Monday, September 15, 2014

Public Education Perspective: Leadership & Reality


In the outpouring of rhetoric accumulating around “corporate reform” of our public schools, its standardized testing, and most recently fixation on an alleged “Common Core,” there is a bias that masks key perspectives.  That is, the tendency to hone in on only public education parameters, pretty much ignoring the complex linkages among our systems, and what feeds them and is impacted by their outputs.

As critique of present standardized testing has ramped up, the impact of what feeds our public systems has been given voice.  Specifically, that the socioeconomic, cultural and familial attributes of students play a major role in what happens in that testing.   At one end of that argument is the assertion that standardized testing as a basis for assessing school performance is deeply flawed, reflecting inherent deficits of accomplishment attributable to what a student carries as incoming learning baggage.

On the other end of the public school machine, what happens to their human resource outputs has belatedly started to engage policy makers.  It should have engaged them a long time ago.  It should have engaged our public systems even earlier, where most have dismissed their charges once they have exited their schools.  Ignored has been the most elemental research issue of longitudinal analysis of whether the education provided has been effective in a former student’s next endeavor.

Even further down the road comes realization that what has been achieved K-12 will be on display for decades in human performances in either the private or public sector.  Yet, as public school rhetoric foams, there is little perspective about the other environments it impacts, or the scales of those recipients of our public schools’ outputs.

The following table offers some perspectives of where public education fits in a much larger scheme of our nation’s allocations of its human resources.  There are major stories in the following data, going beyond the implications for public education.  But some top line relationships are revealing, and what they reveal is why the composite private sector has every reason to demand accountability from public education.  (Parenthetically, that is not equivalent to naming present reform “corporate reform,” for that is an inappropriate labeling at least as it has been employed by anti-reform resources as a pejorative descriptor.)


Private Sector Employment

113, 426
Public School Students All Grades

Americans w/College Degree But Imputed Underemployed

Federal/State/Local Governmental Employment

Americans Unemployed

Americans w/Graduate Degree But Imputed Underemployed

Public School Teachers

Public School Administrators and Non-Teaching Employment

Higher Education Administrative & Staff Employment

Private Sector Top Executives

Higher Education Teaching/Research Employment

Americans w/PhD or Professional Degree Imputed Underemployed

Public School Principals

Estimated Public School/Area Superintendents


All numbers are rounded.  Sources are multiple, government and private sector.  Numbers represent different years, but the latest available for the type, and represent the years between 2011 and 2014.  Time differences therefore reflect varying small relative comparative inaccuracies but no basic scale differences.

The most gripping relationship from the table is that the actions of public education top administrators, constituting less than one percent of our nation’s number of top executives – the latter in turn responsible for over 113 million employees and our GDP – impact that private sector’s and our nation’s business performance.  The real kicker is, that many of those public administrators have not been properly trained, or professionally vetted by marginal BOE, and reflect ‘superintendents’ frequently operating with virtually no oversight or real accountability.   There are competent public school chief executives in our nation, but with minimal effort the unprepared, the educationally challenged, the unethical, and the arrogant can be installed, then seen even when every effort is exerted to block school transparency. That is a societal miscue and debacle, and more than ample justification for rigorous public K-12 system reforms. 

In that sense, what is being prosecuted in real time as attempted public school reform is ‘corporate reform,’ but rather than naming for the prosecutors, it should reflect the economic damage an unreformed and change-resistant public school fraction of total systems is imposing on the nation.  Present reform modalities are proving equally destructive of needed K-12 learning, so both sides of the present reform equation need serious revision.

View From the Downstream Real World

Occasionally some research opportunistically surfaces at the right moment in history.  A recent study -- the third annual version just appeared -- puts some meat on the bones of the above assertions about where US public education most needs change.

The report, “AN ECONOMY DOING HALF ITS JOB,” represents findings of “Harvard Business School’s 2013-14 Survey of U.S. Competitiveness.”  Its principal author, Dr. Michael Porter, is considered by many the current dean of business strategic thought.  The survey presents the opinions of a sample of 1,947 senior business executives.  The pertinence for this post was a first in the three-year sequence of studies; the inclusion of a sample of 1,100 public school superintendents.  Their responses to selective questions on the contributions of our public systems to US competitiveness were compared with the executives’ responses, a rare comparative assessment.

While the full study covered a very wide swath of US competitiveness issues, the study questions where superintendent and executive answers could be compared primarily covered:  “Current U.S. K-12 education position compared to other countries;" business engagement in education; and actions taken or not taken by business in support of public schools.

Key findings applicable here:
  • The most strident finding came from a comparison between executives’ and superintendents’ views of how US K-12 education stacked up in comparison to other advanced countries.  In a scaling map of “current U.S. position compared to other advanced economies” X “U.S. trajectory compared to other advanced economies,” superintendents scored the US K-12 education system 55% better on position than the average of all economies, and its trajectory on a par on with other economies.  Contrasting with those views, executives scored the U.S. education system -40% and -70%, respectively, on the two factors compared to the average assessment.  Not an unexpected perception by most system superintendents, but an indictment of their connection to reality.
  • External to this study but reported for reference by the Harvard report, were results of the OECD’s 2013 cross-national study of adult competencies, covering literacy, problem-solving, and numeracy.  The U.S. results showed all three competencies higher compared to other economies as the age of the adult increased.  Americans aged 55-65 performed 5-10% better than the country average except for numeracy; but in age groups 45-54 through 16-24, the performances became increasingly lower as age decreased.  This may be the most vivid finding to date that U.S. public education is failing to perform relative to other advanced economies, and that those deficits have actually increased over two decades.  Is this in spite of reform, or because of alleged reform shifting learning from a more diverse form to narrowly conceived success based on simplistic testing?  Arguably it is both.
  • Discouraging across the board, “only 12% of superintendents characterized their business communities as deeply involved in their school districts.”  “And only 7% of business respondents described their firms as deeply involved in public education.”  Corporate reform obviously does not extend to broad executive involvement with our public schools, even if heavy-handed accountability has been attributed to business’ influence.
  • Superintendents underestimated business’ low engagement in schools, versus business respondents, perceiving 37% not involved, versus 62% of executives stating no involvement.  The same pattern of superintendents failing to perceive executive views stretched across seven other involvement factors.
  •  Lastly, “only 3% of superintendents characterized their business communities as well informed about public education, while 14% described their business communities as misinformed.”  In parallel, 65% of executives expressed deep interest in the mission of a child’s education, while only 35% of superintendents had that perception of executive interest.  It is hardly a mystery why there appears to be disconnect, and tension between public education and the U.S. economic universe as well as with its local constituencies.  The disconnect of almost a century between public systems and higher education is real, and well documented. Further contributors are the prevalence of public system administrator efforts to block school transparency, self-righteousness, and aloofness to the non-education public.   Curious, as much of that high level non-education professional public has better academic credentials than most public school administrators.

Indications for Change

The smallest number of human resources in the above table, hence, the easiest and most logical place to apply some corrective action to change US public education’s trajectory, is self-evidently public school leadership where it has failed.  Another basis for that targeting is this segment is also a major contributor to the refusal or inability of our public schools to grab their bootstraps and initiate internal reform.  One obvious implication; move part of the focus of present reform to where reform should have been initiated with or before NCLB launched – targeting failed and failing public system leadership.

That would, complicating the game, have to either bypass many local marginal BOE, or in concert, trigger BOE reform as well.  Either and both, it is asserted, offer a far more effective reform agenda for public K-12 than beating up teachers with VAM, and students with counterproductive standardized testing. 

There is currently no set of metrics to gauge school leadership deficits (ruling out the false metric of standardized test scores and states' alleged grades, and perhaps sports victories/losses), arguably because of an equally false ‘sacred cow’ historical attribution to superintendents.  But simple observation locally, of some of the ignorance, educational incompetence, and ethical failures projected by that alleged leadership, suggests the target is huge.  Not particularly radical, there are in the contemporary management literature, and being practiced in the private sector, well organized and successful processes for assessing private sector leadership.  The usual education rhetoric, ‘but we are different,’ is malarkey – organizations of all venues at core revolve around the same basic design principles and processes for human resource support, as do the bases for their leadership.

Again, self-evidently, the entire public superintendent genre is not a candidate for the unemployment line, or reprogramming, but nationally our education establishment, and particularly and spectacularly our Federal Department of Education, has flunked management 101 by deflecting wholesale the above issues while narrowly focusing on standardized testing.  Our states are equally responsible, for over multiple decades, refusing legislation to upgrade the quality of local BOE competence and oversight capability.

A strong case exists for sanctioning those public school superintendents who have either tumbled down “Alice’s rabbit hole,” or succumbed to Lord Acton’s dictum, or are unethical.   The dual contentions:  There are many quality professional resources who can be staged to take up that role, most with greater intellectual and ethical values than resources in place and failing; and there is no irrevocable law that requires a school CEO to have issued from the education bureaucracy, indeed, changing that sourcing of competent peak public system management may be the only timely way to jumpstart creative change in public K-12.

Should some fraction of 14-15K human resources, many who because of U.S. societal and systemic oversight are either lacking education currency, or incompetent to lead an education system – all contributing to under-serving 3.1MM teachers and 49+MM children – be wagging the dog?

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