Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Mile Wide, A Mile Deep - Part 4: Public K-12 Self-Reform?


The goal of Part 4 is to speculate why our own public K-12 systems have been inhibited in exercising strategic local control of learning, specifically, initiating self-reform that could satisfy various external calls for change.  Offering singular advantage, the capacity to self-reform, replicated enough times in our states, might have circumvented the current corporate reform movement based only on accountability and standardized testing.  As public school history reveals, our schools have been subjected to stubborn roadblocks to internal change.

The Local Decision Environment

If a public school administrator, trained and vetted in line with last century’s K-12 education values and tools, surveys their domain, it looks pretty formidable.  Paper pushing and bureaucracy attributable to both the Federal government (e.g., RTTT) and states’ frequently compromised education departments, may seem overwhelming. 

Add:  The need to achieve on standardized tests to survive states’ grades; perpetually gearing up for the next levy attempt; tolerating boards exhibiting the same “effect” cited earlier; bureaucratic and usually superficial emphasis on the safety of a school's charges over their learning; while simultaneously peddling sports and feel-good programs to assuage parents. The composite may suck up any energy left to think about the mission of education.  Faced with these demands, it is explicable if not noble that performances veer from competent and ethical practice.

It also doesn’t help that in administrators’ training our alleged schools of education are about a half-century or more behind any semblance of professional managerial theory and practice, of contemporary technology awareness, and few administrators have ever acquired real management practice at a high level.  Even basic IT awareness and skills may be missing.  To ice the cake, the vast majority of today’s teachers, as committed as they may be to education and their critical roles in effecting youth performance, wasn’t trained any better than the above administrators, lacking the skills to research and originate classroom learning change.

Lastly, most U.S. school boards are barely aware of the full learning mission at best, many self-centric and self-important with little understanding of the board role, or having chosen that vehicle for public service for reasons that do not reflect public K-12 oversight needs.  In some systems, democratic process has been so suborned that election is a farce, boards manipulating the nomination processes to perpetuate a particular point of view or value set.  Hence, representation of school taxpayers can be in sharp violation of Constitutional spirit.

But altitude improves perspective of the reform gestalt.  Adopt a systems perspective to view top-down present reform strategies and tactics, and the picture is equally flawed but at this point not overly complicated.  At base, the business interests, the testing companies, a Federal function allowed to turn rancid, and Republican-dominated states slavishly pushing extreme reactive buttons are gathered around a simple reform theme – that punishing public education, and hammering the classroom for quantifiable performance and their version of accountability is the only available strategy.  The perverse tactical set that results makes testing the mechanism to improve “learning,” and illogically in an intelligent world of explanation, the same testing becomes the measure of success and accountability. 

Further souring the barrel of rotten reform events, the process since NCLB launched attracted every ideologue with both biases and outsized personal wealth, and/or was an attractor to a small army of operators who saw the reform model as a major opportunity to acquire a fatter pocketbook or some vector of power with its psychic rewards.

Connections:  The Gordian Knot

While present reform is narrowly conceived, even simplistic, and heavy handed, how public schools evolved over 100 years is not so simple.  Public education history has the ambiance of a Russian matryoshka doll, open one and the next item looms, and on.  That evolution reflects complex layers of influences and influencers, many external to the bulk of public education’s principal members, and with diverse motivations.  What does become apparent is that most of public education’s administrators and teachers have been rendered pretty much passive players at the structural level in their own venues by cabals of outside players and government layers.

There have been major, diverse groups and personalities pushing and yanking public education for a century.  Indeed, the forces are so complex, frequently intertwined, that a few paragraphs can’t begin to scope that landscape for local control.  The best available tactic is to identify the broad eras of influence, and invite the reader to explore the supplied links to more history*.  What is clear is that without reading that complex history it is very difficult to explain how public K-12 has unfolded, and why internal change is challenging.

Recognizing that even this simplification leaves complexity, the eras have been designated as:  Empires, late 19th century to WWII; public education’s search for another model, 1950 – 1980; governors and corporations, 1980 – NCLB; post-NCLB, the testing hammer, VAM and CCSSI.

The early public education influence wave forms around 1895 with Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, and Morgan investing in higher education, then in education for teaching (“to define what teaching should be”), subsequently in a plethora of programs designed to influence public school education.  Ultimately, the Rockefeller, Ford, and Carnegie Foundations both shielded fortunes from taxation and became the dominant influences on schools via a network of grants that influenced what was studied.  Two other motivations are attributed to this period:  That the combined foundations where at a philosophical level committed to building America’s hegemony in the world, including engineering and managing the social sciences via control of education; and allegedly the motivation was to create industrial workers who could read, write, do simple math, take orders, and buy the resultant products.  A link to America’s K-12 futures was Carnegie Corporation’s funding in 1946 of the Educational Testing Service, subsequently controlling most required tests of U.S. educational performance. 

From 1950 to 1980 as public schools expanded, three themes emerged:  "Do-gooders…sought to expand the role of public education in all aspects of what was once family life, such as instilling moral values, providing health and nutrition, fighting delinquency and crime, and protecting children from physical and psychological abuse;” business groups increased presence, for example, in the wake of Sputnik advocating new math and science learning thrusts; and a third cluster of advocates “…looked to public schools as a key means to accomplishing…political or social objectives, such as racial integration, social tolerance, democratic participation, or environmental awareness."  Toward the end of this period, behavioralism, whole-language reading, mastery learning, and spread of standardized testing blossomed.

It is interesting, perhaps prescient, that only briefly did building a smarter nation show up in the narratives for U.S. public education change.

The 1980s saw commissioning and publication of “A Nation at Risk,” declaring that our public schools were failing: And “Another measure of the failure of public education is that almost all institutions of higher education now provide remedial instruction to some of their students.”  Following ANAR states ramped up teacher and testing programs, curriculum changes, and higher performance standards.  Even President Reagan, who had threatened to eliminate the U.S. Department of education, helped increase new Federal money to public education, especially for needy and minority students.

Notably, the states took on the initiatives, devoting the entire 1986 National Governors Association meeting to education.  Their charge to professional educators:  “We will give up regulating inputs and give you more flexibility and control over resources, in return for your commitment to be held more accountable for results.”

This period prior to NCLB produced three models that at least briefly held some sway:  The business standards-driven model; the educators’ accountability model (advocating “…standards and assessments that would support a thinking curriculum…”); and a political accountability model.  The latter model advocated standards, but paid little heed to the specific character of either the standards or assessments; paramount was being able to use the standards to hold educators accountable.  It is easy to now recognize, even before NCLB and the subsequent decade of test- and VAM-driven assessment, this approach’s trajectory.  Similarly, the NGA’s quest for common standards subsequently resulted in the CCSSI and alleged “common core,” but its provenance and flaws have created strong resistance.  In the end both the first two models either failed or partially failed.  A last thrust in the 1990s is attributable to Lou Gerstner then CEO of IBM.  Dominating a number of state education summits, Gerstner further drove the standards-based movement. 

A writer for The New Yorker summed up the action of the two decades:  “I think it’s wrong to say it’s only coming out of business.  But it is right to say that the most important wholesale reform movement of the last generation in American public education has been imposed on educators from without, rather than having been suggested by them.”

The period since NCLB is recent history, and should be known to readers.  But a major finding from all of the above, especially in the period since 1980, there is no evidence that the sovereignty of public education on the street, the public schools you identify with, were ever simply broadly asked to reach for their bootstraps, and exercise the initiatives to reform themselves.

So the argument comes full circle – is such reform possible, what are the barriers, the external ones, and the internal ones?

External Roadblocks

Lead off with the universality of the need for public K-12 reform.  Business recognizes the need for new work force skills and filling competitive needs.  Governments recognize the need for both economic and social reasons.  There is genuine question whether the totality of our public K-12 establishments recognizes the need, or is in denial, or suffers Dunning-Kruger effect?  Beyond the above, a major inhibiter is our citizenry.  Think of it as the “Lake Wobegon” effect; all of our public schools are above average.  When surveyed, Americans regularly call out for improvements in our system of public schools – however, when asked about their local system, it is always above average to great?  But, if sustainable change must happen from the bottom up, this effect immediately impedes reform.

Next is the sheer convoluted mess of players and funding driving present reform.  Because no one wants to overtly violate the Constitution, the back up position is always, it must be subject to local control.  Ceding some change in the present reform tactics will cost some sales and profits, a consequence that in our present society appears likely to provoke intense dissent and lobbying.  In turn, local school boards have proven generally clueless about the reform need, and rarely field members capable of necessary system revision or innovation.  Clarifying top down roles via a series of national summits, if there was some core of leadership, might address the issue.  Getting the present national competitors designating public K-12 reform to agree on a more compact leadership might not be out of the realm of possibility, but only if the political needs and ideologies were not so deeply entrenched.

Reform of our collegiate schools of education could strategically change the game, but that would have lead times of at least a decade even if the ethics and spirit were present to entice those schools to crawl out of their foxholes.

Rigid rules and regulations for schools imposed by our states block the creativity needed for genuine change; a civil service educator mentality blocks change; the de facto monopoly of public schools suppresses the motivation to reform; centralized decisions at the level of state education boards and bureaucracies inhibit; and the political rhetoric appended to any school change both complicates and inhibits reform.

Teachers’ unions, though they currently have been nearly silent, continue to constrain public school changes in how teachers are hired, compensated, managed, assessed, and when necessary, terminated.  In many cases that occurs only because local schools lacking stomach muscles permit the intrusion, or state policy suffers the same affliction.

Internal Roadblocks

No fault, the problem in school reform is no different than changing the game plan in any private sector organization.  The challenge is to change core organizational constructs without losing a beat in business as usual.  Anyone who has managed at a high level in the private sector for any time recognizes the challenge.  An answer is “says easy, does hard;” that is, a combination of creativity, entrepreneurship, organizational support, and a lot of human resource overtime.   The challenge of achieving that in a public K-12 school model is formidable.  Looking beyond the boundaries of what is conventional, there could be a business case for developing turnkey systems that could be installed in schools in shorter periods, but so far that model hasn’t appeared on this blog’s horizon.  However, there is precedent in the private sector among the world’s best consulting firms.

A lot of fault:  The low awareness about reforms needed among a majority of our public systems; too dug in, too self-righteous, too fearful of disruption, too lazy, too ignorant of contemporary education development, too uninformed about emerging technologies that will change the future classroom, too restrained by incompetent boards, or just too overwhelmed to push the right buttons and accept responsibility for making some mistakes? The latter consequence, by the way, is how creative change works in the real world.

Lastly long overdue, is a remodel of the century-old model of public school organization.  There is now sufficient knowledge about human behavior in groups and collaborative arrangements to design organizations to reflect localized need.  The current public school model is both petrified and a Procrustean Bed for evolving learning models.

An Activist Local School Movement

Not politically correct, but present local school designs of a majority of U.S. systems are obsolete.  Local schools are held in at least mild contempt by our alleged reformers – though they are too hypocritical to transparently put the proposition on the table.  Knowledge of learning, based on evolving neural understanding, not simply the deductive models of last century, can drive better delivery systems for students.  The flipped classroom and online offerings promise even near term to modify how instruction is programmed both physically and by teachers.  Though shorted by the standardized multiple-choice testing craze, there are already working assessment models that obsolete the former in function and validity, but need to be made universally applicable.   It is even possible that revolt at a local level, sufficiently widespread, might drive reform of states' collegiate education school programs before they are eaten alive by versions of “Teach for America” that bypass our traditional schools of education.

A perspective to conclude, that movement is possible.  But it will need to be driven at the outset by:  Rethinking school organization; creating some new combinations of players, for example, collaborations of enough local systems to buffer the risks of changing the game; teams that can be risk-takers, that combine private sector resources and thinking with accomplished public school resources and values; and a change in the underlying practice standards that emphasize risk aversion and being held harmless versus reward for jumping some educational crevasses. 

Part Five - Futures

As old as the hills, the first strategic step in any endeavor after defining the mission is spelling out one’s assumptions about the future and the technologies that will be present.  Part Five will eye the crystal ball, but that is actually pretty much showmanship by the performer.  The technologies that will drive the next decade of K-12 education are already embryonic or launched, and already manifest are the rigidities that circumscribe present public K-12 and that need to be dissolved to change national performance.  The question is; will any of the folks who have to change their points of view and neural processing, to nudge our public K-12 systems to another level, have the discipline to do that research and learning? 

*Appendix:  References

There are volumes that dissect public education’s history, some that become pretty bizarre in developing conspiracy theories about the causation for especially its early history.  Appended is a selective sample of seemingly rational linked references that provides more historical detail, but to do justice to the complex history of public education would require far more extensive study.

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