Thursday, July 24, 2014

"The Forest..." -- Postscript, 25 July 2014

TO:        Edunationredux Learning Community

DATE:    25 July 2014

SUBJ:   Coping/Changing

Good morning.  

This is a brief postscript to the last Edunationredux post, “The Forest For the Trees…”  The reason, a trove of points of view that tumbled out of press coverage after “Forest" was posted.

An insightful article, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math,” was published this week in the NYT.  Its thesis is that America’s public school teachers are the vortex of that failure, but primarily because of the enabling of those failures  by our schools of education.  

That piece was narrowly preceded by a widely cited report from the source of the international PISA testing of school performance (the OECD), the regular basis for assessments that US schools are underperforming. The study’s finding:  Our public school principals hold seriously distorted perceptions of a property of their students.

Also popping after “Forest” posted, a revealing article in WaPo’s “The Answer Sheet" by an experienced public and private school educator and education administrator; "The many reasons 'I am ashamed to be part of the system.'"

Inside these conundrums, a complex of reasons why.  

One explanation is simply public education’s delusion-based coping mechanisms:  From a Board-Certified psychiatrist — “…psychological strategies used by individuals (and by extension—groups of individuals and even entire nations at times) to cope with reality and to maintain his/her self-image.”  “A defense mechanism becomes pathological when … it prevents being able to cope with a real threat and obscures ability to perceive reality.”

A second explanation is that many of our systems have evolved into implacable and dysfunctional bureaucratic enclaves, lacking effective oversight, and doing what bureaucracies do, resisting any change that might threaten loss of power or dollars.  This was an assertion in the “Forest” linked report a decade after “A Nation at Risk,” by EDUCATIONnext, titled  “Are We Still at Risk.”

Still another explanation from “Are We Still at Risk” was cited in our post: “Risk underestimated the tenacity of the ‘thoughtworld’ of the nation’s colleges of education, which see themselves as owners of the nation’s schools and the minds of educators, free to impose their ideas on future teachers and administrators regardless of evidence about their effectiveness.”

Much press handling of the “corporate reform” attack on the nation’s public systems slights the issues and risks to our current model of public education, even in places such as university communities that should reflect greater intellect and objectivity.  Indeed, the latter coverage and presumed delusions introduce double jeopardy for our systems, withholding from the public legitimate challenges to local school strategies and control, and masking building indictment of collegiate schools of education.

A very personally-felt case-in-point, because of 45 years of residency in the community, is Bloomington, IN, its principal press, The Herald-Times.  The allegation is that this press’ editorial function has in this century regularly censored or ignored coverage of virtually all larger public school reform issues, and of malfeasance throughout its MCCSC county school system. The damage inflicted on the community and its progeny for an unknowable time period — that may even extend to the publication’s alleged manipulation of information to support incompetent system leadership, and subjecting taxpayers to unnecessary school levies — is unconscionable even by civilian standards, and despicable by a community’s principal alleged free press.

The growing implications, of what may be material leaks of insight from public school systems that simply abhor transparency, are three:   That lifting the lid on too many of our public schools reveals negative BOE and system performances that have been too long covered up or publicly deflected; that our public systems’ flaws will become increasingly visible, further indicting our schools of education; and that for 34 years our alleged reformers, punitively targeting public school teachers and students with standardized testing (now bungled) and VAM, may have had the wrong culprits in their cross-hairs.  

Parenthetically, the latter assessment may also apply to this nation’s US Department of Education, and its principals, with both the NEA and AFT national teachers’ unions challenging the Federal reform stances taken, and now Arne Duncan’s continued agency leadership for cause.

One of the earliest lessons offered in even the most rudimentary treatment of the logic of inquiry or decision making, is to define the right problem.  Both our overall public education bureaucracy, and our alleged “corporate reform” horde, seem to merit a single letter grade to supersede the faux NCLB assessments and witless state grading:  An “F.”

Next on the Edunationredux agenda, some of our institutions of higher education, and some of their embedded colleges and schools, that are supposed to be this nation’s cutting edge for learning and innovation; but are they still viable, and for how long given questionable priorities and resource use?


      Ron Willett

Dr. Ronald Willett, 29 Canterbury Drive, New Bremen, OH  45869
Home:  419-977-2103   Cell:  419-202-2044

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Forest For the Trees…

Alleged reform of our public schools has unfolded over more than three decades though most mark its inception with launch of NCLB.  How NCLB became the point of the spear was addressed in a prior Edunationredux.  That history to a great extent explains why reform has created such disparate tactics, throwing into the same bed players with conflicting motives, providing openings for scams in the name of reform, and blunting the ability to change, sometimes even sight the core problems.

Last Gasp

Analyzing any problem generally invokes the early choice of the unit of analysis.  Samuel Fay, who scored the first patent for the paperclip certainly wasn’t attacking a global issue.  Nor was the triad of 3M researchers who ultimately created the ubiquitous Post-It note.   But in our present venue of education, the unit can be all over the place:  Upper case SYSTEMIC; an issue, cursive writing or not; a state’s schools; a local school; a building; a classroom; a day’s lesson plan; and on.  All can be important in their own context, but only at the highest level of aggregation does the landscape get painted.  This likely last post on public K-12 for a time is focused on the forest.

Looking Large

The big picture is, that American public education may be the only remaining monolithic public system that has been by default protected from world-view change.  Reasons are three:  A century of protection from competition in delivering its basic services via the assumption of fault-free entitlement; the nostalgic belief that because control is local, parents and taxpayers are adequately and responsibly represented; and failure on the part of higher education to intellectually police its schools of education and demand upgrades.

A major rift, between what industry saw as its needs for educated human resources, and what public schools were delivering directly, and to higher education, precipitated private sector pro-action.  The game was played aggressively, at the time by the CEOs of our largest corporations speaking directly to our nation's governors via the NGA (National Governors Association), followed by the 1983 report, ANAR (“A Nation at Risk”) by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, created by Mr. Reagan.  Between 1983 and 2001 there were behind the scene skirmishes over how to change public K-12, but prophetically, the public school bureaucracy itself, lacking coherent leadership, simply continued its drift.  The sway and propaganda of the then more dominant teachers’ unions were likely part of the force that blocked change.

In 2003 there was a report by the KORET TASK FORCE on K-12 Education, titled “Are We Still at Risk?”  The source of that report was a consortium of three major and respected institutions, Stanford (Hoover Institution), Harvard (Kennedy School), and Fordham, via a web site and publication, EDUCATIONnext.  The sources are all advocates of competition as one mechanism for improving public schools, but that position doesn’t diminish or demean the scholarship of the report and its observations.  After three years of chasing explanations for how our public K-12 schools wound up with feet of clay, the report’s findings ring true.

KORET Excerpts Addressing Reform Need

“What the Commission Said
The excellence commission organized its findings within four broad topics: content, expectations, time, and teaching. Under these headings, Risk issued a 24-count indictment of American primary-secondary education as the commissioners found it in 1983. The spirit of these indictments can be sensed from the following excerpts:
• “Secondary school curricula have been homogenized, diluted, and diffused to the point that they no longer have a central purpose. In effect, we have a cafeteria-style curriculum in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main course.”
• “The amount of homework for high school seniors has decreased . . . and grades have risen as average student achievement has been declining.”
• “In 13 States, 50 percent or more of the units required for high school graduation may be electives chosen by the student. Given this freedom . . . many students opt for less demanding personal service courses, such as bachelor living.”
• “A study of the school week in the United States found that some schools provided students only 17 hours of academic instruction. [In] other industrialized countries, it is not unusual for academic high school students to spend 8 hours a day at school, 220 days per year.”
• “Too many teachers are being drawn from the bottom quarter of graduating high school and college students. . . . Half of the newly employed mathematics, science, and English teachers are not qualified to teach those subjects. . . .”
The commission’s four major recommendations did not call for sweeping reform of the education system itself, but they demanded higher standards of performance. The commission said:
• High-school graduation requirements should be strengthened so that all students acquire a solid foundation in five “new basics”: English, mathematics, science, social studies, and computer science.
• Schools and colleges should adopt higher and measurable standards for academic performance.
• The amount of time students devote to learning should be significantly increased.
• The teaching profession should be strengthened by raising standards for training, entry, and professional growth.”

KORET Excerpts Addressing Roadblocks to Change

“Why So Much Change Yet So Little Improvement?
First of all, the commission’s diagnosis was incomplete. It paid scant attention to the K-8 years, seeing them as providing a reasonable level of basic skills, when in fact many children were failing to gain the fundamental knowledge they would need to continue learning in subsequent years.
Second, the commission was either too obtuse or too naïve to take on the basic functioning and political control of the system itself. It seemingly believed that the public education system of the day, given higher standards, better-trained teachers, and more time on task, would move the schools and their pupils toward loftier levels of performance. It trusted the system to do the right thing once that system was duly chastised and pointed in the right direction.
We now know that this was unrealistic, that the commission failed to confront essential issues of power and control. It seemed not to realize that the system lacked meaningful accountability and tangible incentives to improve, that it exhibited the characteristic flaws of a command-and-control enterprise. The commission accepted the system as it was, with all the anachronisms inherent in a political mechanism created in the mid-19th century.
We now know that powerful forces-three in particular-proved far stronger and more stubborn than the commission could have foreseen in 1983:
Risk underestimated the resistance to change from the organized interests of the K-12 public education system, at the center of which were the two big teacher unions as well as school administrators, colleges of education, state bureaucracies, school boards, and many others. These groups see any changes beyond the most marginal as threats to their own jealously guarded power. Moreover, they are permanent features on the education landscape, whereas the excellence commission detonated its report and then disappeared, with no real successors to shepherd its recommendations through the political minefields.
Risk underestimated the tenacity of the “thoughtworld” of the nation’s colleges of education, which see themselves as owners of the nation’s schools and the minds of educators, free to impose their ideas on future teachers and administrators regardless of evidence about their effectiveness. Some of the commission’s own expert advisors were advocates of these ideas, in effect poisoning the report from within.
Risk also underestimated the large number of Americans, particularly in middle-class suburbs, who believe that their schools are basically sound and academically successful. This misapprehension arises mainly from the dearth of honest, standards-based information from objective outside sources concerning the true performance levels of our schools, an immense data void that the commission failed to address.
In counterweight to these forces of inertia, the past two decades have also seen the development of powerful new forces for reform that should strengthen America’s ability to improve its schools as we head into the future. These include:
• The public’s surprisingly durable belief that education reform is one of the most critical issues facing the nation-a belief heartily shared by impatient business leaders and elected officials. Although this sense of urgency seems inconsistent with the oft-reported complacency of parents about their own child’s school, satisfaction levels do not run deep. A majority of American parents believe that private schools are more effective than their children’s public schools and say they would move their children if they could.
• Growing and sustained support for both standards-based and choice-based education reforms has the potential to leverage changes that are farther reaching than those the commission envisioned, though both reform strategies face staunch resistance from established education interests.
• Minority parents are increasingly angry and disenchanted with failing inner-city school systems and are less willing to listen to promises that things will get better if they continue to trust the system and drench it with resources.”

It would difficult to be clearer in expressing what has vexed both the schools and reformers to this day and hour.   But, basically, in a decade and since 2003, none of the above constraints on genuine reform of public K-12 has changed.  If anything our K-12 schools have become even more defensive and resistant to internal rebirth, finding tactics that can satisfy the sub-optimal test standards while refusing rethinking of past learning strategies.   The national NEA and AFT have adopted rational goals, but local union components remain as corrupt as prior seeking only higher teacher salaries without related increases in performance or accommodation of needed productivity change.

Our public school system is massive and a systemic hydra because of myriad state differences in approach.  National census of its precise participants, their roles, their strategies, and their tactics is a black box.  We lack even the basics of a methodical approach to characterizing the mass of public systems, preparatory to finding models to allow what they do and how they are doing it to be researched and quantified.  To complicate the issue of reform, its parameters quickly began to be shaped by resources lacking the knowledge and epistemology to make those calls; specifically, the alleged “common core” is freezing what is already questionably contemporary knowledge layered with ideological methods reasoning.

The Effects of Oversimplification and Ignorance

At the forefront of original corporate angst with public education was that our schools were essentially unaccountable for performance versus their mission, a red flag to the business ethos.  It is also clear that “accountability” became a selective form of remediation narrowed to teachers, and “measurable standards of performance” were never fleshed out to reflect the research needed to verify what constitutes proper measurement.  In the case of accountability, some unidentified combination of critics latched onto the notion that the teacher was the key log in learning, a conclusion that can be correct, that can be wrong, but that has never been adequately subjected to legitimate research on the multivariate causes of how effective learning happens, how it co-varies with other causes of learning success, and with the beginning conditions for learners. 

Wholly ignored, the debacle of public school administration ignorant of several decades of findings about human behavior, and of organizational behavior propositions that foot performance of all institutions including schools.  Add that BOE human resources who may lack the first qualification for the chore perform vetting of most current school leadership.  In essence, there is virtually no accountability for the direct leadership of most of our public schools.

On measurement, instead of competent professional development of assessment methods keyed to learning progression, resources lacking either the intellectual capacities or patience to develop proper standards and measurement pushed the present structured bed of standardized testing and school grading.  The motivation was political conformity or profit in the case of the testing companies.  With conspiratorial Gates'-funded lobbying, this is now internalized in the vast majority of our states, and virtually impossible to root out of state bureaucratic education practice without legislative overturn, unlikely in the majority right wing dominated legislatures.

In sum, if you were asked a perverse test question, design a system of attitudes, actions, organization structure, performance-quality-administrative assessment, strategic planning, classroom tactics, and pervasive use of resources, that would produce the worst possible system for moving a nation’s children from nascent learners to accomplished thinkers and practitioners, the best answer would likely be:  Positions of most U.S. public schools, along with the comprehensive ineptitude of oversight responsible for their control, aggravated by alleged reform, and absolving literally none of the names you might recognize.

How Remedy This Catastrophe?

A prophetic article, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math,” has a barely suppressed subtext — that America’s public school teachers have not been trained to teach contemporary math, perhaps extending the thought, not much at all.  If that is true, the causal arrow only has one vector, our failed schools of education as implied above.  The closest thing to a systemic solution is a major strategic reach and would demand a decade, but possible:  Essentially disenfranchise our existing schools of education and redesign the model of teaching education within the science and/or behavioral science halls of higher education, or create a new entity divorced from present leadership and curricula.  Simultaneously, via state cooperation, develop one set of higher education-driven and administered standards for teaching certification that recognize the need for one or more instances of teacher subject matter expertise.  

A subset of the above, there are out there with the potential to enter the K-12 learning arena, possessing greater education than much of the present public teacher pool, more human resources than presently occupy all of our K-12 classrooms.  In addition, present certification models should be seen for precisely what they are – a protective mechanism to keep non-indoctrinated resources out of the teaching industry, protect insider dogma, and prevent competition.  Consider, there are approximately 1.5MM highly educated teachers in U.S. academia (excluding TAs), most with doctorates, successfully teaching our best and brightest, few if any of whom claim having needed or taken Praxis I or II.

Leaving this topic for now, a parting prediction is that there is left virtually no mechanism for adjusting the present trajectory because of entrenched positions.  Left in place, the standardized testing without extension to cover more appropriate learning, with states’ simplistic school grading, and with curricular distortions being imposed, simply promise to harden what has become a standoff:  Our reformers won’t retire the match; our systems are too deeply entrenched, and devoid of the creativity and insight to find an end run; and our political solutions are so partisan they offer no help.  But the product of all of this is predictable -- at least one generation if not two that is so narrowly programmed by our public schools that our nation’s status as 'educated' drops even further.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Why has school reform failed?

There is little bipartisanship in the present debates about school reform, and even less straight talk.  The rhetoric is expansive, claims and counterclaims; data fragments that are contradictory reference the recent excellent post by “Sheet” regular, Carol Burris, on remedial college work.  But millions of words have carefully stepped around our public systems’ home truths.

Present reform is failing because, targeting variables that are not the cause of the disease, it was impotent before advocates launched it where ideology or emotion trumped wits. Its conceptual mechanisms violate contemporary principles of human behavior; its tactics violate contemporary organizational and managerial thought. 

Consider some gut explanations, not circling or politically correct, that puncture America’s feel good delusions; these propositions explain a lot:

One, scissors cuts paper, but repeatable empirical findings on paper about the variables effecting the entire spectrum of K-12 learning, from credible places, would go a long way toward clearing the fog of present reform.  None of the testing terrorism being used to beat up students, or to simplistically assess teacher performance, or to grade systems, or to claim success, has a critical mass of legitimate research behind their face.  Indeed, we don’t know enough about our real public schools beyond NCER’s boiler plate to even form hypotheses.

Two, the structured testing now inundating alleged reform, along with psychometric methods employed, have a legitimate application for certain types of learning.  A naive conception of and compulsion for “metrics,” and a primitive testing model have virtually no utility in measuring successful higher order thought, integrative problem solving, or footing creative thinking.  Standardized testing overuse and misuse is being sustained because of the improper influence of a handful of testing corporations with inordinate and inappropriate power over a public good and system, and cowardice or witless dogmatism that permeates entire institutional strata.

Three, public K-12 schools, and their unions, and the bureaucracies supporting and lobbying for them, are as directly responsible for present school reform as the alleged "corporate" impetus in current depictions of reform morphology.  Decades ago our public schools ossified, introduced their own ideological overreach, and failed to retool – that is what invited private sector reform initiatives starting in 1980. But while some corporate players may have disproportionately promoted public school attacks even before ANAR, contemporary management as practiced in 21st century businesses is not so stupid as to employ present methodologies.  The game is now being prosecuted by a motley assortment of ideologues with their own agendas, and of course, by a profoundly misguided White House perspective.

Four, the vast majority of public schools are dully to dogmatically managed by overwhelmed, or untutored, or incompetent, or downright unethical administration, overseen by inept BOE.  Their genre can be seen if you lift the lid on real schools:  What you will see is too frequently a circle-the-wagons mentality, hypocrisy and self-interest, dogmatic belief in obsolete school of education nostrums, lack of contemporary managerial concepts, cynical tactical initiatives to conform to test and VAM mandates but resist core change, and aggressiveness only to protect the funding of fiefdoms created and block system transparency to the public.  Creativity has been cut out of their thesaurus because it entails risk.  As a class, our nation's public school superintendents likely represent a level of magnitude greater need for assessment and remediation than our teachers yet they are being tolerated.  In parallel, the organizational model for K-12 schools is obsolete and needs to go back to the drawing board.

Five, the number of public school teachers who are "Mr. Chips" is vastly outnumbered by the number who may have those committed learning values, but are broadly ignorant of contemporary learning, or lack the subject matter competence to teach assigned venues, both because they were poorly educated out of the gate.   This is matched by systems that will fight tooth and nail for a grander football stadium, or award unearned teacher salaries to buy teacher pacifism, but allocate not a cent for teacher development.

Six, the traditional BOE is a major cause of our schools’ failures to perform, has been for decades, and change there is both a necessary and sufficient factor in ever truly improving public school performance. BOE upgrades have been advocated for decades by the leading national association of school boards, but ignored or suppressed by our states.  Try to electorally recall an unethical board.

Seven, and close to being the rotten core of the proverbial apple, are our retro schools of education, dogmatically wedded by arrogance and ignorance to the deductive models of last century, and simply permitted by higher education leadership reactive to reform to continue unchallenged.  Throw in a century of disconnect, and lack of empathy or even contempt for each other, by both public education and higher education.  How much of demanded post-secondary remediation is attributable to the knowledge mission and process information misconceptions between the two systems?

Eight, and hardly the end of the list but causal, our electorate; so totally ignorant of what constitutes genuine primary and secondary learning, and splitting into partisan camps.  So gullible in absorbing propaganda locally, and from both reformers and reform opponents, that the public’s one real control mechanism -- putting some intellectually competent control of local schools in place via legislature and BOE choices -- is a crater.

Our prolific commentators on our public schools’ challenges are fond of the bromide, "there is no silver bullet for reform." Unfortunately, rarely do our rapporteurs dig below that banality and show the courage to call out where real roadblocks are dominant.  Mr. Obama's delusions, Arne Duncan's demagoguery, our testing companies' greed and social irresponsibility, our schools themselves and an entire education bureaucracy in need of renewal, a self-righteous Gates and Rhee, ideological monsters such as ALEC and inbred state government education cabals, are the generic problems and the reasons that present reform hammering symptoms has become a slow motion train wreck.

Prophetically, on the Fourth, symbolic of political change, Arne Duncan’s reign was addressed:  “Delegates of the National Education Association adopted a business item July 4 at its annual convention in Denver that called for his resignation.”  Duncan characteristically dismissed the vote, offering more than a hint of the historical penchant for performance scaling from myopic to despotic.  For the sake of argument, assume that Mr. Duncan is justifiably routed, triggering a turning point in present reform.  But as reform has failed, because our public systems are as resistant to meaningful change as present reform is in delivering it, where does that leave the mission of materially improving American public K-12 learning performance?

American public K-12 seems to be suspended between Sir Winston Churchill's lament on the odyssey of our nation eventually getting anything right, and an apparent societal incapacity to handle simultaneously more than one critical social issue.  Until there is finally education system and change agent self-realization, critical thought, multiplexing, and application of creativity on causes of public school mediocrity and relevant reform strategies, the classic line of ground-breaking TV comedian Flip Wilson’s alter ego, “Geraldine,” seems apropos:  "What you sees is what you gets."