Thursday, January 9, 2014

Reflections on Public K-12 Corporate Reform in a Receding 2013


This is a postscript to the prior Edunationredux post on “nature versus nurture” as explanation for success or failure of present public K-12 reform strategies.  While previously asserting a blog on hiatus, the holiday respite, and the “polar vortex” time-out created opportunity for reflections on whether U.S. public schools are positioned, thanks to 2013’s developments, to be better or on track for more conflict in 2014?

Reflections on a Year's Posts

If word count of rhetoric about public K-12 reform was an analog for wisdom of the current evolved patterns of public school challenges now transferred to our states, America’s public education system would be soaring.  That it is not, as evidenced by muted results from the bodies of testing heaped onto its students and teachers, should carry a message to our nation.

Techniques, Tests, and Technology Are Not Strategy

An issue is that over time, school and classroom tactics, and local complexity, have muddied the focus needed on the core strategic factors, players, and movements that have become reform’s footers.  Tactical improvements have emerged in classroom pedagogies, in technology, from neural research findings, in school administrative attitudes, and in teachers’ commitment to the learning mission, but the assertion is this collective will not modify the basic public K-12 system.  There is no coherent core to present reform; though ideologies and motivations may be discrepant for players from The Business Roundtable to Obama/Duncan, actions have by ignorance and misplaced passion similarly evolved to the present motif of testing, VAM, grade, and punish.

Literally as this was being framed, the monthly online offering from eSchool News appeared in my inbox.   Infuriatingly optimistic, packed with the latest technology and gizmos that might fill a classroom and create new markets for tax dollars, the articles are bubbly and oblivious of the reality that this educational equivalent of the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show has no foothold in real learning reform. 

Another problem is that the message is not even vaguely understood by most of our population, and likely by most of the state legislatures slavishly, and frequently unthinkingly, politically conforming by plugging state grades for schools as a mechanism to force remediation.  Widespread adult ignorance about how learning happens K-12, coupled with highly variable local control, has created a culture where school mediocrity is simply accepted by the public as good enough, tragic distortion of the anthem that “perfection is the enemy of good.”

Plunging to the bottom line, the three-decade odyssey of corporate reform has been a loser; there is no kinder depiction of the misplaced ideologies, partisanship, preoccupation with classroom magic, dogmatism that has blocked acceptance of better models for learning, and public education’s own follies that have produced that effect.  But at this juncture, blame isn’t even good prologue.   Let the historians sort the culprits.

What Constitutes a Strategic Difference?

Our nation’s system of nearly 100,000 public schools is in some learning nether land.  There are likely great public K-12 schools – that have with guts simply finessed the testing misdirection – achieving the learning more prescient critics have called out as the mission.  There are schools mediocre but feigning excellence, and there are still losers not called out by present testing. 

Perhaps the first, most pejorative big picture is that we are simply blindly swinging at our school performance challenges because there are no comprehensive data.  It will take a national census of all K-12 schools and classrooms, going beyond counts of free lunches, to construct a platform for good diagnoses of where and how public K-12 learning is failing.

The second strategic factor is the mixed bag of local control.  There are likely knowledgeable BOE also possessing the awareness that local control is applicable to local tax-based funding, and some education issues, but that contemporary learning has ceased being “local,” and their students exit to a world arena if they have been fortunate enough to acquire the contemporary knowledge that will now produce a job.

A third major outcome set reflects recent research findings indicating that children in environments characterized by poverty and related disadvantages experience in early childhood physiological neural development deficits; not just neural net development issues, but actual deficits in neural gray matter.  These findings, if they do not totally invalidate the Obama/Duncan approach to erasing related learning deficits, do throw a major monkey wrench into reasoning and ideology that have cost America double-digit billions of wasted Federal reform dollars.  More egregious than the dollars, a dogmatic U.S. Department of Education leadership, by failure to think in terms of contingencies, has heaped on public K-12 education a decade of major opportunity costs.

Fourth on the list, hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into trying to turn multiple-choice, and now computerized testing into the proverbial silk purse, and attacking any critique of standardized testing.  In a smarter reform league, the thrust would have been doing the research still in arrears to discriminate the learning models most applicable in early learning stages, versus later styles and learning progression, and develop testing models that mirror higher order learning.  This and retro classroom methods beliefs are, in turn, the strategic legacies of our collegiate schools of education, that checked out of the learning game decades ago, shunning the academic integrity and prescience to reform the genre.

A fifth and almost inexplicable piece of public school insanity has been the “zero tolerance” mindset that has inflicted unjustified harm and jeopardized children’s futures.  It has been a mindset – ranging from knee jerk reactions to silliness – that was never backed up by sound reasoning and psychological intelligence, but was simply adopted slavishly by public school leaderships seeking to deflect political criticism.  The backlash to this chunk of public education malfeasance has finally overtaken practices abhorrent to a rational society.

The last strategic item is likely to provoke both debate and defensive cries if not attacks on the messenger.  It is, that a material fraction of public education’s administrators is presently unfit or ill-prepared to manage our nation’s public schools.  Public education’s managerial class has come off the rails over several decades.  Reasons are multiple and complex:  The roles of a superintendent have become far more complex, attracting human resources who are not “Mr. Chips;” there is a major dearth of contemporary managerial awareness in those who seek administrative assignments in K-12, a product of incompetent collegiate education for managing education; public K-12 organizational design is obsolete and has been for a half century, leaving slack for superintendents and administrative specialists to define roles and manipulate resources without adequate oversight; and that same failure of much local BOE oversight (fully analogous to failed oversight of private sector ethical dysfunction) has allowed the emergence of Lord Acton’s dictum, power that turns even potentially competent administrators into ineffective and self-righteous leadership. 

Who Should Be the Change Agent?

While identifying the culprits in the learning destruction being created among public schools may be a chore for the historian, there is one question that must be on any future change agenda – that is, how did a system of almost 100,000 schools, and almost 3.5MM teaching and administrative human resources, allow ideological and partisan manipulation of the public system to go forward without protest of the effects on the learning of a nation’s children?  Did our teachers’ unions myopically fumble the most important role of the countervailing power they corralled?  Are our teachers and administrators simply a generation of cowards?  Does the old chestnut, “those who can’t do teach,” contain some truth?  Does the concept of “servant leadership” need to be the tattooed on every newly minted school CEO?  For, based on the earlier arguments, and from prescriptions of our best and brightest for organizational learning, the only coherent potential mass culture for actually reforming public K-12 has to be the public education establishment itself.

If there is an overarching strategic issue that fades the proliferation of technical and tactical mechanisms for change, and that determines whether a future America will get back into creating public education excellence, it has to be, when will public education’s professional work force demonstrate the courage and intellect to step up and take back its public schools?  If that means stomping on a teacher’s union, or taking up a collection for Arne Duncan’s ticket back to Chicago, or booting an arrogant or dysfunctional superintendent or principal, or challenging an uninformed BOE, or telling a sub par state education department to go back to school, or calling out parental failures impeding their progeny’s learning, or making a bonfire out of state standardized tests, perhaps that is what it is going to take.

An interview with Lee Iacocca (of Chrysler fame, and resurrecting a quote by Thomas Paine – “Lead, follow, or get out of the way”) in a recent national magazine caught my attention.  The interviewer’s questions drifted to the state of present U.S. leadership.  Mr. Iacocca’s response mirrors the binding constraint in getting U.S. public education as a class to get out of its foxhole or off its knees and tackle reform.  It was:  “Where is the outrage?” 

Great question.