Tuesday, May 27, 2014

College Readiness: Spanning the Gap

Before tackling college readiness, a logical question is, is it worth it?  A study reported in today's New York Times answers the question for now -- definitely!  "A new set of income statistics answers those questions quite clearly:  Yes, college is worth it, and it’s not even close.  For all the struggles that many young college graduates face, a four-year degree has probably never been more valuable.”

Good to Go...Oops?

At the outset the question of college readiness of our public school graduates points at the tactical issue students face; lacking readiness, the prospect is remedial work that increases college costs, extends programs, and is allegedly associated with a reduced probability of surviving to a degree.  A subtext for many treatments of the challenge is, what do our colleges and universities want and why; an alternate premise is the demands are legitimate so how do we either make remedial work less costly or expedite the courses.

Only after fishing through a lot of empty or self-serving rhetoric do the real questions emerge:  Are our public system secondary schools and their strategies inadequate; are their teachers unprepared; are our students inadequately motivated or improperly counseled; is there something basically out of whack with America’s embedded educational strata of public 9-12 versus collegiate organization?  The answers may be yes to all of the above.

Following are expansions of those questions, and some possible answers.  You will need to practice some “hard fun" (work) to build the knowledge needed to traverse the terrain, but the result is worth the effort if you care about our education futures.

Questions and Answers
  • Why are U.S. higher education and secondary public schools not, arm in arm, happily marching together down the learning trail?  Alternate universes?

Synthesis and Conclusions

If the reader does their homework, there are some robust conclusions from the above linked presentations:

Given the dating of the discussions, neither the corporate reformers, nor Obama/Duncan, nor the Gatesian contingent, nor 50 states’ alleged education gurus, nor some unnumbered additional cast did their homework before invoking the college readiness mantra.

The issues separating secondary and post-secondary education are not simply the tactics in the classroom or even curricula employed, but both structural and elemental differences in how learning is pursued.

Lastly, unless higher education reduces its rigor in configuring and presenting knowledge — a pattern already unfortunately evident in too much watered down learning in U.S. community colleges and satellite campuses — the change needed has to come from the public secondary systems feeding higher education.

A dozen years of NCLB indicate that it has failed to trigger the public system changes needed to create that promulgated college readiness.  The fault is not in the stars but in the entrenched resistance to change from a century of entitled public schools, and refusal of the reality that they have not been organized or prepared to deliver that readiness.  

But NCLB, RttT, the very “common core,” and the complex of testing relegated to the private sector were never about real change; they were the updated but still obsolete product of the same early 20th century philosophy that created our production-based conception of public education.  That conception, to puncture some naive bubbles, had less to do with sustainable learning and an erudite population than oligarchy-driven social engineering to ensure a just literate labor force and product markets. 

That quality and testing model failed American industry last century; how did any thinking leadership believe it would work to evolve results far more complex than churning out finite products?  Unfortunately, the answer to that rhetorical question isn’t rocket science.  Flipping open the lids to look inside the respective education systems reveals characters in need of different motivations and scripts.  Real reform means changing the oversight, changing the strategies, changing the way education is implemented and perhaps even the players, with the possible massively challenging need to redo basic structure of the years 9-16 window to the baccalaureate.


Oft cited, rarely practiced in public education, “thinking outside the box” refers to the solution to the 1914 nine-dot (three-by-three box) puzzle, connecting all of the dots with four lines in a continuous line.  The solution requires literally getting outside the box, the mantra becoming a later 20th century analogy for thinking differently and creatively.

If there are viable models for changing principally that 9-16 window of learning, it won’t emerge from business as usual, or present reform, or from public schools suddenly purging self-righteousness and discovering creativity, but from propositions outside that proverbial box, along with the new demands and risks that accrue to thinking differently.  The next Edunationredux will take a swing at that pitch.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Deja Vu: Public K-12 and Reform

The first Edunationredux blog, in 2011, sought to summarize where NCLB, RttT, and an ill-conceived model of "corporate reform" of public schools might track.  Three years later, with the latest results of the NAEP indicating alleged reform is failing, that column is worth reviewing.

Except for the change of a few opening words, dating the blog to the time of our government shutdown, the text remains unchanged.

Sobering.  Enjoy.


The status and future of U.S. public education has become one of America’s head-scratchers.  Attempting to make sense of the different positions on K-12 change reminds one of a TV gambit from the 1960s, a 60 second high speed presentation of graphics about some newsworthy item.  Too fast to register the significance of a single graphic, drinking from a fire hose, the medium was the message, conveying diversity and complexity, defying a normal mortal to comprehend.

Welcome to U.S. K-12 reform, charters, vouchers, Duncan’s duplicity, Gates’ gambits, misdirected acronyms, standardized test hyperventilation, value added (test) assessments to judge teachers, waivers, or whatever is trendy at the moment.   What is not obscure is that the end product of over 350 years of attempted education, starting on our shores before this was even a nation, is now a flat spot threatening to fracture the public education model.

The available lenses to view K-12 change are not countless, but so numerous that the next thousand words wouldn’t exhaust a précis of the approaches.  So, with a nod to practicality, let’s zero in on a couple of roots to frame the issues, and then move to current events.


If you are adverse to ambiguity, or nuance is elusive in your assessment processes, this is a good time to leave this blog.  For in our history of public education there are few straight lines, or simplistic connecting of the dots, or even universal goodness and prescience, including Horace Mann, father of the “common school” movement.  Indeed, there is reason to believe that few current teachers or administrators, unless they have pursued research tracks in education, have a full and clear view of how public education in the U.S. unfolded, or what it has become.

A single example may illuminate the point.  Simply Google “history of U.S. public education,” and prepare to be underwhelmed.  With the exception of a few stand out critics, what you will get is a vanilla, sugar-coated, pristine view of our public education system as goody two-shoes with a sports addiction and wrapped in the American flag.  If you dig a bit deeper, a far more nuanced picture emerges.

Virtually all education on what would become American soil prior to the 17th Century was by and within families.   The principal shift in the 1600s started with the Boston Latin School in 1635, organized to educate clergy and public officials. Massachusetts was the center of gravity of all formal education in this period, culminating in The Massachusetts Law of 1647, decreeing that every town of 50 families hire a schoolmaster.

Through the 18th Century primary and secondary education was open season for training provided by religious organizations, private contractors and companies, and virtually anyone who could set themselves up as a schoolmaster.   But two events in that century presage present education:  In 1787 the Northwest Ordinance stipulated that land in every new state be reserved for education; and The Bill of Rights was passed in 1791, that by exclusion of education made it the province of the states.  Our Founders demonstrated remarkable perspicacity in anticipating how politics might unfold in a new nation, but not unexpectedly, had little awareness of how science and the knowledge thus generated would change the need or format for education in the next 235 years.

An interesting sidelight, in 1779 Thomas Jefferson proposed a two-track education system, for “laboring and the learned.”

The pace quickened in the 19th Century:  In 1821, the first public high school opened, Boston English High School; the McGuffey Readers were published; Horace Mann became Secretary of the new Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1837, launching what would become the “public common school“ movement; but Catholic immigration and schools raised public alarm and bigotry that actually helped popularize secular public school evolution.  It is worth noting that even as public schools proliferated private schools and church schools continued to serve education market segments, frequently being the high end of K-12 performance.

For the next hundred years both educational theory developments and structural evolution around two world wars, and increasing state government sophistication, shaped and hardened public school organization and operations.  The proliferation of teachers colleges and schools of education attached to our universities cemented the philosophies of public schools in place, but with genealogy that traces back to the common school ideologies. Contrary to the belief that teachers’ unions are a contemporary phenomenon, The National Teachers Association was formed in 1857 ultimately becoming the NEA.  The first mandatory student attendance law was enacted in 1852 (Massachusetts), and by 1918 all states had such laws.

Now politically incorrect, but factual, migration of students into K-12 collegiate education after WWII resulted in many of those students coming from the intellectual bottom one-third of the student barrel.  As late as the end of last century, and perhaps to this day, the assertion is that our schools of education are doing an inept job of training teachers, substituting indoctrination in rooted education beliefs for both substantive subject matter knowledge and the flood of neural learning research findings emerging, as well as failing to equip teachers to deal with classroom implementation.  A result has been the heavily hyped but overall inconsequential appearance of programs such as “Teach for America,” that are a drop in the bucket among almost 3.5 million public school teachers, handcuffed to frequently managerially unprepared education administration and highly variable school board preparedness and oversight.

Lastly, what is devaluing contemporary public education, and that set the scene for NCLB, our public schools over the last half of the 20th Century became vehicles of retro education and weak STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) work, dropping the U.S. in world position.  This was complicated by union intransigence and teacher salary relative deprivation, finally precipitating a clumsy NCLB signed into law in January 2002, mandating high stakes student testing and school yearly progress requirements based on those tests.  America flopped from the frying pan into the fire.

Where are we?

Points of departure for inspecting the present debates about K-12 change are examining the wake-up call, assessing just what change entails, and how it should be enabled.

History provides a useful perspective in a nation contemporarily hobbled by the incapacity to simultaneously think and act strategically without acrid partisanship, and continuously pummeled by media that have even shorter attention spans than most of our citizens.  From the mid-17th Century through the mid-18th Century virtually every advance in education originated in Massachusetts.  Perhaps no surprise then, that Massachusetts has consistently been at the top of the heap in K-12 performance.  But worth reflection, it took over 100 years of experience to infuse that level of alacrity and competence.

Fast forward to the present debates about how to improve public education in the space of a few presidential terms.  Combine that naivety with the problem’s mass:  50 states each capable of going their own way on school curricula and governance, with politicized state boards of education and departments; 3.2MM public school teachers; 13,800 public systems; 13,500 local school boards, many fundamentally ignorant about real education; not only teachers’ unions, but principals’, superintendents’ and school board interest and lobbying groups; a deeply entrenched public education mentality steeped in visions of social engineering; and schools of education that tended to isolate themselves in the higher education community, partially because they were considered second-class academic citizens, but perhaps equally to protect a self-perceived identity and entitlement.

How public education evolved into a failing institutional mass the latter half of last century is also easier to understand if one looks at both the foregoing, and that history. 

Public school conceptualization started with elitism and well-intended self-righteousness, and with a likely genuine if debatable belief that the proper role of the public common school was to make your children wards of the state, and turn them into proper citizens.  Public education went through multiple phases of attempting social engineering in the 20th Century succeeding principally in dumbing-down K-12, barely noticed by parents striving for their children’s education.  Couple this with low financial compensation of teachers.  Their rewards had to be internalized, and took the form of self-esteem, deep commitment to the profession, and even a sense of martyrdom for giving but receiving less financially for their education and investment than other professions.   The effect is at core no different than how any ideologically-driven group comes to play the game; tight identification within the genre, build defenses, avoid transparency of your actions as protection, develop self-righteousness, develop countervailing power groups, e.g., teachers’ unions.

History also teaches that these are properties that cause bureaucracies to evolve to protect the status quo, create risk aversion, and by definition suppress creativity and innovation that require risk taking and organizational openness.  Ask your local public school system to be transparent, display their education assumptions and theories, provide vita for all teachers and administrators, provide their textbooks and lesson plans for inspection, ante up their budgets beyond state minimal reporting, share system ACT and/or SAT results, show their plans for teacher development and research on classroom practices, show their technology plan, and respond with interest to ideas from parents and their taxpayer stake holders.  You won’t be pleasantly surprised.

By the mid-1980s the increased obsolescence and degraded performance of many public systems were broadly visible, juxtaposed against the performance of nationalized systems in European countries that had less diversity and more control.  This finally culminated in “A Nation at Risk,” a report commissioned by then President Reagan, who totally misread its outcomes.  Instead of a naïve assumption that the group would recommend restoration of school prayer, and dissolution of the U.S. Department of Education (in existence since 1867 to the surprise I suspect of many readers), the group correctly predicted the course of K-12 over the next couple of decades.  Mr. Reagan promptly dismissed the study group of some of our best and brightest and ignored the report.

The rest is also history but a pretty shabby version.  In existence under another banner for some time, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was adopted in Mr. Bush’s administration, relying on standardized testing fostered by a control mentality and the cluster of corporations who saw profit in the construction and scoring of those tests, and in a captive market and draconian threats to public school systems that conservatives didn’t much like in the first place. 

NCLB accomplished one material thing; it exposed in clear relief in its first years of testing the public K-12 systems that were failing, dysfunctional, and dropout factories.  To that extent it merits applause. 

But instead of evolution of NCLB into a proactive strategy during the Bush years, or intellect taking over with Mr. Obama’s election -- the next step in-depth work on how learning could be enhanced in the classroom and adoption of both new neural learning findings and digital technologies -- reform came to be stylized by the same testing as NCLB but even more extensive.   Over $5B were thrown at Race to the Top (RttT) which was nothing more than warmed over protocol from last century, perhaps with the belief that if enough schools followed the drills improvement might happen. 

There is almost no escaping the conclusion, that while both Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan intellectually know that standardized testing fails in measuring genuine learning – they have publicly stated as much – it and Federal funds are what they have to manipulate public schools.  Also political points from trying to claim some short term gains, and reluctance to offend a liberal public education base including the teachers’ unions, scored far higher than properly setting a new course and long term strategic plan for the nation’s public education.

Not widely known, the U.S. Department of Education supports a small army of PhD resources in its National Center for Education Research (NCER), and funds an array of academic research efforts on education.  The issue is that the majority of these projects are probably of quality, but also highly fragmented research that never gets knitted together into coherent K-12 strategies.  Its voice, an Internet web site called “Doing What Works,” produces fragments and tactics for improving teaching, but seems boxed-in by Mr. Duncan’s and the Department’s tunnel vision.  The one NCER research area that could maximally serve public education, on organization and education leadership, is ignorantly managed and short of needed research on an area that may be far more responsible for U.S. public K-12 mediocrity and malfeasance than training of teachers or gaps in curricula.

Complexity and dogmatism

These two words to a large extent characterize the buzz saw public education has invited by management mediocrity and the prevailing process of circling the wagons, rather than redefining missions and employing the intellect it claims to innovate.  The very first phases of any strategic plan need to be some hard questions:  How did we get so far along without someone shouting, “time out;” who defined the problems; who defined and how was the organization of solutions parceled out; who defined the standards of performance, and who is keeping score?

Our public education system is also by no stretch monolithic, but highly fragmented in both educational environments and oversight.  If nothing else, leaving education to our states, compounded by a fierce if unthinking commitment to local control, ensures that any one-size-fits-all policy will be a train wreck.  But there has been little if any attempt to segment both the environments for change, nor attempt to see if there is a match between the diverse forms of underachievement and prescriptions for change.  The poorest urban school is subject to the same treatments as relatively affluent rural school systems, yet failures regularly occur in the latter though the underlying bases for failure are quite different.

Given the rigidity and pragmatism of the present solution set – test, test, test, then penalize for inadequate progress – who devised this model?  There are clues that it didn’t originate with the champions of genuine learning in this nation, but was set in motion by a tortured and misguided analogy between our economy’s private sector production systems and the process of churning out students with certain achievement properties.  Would NCLB and RttT have been different if the guiding hands were those doing contemporary neural research and those resources had greater political clout?  Would they have been different if the prime movers had been acknowledged high-level students of institutionalized learning with full awareness of our present public K-12 infrastructure?  Would they have been different if they had been based on critical thinking rather than politics and rigid ideologies?

Enter local control, introducing a major conundrum.  There are sound arguments for local control of public schools because of how education is funded and because of their need to reflect in their operations some elements of local culture.  But how reconcile the concept of broad local control, including what happens in the classroom because of control of administrative and teacher hiring, with knowledge expansion and universality?  Math, physics, history, reading, et al., in Massachusetts are still math, physics, history, reading, et al., in Texas, even if the latter’s governor and legislators believe it takes divine guidance to define the subjects.  Instances of local boards and systems trying to chase America’s schools back to magic by reintroducing religious mythology into curricula, and as noted in the last issue of Science, small groups of extremist parents turning into a “hate lynch mob” -- trying to block even use of the words “climate change” in factual courses on environmental science, with cowardly school administration capitulating -- are two examples of the damage local forcing of education can create.  Others are gutting of academic standards, cheating and “teaching to the tests,” throwing an iron curtain around a school’s true performance and finances, and cynical use of sports and boosterism to deflect dissent.

Beating up local school boards, while it seems so totally justified by their frequent ignorance and intransigence, won’t suddenly turn our schools into learning communities.  Coincidentally, unless the Constitution is changed, this mechanism will still control much of future local educational process, and those boards would have to become more aware of real learning and discover how to interact with their stake holders in a collaborative way to advance public K-12.  Present propensities are pulling up the drawbridge to information about what a school system is really doing and delivering, as peak school administrators’ tactics of choice to protect their views from assessment and their positions.  That suggests that post-secondary education and at least functional literacy be required to run for board positions, and subsequent educational awareness training be required of the elected as a condition of being seated and serving.

Lastly, a convergence of the one place our nation is still innovating – highly refined digital technologies that are changing the very meaning of knowledge and its use – with an unsustainable funding model for public K-12 education, has redefined the learning playing field.  The whole “seat time” model of U.S. public education, created by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1905 (the roots of the “production” model of education inappropriately pushed in that period), persists to this day, deforming just about every attempt to install and validate more productive learning approaches.   Public education, intended or not, has managed to embed its feet in clay that has paralyzed both education and the economic creativity dependent on its delivery of better learning; U.S. public education crippled itself, and seems incapable or lethargic in finding the buttons or courage to refresh beliefs and select a new vector and gear.


A conclusion perpetually ignored by those seeking quick or simplistic answers, there is no silver bullet for remaking U.S. schools.  Increasingly draconian and invalid testing now being used to hire and fire teachers will simply ramp up resistance to all change, already evident in Duncan’s proposed NCLB waivers (with strings attached).  Simultaneously, there is a massive need for testing protocols that test for critical thinking and problem solving, and to measure the productivity of key resources poured into our youths’ education.  That means projectable research at the classroom level and new and better models for measurement of more complex learning than memorization of facts, not just a bigger test ball bat or more times at bat.

Issues go even deeper into basic philosophy.  Is the express purpose of our 9-12 or post-secondary schooling now preparation for an entry-level job?  In the present environment of knee-jerk reaction to both Keynesian and structural job displacement, are we creating a sub-optimal education system that may be irreversible and that we’ll regret?  Have we unintentionally fulfilled Thomas Jefferson’s 18th Century proposal, a two tier education system for the “laboring and the learned?”  If so, what does this say about American values of egalitarianism, equal opportunity, and class mobility, much less understanding of our society and its civic values, and our evolution as a species? 

At the output end of K-12, a growing criticism of its function has been failure to prepare students for transition to post-secondary work.  In fact, there has been a two-century disconnect between U.S. primary/secondary education and higher education, each acting as if they were just ships passing in the night.  But in the wake of escalating mainstream collegiate tuition, there has been an explosion of so-called community colleges and satellite campuses.  Frequently employing both unqualified faculty and academic administration, lacking quality controls for curricula and teaching, are they more than high school two (or too, your choice) than higher education?  Even when they are attached to an accredited university they may fit into that box.  Their administrations, in turn, appear more dedicated to acquiring public construction dollars, and building sustainable empire, than creating even credible education.  Perhaps an alternative is a nationally accredited cluster of online colleges chartered by groups of states -- thereby conforming to the Constitution -- that can use the best of our curricula, and leverage competent faculty, rather than continue the dumbing-down of U.S. higher education.

Meanwhile in K-12 systems, rejecting or firing teachers for narrowly conceived poor performance art won’t improve learning.  Simultaneously, teachers have to be educated and trained for classroom effectiveness in some formal way; our alleged schools of education may need to be taken apart and reassembled with better parts and leadership, and greater requirements for subject matter knowledge.  At the moment the majority of those schools are in denial and our university leaderships appear too wimpy or politically correct to make the call.

And while the nation is gearing up to beat up our K-12 teachers, many of whom are genuine "Mr. Chips" and in the game by the pure motivation to teach and serve their charges, the currently worst K-12 culprits are likely its administrators, poorly trained managerially, lacking oversight by boards they regularly seek to manipulate for the precise reason of avoiding oversight, and in the process demonstrating the universality of Lord Acton’s dictum about how power corrupts.  Our public K-12 systems could probably take a giant step forward if all of its superintendents had to be recertified as capable of leadership, or that specific function was replaced by a new organizational model and human resources with generic managerial expertise -- principals remaining chief academic officers -- rather than alleged educators with a yen to command and control, or simply pursue the higher dollars.

There appear to be ample topics for future blogs and debate if one can forgive the understatement.  Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of our current national K-12 education machinations is the tendency for otherwise intelligent and learned leadership to cheapen these debates by reducing the issues to one-liners, or resorting to simplistic slogans rather than defensible argument.  Opportunists trying to put their stamp on our nation, winding up merely deepening the demagoguery surrounding K-12, for example, the well funded but frequently inept and arrogant initiatives of Bill Gates, may match that.  We need some gateways and a segue to better education problem solving, but maybe fewer gates?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

College Ready or Not?

The rhetoric over the last year, from Mr. Obama, Arne Duncan, and the diverse barrel of public K-12 reformers, has been heavily laced with "college readiness."  This theme, picked up indiscriminately and walked backwards through our schools, has resulted in the question being applied -- ridiculously -- even to the learning and testing of early primary grades.  

More destructively, linearly and simplistically backing up from a high school diploma to the early grades has -- equally ridiculously -- resulted in testing in those grades wholly out of proportion to real childhood learning progression and variances.  Hey kid, get off the playground, or park that skateboard, or drop that basketball, and get with the program, you need to be college-ready.  Huh?  

Semi-humorously, if you have actually spent much time lately on college campuses, that readiness may cleave closer to having a cell phone surgically implanted, checking for condoms, having football or basketball tickets at ready, or hosting your personal barf bag for Friday night "study" sessions at a local watering hole.  When self-discipline kicks in, along with the curiosity that drives real and sustainable academic learning, it will have little to do specifically with most of that prior education and assuredly not its related mechanical testing.

As earlier represented, Edunationredux is transitioning from looking at our public schools to attempting some assessment of U.S. higher education.  Even though that is intimately familiar territory, and with much humility, that entails as much if not more complexity than currently permeates public K-12 reform issues.  Just a prelude to future discussion:  Our colleges and universities are increasingly disconnected from our states and broader oversight because of governmental funding reduction; tuition is soaring; acceptance rates are being restricted; teaching has moved from tenure track faculty to part-timers; and at least one credible major study asserts that higher education matriculants learn virtually nothing (at least academic) in their first three years as undergraduates.

Leaving those topics for futures, this blog addresses the sticky issue of the linkage, normative versus actual, between high school preparation and transition to post-secondary work.

To enable practical length, the questions raised today are three:  Why the discontinuity between American high school and college; what happens to the student jumping the gap; and what are the implications for both K-12 reform and collegiate change?  A fourth question, for future debate, is whether the need for and utility of a higher education could be experiencing a major shift?

Why the Gap?

Seems simple enough, but the history of education is rooted much earlier than the American experience, and paradoxically, the concept of the university preceded what we now term primary and secondary schools.  Credited as the first university is Bologna (Italy), founded in 1088 A.D., but schools as entities date to 350 B.C. and earlier.

America's first formal grammar school was Boston Latin, 1635, slowly evolving into local initiatives that had all states with elementary schools by 1870. Horace Mann heavily influenced secondary schools and grade-based designation, but by 1880 they were still college preparatory schools, with not unexpectedly highly selective students.  By 1910 secondary schools or programs had been merged into the common or public school movement.  By 1920 today's blessing, or curse, had been established, local funding of schools with large gymnasiums and sports fields, attracting large crowds, and installing sports as a dominant secondary school theme.

The development of higher education faculties, and curricula, versus the common school movement, never converged except for some of the private academies that became the premier sources of early college preparation.  Preparation of their respective faculties diverged, with the far greater reach of common education catalyzing state teachers colleges and university schools of education.  But the failure of the education curricula to root in basic disciplines, versus self-defined alleged principles, branded schools of education university outliers, usually perceived as the weakest program on a campus.  This persists, with an April 2014 report on teaching finding, in surveying students, that only 17 percent are very interested in being a K-12 teacher, and only 35 percent describing teachers as “smart.”

In the college explosion post-WWII, from the vantage point of a major university, the dogma was that education was a weak, isolated higher education alternative, recruiting the “bottom one-third of their class.”  Counterpoint, though perceiving academic superiority, newly minted university faculties were typically clueless about the legitimate principles of classroom management and rubrics that drive good classroom learning.  Arguably, that has changed little for tenured faculty, higher education teaching improving only because more teaching is by non-tenured faculty not assessed primarily by research and publication.

Periodically among the reform issues raised has been the question of whether grade bands and the secondary/post-secondary distinction have outlived their relevance, but little formal K-12 and collegiate concordance or even exploratory progress has occurred.

Informally, and functionally, there have been developments that have created at least a footbridge between colleges and high schools:  One is the evolution of advanced placement courses and testing, buying many successful takers collegiate credit for 9-12 work; another has been a few creative public programs that have out-boarded usually senior courses and better students to accessible colleges, giving in reverse high school credit for that work; and still another link, increasing instances of summer internships for high school students in college settings, though these have frequently been research-based. 

For a 21st century-based view of American learning, the links are too few and too selective; the gap persists, costing our collegiate bound both performance trauma and higher costs of higher education by requiring remedial work.

The Difference

What differentiates high school work and collegiate work?  This is in one sense so basic when modal public 9-12 is juxtaposed against quality collegiate work, that the wonder is why a small army of allegedly smart people has via the standardized testing orgy persisted in degrading 9-12 preparation for post-secondary work?  At a deeper level, the entire philosophy of higher education engages points of view, and curricular structuring that has never made it into most schools of education.  That the two faces of learning have difficulty communicating is not mystery, just politely suppressed.

Major differences are embedded in higher education's:  Greater emphasis on learning progression and related testing than memory of fragments of knowledge; more use of constructivism as a learning device; greater reliance on student self-direction and appraisal; technology is simply assumed and deeply embedded in regular curricula; greater reliance on language arts for expression versus discrete testing; greater emphasis on explanatory chains and scientific method; emphasis on critical thinking versus programmed answers; and more frequent reliance on collaborative learning.

Also central to higher education versus public K-12, is a profound difference in how knowledge is inventoried, updated, and employed in instruction.  Public K-12 has been controlled by the textbook publishers and their market goals for a century, along with authorship that would rarely survive higher education assessment.  Public K-12 classroom mechanics frequently trump critical thinking, massively exacerbated by current standardized testing.  That embedded position has become even more intense with the hand off of standardized assessment in K-12 to an entrenched testing oligopoly, and driven by profit goals.  The "common core," were it defensible, would still be a shadow of the genuine knowledge base that is both created by, vetted by, and protected by higher education.  Couple that with teacher education that only exceptionally features genuine knowledge excellence by subject, and the largest weakness in public K-12 glares at one.

Implications – Public 9-12 Versus Post-Secondary

A first is that the nouveau, obsolete model of public K-12 learning, wrapped around corporate reform and standardized test scores, isn’t likely short term to ease the transition to higher education; it may exacerbate jumping the gap.  The alleged reform model of K-12 looks disturbingly like the production model of public education that had been rejected decades ago, resurrected by corporate myopia with just a larger and sharper ax used on both students and teachers – it is as if the creators of this reform model worked overtime to reject virtually every organizational and leadership concept of the last 50-60 years, approaches they would automatically reject as the basis for contemporary corporate success.

Higher education, in turn, is ramping up by idealism the case for its own saga of reform:  Tuition pretty much out of control; the cost of education pushing down acceptance rates, while self-selecting the socioeconomic participation that all proclaim needs to be moving in the opposite direction; increasing corporatization and bureaucratic layering to expand the mission beyond education, even making raising endowment dollars the prime directive; an emerging schism between traditional definitions of faculty, and how they are assessed versus increasing reliance on non-tenured, temporary, part-timers to man the classrooms; and the increasing difficulty of accessing quality higher education has created a bonanza for for-profit and local collegiate programs that pull down overall levels of higher education achievement.  In many cases they are simply high school II, both in terms of quality of curricula and faculty.

This should be sharply contrasted with the conscious recognition that collegiate education expresses no inherent value to society that might not also be achieved by quality practical and trade-based training and apprenticeship.  Germany, decades ago, recognized the duality of human skills and contributions, fashioning a dual track program for students.  The U.S., still wading in a false image of exceptionalism and pseudo egalitarianism, continues to work on the hypothesis that one size fits all human resources.

Trying to diagnose how our two strata of education got there is doable, but prospecting a way to bridge the divergence is not a happy task.  Given that there currently appears no mechanism, or trauma, that might forge some path to reconciliation, the conclusion is that present differences in missions and destinations of public schools versus collegiate tracks will simply get larger until the U.S. is forced to get beyond partisanship.

Three trends developing may change the game.  One is the increasing rhetoric from our private sector changing its tune about the need for and utility of a collegiate education.  With increasing frequency, those sourcing human resource excellence are looking at creativity, risk-taking, entrepreneurship, and social connectivity, versus the traditional sheepskin, as the basis for hires.  A second, though the interest has temporarily cooled, is the long-term effects of MOOC (massive online open courses, e.g., Coursera, edX, and other).  These kinds of quality, self-directed learning packages frequently exceed in content and vastly skill of presentation, regular collegiate course work. 

Lastly, anticipating a next post, there is growing conviction among those conceptualizing “the future of work,” that down the trail professional performance will hinge less on memory of fragmented knowledge from past learning, and more on being able to access and know how to employ just-in-time knowledge sourced digitally.  At the outer limits, as artificial intelligence forms a logistic growth curve, the skill set may have to embrace socialization with a robot.

Quo Vadis?

U.S. public education of all types, from pre K-12, through collegiate, also through even the ongoing development of our educators, to the U.S. adult version, still basks in the historical rosy haze of past deduction and invention, reluctant to acknowledge that the rest of the developed world has not only caught up, but is outclassing us.  And paradoxically, all of the profound governmental verbiage aside, public 9-12 learning driven by “corporate reform” is both failing to produce change, and heading in precisely the opposite direction of collegiate readiness.

Higher education wants to shoot for Mars; public K-12 wants to slink into a foxhole and pull it in behind (just send money); schools of education are already in that hole; U.S. adult education barely exists; and those making public K-12 decisions were educated in the same systems now prompting “corporate reform.”   Meanwhile, too much of our private sector believes in the mythology of Ayn Rand’s polarized and naive conception of hypothetical free markets, our economic unicorns, and their use as major surgery for every economic and social challenge including our schools.

The rest of this decade promises to invite somewhere between the fallout from one of Nathan Taleb’s “black swans,” and a slow motion learning train wreck unless some of that desired critical thinking about public education materializes from somewhere.