Sunday, December 1, 2013

Public K-12 Reform: The Past in Its Future*


Social scientists and philosophers point out that our society has the propensity to quickly forget the recent past, resurrecting it at a later date but as “the believing brain” reconstitutes it to suppress damage to psyche and ego.  So it appears did awareness of how alleged reform of our public K-12 schools came to be.  In fact, that reform has a tortured 33 years or more history, with many culprits for how it has morphed into present tactics arguably destructive of needed contemporary learning.

Subsequent to the last post, research for the next chanced onto a definitive history of public education reform, telling its story from approximately 1980 on.  Present reform did not begin with NCLB, or even ANAR (A Nation at Risk) during Mr. Reagan’s term.  For reference, this almost singular comprehensive historical treatment is:
  • Jesse H. Rhodes, An Education in Politics:  The Origins and Evolution of No Child Left Behind.  Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2012.  (Available in paper or online via Kindle from Amazon.)
Digging further into references of the era reinforced the narratives from Rhodes, currently a professor in Political Science at the University of Massachusetts.

The Players

Do any of the following ring a bell?
  • Leadership Conference on Civil Rights
  • Citizens Commission on Civil Rights
  • Education Trust
  • National Council of La Raza
  • Business Roundtable
  • US Chamber of Commerce
  • National Alliance of Business
  • Business Coalition for Education
  • National Governors Association
  • Education Commission of the States
  • Industry Week
  • National Association of Manufacturers
  • Committee for Economic Development
  • Business Higher Education Forum
  • National Commission on Excellence in Education
  • Twentieth Century Fund
  • Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
  • National Education Association
  • American Federation of Teachers
  • American Association of School Administration
  • Council of Chief State School Officers
  • National Urban League
  • Children’s Defense Fund
  • Achievement Council
  • National Commission on Secondary Education
  • National Endowment for the Humanities
  • Educational Excellence Network (Finn, Ravitch)
  • National Commission on Excellence (produced ANAR)
  • Southern Regional Education Board
  • Southern Growth Policies Board
  • Citizens’ Council on Women’s Education
  • Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF)
  • National Center on Education and the Economy
  • Consortium on Policy Research in Education (CPRE – Smith, Hornbeck)
  • National Conference of State Legislators
  • President’s Education Policy Committee
  • Education Excellence Network
  • Pew Forum on K-12 Education Reform
  • Texas Business and Education Coalition (TBEC)
  • Forum on Educational Accountability
  • Heritage Foundation
  • American Enterprise Institute
  • Hoover Institution
  • Cato Institute
  • Common Core State Initiative (by the NGA)
  • American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)
Challenged for an answer?  These organizations were/are public K-12's dominant reformers, shaping the game in the influence stratosphere since the early 1980s.  Notably absent, non-union teacher representation, the National School Boards Association, and representation for a hundred million parents and more taxpayers in the trenches funding public education's schools.

Top Lines

Between 1954 and 1980, and with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (part of "the war on poverty"), the focus of school reform was on equity for children discriminated by our systems.  In 1980 the focus, driven increasingly by America’s private sector heavy hitters, shifted to academic performance of our public schools.  Their claim was that public K-12 schools’ academic performance had been allowed to both slip and be diluted by a series of liberal trends.

The logical question, given the imposing list of “reformers” above, and the economic power wielded by corporate leaders, is why reform did not more directly engage those who actually carried the mail in learning; the schools, the teachers, school management, BOE, the parents, and our collegiate schools of education, and address the issues actually impeding greater performance?

Part of the answer is in a 1980 study that found that 68 percent of Americans believed that the “local school board” should have the greatest influence in mediating public K-12 schools.  In general, the reformers' perspective was national or at least a wide swath of American economics and culture, versus the parochialism of local control.  Reformers pushing social equity and national excellence simply chose to not challenge America’s street beliefs, even if they were seen as naive, for obvious political reasons.  The result, a messy collection of top down attempts to legislate or indirectly impose public K-12 reform, and as one might have guessed, a wide range of conflicting goals and a complex of influences among the reformers.

A major portion of Rhodes’ narrative shows how the haphazard collection of the perceived missions of the above education circus settled into four basic reform movements:  Business entrepreneurs; civil rights entrepreneurs; education liberals; and education conservatives.  The least well-defined contingent turns out to be the education liberals, one component our schools of education that have stayed buried in their foxholes, the second unfortunately, too many school systems that see the world only through a local or area lens. 

One observation made by Rhodes is that those collegiate schools, the unions, and many of the public K-12 establishment failed to perceive their own diminished learning performances over decades along with causes, and simply sought more dollars as the “solution” to the nation’s concerns.  That misread likely further motivated the business sector and educational conservatives to seek accountability from public systems, even creating the reflex that punishment was needed.  A second observation made by Rhodes infers that the plethora of players, each with a piece of the mission, produced strange bedfellows – Republicans and Democrats on the same side on standards but not on middle ground on how that works – and leadership chaos, allowing a few human resources to influence the direction of reform without checks and balances.

Reform Unfolds

The intent of the various reform movements, starting even before the 1980s — coalescing into the above four — was never to fully replace public education with fully privatized versions.  It started, Rhodes asserts, with both corporate and public sector support for efforts to increase “excellence” in K-12 (tellingly, that goal was never given an operational definition), which morphed into holding public K-12 "accountable" with “standards,” the contents of those standards equally undefined, magically left to the states, or delegated to testing companies, or left to public K-12 schools arguably unprepared to field the challenge. 

The early movements were, one, responses to demonstrated learning failures of public K-12, genuine failures still broadly in place in our systems.  The second great cause producing competing movements was inequality of learning among children reflecting racial, cultural, socioeconomic, and other disadvantages.  It was the intertwining of large passions, large egos, large dollars, large power blocks, messy even convoluted politics, and likely the best of intentions in many cases, but with negative unintended consequences.

Should you do your homework, a discovery will be that in the run-up to NCLB and beyond, the themes of “accountability” and “standards” took on a life of their own, becoming univariate calls for action rolling over finer definition and more reasoned approaches that might have touched causes for public K-12 malaise.  

With those two words literally becoming the sharpened battle themes and banners for alleged reform, every advocate believing they had the single solution, what magically disappeared from reform thinking were the real internal causes of public K-12 challenges: The relevance and quality of our collegiate schools of education; K-12 administrator quality; viable 21st century organizational and managerial concepts for K-12; teacher quality and training; neural discoveries challenging last century’s deductive classroom methods; BOE selection and accountability; and the meteoric rise of technology applicable to learning.

External to our public K-12 systems, though the business entrepreneurial and education conservatives have drowned out civil rights entrepreneurism, there is arguably evidence that the erosion of the middle class, and continuing discrimination of children in the school environment for the whole range of personal, racial, socioeconomic, and cultural reasons, cause learning performance deficits that can’t be assuaged by beating on them with standardized testing.  (Earlier noted, the last Edunationredux of 2013 will attempt to assess existing research on the learning impediments from those externals.)

A Bottom Line

In assessing how divergent political groups and themes managed to coalesce into “a” reform movement built around standards, Rhodes points out this was not first choice of any side, nor did or could the divergent groups meet in the middle.  If that has a prescient ring for what prevails in our present Congress three decades later, perhaps in a bizarre outcome it demonstrates the power of education?

The most important take away from Rhodes’ analyses, however, may be what was not said, championed, analyzed, and self-evidently not changed by the resulting expression of the reform adventures to date.  That is, rather than seeking an essentially punitive model to try to force change on an overall system that by its very structure and historical preparation will be highly resistant to change, there was no advocacy of functional analyses of how learning happens or fails in public K-12, and the search for causes and fixes for operational shortfalls. 

In plain comparative terms, the ACA didn’t perform because of a lack of good intentions, or even the weight and distortions of the compromises on partisan demands forced in the creation of the law, but because how you plan, elect resources, do the site code – with  perfection, and how you project manage were ignorantly and grossly fumbled.  Public K-12 performance is sliding along not because there is a paucity of good intentions, or because the standardized testing and state grades aren't harsh enough, but because our systems are, point blank, not properly organized, overseen, and managed, with the right resources and tools keyed for the desired missions, if the real learning mission is even recognized versus bureaucratic detritus.

There are two trajectories for meaningful change in public K-12 that may seem counterintuitive,  reform from within, and the coherence of the whole of U.S. public K-12:
  • If as the best of our managerial philosophies assert, change and organizational learning must happen from within the organization, the U.S. has blown over half a professional lifetime trying to legislate improved learning with brute force tools that lack the sophistication to even nudge the issues.  In the end, the unwillingness of any of the reform movements to confront basic truth, that present organization of public K-12, its operational excellence, and its human resource strategies, are factors that out flank jingoistic accountability and alleged standards as barriers to actually reforming public K-12.
  • But, simultaneously, local control of the non-local parts of our public schools, with parochialism shaping what is knowledge, world view, and methods that work is generating failure, the basis for the U.S. continuing to become a follower rather than leader in global markets and an educationally hyper-connected world.
It may take a sea change in our population's view of K-12 education, recognizing it is merely an institutionalized partition of a continuum of learning that will become even more diverse and decentralized with oncoming technological developments.  Further, that local oversight may be obsolete, not needing just greater state oversight, but some competent national models for K-12 design and curricula, with better human resource preparation, one set of information gathering methods to permit valid comparisons, and critically, advanced assessment research to replace present testing.

That Past in Public K-12's Future Stings

The question is, can any of that emerge from the present cabals of self-righteous and politically convoluted reformers delivering:  Policies and operations out of citizen reach; profit-driven testing manipulation that has taken on a life of its own; dug in local K-12 school systems suffering Dunning-Kruger; or a U.S. Department of Education committed to willful ignorance and a politicized "education liberal" dogmatism about how K-12 critical thinking and learning happen?

Public primary and secondary education creativity and entrepreneurship are going to have to become more than the present hollow buzz words of both reform's and anti-reform's talking heads to nudge U.S. public K-12 to another level.

*The inspiration for today’s title belongs to a similar title of an eloquent editorial (on an unrelated topic) by The New York Times’ writer, Roger Cohen.

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