Saturday, June 14, 2014

TOTB II – Public K-12 Reality Check

This is part two of an attempt to get beyond traditional perspectives of present “corporate reform” and public education’s somnambulant drift of several decades. 

The post is brief, with assertions about present reform, and its roots, without filling in the voluminous material that is out there supporting the points.  So it is a table of contents – and maybe a wakeup call where issues have not been probed – for subsequent posts to explore each issue, both causes of our systems’ lethargy and countervailing reform miscues, along with possible remediation.

Top Lines

Did ya see it comin’?  Most of our nation, including our school bureaucracies, was too distracted or myopic to see “corporate reform” coming, though it was initiated with little cloaking, and by a major swath of our private sector’s largest entities nearly 35 years ago.  If there is a public school administration or related BOE, still in denial that their brand is under attack, the human resources in question should be immediate candidates for change.

The reasons?  The incentive for alleged reform was the private sector belief that our public K-12 establishment, aggravated by its teachers’ unions, was flat out failing to create needed learning.  An ideological subtext, the full extent of those beliefs unclear, is that our public schools should be privatized.  Where embedded in the reform agenda, it is likely based on the belief that our “liberal” public system was growing Democrat voters, or that historically systems were attempting social engineering, or installing liberal/silly excesses.

Bizarre.  Over the last six years of a hypocritical White House, the same belief, but fueled by a different drive – the conception that discrimination in learning achieved among children was not primarily attributable to socioeconomic and cultural inequalities, but because schools weren’t trying hard enough.  Probably some truth in both sets of assertions, but from that point reform tumbled down Alice’s “rabbit hole.”

The culprits?  Some cabal of the powerful, spanning the Federal government, The Business Roundtable, testing company leadership, the NGA’s predominantly right wing state consortium, with a politically warped ALEC to write state legislation, and educational components seeking repatriation of traditional education beliefs of last century.  This improbable amalgam managed to hang together to create NCLB, subsequently joined by RttT and enough billions – along with the intrusive individual funding by Bill Gates – to bribe state governments to implement present testing and school grading, and advance the “common core” designed to breed more standardized testing.

Responsible pretesting?  There was no rational K-12 education inquiry by our best and brightest, no transparent mission debates or specification, no testing of the testing, or research to verify that the tactics would improve genuine learning and student downstream performance, before dropping the testing and VAM mandates on our public systems.  Recent testing results suggest that the composite reform mission has already failed, if one uses the movement's own criteria.  Surely this, along with a track record of cheating and teaching to the tests, has now prompted a pause in more testing, more state grades, and injected the wisdom to reassess the model of "corporate reform" before ramming ahead?  You wish; same level of responsibility that preceded NCLB, and virtually every other present reform gambit.

One size fits all?  A monumental assumption, that our public schools are homogeneous, perhaps because superficially and physically they seem alike, is false.  Because of increasing heterogeneity of cultures and politics of our places, and because of local control, public systems are diverse, and can range from excellent to horrid.  Notably, the corporate drivers of this alleged reform, to a fault, operate philosophically in their own markets based on market segmentation and differential strategies and tactics, now becoming even more particularized as traditional marketing has been transformed by digital communication to even individualization to a consumer.  There has been no credible research, including the U.S. Department of Education’s NCER survey boilerplate, offering a clue about the real status of our public systems.

QC versus QA sanity?  Even more retro and hypocrisy, the corporate sector decades ago moved from traditional notions of quality control based on end product inspection to quality assurance that installed quality at the beginning of the product chain.  The notions of inspection of K-12 performance via testing the finished product, that teachers were the controlling factor, that multiple choice questions about factoids constitute learning assessment, and that beating on children was necessary and sufficient motivation for learning, all scale somewhere between stupidity and insanity.

Source of default?  The nation’s schools of education continue to matriculate students who may be professionally and benevolently motivated, but tolerant of lame education rubrics as learning, and veer away from subject matter depth and excellence.  Consequently, those schools overall continue to turn out teachers unprepared to deal with, or even with grasp of contemporary knowledge and its trajectory, are turning out alleged administrators unprepared to manage any complexity, and are pandering pedagogy based on learning models made obsolete by neural research of the last couple of decades.  In turn, our colleges and universities, too paranoid to reform those schools, likely in the belief that it might start a larger reform movement of higher education (way overdue), have given those schools and faculties a get-out-of-jail-free card.  Additionally, higher education has continued a century of simply ignoring public K-12, a syndrome that for a likely different set of motivations applies equally to most public K-12 dwellers.

The worst?  Our local BOE are categorical failures, generally lacking the intellect and objectivity to provide local public school direction, for the simple reasons that our states have resisted for decades upgrading the requirements for that board service and specific preparation, and many incompetent to unethical superintendents work overtime to co-opt board members.  BOE oversight of our public schools is currently a joke, undermining the legitimate philosophy of sustaining local control of schools.

Teachers good, change bad?  There are good to great teachers, bad teachers (one estimate is that a quarter of our present public K-12 teachers should be replaced), and there are teachers motivated primarily by a job that while demanding in some dimensions avoids the performance requirements and risks of many private sector occupations.  Selection and supervision are therefore critical givens as in any complex organization, while school administrations as a class are central to the historical failures of public education.  There are also still deeply embedded in our public schools local teachers’ unions with the principal interest of hanging onto that gig by simply continually and irresponsibly pushing for higher salaries and benefits.  Teacher development among our public systems, that stresses depth of knowledge of what is taught versus bureaucratic trivia, is almost non-existent, contrasting with the private sector drive to develop employee line and managerial skills.

Learning relics?  A large swath of the materials that form the basis for what happens in current K-12 public classrooms is the product of textbooks heavily lobbied to states and systems, sometimes determined politically and ideologically at the state level, controlled by their publishers, and regularly authored by some of our most mediocre academics.  Add the now stilted and even less appetizing lesson plans imposed on teachers to facilitate test scores.  The absence of legitimate curricula in our public schools is the long-standing dark underbelly of public education, for decades invisible to the public and parents, deliberately masked by our systems.  Unfortunately the “common core” by virtue of its origins is both flawed and incomplete even as minimal national curricula K-12; with no provisions for credible updating it will also be obsolete from knowledge now doubling virtually annually.

Classroom options?  Allegedly the nation will lose up to a million teachers over the rest of this decade.  There are millions of retirees and underemployed, with more and better degrees, and greater experience, than a great many public 7-12 teachers.  Most are blocked from being employed in and upgrading that educational venue – even as volunteers and no cost to our systems – by the profession’s protectionism, coupled with the same myopia and outright discrimination in certification by most teacher-derived state education bureaucracies.

Our education piñata?  Lastly, a pronouncement that should be carved in stone, there is at this point no silver bullet to reform the nation’s public schools – repeat that once every hour of every day that Arne Duncan’s demagoguery, our testing oligarchy, and Bill Gates’ billions are permitted to drive reform of our schools – and there is no “standard” public school.  Our public systems need to be detailed at least once by in-depth research and census, characterized by their specific needs for change, with strategies and tactics devised accordingly.  The issue is, that for far too many with their fingers presently in the reform pie, the notion of a multivariate and systems world-view simply doesn’t compute, either because of sheer ignorance, or other agendas that view restricts or violates.

Bottom Lines

Public K-12 reform is a synonym for complexity.  View it against:  A contrasting bundle of simplistic, convoluted and cross-canceling reform tactics; populations of actors operating out of different hymn books; lacking coherent definitions of our schools’ missions; what constitutes genuine and sustainable learning; how that learning must be delivered for effect; along with popular ignorance of how the present mess will impact the next generation.  One proposition is that the one-size-fits-all stupidity of present reform, coupled with the political baggage reform is toting, means there won’t be change paralleling the nation’s timely need for new models of job creation and competitive restoration.

Next post, in the spirit of TOTB, will propose some unconventional alternative, disruptive strategies:  For spanning the 9-12 versus 13-16 gulf; changing public K-12 from local control to a national model – but not under political control – based  on the concept of the Federal Reserve System; for essentially eliminating the grade bands 7-16 and restructuring of its learning resources, human and supporting; for potentially eliminating all grade bands, substituting a technology-supported system of individualized K- or 1-12 learning; changing the constituencies who can qualify to selectively staff our learning systems; and probing how a national need for creativity and invention can be supplied by reigniting that quest in our public systems?

Simultaneously, the question must be addressed, are there less disruptive models for achieving enhancement of some genuine learning, based on trashing present reform dysfunction? With what required changes in and consequences for present political and leadership roles governing schools, with what changes in present human resources, and with what school organization changes?

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