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.

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