Saturday, October 4, 2014

Public School Reform: Micro – Macro?


The progression of large-scale social changes as in natural systems tends to move from the relatively simple to the complex and disorganized.  With that complexity comes a form of cultural myopia:  “…information entering into the colonized mind is focused solely through a limited worldview, and anything existing outside of that limited worldview cannot be seen with clarity.” 

In the case of the 35 years of alleged “corporate reform” of America’s public K-12 schools, this has translated over time into two perceptual tendencies.  One has been to accept as given and let drift into the background the core issues that prompted what was essentially a revolt against public education as it had evolved through the early 1980s.  The second developed systemically with the increasing participation of those seeking prosecution of our schools, and in the consequent expansion of issues that are seen as included in that quest for reform.  In short, the proliferation of isolated or one-note items embroiled in reform quickly drives out or numerically submerges the core things that originally footed reform.

Today’s post dives under that barrage of localized or parochial material that has accumulated documenting the case for school change, as well as the now increasing evidence of public and system member pushback.  Too much of current rhetoric, by becoming highly relevant to only subsets of the whole school reform picture, diverts attention from those macro issues that have driven the attacks on US public schools.

Core Questions

There are five questions or footers for virtually all of current detail:  (1) Why did “corporate reform” launch, recognizing the key early players; (2) how did the current cast of reform advocates develop, and even polar values come to drive present tactics; (3) why standardized testing fails as the weapon of choice to try to force school change; (4) how have US public systems overall responded to the attack on their performance; and (5) how did a very large US human resource sub-population of teachers (3.1+MM) become the reform targets, versus statutorily accountable state education departments, public school administrators (215+K), and somewhere in excess of 80K sworn BOE members?

Why Reform?

In practically complete evasion of this most basic question, the apparent answer is, because the private sector consumers of the human resources being churned out by our public schools concluded that the public systems were failing their educational mission.  Retrospectively, there were few particulars offered by the early leaders of a reform charge, just ramped up presentation of an ideology built around inadequate education coupled with public systems’ alleged refusal of accountability for learning deficits.  A serious subtext, even now spoken only in restrained tones, was an alleged belief that our overall public systems were explicitly advocating extreme liberal values, counter to many private sector beliefs.

On the other side of the future skirmish line, our nation’s overall public education enclaves were doing pretty much all of that.  (Parenthetically, the counterpoint is what is occurring today in a Colorado BOE, where three extreme right wing board members are dogmatically trying to install an opposite, self-gratuitous political correctness to an AP curriculum for history; no less egregious than earlier overall public system attempts to install certain liberal values.)  That, in turn, was a legacy of schools of education that had by that point chosen self-righteousness over the nation’s learning missions. Absorbing and relaying to nascent teachers contemporary views of learning, and experimentally-derived models of "what works," were suppressed or ignored; instead those programs continued to float deductive concepts and install a teacher self-image.  It surfaces the old anthem, “you gets what you pays for.”

The initiation acts of the reformers were detailed in an earlier blog post, but key players were the Business Roundtable, and a former IBM CEO, with a selling effort that brought on board the National Governors Association (NGA), dominated by right wing views, and ALEC, the conservative legislative lobbying organization creating legislation for conservative state legislatures.  Subsequently, the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) issued via the NGA, with an anonymous group of unknown academic competence creating an alleged “Common Core.”  What is now known is that the group creating those alleged standards was populated with few educators, many political representatives, and chaired by the present CEO of a testing company.  A group supposed to review the “Core” was identified, and consisted of some of our educational representation at best riddled with professional mediocrity.  In sum, the nation’s “best and brightest” were not enlisted to either provide or vet those standards.

Following years of under the table lobbying, and under the Reagan Administration, that reform agenda finally issued first as a call to action, “A Nation at Risk” (ANAR); then with the Bush Administration as the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) update of the “Elementary and Secondary Education Act” (ESEA).  A reading of the original language of NCLB leaves little doubt that the titling was pure hype and deceptive, and the purpose of the model was creating failure modes for public schools that would allow conscription of their assets for conversion into vouchers and charter schools using public tax dollars.  NCLB was a highly political act, the first round in attempts to privatize our public systems.

Even by the middle of last decade, the public was barely cognizant of what had been imposed on our nation, and even less celebratory, many of our public schools and their administrations were in their own parochial and self-righteous zones, totally oblivious to what was coming at their students and teachers.

Reform Adversaries?

“Corporate reform” started with the top 100 CEOs in the US, but quickly moved into a political venue, with the Cheneys prominent in the early attacks. Then advocacy was fully linked politically, frequently quietly at the time, by the plurality of Republican governors.  One example is Ohio, where a back door into Ohio’s Department of Education was accessible for those pioneering charter schools, and as early as the 1990s and virtually unseen by most, that format was being peddled to a gullible Ohio public as “community schools.”  Overwhelmingly, these schools were accompanied by corrupted promotion and payments to “charter consultants.”  Some audaciously claimed actual identification with the ODOE.  Many of these charters are now either failed, or have seen managements prosecuted for corrupt practices, and most constitute the bottom of the barrel of Ohio K-12 education performance.

Nationally, a platoon of opportunists joined the reform bandwagon, including Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush, Joel Klein, Wendy Kopp with an allegedly righteous but misdirected “Teach for America” (TFA), and to America’s misfortune, scion of the “billionaires boys club,” Bill Gates.  It is arguable that Mr. Gates (who paradoxically never actually finished an education) has operated with the sincere belief that his intrusive intervention and use of wealth -- funding reform initiatives, standardized testing expansion, VAM attacks on teachers, the CCSSI “Common Core” installation among the states, and now pushy advocacy of at best a “CliffsNotes” view of the history of the universe -- were in the nation’s interest.  It is also arguable that Mr. Gates’ ignorance, arrogance, and misplaced intrusion in public education has deepened the school-reform divide, and complicated rather than assuaged the process for constructive US public school change.

Lastly, the dark underbelly of present reform is the phalanx of private sector textbook and testing companies.  The latter have been culpable in creating the need for public school reform for at least a half century, unchecked by any real oversight, institutional or governmental.  This set of players must be labeled as some of the most destructive corporate entities in our society.  Worse, they have become uninvited surrogates for legitimate scholarship in defining what is being tested K-12, and by virtue of that intrusion defining what is considered knowledge.  That is outrageous for a society honoring reason, science, and objectivity of inquiry, threatening America’s future standing as an educated society.

The list of destructive players continues, however, and goes bipartisan.   Covered in prior posts, Mr. Obama has been blatantly hypocritical in prescriptions for reform, and has virtually destroyed the US Department of Education with the continued appointment of Arne Duncan as its Secretary.  (Parenthetically and ironically, former President Reagan would have been proud of the service.)  It remains something of a mystery why Obama/Duncan have continued (linking arms with the worst of the right wing) to prosecute alleged reform, prosecution of NCLB, and a hopelessly bureaucratic and deceptive “Race to the Top” with billion dollar bribery of our states to continue to press standardized testing.

Testing, Testing, Testing?

There has been so much reported on the standardized testing being employed K-12 that it likely can’t be embellished.  All of the critique demonstrating that the testing model is either ineffective in creating higher order learning, or even destructive of it, is unassailable.  The logic for present testing is simply wrong.  But there are two different negatives operating at the roots of testing-driven alleged reform.

First, there is an elephant in the room that is being ignored in all of the minutiae – the core logic of the entire test motif as the backbone of school accountability and alleged search for performance.  That is:  Why is the entire test logic being employed, presumed the vehicle for accounting for performance quality, using quality assessment logic that was obsolete decades ago to achieve quality assurance, and that wouldn’t be employed by any contemporary US private sector enterprise in this century?

The resultant hypocrisy of every niche of reform prosecution is mind boggling.  Quality assurance in this century is based on controlling the processes that create entity quality, not on destructive or post-creation testing of a product long after it is timely or efficient to catch failures of quality in action.  Bottom line, it has never been about testing per se, but about the intelligence in how testing is employed.  Simply, even present formulaic testing is kosher were it being employed at the locus of learning, designed by those responsible for that learning, and being employed as a formative device.  The ignorance of present reform leadership is breathtaking and challenges credulity.

The second testing issue simply destroys what is assumed to be the Administration’s semi-delusional motivation for reform – trying to in any tactical time frame erase learning deficits attributable to racial, economic, familial, and cultural differences among the nation’s children.  Multiple studies have demonstrated that especially early grade standardized testing of children reflects more frequently their incoming and residual backgrounds defined above, versus assessing classroom effects.  The result is that effective testing of children with those differential attributes would need to follow a different course; one size does not fit all. 

Hence, present undifferentiated standardized testing becomes a counter-productive, if not destructive monolithic device in trying to boost learning among disadvantaged students.  This is not a new or original concept; see the extensive work of Harvard education professor, Howard Gardner, on multiple intelligences, earlier sidetracked by more educational naivety, but now being revisited in its proper not revisionist form.

When what is tested with present modeling, now massively deployed, defines what is being taught, and that in turn defines what is knowledge in America, the nation is in far greater trouble than an unfavorable comparison with other nations in the results of the PISA testing of students.  The only good news is that objections to testing overkill are gaining national traction.

Public School Sponges

A factor so obvious, but seemingly oblivious to our reform remonstraters, is the capacity our public systems have demonstrated to go from simply ignoring or denying that “corporate reform” exists, and that they are still under attack, to going venal by exhibiting more creativity in devising ways to cheat on that testing than it would have taken to launch self-reform.

In this milieu, there are a few exemplary public systems, that with courage and a ‘stick it somewhere’ attitude toward the reform vultures, that have creatively changed their own classroom models, and advanced critical thinking and learning.  The vast majority of our public schools have simply hunkered down, some too thick or self-centric to even acknowledge they’re under attack.  A strategy has been to simply game the testing to make it something doable without triggering any self-assessment of why they are being bombed with the testing weapon.  The resultant administrative malfeasance, not primarily our public system teachers, is the culprit but still unrecognized, or at least only grudgingly acknowledged and virtually untouched by alleged reform.

Our overall public K-12 systems precipitated the present reform war, and now are extending it by reticence or dogmatism.  Their failure overall to get around cultural myopia, and offset a century of self-righteousness and perceived entitlement, is now the fuel that is extending reform threats.  That this is happening, while part of our public, increasingly our parents, even their students, are showing more awareness of the threat to future learning, is wholesale indictment of much present public school leadership.

Roots of School Dysfunction?

When you dig for answers to why America’s public schools created the environment for “corporate reform,” then dig some more, the least referenced causal factor in this 35 year societal debacle is likely the most important. That factor is our obsolete and dysfunctional schools of education, not universally, but with only few exceptions the schools with roots in the original “normal” schools of early last century, or most states’ university-associated schools of education.

As one critic put it, our “schools of education think they own America’s public K-12 schools.”  In fact, most of our schools of education should be candidates for dissolution, and a new start.  They have created and fostered a faulty logic of learning for a century, have both failed to adopt the results of accumulating neural research to amend flawed deductive methods, and created faculties not competent to research learning.  It takes very little research to find that other nations' educators, for example in the key reform targets of literacy and numeracy, have gone way beyond the US in developing the underlying theories of human perception and cognition that foot teaching to achieve those goals.

But the indictment gets worse.  Factually, our schools of education have consistently attracted the intellectual bottom one-third of the barrel of college students, pragmatically defining most of our present teachers.  Without almost immediate change in that teacher recruiting and education system, or some drastic change in local systems’ further education of their teachers, it will also define the next generation of US public school teachers.

Having failed that basic training, along with failure to create preparation for competent school administration with awareness of contemporary organizational behavior, they have set up the present mess of public schools being unethically and ineptly guided.  The not politically correct bottom line; our public schools are staffed with the intellectually weakest outputs of our colleges. They are being managed by resources with no better and frequently worse credentials, and who may be motivated by factors that have nothing to do with most teachers’ still wholly sincere reasons for choosing the profession.

The place where public school reform should have begun is with the leadership of our public systems, the real responsible and accountable for school failure to educate for this century and beyond.  The proverb, “the fish rots from the head down,” could be applied to a fair fraction of current public school leadership.

Digging Very Deep

The OECD’s PISA international testing of public school secondary students is real enough, and likely accurately predicts that overall America’s public systems are turning out products who are now behind some other nations in learning.  That was not true historically, and it may well be that America’s perceived decline is attributable to other nations’ progress as well as need for US absolute improvement.  But as both economic and scientific performance world-wide becomes more homogeneous, it still demands that US schools find paths to create their own internal improvements in learning.

One wishes that improvement in America’s capacity to compete and function with societal excellence was the overriding thrust of present “corporate reform.”  Possibly early on in the challenges to public K-12 it may have been, with the better of our corporate community initiating the charge.  But as the movement became more politicized in the last and this decade, there is a suspicion that motivations for reform became blurred.

It is a cynical point of view, but it is also a credible assessment: That far too much of present public school reform is being pushed simplistically to try to reassert American exceptionalism in world testing.  To the extent that is occurring, it is ignorant selfishness.  The latter because major gains are being sought in 'our reformers’ time,' with little or no strategic awareness of the downstream strategic costs to the nation and its children, potentially intellectually and professionally depreciated by the present standardized testing to achieve myopic learning gains. 

If there is a kernel of truth in this point of view, there is even a stronger case to assert that any real public school reform will need to blossom grass roots, propagated from within our local systems, or at least be coextensive with different reform modes and from better angels in our states, in the USDOE, and from our universities.

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