any other idea, force, energy, awareness, device, structure, human entity, etc., that intersects the concept as the mechanism by which we organize and transfer knowledge.

“The foot bone connected to the ankle bone, The ankle bone connected to the shin bone, The shin bone connected to the knee bone,…, The shoulder bone connected to the neck bone, The neck bone connected to the head bone…”

The first observation expresses the spirit of the old nursery rhyme.  In a bare bones form that describes public education’s layers:  Launch with parents with a flood of antecedent states and behaviors connected to the K-12 student (with circularity defined by parents’ tenures in the same generic systems with whatever learning was achieved, or not), connected to a grade band's student learning component, connected to a body of subject matter or process, connected to a teacher (that teacher a product of some system of teacher education, certification and renewal), connected to a classroom, connected to any externally mandated classroom rubrics, connected to a building’s physical enablers or constraints, connected to a system’s model of management and leadership (also connected to unions, vendors and third party sources of knowledge), connected to an organizational model, connected to the culture of a district, connected to taxpayers/voters, connected to a school board supposedly representative of a school’s constituencies, connected to various county educational services or intermediaries, connected to a state education bureaucracy, connected to a governor and a legislature, connected to an army of education lobbyists, test and textbook marketers, connected to the Federal education bureaucracy and selective Federal laws, connected to our Congress, connected to international measurements of national school performance, connected to multi-national private sector demand for educated human resources, and on.

Every “connected” above expresses a complex functional relationship at the root of connectedness, along with inputs, arrangements of the human resources at the boundaries of connected components, and performance outputs and their assessment.  Every linkage may require some model or process that expresses role and operations that make a system function.  Isn't this unnecessarily complicating what's obvious?

The complication is that what's obvious may not be how the game works, and why many of these links become dysfunctional.  Additionally, many of the above linkages need not approach the status of needed formal rules.  Many needed interactions have evolved over time with mutually acceptable, largely internalized ground rules, that when they work simply become in effect common law. When challenges arise because what used to work doesn't anymore, there is a logical void and players frequently retreat to entrenched positions.  

An example:  In the heart of public education's current reform challenges sits a key link to public K-12 success or mediocrity -- the eponymous school board. It sits generically between the public constituency and tax sources, and a school system's management, as well as between upstream state and Federal oversight and a system's compliance.  The role is a tough one under any conditions, but in most states there are few general professional requirements for board service, and in many not even functional literacy is required.  Few board members at least before being seated could pass a comprehensive oral or written exam on the principles and requirements of service on any "board," or on contemporary theory and operations of a public school system, or have served in senior managerial roles where professionals are sourced, vetted and hired.  Folklore and local preconceptions usually form the basis for role definition.  This linkage has been conveniently bypassed by corporate reform, by denial, or perhaps because it was deemed easier to intimidate children and teachers deprived of the countervailing power of teachers' unions than adults who may also be politically connected and sub-cultures that applaud ignorance.

This by-the-way, is not an endorsement of teachers' unions, that generally deserve present attacks because of decades of self-centric and dogmatic refusal to recognize and respond to, and have blocked public K-12's need for change. The role of and need for countervailing power in democratically-driven societies is well documented, even if it is hard to see its expression in the current U.S. Congress and the resolution of other contemporary U.S. societal and economic issues.

Education Quantum Mechanics

How characterize this highly complex reality in some common sense terms?

As a market theorist, convenient shorthand is depicting it as a large n-dimensional multivariate system subject to some of the magic of statistical modeling when you can put dimensions and numbers on the parts.  Unfortunately, that ethereal depiction does not help much.  Another conceptualization is to visualize our public schools nationally with the kinds of counts that characterize our U.S. Census; good counts of schools stratified by size, by location, by the socioeconomic and cultural properties of their location, by learning strategies employed, by their costs of delivering their function, by their educational results. 

Perhaps the most graphic description, if one is digitally current, would be to see the grand system as a “cloud,” a' la the servers in the virtual sky that now exist in anonymity warehousing your digital everything.  That depiction has virtue; a sprawling collection of organizations, not truly homogeneous, with complex interactions of the set pieces, spread across 50 states and thousands of communities, semi-autonomously governed, and not historically prone to collaborations as much as competition.

A repeat of the earlier question, why does moving beyond just common sense and what we can see and experience have to be injected into depicting public K-12?  We think we know what our schools are, they all basically look alike once past the bricks and mortar.  Aren’t they essentially doing pretty much the same thing, the same way, given similar teacher and administrator training, similar certification, similar textbooks, possessing pretty much the same knowledge?  The answer is the distinction between the tricks our minds play in creating what we want or expect to see, versus the way those crazy little fundamental particles behave via hard laws to create our and every other object’s substance and properties.  When those components result in a sentient being, add intellect, attitudes, opinions, beliefs, and free will.  Education in any formal setting, and all of the preparation and paraphernalia leading to its accomplishment, are the product of human endeavors that range from random to despotic through the Goldilocks zone of reasonable and intellectually defensible propositions. The photons our eyes physically register are not what our brain “sees.”

Hence the argument, as in any version of the science of knowledge, is that facts, schemes for categorizing and appraising them, precise definitions, measurement, and rules for understanding what we measure are the sine quo non of actually “knowing.”  While adopting any analytical approach depicted to study education may seem mind-boggling, it really is not if there were already in place the mechanisms to put some substantive descriptive and data meat on those bones.  That selective failure in the case of our public K-12 schools is a national disgrace, also in part precipitated by our public systems’ sclerosis of transparency for decades, the reluctance to open systems for public critique.

The need is a national standardized census (rather than depiction by narrow and flawed standardized testing and “grades”) of our public K-12 systems, gathering instead of the politically correct and bureaucratic Federal NCES parameters, a competent survey of what each system is, how it is functioning, embedded values and culture, its resource qualities, and how it assesses performance.  This is hardly rocket science, being the guts of market analysis by the private sector that has been solidly in place for over six decades and repetitively refined to guide businesses' market strategies.  This is also a failure that could be corrected, and that should have preceded the deployment of NCLB, RTTT, billions of Federal dollars to bribe states, the testing imposition, state grading, and the damage all have inflicted on competent higher order K-12 learning in the U.S.

Assessing Our Public Systems

The framework implied above is what would be termed in explanatory theory as a cross-sectional versus dynamic model, the latter additionally portraying the functional activities and interdependencies that create a system’s actions and performances.  That action view is made more complex by introducing time and longitudinal change in performances and results.  Lastly those sequences in turn are governed by how the organization defines its mission, employs and stages resources, and how it values and measures both inputs and assesses its performances.  In traditional parlance, our systems are mediated by both macro (market/large system) and micro (school and local system) variables and forces.

Reminiscent of the grandiose but flawed rhetoric for the weeks of Federal governmental closure, public education catcalls from the sidelines have proclaimed public education is failing, or it isn’t failing, or it has failed historically, or feature states’ self-congratulation for cranking out school system letter grades that offer little valid school assessment.  After activating some neurons, ask:  How, given the interactive complexity of our public system as defined above, coupled to the diversity of those component systems in virtually every aspect of schools' functions, and reflecting student diversity, do you assign a simplistic letter grade to a school?  How given that same diversity, is there any credibility in comparing even a pair of schools in unequal settings, much less 100,000 schools across 50 states.  It seems doubtful an inflexible grading model could be successfully applied to differentially rating ubiquitous supermarket dressed chickens?

Recently published, Professor Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error, “…focuses on what she sees as hoaxes aimed at winning private control of education and suggests solutions, many of them addressing the challenges of racial segregation and poverty.  ‘Public education is not broken,’ she writes. ‘It is not failing or declining. The diagnosis is wrong, and the solutions of the corporate reformers are wrong. Our urban public schools are in trouble because of the concentrated poverty and racial segregation. ... Public education is in a crisis only so far as society is and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has destabilized it.’”

This writer believes that Dr. Ravitch, as much as her history in education and expertise are admired, is as wrong in her recent assessments as are the opposite judgments coming from the corporate reform movement she rips.  Does Dr. Ravitch really believe she speaks for 100,000 schools, holding pragmatically less objective information on that super system than even some of the reformers.  At least many states, even the testing companies, and Bill Gates’ funded efforts, have made some attempt to gather K-12 performance data.  In drawing inferences about our composite public K-12 education system, virtually all of the critics are operating without reference to representative samples of performance; they’re navigating on the basis of haphazard observations that also occur with the inevitability of human bias.  The argument is that both sides of this debate, if not wrong, are subject to a “Scotch verdict,” not proven.

Sampling a few systems does not prove our public K-12 schools as a grand system are failing, or have failed.  Unfortunately, the U.S. NAEP studies and international PISA studies suggest they are underperforming for the resources committed, and the recent OECD study suggests that has been the case for some time.  Are these studies adequate diagnostically to support upending U.S. public education?  Rationally, probably not.  But do they also suggest that the U.S. has been remiss in not doing that diagnostic work on the grand system, and that a vast majority of our public K-12 schools has been remiss in blocking transparency, practicing denial, and rejecting self-reform?  

Yes, on both counts.  The “yes” is backed up by admittedly small numbers, but in depth observations of systems that display the superficial trappings of acceptable public K-12 performance, but digging deeper reveal areas of incompetence, unethical operation, or simply never being equipped to properly recognize the complete public education mission or how they must perform to support it. 

The additional property of U.S. public education, product of American simplistic views of governance, visceral rejection of some national learning standards, and socialism paranoia, is “local control.”  In the real world, local control of public schools has long been nibbled away by needed reforms to bolster equitable function and satisfy state/Federal mandates.  But also, reality, local control in bubble communities leaves enough room to make ignorance of contemporary knowledge, sports obsessions, inherited social customs, and community-centric thinking the most prominent precursors of local school strategies.  When the four are combined even the most reasonable interventions to modernize K-12 learning are generally rejected.  The nation’s current reformers have heavily targeted public schools serving the disenfranchised where major learning gaps occur; however, major contributors by count to U.S. public educational mediocrity among the world’s developed countries are equally likely many of America’s “Pleasantvilles.”

Lastly, relating these arguments to present reform philosophy, the question that needed to be asked as early as launch of NCLB was:  Can narrow, focused, and punitive emphasis on only one class of assessment of public school performance effectively (and responsibly) modify the upstream interactive series of strategies, choices, resources and practices of a school system to produce sustainable learning performance?  Making that reform mantra a monolithic tactic, ignoring all of the other processes and components contributing to learning change, even if it forced some adaptive behavior, was a highly risky strategy.  It left no wiggle room to recognize the internal mechanisms that had to change, nor acknowledged the inputs to regroup if the approach failed.

One of those mechanisms critical to change has been attacked by alleged reform -- our public school teachers -- but with such a blunt instrument (VAM) that our systems are being denigrated rather than improved.  The other side of that coin is whether, given the present models of teacher training, our K-12 teachers are being supplied the cognitive awareness to be professionally self-aware, and given pragmatically the self-analytical tools to either improve classroom operations on their own, or to recognize the research and modeling from third party sources that offer that opportunity.  Too frequently, the image of many teachers is adherence to history, or inherited techniques, or rolling over to accept the latest administrative approach to surviving the testing and state grading assaults.  Metaphorically, it invites teaching that becomes the equivalent of "painting by the numbers."  In fairness many excellent and committed teachers do recognize the issue, but are bullied or succumb to interventions to support a system's administrative judgments.  The latter have even less credibility in many public schools – for reasons of inadequate recruitment and training – than the teacher products of present collegiate schools of education.

Both sides of the public school reform debate are likely wrong; there are material public K-12 numbers of systems guilty of under achievement, and some failures; but the present reform model based on testing terror tactics arguably will never sustainably modify the causes.  Making better decisions on both sides of the argument means having a valid and more robust conceptual model of school organization and schools' functions, better data, working with better tools for creating and testing classroom tactics for learning, and operating pragmatically rather than driven by passion and ideology.

Hit Pause

Part Three of this series will focus on the topic crucial to enabling competent changes in public K-12 in the trenches – identifying the mission, and recognizing when you’ve succeeded or have drifted off course.  If the raison d'etre is not to be the scores on standardized tests, or surviving a state’s arbitrary letter grading scheme, what is success in achieving learning?  And critically, how do you validly and reliably measure schools’ learning successes (or failures), and aggregate such observations into some composite school rating scheme?  

Part Four will probe the factors that inhibit or derail internal K-12 public school reform – where change will have the greatest acceptance and impact – and what are the school and external factors that inhibit self-motivated local reform?

Lastly, Part five will try some national divination, projecting for roughly the next decade system environmental factors that might drive public K-12 change:  The trajectory of the need for K-12 learning, and how its specifications might change; how the causal factors for school success may shift or allow factor substitutability; how technology could impact public schools; and how national civic changes that may occur, whether applauded or not, might effect policy changes throughout our public grand system?

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