Sunday, December 22, 2013

Public K-12 Reform: Nature or Nurture?


In present debates about alleged reform, our media sites and blogs continue to post reasonable questions about present reform tactics, their effects and effectiveness, and about their authors' motivations.  Parents are increasingly questioning present public K-12 reform tactics, and reciprocally, reformers rationalizing reform failings are now increasingly pointing at parental failures as a contributing factor.  Until now best authorship and assessments have not slowed the stupidity of present expressions of accountability and standardized testing tactics.

With the publication of the most recent PISA and TIMSS international test results, conclusions are firming, both that our public schools remain cratered, and over three decades of flawed reform have also failed.  In turn, the reform call for school "accountability" seems demagogic – our alleged reformers disavow their own accountability. 

In the prior post we presented the convoluted history of how public K-12 reform was shaped, and the players that legitimized the captioning, “corporate reform.”  Quick to recognize and object to any attempted governmental control of corruptible market-driven functions, one has to wonder if our leading corporate edu-hawks will comprehend with equal perceptiveness that over three decades of time spent on the present public K-12 reform movement have metaphorically produced an edu-Edsel?

A Last Revealing Debate

This last Edunationredux blog was billed as addressing a version of the classic nature-nurture debate in K-12 education; whether learning performance failures – especially among children in poverty, or racially discriminated, or culturally deprived, or emerging from single parent households – originate in our classrooms and spring only from our teachers, as frequently asserted by corporate reformers, or in challenged learners’ environments and impacted neural states?

A half dozen books, and several hundred pages of journal material later, there is barely an issue.  From studies and deductive exercises that go back to before the onset of this century, credible and published results demonstrated that the learning deficits being attacked originate with and are perpetuated and reinforced by who you are, by the color of your skin, by the cultures and even the variations of language experienced, by whether you have two parents, by socioeconomic status, by poverty, and by much of what you experience before language is even available as expression.  (A selection of position papers and research results is appended and linked.)

The critics of present corporate reform have robust arguments in asserting that what is pretending to be reform – and especially the ignorant reliance on standardized testing, VAM, and state grades – won’t change learning impeded by the above factors.

Reform advocates, many who have never been in a classroom, maintain those environmentally induced deficits can be overcome, including in the classroom.  Those success stories are more difficult to identify and verify, the latter because in the zeal of that advocacy the assertion is the results have been selective and overstated. 

Perhaps the most prominent example of the “nurture” position is the Harlem Children’s Zone and Promise Academy, used as a model in the documentary “Waiting for Superman.”  Critique of that film’s assertions spawned another film, “The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman.”  Avoiding the extended debate that would accrue to tackling that resolution, two arguments have face-validity:  That highly targeted efforts can overcome the various child learning deficits; but at a cost in dollars and attention that are multiples per student of the prototypical public K-12 school.

In sum, there appears to really be no debate about the core issue, that children encountering U.S. public K-12 with the referenced deficits might be stimulated and nurtured to academically achieve with their more advantaged counterparts.  There is a major challenge in projecting how that can be accomplished within the present resource infrastructure and conventions of public K-12 schools.  However, two recent pieces of research raise the stakes and the barriers to even practicing the nurture model irrespective of resources dedicated.  The research challenges the premise that simply flogging schools and teachers can influence especially the gaps in early grade performance between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers.  It should literally bury the current testing model of reform were its proponents rational.

A Sea Change?

Egregiously, the realities of these learning inhibiters were apparent before a flawed NCLB was launched.  In fact, many of the findings about childhood learning were visible before many of the corporate reform initiatives fully materialized.

A small sample:

The early 1980s public education fetish called “whole language” instruction, versus synthetic phonics, was torpedoed by a seven-year British study.  The research demonstrated that phonics versus whole language reading instruction produced learners 3.5 years ahead for age in reading, and 1.75 years ahead in spelling.  Even comprehension under phonics produced an average 3.5 months advantage.

America’s public schools driven by political correctness and being sycophant to parents have obsessed over time spent in school.  From 1989 to 1995, research demonstrated that high performing systems scored 46 percent better than the laggards because of total time on task, and a third better from rigorous classroom management.  Social/psychological climate, another public system fetish, produced only a seven to eight percent gain over lesser performing systems, and that may well represent an inverted causal sequence.

The effects of various cultural deficits were also apparent last century.  Again, 1989 to 1995, in research comparing households classified professional versus welfare:  A child in the former experienced 3.5 times more parental interactive minutes per hour, and the child heard 3.5 times more words per hour.

Lastly, even the early neural research at that time suggested the least effective mechanism for enhancing learning, whether modal child, or gifted child, or welfare child, was pedagogy focusing on short term memory and deconstructed knowledge.  One has to ask the question:  Were the architects who fashioned the tactics that became NCLB that naïve, or that ideologically venal, or both?

But the following headlines have posted within this last month:

Fear of challenging the reform power cabals appears to have executed an about face, just as calling out America’s societal hang-ups has now left the station.  The latter includes candor about our legislators’ and population’s impediments to doing what it takes to pull U.S. public K-12 out of its crater.  Some comments from some of that population, rather than our pundits, appearing in the last citation:

“In this country, teachers are poorly paid, poorly prepared and generally disdained, while the richest schools and students get by far the most money.”

“…a culture that doesn’t encourage students to strive for knowledge.  We have never been a nation of highly educated people. Just because the modern world dictates that we now have to be, doesn’t mean it will happen unless we swim upstream against a current of dumb popular culture.”

“Too many lawmakers regard teachers as ‘a drag on public finances,’ or resent that many are unionized, or disagree even with the idea of a liberal education.”

“Our backwards system of ‘local’ control and insistence on short-term thinking like keeping costs down will work against this for some time in actual hiring practices. It will take at least another generation to make a difference. But it would be worth it.”

These are just snippets of how conversation about public education has started to change in the public square; these views have now moved from online, in authoritative blogs but still the blogosphere, among the most visible critics of present reform, and into our mainstream press.  That is the good news.

The bad news is that the views are more likely to have gained purchase among intelligent ordinary Americans, than within the places that should be listening – the power centers driving the “corporate reform” abortion, public BOE, and those public K-12 schools still in denial or pleading innocence. 

There is always risk of misrepresenting the gestalt by personalizing K-12 system performances, but what is visible from the locus of this blog is discouraging:  Midwest local school systems that are educationally retro, dogmatically self-righteous, some ethically dirty even to the end of manipulating classroom performance to claim phony excellence, running levy cons, or manipulating BOE elections to maintain an entrenched value system.  Even systems in places that should be intellectually driven – an example metropolitan system in a major university setting – can express either total denial of over 30 years of retro learning strategy and reform movement, or really are examples of Dunning-Kruger effect. 

The voters funding these systems, frequently products of those same systems, are oblivious to where their schools rate versus normative learning excellence, dosing on sports and appeals to local support based on besting some adjacent community, or experiencing outright school administrative venality in misrepresenting performance based on testing while denying transparency.  Unfortunately, our empirically researched “optimism neurons” may natively drive denial of unethical performances and need for change.  Frequently ignorant BOE, clueless about even their own public K-12 system's need for real reform, and local press defensively sycophant to local systems, complete the picture.

Connect the Dots

Two recent studies, still just coming into focus, have basically shaken the reform scenario: The first, neural research from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis; the second, team neural research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Both have employed contemporary brain fMRI and longitudinal techniques.

The Washington University study:

Promulgated October 29, 2013, the first study “…was conducted at an academic research unit at the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis. Data from a prospective longitudinal study of emotion development in preschool children who participated in neuroimaging at school age were used to investigate the effects of poverty on brain development. Children were assessed annually for 3 to 6 years prior to the time of a magnetic resonance imaging scan, during which they were evaluated on psychosocial, behavioral, and other developmental dimensions. Preschoolers included in the study were 3 to 6 years of age and were recruited from primary care and day care sites in the St Louis metropolitan area; they were annually assessed behaviorally for 5 to 10 years. Healthy preschoolers and those with clinical symptoms of depression participated in neuroimaging at school age/early adolescence.”
Measures were: Brain volumes of children’s white matter and cortical gray matter, as well as hippocampus and amygdala volumes, obtained using magnetic resonance imaging. Mediators of interest were caregiver support/hostility measured observationally during the preschool period and stressful life events measured prospectively.”
The findings:  “Poverty was associated with smaller white and cortical gray matter and hippocampal and amygdala volumes. The effects of poverty on hippocampal volume were mediated by caregiving support/hostility on the left and right, as well as stressful life events on the left.”
The relevance:  “The finding that exposure to poverty in early childhood materially impacts brain development at school age further underscores the importance of attention to the well-established deleterious effects of poverty on child development. Findings that these effects on the hippocampus are mediated by caregiving and stressful life events suggest that attempts to enhance early caregiving should be a focused public health target for prevention and early intervention. Findings substantiate the behavioral literature on the negative effects of poverty on child development and provide new data confirming that effects extend to brain development.”

Issuing December 12, 2013, the second study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, was published online by the journal PLOS ONE:

“We’ve known that poverty can have long lasting consequences for childhood development and learning, and this study provides concrete evidence that poverty can change how the brain itself grows,”  said John Gilmore, a co-author of the study and professor of psychiatry at UNC.” 
“By age 4, children in families living with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty line have less gray matter— brain tissue critical for processing of information and execution of actions — than kids growing up in families with higher incomes.

The study used brain scans provided by the National Institute of Health’s MRI Study of Normal Brain Development. The Early Brain Development research team at UNC, including Gilmore, Dinggang Shen and Feng Shi, analyzed these scans using a method they developed for measuring children’s brain volumes. This is an especially difficult technological feat when performed on small and rapidly growing infant brains.”  

“Data from the MRI Study of Normal Brain Development excludes children whose brain development may have been altered by a number of factors: mothers who smoke or drank during pregnancy, birth complications, head injuries, family psychiatric history and other issues. As a result, the findings may underestimate the actual deficit developed by a more representative sample of children from poor families.

The study found no meaningful difference in gray matter between children of middle-income families and those from relatively wealthy ones.”

The major significance of these studies expresses in two obvious implications:  One, the brains of children experiencing the deficits noted were physically changed – this is not simply the formation of new or different neural nets associated with neural plasticity; and second, both sets of findings drive a stake through the naïve heart of the present reform assumptions and tactics. 

Let’s connect the dots.

U.S. Census Bureau data show that the U.S. poverty rate rose to 15.1 percent (46.2 million) in 2010.   The data also reveal that child poverty rose from 20.7 percent in 2009, to 22 percent in 2010, and this is the highest it has ever been since 1993.  Racial and ethnic disparities in poverty rates persist among children:  The poverty rate for Black children was 38.2 percent; 32.3 percent for Hispanic children; 17 percent for non-Hispanic White children; and 13 percent for Asian children.

A more recent headline from The Washington Post: “Study: Poor children are now the majority in American public schools in South,West.”

A Republican dominated and ideologically deformed House is seeking to decimate the SNAP program providing food assistance to children in poverty.  Even more intellectually marginal Congressional representatives are advocating such winners as punishing children for being poor, or having children in K-12 programs where free lunches are provided work out the “gift” by providing school janitorial services; I guess the wisdom of this brand of legislative ideology is embodied in the rocket science that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.”

Bottom line, the dots lead to a primary then concomitant potential secondary education disaster:  Poverty and related child environmental factors not only impede learning process, but more importantly they actually physically impact brain development in a fashion that takes years to remediate under the most favorable conditions; middle income decline and child poverty and its sequela are increasing in the U.S.; unthinking or ethically impaired political ideologies are acting to increase the effects of America's child poverty; and the major billions of tax dollars thrown, by ignorance and its ideological distortion at our public schools, have essentially been wasted along with decades of lead time to make effective strategic public system changes. 

Cutting Through the Bull

There has always been a no-man's land, between the presumption that morality, reason and ethics ultimately prevail, and Lord Acton's dictum that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."  Present reform of public K-12 is an expression of raw power by a combination of the conceited, the ideological, those seeking to create profits from demonizing or privatizing public K-12, and even the utopian well-intended who missed the classroom lesson on the law of unintended consequences.  A prime example of the latter is the ignorance and hypocrisy of the ideologically-driven Obama/Duncan model for forcing public K-12 egalitarianism:  Not only is the testing model ersatz applied to their reform targets, but its imposition has decimated growth of real learning, critical thinking, and pursuit of creativity  among too many U.S. public school children.

The proactive goal for American public K-12 education, however, should now be to drag it off the battlefield of ideologies, and create the opportunity for rational strategic change.  So let's chum the waters. 

Below are proposals, first voiced at Christmas one year ago, for changing the present reform game without giving up the quest.  They were envisioned as at least a decade's plan, labeled at the time as radical to semi-radical.  They required digging deep for the courage and bipartisanship to break some proverbial eggs to get to the omelet.  In light of the ongoing slow motion train wreck that is present corporate public K-12 reform, they may not be radical enough?

Changing the K-12 Reform Game:  Ten (Retrospectively
Not So) Radical Proposals

One, call a prompt time-out on expansion of standardized testing and VAM, backing up the testing to prescribed summative testing at 5-8 and 11 or 12 emulating the NAEP.  That pause remains in effect for at least three to five years while meaningful research and development are funded and executed on public K-12 learning performance measurements relevant to the grade bands.

Two, Arne Duncan is promptly replaced as U.S. Secretary of Education, and the cadre of test and charter advocates brought into that Department by Duncan are replaced with competent educator/theorists and educational researchers.  

Three, put the billionaire dollars being expended to peddle standardized testing to better use by funding legitimate research on alternative models for both testing students for genuine learning, assessing professional performance in K-12 classrooms, and developing true longitudinal assessment of learning transitioning into adult practice.  Parenthetically, rediscover the work of Harvard's Howard Gardner, and establish a research program to seek alternative organizational forms for K-12 schools consistent with contemporary management theory.

Four, for Christmas present, some gifts for the current reformers:  New scripts for Chester Finn, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and a platoon of others; Mr. Obama gets in his Christmas stocking a magic anti-hypocrisy amulet; for Diane Ravitch, a tetrahedron that can be rolled to determine the reform argument she will attack in the next book; for The Business Roundtable, a gift subscription for advance copies of the next three years of Dilbert comic strips; and of course, with compassionate conservatism, Arne Duncan gets a business class plane ticket back to Chicago.

Five, by legislative action, require all subsequent public K-12 testing be created within the education community, by some combination of K-12 and U.S. collegiate assets; the present publishers may in the traditional sense competitively produce and publish the material, and mechanically score tests, for profit, but cannot create or scale any aspect of those tests or results.  All tests need to pass muster, first, by the academic sources of accepted knowledge, i.e., chemistry by chemists, physics by physicists, maths by mathematicians, history by historians, and on; then by a reformed US Department of Education to finally be promulgated.  Erase the present alleged common core, creating legitimate national subject matter academic task forces to develop both a compendium of present knowledge properly scaled to K-12, plus mechanisms to periodically update both curricular contents and networks designed to communicate changes in knowledge to classroom teachers.

Six, launch a true national K-12 school census, managed by a reformed U.S. Department of Education, that actually measures at least once what is happening in all material aspects of our K-12 schools, private and public.

Seven, launch state-by-state legislation that requires all public K-12 systems to go beyond present alleged open records requirements to make transparent all aspects of both system operations and board deliberations, excepting only those topics prescribed by law as confidential.  Make proactive school sharing of teacher qualifications, school policy deliberations, curriculum, textbooks, lesson plans, and handling of all stake holder relations with a school, mandatory on a par with Title One enforcement.  In action by our states, tighten the requirements for BOE election to minimal possession of a post-secondary degree, strengthen the accountability requirements for public BOE along with penalties for oath violations, and install severe penalties for BOE electoral manipulation or fraud.  Require a program of professional external education indoctrination before the elected can be seated.

Eight, first, create a set of national managerial standards for school administration, based on the best knowledge of managerial performance from U.S. B-schools, public administration academic programs, and the principles emerging from contemporary work on organizational design and informatics. Second, over a five year period, require state vetting, recertification, retraining, or repositioning of all public K-12 superintendents and principals. The premise is that this process would be powered by interdisciplinary and public-private human resource teams recruited for excellence from a state's successful practitioners. Third, all future candidates for K-12 school leadership (CEO) positions would require in addition to the requisite teaching education with a subject matter core, an MBA from an accredited B-school or a masters in public administration, all PhD work would be in educational psychology, research methodology, and neural science, with an apprenticeship required before commissioning.  

Nine, require the comprehensive reform or restructuring of collegiate schools of education, potentially changing their position to a function within colleges of arts and science. Require all K-12 candidate teachers to complete an accelerated four-year program featuring three years of subject matter education, with one year of teaching methods and rubrics.  Set new and demanding SAT, ACT, and other admission standards for acceptance in a "teaching prep" concentration.

Lastly, ten, create a national inter-institutional task force, to attempt to bridge the last great gap, the disconnect between K-12 and specifically secondary versus collegiate education in the U.S.  Reconcile the values and goals that have diverged for over a century, along with the deficits of knowledge attending that conflict. Pragmatically, its time is now, because sans critical thought and initiatives some amalgam of private sector interests and non-traditional education -- at the minimum online learning expansion and ad hoc and for profit postsecondary programs -- will further fracture and muddy traditional education infrastructure.

There is no conceit that the above are either comprehensive, fully and properly targeted, or are actionable without massive educational and political effort. But the belief is, that without some major vector change, the present alleged reform movement is capable of and already delivering more national harm than remediation, and continued on its present trajectory, producing the capability to disable rational US public K-12 learning.


This is the last Edunationredux blog for the foreseeable future.  Endless repetition of critique, of the methodologically questionable and poorly assessed choices that have come to dominate U.S. public K-12 corporate reform, is neither an enjoyable nor rewarding avocation.  Over three years, this blog has touched most of the issues that inundate public K-12 challenges to change.  There is no conceit that the attempted reporting and assessments have impacted any material thinking about our systems; but conceived from the get-go as a personal learning experience, the effort has been rewarding and not regretted.

Having read multiple thousands of pages on primary and secondary education over that three years, an impression is that a major failing of our public schools is that their administrations, and even their teachers, paradoxically giving lip service to the preeminent mission of teaching our children to read for effect, either can’t read for effect themselves, or choose not to and fail to challenge their own assumptions and thinking.

When still in higher education over two decades, this writer had the privilege of doing major empirical research, directing research teams, inventing and critiquing concepts, and especially watching students grow intellectually, including repetitively teaching required doctoral research methods seminars.  That latter process was as much learning experience as passionate advocacy of applying the history and logic of science and equivalent rigor to social science questions and needs. 

A concluding comment, therefore, on this blog’s explorations:  Over the 95 blog posts, the most discouraging experience has been encountering the views and behaviors of too many public K-12 BOE members and educators, especially of its administrators, but not because those performances were any less applicable than other critique or this blog’s assertions.

It was because some part of America’s public K-12 education establishment perceives itself above critique; as one critic explained it, perhaps because our collegiate schools of education have historically focused more on creating an educator/administrator persona and installing deductive theory than providing learning about learning and classroom mastery.  The public school human resources encountered over the last decade regularly, dogmatically, and frequently with the hubris of entitlement, appear to reject even the possibility their views might be flawed.  Transparency of their tactics, actions, and even curricula is rejected, even for parents, and even in defiance of open records statutes.

In higher education, or in any other knowledge-driven venue in our society where principles of scholarship prevail irrespective of level – but especially for those charged with educating a nation's children and granted a virtual monopoly of the function – that qualifies as a form of venality and corruption demanding remediation.  It is the other face of need for genuine U.S. public school reform.

Appendix -- References for Further Reading

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