Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Mile Deep, Part 5: Public K-12 2025

The Model, the Reality

For events and populations that are reasonably stable, and not always in play as a function of multiple societal systems, the standard model for forecasting frequently works to a point.  Define your externalities, concept the mechanisms that link those changes to your subject for prediction, factor in how longitudinal change operates for your target, extrapolate the external factors, and crank out some predictions, along with tolerances.  

Surprisingly, extrapolating what America’s public schools might be able to access in a dozen years is not complex; for most of the technology or structural change that could be in place is either gestational or already in motion. But as it turns out, our public schools prove a dysfunctional target for any standard model.  William Shakespeare eloquently stated our difficulty:  It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.

As the blog transmittal asserted, the zemblanity missile hit home with something of a vengeance, puncturing some better-angels' assumptions.  

The event was an exchange this week with an otherwise apparently intelligent school board member of a large public system in an otherwise education-driven Midwest city, about a defensive, manipulative System-sponsored community conversation on charters. The expectation might be that the properties of present public K-12 reform, on the table and visible for at least most of this century, are recognized and factored into public school board thinking.  The correspondent articulated the following question:  “…what [xyz system] could do to close the gap (perceived or otherwise), and eliminate the need for charters.”  That the question was even asked by a board member of a major system suggests naiveté, or denial, or dissembling that is breathtaking in 2013 and post a dozen years of NCLB.  

One can project a school bus load of meaningful changes in technologies and ways of thinking about U.S. K-12 learning needs and strategies, but all hinge on perceptivity and objectivity of local boards, and public school administrators and teachers in the trenches being able and willing to come to the party.  Self-awareness and objectivity, and our public educational establishment, may have become an oxymoron; in turn, media refusal to address K-12 public education's reality swamp may be as causal as its own shortcomings in inflating the present corporate reform debacles.

Event two was more benign, serendipity, coming upon video of a recent New York Times’ interview with Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, referencing his (and co-author Jared Cohen’s) most recent book, The New Digital Age.  As Google may be its most influential producer and driver, words to heed.  The take-away from the interview – broadly reinforced by virtually every contemporary assessment of technology change by those with that expertise – is that the capacities for agile communication will mushroom over the next decade, applicable to learning, bringing along an unprecedented degree of connectedness.

Invention Versus Retrenchment

A proposition, the sum of what U.S. public schools will reap within the forecast horizon of Part 5’s mission, is that the mass of public K-12 will, by virtue of an assumption of entitlement from near monopoly, and from misreads of learning needs, be subjected to stresses and even challenges to continued dominance of pre post-secondary U.S. education delivery.

While that may provoke indignant protests, it is worth noting that a similar even more radical forecast is being floated for U.S. higher education; that by 2025 25-50 percent of American higher education establishments will be in bankruptcy.  The basis for public K-12 prognostication is that the same core factors will eventually be in play for public schools.

For public K-12, what are the properties that may shape the 2025 future?

Learning, how it happens.  Neural science and research are upsetting most of the deductive modeling of learning that produced pedestrian to just plain wrong educational methods dominating our schools of education.  Not only has public K-12 eschewed these findings, a reactionary component of public education is trying to reassert the approaches, also embedded in the so-called “common core.”

Organization of K-12?  The present model has dominated our schools for a century, even while there have been revolutions in how work is organized.  What is the prospect of sudden realization that current K-12 organization and roles are obsolete?  History suggests probabilities lower than the Tea Party’s sudden endorsement of ACA.

That the socioeconomic and cultural environments that inject a disproportionate share of K-12 learning challenges for children will suddenly reverse and prosper?  All intelligent political and economic assessments suggest that within that horizon, the problem will likely worsen.

Magical transformation of public school teachers?  In spite of some clusters of good to great teachers and competent teaching, unless collegiate schools of education totally retool and dramatically change recruiting, the vision of “Teach for America” may be increasingly expected to dominate K-12 human resource replacement in classrooms that persist as presently configured.

Oversight of our public schools will suddenly become perceptive, visionary, and project critical thinking, as our states massively upgrade how school boards are selected and equipped for their roles?  Roughly on a par with IU’s or Purdue’s 2013 football team winning the BCS.

Technology?  Our education reactionaries scoff, pejoratively viewing ill-informed versions of “computing” as the basis for assessment.  In the meantime, virtually all technologies changing the game in communication and learning are on amazing trajectories, reshaping social exchange of every form, and will continue that course whether public education likes it or not, because quite simply, it doesn’t have a vote.  Complicating the technology variables, public K-12 by virtue of myopia and bureaucratic decision processes, will for that dozen years always be behind the power curve and increasingly obsolete.

An interim view, there appears substantial reason why the mass of present public K-12 education is on a slow-motion collision course with things and processes that are central to accomplishment and sustainability of its normative mission -- while U.S. public education as a class is mired in a bureaucratic dance being conducted on a field of soggy clay.

But a prompt disclaimer, all public systems are not created equal.  Self-evident, but an easy error in judgment when viewing the mass of public K-12 education, is discounting outliers and marginals in a population of 100,000 schools, both the exemplars and the losers; there will be leaders who rise above their indoctrination and push both creativity and rigorous, state-of-art learning, as well as education’s players a couple of sigmas down the quality continuum lacking the needed value systems and ethics to serve.

Forces for Change

Juxtaposed with public education’s change inhibiters are the inventions and developments that will effect K-12 learning into 2025:

Computing:  Because it is high profile, “computing” has to be targeted as critical on the force list.  Noted earlier, computing in our schools generates heated exchanges about its real learning effects.  There is, however, a quixotic quality to the cynics:

A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, might have been the first to raise the alarm about the effects of information overload. In a landmark book, he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both "confusing and harmful" to the mind. The media now echo his concerns with reports on the unprecedented risks of living in an "always on" digital environment. It's worth noting that Gessner, for his part, never once used e-mail and was completely ignorant about computers. That's not because he was a technophobe but because he died in 1565. His warnings referred to the seemingly unmanageable flood of information unleashed by the printing press.”

Beyond the ever-present human capacity for skepticism and tunnel vision, the notion of computer (and contrasted with computing) is barely understood in many circles, even or especially in public K-12 education.  Assisting purely neurally-driven human processing of numerical language has some precedents:  The Roman abacus, c. 1400 BC; the Greek Antikythera, c. 150-100 BC; Napier’s demonstration that multiplication and division could be executed with addition and subtraction, 1617; Pascal’s mechanical calculator, 1642; Babbage’s calculator, 1822; ENIAC, an analog computer, 1945; and on. Computing is neither a new addition to human learning, nor one to be easily dismissed as just a “computer.”

To showcase the trajectory of digital technology, the writer’s introduction to hard-wired programmable computing actually occurred with an IBM 407 accounting machine, using punched cards, in 1957.    Between 1958’s IBM 650, with a 2,000 10-digit computer-word drum employing vacuum tubes, and a low end PC or Mac in 2013 with gigabit CPUs, a terabyte of RAM, and as many as eight MP cores operating simultaneously on the same real estate, computing represents a new level of human calculating understanding, driving logical thinking and problem solving, through artificial intelligence, that has changed learning as well as math, science, and all related fields.

Rapidly developing, the combination of miniaturization and mobility has now basically changed communication, therefore by definition, even the way learning occurs.  For now the subject of puns, Google Glass and its likely successors will fundamentally change the way learning can be created and supported.

The flipped classroom.  In a few short years the concept of the flipped classroom – “a form of blended learning in which students learn new content online by watching video lectures, usually at home, and what used to be homework (assigned problems) is now done in class with teacher offering more personalized guidance and interaction with students, instead of lecturing” – has taken off in K-12, and demonstrated learning improvements over the traditional “sage on the stage.”  A version of that learning approach, termed “mastery flipped classroom,” goes further, relaxing the arbitrary rigidity of traditional grade band performance limitations, moving students along a learning continuum based on mastery of antecedents of the next level of learning.

The rise of MOOC.  MOOC, or massive open online courses, have created and mastered a major learning curve in opening some of the best of course construction and knowledge dissemination to national audiences, in many cases unencumbered by the bureaucracy and artificial constraints of traditional institutions.  Far from the off-the-grid early sources of mail and distance education, MOOC are being created by America’s best universities, including MIT, Harvard, Stanford, et al.  Still being absorbed by educators reactionary to creative destruction, and even simply change, MOOC are pragmatically reshaping higher education, and beginning to trickle into 9-12 education.  By 2025, the MOOC may have so penetrated the genre that public K-12 will, possibly against its will, be seriously modified.

An attendant development, less heralded than the MOOC, and more esoteric but with great portent, has been the progress in making AI, or artificial intelligence a basis of practical mechanisms for assessment, for example formative assessment.  A link, between online learning and AI, has been quietly developing.  “Big data,” a euphemism for our capability to collect massive amounts of data, literally from the keystrokes of those using online learning, when combined with algorithms that can analyze from the online activity the patterns of learning or difficulties in achieving mastery, can enable guidance mechanisms for improving learning.

It has become axiomatic that public K-12 has been incapable of staying even within contact of these developing methodologies.  Prototypically, public schools’ technologies are obsolete before most are fully installed, and certainly before the costs have been rationally amortized.  Part of this is because IT in most public schools is either obsolete or was never competent.  Part may be no fault, simply that public schools are so wrapped in bureaucratic rules and regulations that they cannot be responsive to either the pace of technology development or the rate at which those learning can assume more of the responsibility for their own knowledge performances.  An argument is that adoption of BYOD, or bring your own device, along with common protocols for software assignment, might be necessary to bring public K-12 up to anything resembling technology currency.

Project- or problem-based learning is not a new learning modality, but has begun to be heard again from the markets for our K-12 graduates.  This pedagogical approach spiked a few years ago, managing installation in public systems that at least had the right instincts for enhancing learning.  However, in parallel there developed a commercialized, for profit version of PBL, both naive and perhaps a case where the cure is worse than the disease.  Systems that lacked the insight to discriminate real constructivism from these near scams installed the curricula, now difficult to shed without the ego-busting exercise of admitting poor decision-making.   A local system is an egregious example of the intellectual faux pas.  The [xyz] system earlier referenced may be an even more flagrant example of 9-12 education fraud.  Flunking execution of the legitimate "New Tech" curriculum model, the system to save face is proffering questionable application-based programs at a high school level that defy higher education competence, shorting its students both an education and awareness of reality in high level practice.

An interesting testimonial to the generic model, however, is linked here.  The source, an effort titled “The Future of Work,” has both academic and private sector credentials.  As those who have peddled the “corporate reform” testing approach to changing public schools begin to realize that its products don’t equip our students as hoped, there may well be a resurgence of interest in reincorporating in curricula legitimate PBL programs and resources capable of executing the approach.  A challenge, and critical issue, a public school’s traditional teaching force is generally incapable of executing the model with validity much less excellence.  Constructivism use implies reinventing some of the traditional approaches to acquiring classroom leadership, an area where both the education establishment and its unions have been too timid or paranoid to go.

Assessment?  Lastly, it is slowly emerging that narrow and stylized standardized multiple choice testing represents the bottom (true-false could be the literal bottom) of the intellectual barrel in assessing learning K-12, all in spite of attempts to dress the model in mathematical and statistical rigor.  GIGO, or garbage in, garbage out, a last century computer anthem is still applicable.  What is slowly emerging is a resurgence of prior work on alternative assessment models that recognize both Gardner’s “multiple intelligence” concepts, and that better reflect genuine understanding and performances along with their application to new situations.  Unlinking some learning from public schools, and pushing for development of alternative assessment models, fit the technology environment Google's Eric Schmidt foresees with some credibility.

The Bottom Line: 2025

There is good reason for questioning Part 5’s target of 2025 for a forecast; that is, that a massive public K-12 system of 100,000 schools and 15,000 boards, in fifty dissimilar states, created and entitled over a century, exhibiting entropy, is not going to be an agile performer.  Perhaps 2025 is the half-life of any change in the venue, but let's go with the original proposition. 

The original question:  What will U.S. public K-12 look like in 2025?

A first proposition is, from high altitude, not very different on the surface than present public K-12.  In a dozen years one can only turn over roughly a third of the human resources that drive a public system, and the vast middle majority of public system mediocrity will still either be just surfacing from denial or still resistant to change.  U.S. public schools will remain:  A fragmented system; suffering the downsides of local control; subject to the differential politicized points of view of our states; lacking a common intellectual model for learning; operating with obsolete organization; and still prone to reclusiveness that evades accountability and censors calls for change.

Second, as forecast by the education cynics on technology, there won’t be a technological renaissance in K-12, but not for the reasons usually advanced.  It will happen because most present public K-12 systems are incapable of both understanding and applying emerging technologies, as well as institutionally because they are computer junkyards rather than the crèche for new applications.

Third, not all of those 100,000 public schools fit the above generally pejorative assessments of K-12 trajectories of human resource management and classroom competence.  There will be a segment of creative systems and leadership with a commitment to change that performs even if it is disruptive.  The serious effect of the contrast between systems that reinvent, and those that won’t, is that over even a dozen years the gap between the performers and the laggards will enlarge.  Present reform efforts may succeed in shoring up some of the floor, but they are counterproductive in raising the ceiling, and offer little chance of reducing public K-12 performance variance.

Four, there appears little optimism that our misdirected schools of education will find their bootstraps even in a dozen years, embedded in higher education enclaves already highly resistant to critique and change.

Five, the rate of change in technology will not abate, may even accelerate with material negative effects on public education, and increasingly bitter debate with its markets and clients who quickly possess and employ far more technology than a public K-12 system can manage.  The bases for this are well defined in the technical literature, highlighting substitutes for silicon that can maintain Moore's Law, while wireless capacities will soar.

Six, the sum of the set pieces, with inertia the primary attribute of the middle majority of our public K-12 schools, the results of the above forces will be:  A slow motion, but pervasive pattern of learning movements simply bypassing public education.  No dramatic changes, but technology becoming fully mobile, MOOC, parental disillusionment, charter nibbling of both enrollments and dollars, teacher sourcing out of traditional channels, all producing even more performance variance across the nation's schools. There will be belated recognition that corporate reform should have begun with school administration/oversight, and ultimately the discovery that double–digit billions of dollars have only nudged school achievement vis-à-vis our international competitors.  With national resistance building to more standardized testing, public education will increasingly be less attacked than written off.  That, in turn, will simply drive  further erosion of confidence in our middle majority public schools, making funding even more contentious, with systems responding by resorting to even more deceptive appeals.

There is by definition no way to anticipate the “black swans” the above muddle invites.  All political forecasts for the U.S. posit continued destructive hyper-partisanship, with its attendant roadblocks to virtually any coherent national initiatives.  A recent study of America’s regions, based on cultures, suggests that we are not the hoped for “great American melting pot,” but eleven near nation-states with highly divergent views on almost every aspect of national policy.  That includes education, hence, an expectation is even more variance geographically in learning performances over that dozen years between politically progressive versus reactionary regions, further embedding partisanship of thinking.

Within some tolerance of the target horizon, the U.S. promises to become a far more do-it-yourself education culture; more learning bypassing school systems, while their roles become more focused and less our nation’s baby sitters.  What appears to be clear, is that public schools as they were constituted in the last century will not return; nor will there be based on entrenched public school attitudes and awareness, anything constituting a K-12 renaissance in learning. 

Reaching for some hope for a U.S. learning future, though a long shot, perhaps the learning modalities exploding with potentials for adult education will assuage public ignorance irrationally demanding local control but simultaneously better and more uniform standards of performance, and contribute to creating better oversight of public schools that has failed worse than the schools?

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