Saturday, June 7, 2014

Thinking Outside the Box

Today's post almost never occurred, because of a sense of futility that critical thinking might actually break out in our nation before the sun sets on its once world education leadership.  But when the insanity gets too ever-present to ignore, it invites some loyal opposition.


Yesterday's news featured some catalytic inputs:  An intelligent op-ed by conservative columnist David Brooks, on why Bergdahl had to be ransomed even if he is subject to military discipline; the ignorant, ugly, and flip-flopping grunts of many Republican demagogues about that tactic; a story about WWII's Navajo "code-talkers," the critical role they played in the Pacific, then the post-war discrimination and disrespect they endured; an intelligent column in The Answer Sheet (V. Strauss/The Washington Post) by educator Alfie Kohn, on the insanity of present standardized testing; and not to be left out, Ohio's announcement of its new portfolio of high school graduation testing.

The latter simply defies common sense:  The use of one sample in time of recalled information even by subject, that subject matter itself a sample, and the same dismal testing methodology now being discredited -- despite four years of continuous formative testing -- will determine whether an Ohio child gets to graduate from high school?  Even with two optional paths to achieve a diploma, Ohio's solution to improving public K-12 performance is somewhere between antediluvian and stupid, proposing to test just one dimension or fragments of the learning processes that shape neural net formation, critical thought, and that foot subsequent civic, social, and professional competence. If the state is saying, "we don't trust our public schools, their teachers, and their alleged leaders to create desired learning," the thought may well be credible.  But isn't cold cocking a student after four high school years the pinnacle of stupidity as a mechanism for improving needed learning?  Even our less evolved ancestors understood the parable of the lost horse and the barn door.

Add to the pejoratives points made by Alfie Kohn:  What is it truly important to know; who gets to determine that; and where is the pre-testing or evidence that what is being tested effects subsequent performance of the graduate?  The ignorance and ideology that allowed standardized testing and twisted the present "common core" apparently was lost on Ohio's education bureaucracy.

No-Man's Land

As temporarily depressing as current public education machinations are, by both the alleged reformers and our deficient and defensive public schools, the strategic issues have deeper roots.  There is so much history, so much embedded but unquestioned learning, and so much dogmatism, that launching any explorations, of what thinking outside the box might churn up about key segments of public education, starts with core questions.  Even the seemingly simplest, most basic, appear to have eluded the entire reform movement:
  • What is knowledge?  One quick observation, it is not defined by just facts, or context free math, or narrow reading comprehension issues, or even information, but extends to understanding basic concepts by discipline including epistemology, through critical assessment, to evolving creativity, ultimately to the capacity to successfully act on what is neurally defined and stored.
  • Who gets to call out what is knowledge, and what elements are worth the effort of knowing?  Presumably, the human resources who identify, organize, characterize, unfold, codify, quantify, test, challenge, and promulgate it.  As those resources are predominantly higher education and our national research establishments, that leaves out virtually all of the present cadres pretending to define it or test it in public K-12.
  • Who gets to devise the tests that have become not just high stakes but in cases ruinous to lives of children who aren't "standard" or aren't the socioeconomically thereby culturally fortunate?  The standardized testing in the present reform zoo de facto defines what is knowledge, even to what dominates the classroom, corrupting both the knowledge and the testing as learning.   Is the wizard behind the rhetorical curtain massive test-creator and publisher, Pearson, or another profit-driven testing corporation, or a cabal of bureaucrats and testing company personnel, with a few no-name academics tossed in, the case of the "common core?"  Sorry, this should not be acceptable in an allegedly civilized and advanced nation that reveres education.
  • One and done?  Reminiscent of the old Johnny Carson routine, "we now know all there is to know" about some chunk of reality. Those Ohio graduation tests, for example, signify the fortunate graduate knows all needed?  "Not quite," Johnny would intone, "just a few more things..."  Aside from the irrationality of that retro testing, a quote says it well:  "Buckminster Fuller created the “Knowledge Doubling Curve”; he noticed that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today things are not as simple as different types of knowledge have different rates of growth.  For example, nanotechnology knowledge is doubling every two years and clinical knowledge every 18 months. But on average human knowledge is doubling every 13 months." 
  • Playing off the above, some rational thought suggests that some to much of what is currently being tested is:  One, already obsolete; two, might be better based on learning the processes that create the capacity to extend and sustain personal learning; and three, add that at the rate of change in what constitutes knowledge, most of the historical models of learning applicable to any advanced society may need to be rethought from the ground up almost continuously.  Beyond core math constructs, and being able to decode language, why are we slogging through typically damaged knowledge in public K-12, flogging our children to learn fragmented materials that may well be obsolete before their acquisition hits the reform inquisition, introducing major opportunity costs by failure to equip them to both discover and assess knowledge?
  • Our 9-12 schools and collegiate 13-16 years remain basically disconnected, for reasons previously explored in this blog. Consider two propositions:  One that much of what is allegedly learned in 9-12 is wrong or truncated, and needs to be extinguished in 13-16 before more effective learning can happen; and two, one major study suggests that little actual learning occurs in the first three years of present collegiate undergraduate work. The combined points raise multiple questions; one are we, and have we been irrationally educating for yesterday, yesteryear, and last century?
  • What could be accomplished with eight years of a child's education, 9-12 plus 13-16, if the thought processes about needed learning started with a fresh sheet of paper?  Going into even less defined territory, recognizing the individual human learning differences now ignored by stuffing children into our public school Procrustean Beds, what would be gained by eliminating grade bands and using emerging technology to create one-on-one learning?
  • Our nation has propagated and is now intensifying making public school decisions dependent on various versions of locally tax-funded direct and overhead costs -- what would choices be if "opportunity costs," including loss of students' future achievement and earning capacities, had to be considered for all major school strategies and expenditures?
  • Have present BOE, and the standards for membership and performance, become the worst possible mechanism for public school oversight?  Should citizens without greater educational standing than those for whom they're accountable be permitted to be effectively the principal oversight of our public schools?  Our public BOE are failures, beyond any deficiencies attributed to the nation's public K-12 teachers, on a par with many of our schools' incompetent to failed administration.
  • Public school organization, and the mechanisms for choosing school leadership have barely changed in a half century?  Time to rethink the present school organizational model?  Time for school leaders to be truly educated to strategize and manage, and be held fully accountable for their systems' performance, versus simply flogging teachers?  The principal proponents of "corporate reform" and an entire business academic establishment decades ago upgraded the standards for private sector management, but "corporate reformers" have hypocritically left a deficient and in many cases corrupted system of leadership of K-12 schools out of their reform agenda.
  • Why are our schools of education still out there and unchallenged, miseducating the nation's teachers, without even a whimper about those schools' need for basic rethinking and reform?
  • Why have our public schools, with physical infrastructure underutilized a material fraction of the time, not recognized and responded to the national need for adult education, a factor that as much as "corporate reform" has hamstrung the awareness of public education challenges needed -- so long as there is local control -- to force or support genuine public K-12 change?
  • And why have many if not most of our nation's public schools become, in sociologist Everett Rogers' terms, "laggards" in adopting mushrooming technologies, from digital, to building and workspace design, to pedagogy design, to social interaction, to managerial, to understanding the science of discovering and verifying knowledge, even to grasping the neural science learning fundamentals that foot their craft?

Educational Establishments Lost

Public K-12 education in the U.S. is still in a crater, bogged down by self-righteousness, defensiveness, its historical sense of entitlement; and seemingly increasingly prone to beating on and undercutting by production-based methodologies teachers who once saw their vocation as a calling and noble challenge.  Many are deserting the profession, leaving an increased fraction of teaching human resources who only see "the job," and are principally motivated by increasing their own salaries and benefits to prep getting beyond it.

"College readiness" has become the most recent mantra to justify ramming through alleged public school change.  Problem is, higher education is in almost as bad a rut as public K-12, and that century of disconnect of the two systems so far offers little daylight on tactical moves that could ease either's learning failures.  Yet, our system of higher education is the single hope the nation has for processing the knowledge trajectories noted above to make needed learning accessible for use at the street level.  Perhaps politically incorrect, but the majority of our colleges and universities are still delusional in envisioning the unabated expansion of activities, and tuition, and bricks and mortar, and student entertainment, and endowments, and sports focus, all in contradiction of the potential sustainability of those last century's strategic excesses.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the Obama administration has proposed that all of our colleges and universities be rated, by a scheme yet to be devised, but as depicted by a rocket scientist staffer, " different from rating a blender." Needless to emphasize, the howls of protests from our increasingly highly paid collegiate CEOs were prompt.  Ignored, or the subject of selective memory, a 2006 report of the Presidential Commission on Higher Education recommended that our colleges and universities voluntarily cooperate to devise a single rating scheme for their institutions, as a means to assist students in choosing a higher education fit. The institutions dissed the concept and refused.  That same Commission also proposed a litany of already overdue remediation to deal with student debt and the financial trajectories of the institutions.  

Fast forward from that timely alert, the present U.S. Department of Education, as stripped of intellect by Arne Duncan, has about as much chance of creating a valid and reliable rating scheme for our colleges and universities, or their constituent parts, as Mr. Obama has of being named chair of the Republican National Committee.

Yes, "corporate reform" is also a cruel joke on our nation, the original product of misplaced ideology coupled with ignorance about the differences between steering private sector infrastructure, and the process of creating in human resources who are still children, or incomplete adults, the far more complex task of equipping them to perform in a complex society in chaotic motion.  It is impossible to look out at the disaster that has been created by "corporate reform" over roughly 35 years, along with the lack of integrity and intelligence that should permeate public K-12, and not invoke Aristophanes' famous quote:  Youth ages, immaturity is outgrown, ignorance can be educated, and drunkenness sobered, but stupid lasts forever.” 

Perhaps that should be carved into the lintel above the entrance to every U.S. public school, tacked onto the door of many present public school administrators' offices, and introduced to higher education?  Unresolved historically, why our private sector's largest corporations in the 1980s both suddenly discovered public schools, and concluded that what worked to crank out and market goods and services was the magical stuff of learning in children.  Many were complicit, but notable for leadership of the earliest attacks was IBM; the business expressing the prescience that the world could only use roughly a half-dozen "computers," and that gave away the personal computer business.  The latter created the dull monopoly that inflated Bill Gates.  Three strikes.  One has to wonder if IBM's 1980s leadership's attack on public education wasn't prompted by a mental lapse, mistaking IBM's early joke anthem -- "THIMK" -- for strategy?

Q & A 

Subsequent posts will probe for some alternate answers to the above questions, recognizing that many out-of-the-box answers require change that is structural and even societal rather than tactical or procedural. Worth reflection; the failures -- of 35 years ago, then 13 years ago with NCLB, then continuing for the last six years by both the testing oligarchy's and U.S. Department of Education's destruction of real learning, now aided and abetted by reactionary states' implementation of phony assessments along with the ideological imposition of charters and vouchers -- to think strategically, or outside the box, are precisely why our public schools are still cratered, and why higher education in denial may eventually be on the cusp.

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