Friday, June 20, 2014

TOBT III – School Reform’s Contradictions

Without preamble, the answer to the question posed by IBM, cited in the transmittal email, was:  “creativity and adaptability.”  Vacuously missing from executives' narratives, standardized test averages, state grades, and the number of children held back by ritual and perhaps irrational tests!  Oops.

Before myopia sets in, and the long knives come out, the learning goals above are self-evidently a superimposition.  The presumption is that in the run-up to achieving those strategic learning objectives our students will have acquired the core understanding of the necessary knowledge components; initially decoding social language, maths, and other basic knowledge, then the core disciplinary concepts that foot explanation and prediction, then awareness of how that knowledge is threaded throughout understanding of our civic, social, and economic systems. Also, self-evidently, a progression of learning paradigms is involved, ranging from memorization that facilitates cognition, to the more complex processes that foot critical thinking and support creativity.

But one reform opponent and media bubble is burst by representative corporate endorsement of a wholly different public education mission than represented by current draconian alleged reform


The questions posed by that survey result open the proverbial can of worms.

The first one is, how has it come to pass that a level of magnitude more senior corporate leaders in 2012, than the number three decades ago launching then titled “corporate reform” of our public schools, has essentially flipped direction?  The assumption, reasonable, is that standardized tests, VAM, and a flawed “common core” are not the ultimate purveyors of either of the corporate education values above.  The findings also address a long-time conundrum in viewing the last decades' reform antics:  How a U.S. corporate universe that overall is technologically advanced, managerially nuanced, and that abandoned the punitive quality control style of present reform decades ago, would be witless enough to contemporarily apply it to our public schools?

The second question then, is “corporate reform” still corporate reform, or now egregiously mislabeled?  Has it become alleged reform hijacked by:  Self-serving market strategies of a small cadre of profit-driven testing companies, along with their imposition on the nation of their conception of contemporary knowledge; lobbying from right wing ideology seeking privatization of public schools, forcing testing/grading via political pressure on our states; and change sought by the White House's utopian view of achieving simplistic student and educational equality in two presidential terms, even by bribery and with punitive tactics?  Who made the testing companies and a secretive CCSSI enclave the replacement for an entire higher education venue and our nation’s research establishments, the resources who actually create, sort, test, and preserve knowledge? And who invited Bill Gates to specify what our nation’s public schools should teach, and to fund lobbying of our states?

The third question, with a dull thud; why has virtually an entire public K-12 establishment with cowardice and/or in ignorance hunkered down, accepting with virtually no protest the degradation of genuine learning that establishment was granted a century’s monopoly to pursue?  Perhaps even more egregious, much of the public school establishment currently exhibits the arrogance to still claim entitlement, while abandoning their overriding mission and permitting bureaucratic bloat.  By the end of last decade the administrative and non-teaching human resources loading up public K-12 school budgets were 104 percent of the number of systems' classroom teachers!

There is certainly inductive evidence to modify the pejorative "corporate reform" label planted on America's composite private sector, using the "duck test" attributed to poet James Whitcomb Riley:  "If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck." Corporate reform might better be termed "corrupted reform," now demanding transparency of those complicit it its prosecution along with their motivations.

"We have met the enemy, and they is us" (“Pogo” classic)

The answers to the third question set reside in the fundamental character of change in our society – massively greater systemic complexity, more entrenched institutionalization to cope with the number of actors and actions in that complexity, and the deeply rooted change in a society that once valued individuality and giving, versus present evolving self-centricity and cynicism about both futures and equitable distribution of resources.

However, within the context of public education, useful change cannot result from condemning and punishing either our teachers or their students, the results intended or not of the present reform disaster.  The previously cited Sir Ken Robinson, in a prescient TED talk in 2006, made one of the most persuasive arguments for getting our heads adjusted and asking the hard questions that foot how our future leaderships will perform.  The conclusion is hardly mysterious, or even new, but seemingly lost on public educators burying their wits in bureaucracy and what’s politically correct:  Change in public schools will not happen because of top-down imposition of simplistic rubrics, or teacher flagellation, or holding back children, but from the ground up and because of that most fundamental property of education, the dyad of teacher and learner.

Attribution has been to Socrates, then Yeats, but probably traces to Plutarch:  "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."

Sir Ken’s arguments are simple but eloquent, best presented rather than paraphrased:

“I have a big interest in education, and I think we all do. We have a huge vested interest in it, partly because it's education that's meant to take us into this future that we can't grasp. If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue -- despite all the expertise that's been on parade for the past four days -- what the world will look like in five years' time. And yet we're meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary.”

“And my contention is, all kids have tremendous talents. And we squander them, pretty ruthlessly. So I want to talk about education and I want to talk about creativity. My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”

“Now our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability. And there's a reason. The whole system was invented -- around the world, there were no public systems of education, really -- before the 19th century. They all came into being to meet the needs of industrialism. So the hierarchy is rooted on two ideas. Number one, that the most useful subjects for work are at the top. So you were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. Is that right? Don't do music, you're not going to be a musician; don't do art, you won't be an artist. Benign advice -- now, profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution. And the second is academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they're not, because the thing they were good at in school wasn't valued, or was actually stigmatized. And I think we can't afford to go on that way.”

“In the next 30 years, according to UNESCO, more people worldwide will be graduating through education than since the beginning of history. More people, and it's the combination of all the things we've talked about -- technology and its transformation effect on work, and demography and the huge explosion in population. Suddenly, degrees aren't worth anything. Isn't that true? When I was a student, if you had a degree, you had a job. If you didn't have a job it's because you didn't want one.  But now kids with degrees are often heading home to carry on playing video games, because you need an MA where the previous job required a BA, and now you need a PhD for the other. It's a process of academic inflation. And it indicates the whole structure of education is shifting beneath our feet. We need to radically rethink our view of intelligence.”

“We know three things about intelligence. One, it's diverse. We think about the world in all the ways that we experience it. We think visually, we think in sound, we think kinesthetically. We think in abstract terms, we think in movement. Secondly, intelligence is dynamic. If you look at the interactions of a human brain, as we heard yesterday from a number of presentations, intelligence is wonderfully interactive. The brain isn't divided into compartments. In fact, creativity -- which I define as the process of having original ideas that have value -- more often than not comes about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things.”

“Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won't serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we're educating our children. There was a wonderful quote by Jonas Salk, who said, ‘If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.’ And he's right.”

Those futures

Rebellion against the demagogic rhetoric of an Arne Duncan, Mr. Obama’s educational MIA status, and the wretched ideologies still being pandered by an ignorant and extremist conservative mentality, is beginning to fracture the present reform agenda.  Dispiriting however, too much clueless public school establishment continues to prosecute a model of reform that may in a couple of decades potentially further diminish critical thinking and creativity in our society and in guiding many of our nation’s institutions.  Even at the level of our states, where for example, the alleged "common core" is being rejected (most recently Louisiana), rejection is being rationalized ignorantly and ideologically for the wrong reasons. 

Sickening, in public K-12 systems in range of sight that have simply circled the wagons or gone into denial, we see mediocre through unethical school administration seeking to preserve their own fiefdoms and levies, and even teachers with their greatest concern now, ‘how they can increase salaries and benefits in their next union contract without upping their game.’  Add, local BOE so under-equipped or disingenuous, or co-opted by administration, the latter policy becomes the mission along with failed oversight.

The proverbial fly in genuine reform ointment, were critical thinking to magically break out – resulting in an epiphany in higher education and its schools of education, and in places with the power of government to manipulate public education, factors it may take time and a political sea change to launch – is, who in our public schools still has the intellect and courage to strike the match, light the fire?  Factually, it is happening randomly, but with positive effects on learning and teacher motivation and satisfaction.  

An additional caveat, if the teacher-learner change-starter principle is valid, it will have to happen eventually "from the ground up" in every local public school district.  That may mean changing the most destructive institutional school variable blocking change  likely exceeding even critically miseducated school administrations and the presently dysfunctional U.S. Department of Education  changing the manner that local public school systems are provided oversight by changing the entire BOE mechanism.

Short of a public school sea change, any hope for genuine reform of our public K-12 systems, regardless of where the fire starts, is sufficient public awareness, expressing by social media protest and at the ballot box, to short circuit what will inevitably be a host of status-quo and myopic bureaucratic enclaves’ efforts to strangle the birth of creative reform before it can draw a breath.  We’re short a single universal mechanism to dispatch our current educational reform zombies, but an increasingly self- and cynically-perceived 'powerless American electorate,' does in fact have the power to change the learning game.

Achieving that, winning the game as in any venue has a first prerequisite, showing up and choosing performance when state and local candidates with the power to mediate your public schools are on a ballot!

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