Saturday, January 31, 2015

US Higher Education: Quo Vadis?

An opinion piece in Friday's Dayton Daily News, by the president of Ohio's Antioch College, jump-started today's post.  The promised offering of alternative futures for America's colleges and universities has been delayed, and a puzzle.  The puzzle, however, was not for reasons one might suspect.

Antioch's president addressed the core need for higher education to achieve not just pro forma housecleaning, but material basic reductions in the cost of a college education, citing the now prominently displayed findings that over 50 percent of America's public PreK-12 students now live in poverty.  That finding doesn't magically improve when those constituents try to educationally move into the next level of education, where they encounter a level of magnitude greater costs.

Reflecting on Antioch president Mark Roosevelt's common sense statement of need, its contrast with a reality became writer’s block.  That reality:  Few if any of the contemporary depictions of why the cost of higher education is what it is capture the full scope and depth of the issues, and there is little candor in describing prospects that those costs can even be nudged.

Prevailing Wisdom

The most common assertion – true – is that the last decades’ college tuition escalation reflects long term reductions in state support of those institutions. Next in line is the plea that human resource costs have soared, both required salaries to hold quality faculty, and the costs of health insurance and pension reserves.  Kept low key in reporting, the cost of debt incurred to support bursts of campus construction, some justified, but much designed to dress those campuses to compete for students.  Next, legitimate, some fragment of those costs is attributable to meeting regulatory requirements.  The net costs of sports to our institutions is rarely transparent – a mixed bag, in some cases profitable, in other cases football and basketball revenues offset the costs of other sports. Lastly, add the soaring costs of research assigned to our universities to support the nation's technology needs, some moved from the private sector and imposed on our research universities.

Collegiate administration, an increasingly savvy lot in this century, squirm or bob and weave, but rarely find the industry or courage to try to re-write their strategic game plans.  The dirty little secret that has blocked higher education reform for decades is, with rare exceptions, they have no need to change.  A virtually isolated exception in this last decade was the University of Virginia, where an initial brouhaha slowly dissipated moving the dial back to virtually where the revolt started.

Reality is that our traditional colleges and universities have few natural predators as a check and balance, pragmatically receive perfunctory oversight, and increasingly corral a captive audience of sports-intoxicated supporters, and alumni who where successful and with nostalgia for their campus salad days feed those institutions endowment dollars.  That wake, funding diverted to student recreational infrastructure, doubling of bureaucratic resources, naive over-compensation of privileged faculty in the guise of staying competitive, and pious refusal to entertain the use of various learning innovations (MOOC) pleading they will reduce education quality.

The Riddle That Is US Higher Education

The list goes on for any willing to dismiss the hype, and look deeply into what the academic legions are and have been doing for the last 25-30 years.  Complexity, however, is that the academy is not an organized entity aligned with private sector organizational design.  It is fragmented, with mixed levels of faculty versus administrative governance, with operating rules and values installed over most of last century.  Inside the whole, every discipline can also be an organizational subunit reflecting a different set of management and performance criteria.  The presence of faculty tenure virtually ensures that there will be little slack to remove unproductive human resources at the academic level; lack of administrative courage in turn virtually assures that once bureaucracy is planted it will mightily resist uprooting, even in the face of reduced need or obsolescence.

Vivid in memory of being a collegiate administrator, was the realization after a few months in the saddle, that the faculty for whom I was responsible did not typically see themselves as employees of the university; rather with uncharacteristic boldness they perceived themselves as independent contractors to the institution.  Tenure meant you could not terminate a poor teacher, or faculty member who would rather wander the campus smelling the flowers than do research, or write, or even regularly meet their classes.  There was great diversity of organizational behavior depending on the colleges/schools/departments, and at some complex level based on the nature of the disciplines represented.

Because of the writer’s prior academic venue, better known cases in point are US schools of business.  Last century, circa 1960, spurred by widespread private sector critique and scathing criticism by two major foundations, those schools were forced to retool their curricula.  What had been a practical but simply descriptive view of American business was prodded to find disciplinary roots for business as a legitimate social science.  In the early 1960s that widespread curricular change occurred, creating a new B-school model, one driven by psychology, sociology, research methods, mathematical modeling, economic theory, and computer technology and computational business solutions.

That regimen legitimized our B-schools academically, but had an opposite effect than the private sector anticipated.  Some sound but exotic conceptual research blossomed, but the manner in which basic disciplines were incorporated damped interest and application of emerging social science to real, street level and especially bottom line oriented teaching and problem solving.  By the late 1970s that approach had again disenchanted the business community, but it had created a bipolar business education revolution. 

Business teaching incorporated some of the science bases of explanation of market and business organization phenomena; simultaneously B-schools’ imports of faculty from more liberally oriented disciplines to reach the earlier reform goals had instilled in those schools – at least for a time – the roots of societal values and ethics to accompany harder edged business practice.  That included 20th century consumerism, and the notion that business had social responsibilities distinct from simply unleashing market-based forces.

By the late 1970s because of corporate voices, and even in B-school internal debate, there was forced evaluation of whether the “social science” missions of that education had diffused and weakened the need for business teaching to be paired with usable applications of theory.  At this point, reminiscent of the reform of the 1960s, a constructive result might have been another update of curricula to marry contemporary theory and business practice.  That need was lost to emerging B-school leadership, pumped up by ramping faculty salaries, emergence of successful prior graduates bringing in endowment dollars, and the misconception that teaching management imbued one with the capacity to practice the best of it.  That preferred result did occur in a few specific business disciplines, notably in organizational behavior and selected research applications, but the overall myopic result was narrowing of focus of educational preparation for business.

For the subsequent 35 years our B-schools adapted to business’ needs by sharply refocusing learning on working to maximize bottom lines, by aggressive development of MBA work and executive education.  Prior sensitivity to business ethics and societal responsibility gave way to current conservative beliefs and myths about the supremacy of “the market” in resolving management decisions – that also created the present public PreK-12 reform debacle.  Bizarre to those of us who practiced through the reform period of the early 1960s, our B-schools began to evolve similarly to our public school system, into learning “factories” premised on standardization, highly programmed curricula, and the ritual MBA.

One might argue that in the last quarter of last century our B-schools created too many myopic marketers; in this century, too many myopic finance graduates, many who helped bring us the prior financial meltdown.  No mistake, tactically the MBA phenomenon brought our B-schools major success, mega endowment dollars, and escalated faculty salaries frequently without justification.  Simultaneously, the last 25-30 years of that academic progress has been a business research wasteland, and has contributed virtually nothing to our advanced understanding of business organization or market behavior.  Only the fairly recent emergence of behavioral economics has added any intellectual accomplishment to business academia.  Even digital applications, once embryonic in our B-schools, were quickly eclipsed by businesses willing to innovate and assume risk.   Paradoxically, assuming risk, and willingness to make mistakes were never tolerated in the academic places supposed to be teaching those arts to the private sector.

Borrowing the term, the ‘bottom line’ is that academic business is long overdue for self-assessment and curricular and learning methods reform.  With the present leadership of most of our B-schools, and without an external force majeure, that is not likely.  To some extent, with the possible exception of our hard and biological sciences, similar critique can apply to most parts of the academy.  Most egregious, among the already questionable, is an obsolete conceptual model for teaching the teacher, the worst of the collegiate breed, our schools of education.  Even that disgrace is not sufficient motivation to prompt collegiate leaderships to enact reform; perhaps because of the belief that would set in motion a view that more of higher education should also be subject to real change?

This is an all too brief survey of why much of higher education needs reform in the worst way; also too brief in part because paradoxically, there is precious little research on higher education that would allow comprehensive diagnosis.


This part of the argument could form the basis for a book or two.  To compress an answer into a few words, the assertion is that there is little threat to higher education, therefore little incentive to generate major internal debate or change, and enduring for the rest of this decade and perhaps the next. 

The Obama/Duncan rating scheme, to shame(?) or with a financial wrist-slap force the institutions into strategy change is so lame it merits no further mention. 

Our states long ago lost effective control of state higher education institutions when majority funding was transferred to tuition and corporatization. An example cited in the last post, the Indiana University system currently received only 24 percent of recent annual revenues from the state.  Collegiate sports in turn have become the armored columns protecting the academic franchise. 

Business practice as an institution is not a current threat, but promises to further compromise academic values by transferring initial training for future hires back to our colleges and universities. 

Too many collegiate boards of trustees or regents are either politically inspired or lack the intellect to exercise that oversight.  Peering into the hazy future, what threats or events could force higher education leaderships to move – to date there appear none.

What Would It Take?

The first answer to that question is, an epiphany by an army of collegiate leaderships that is bright, keeps its heads down, hides behind alumni-bureaucracy-sports, appeals to a swath of America’s middle class parents, and has a formidable if undeserved reputation for being the backbone of American future invention, industry, and prosperity.  In sum, not likely.

The second answer then is almost irrelevant, but still food for thought:  What would that change look like if one could wave a magic wand and scare the bejeebers out of a few thousand collegiate presidents, and cause a sudden internal assessment of their institutions’ missions and methods?  A rough try at an answer:

  • One, it would take the assembly of the full financial statements of a projectable sample of our institutions to understand the financial components that are susceptible to change, and longitudinally, their demand and organizational elasticity.
  • Two, it would require rebuilding the conceptual model of higher education into a major departure from a millennium of history; recognizing that the very nature of knowledge and access thereto has undergone a fundamental change, displacing the core concept of “university,”
  • Three, it would require acceptance of the reality that our institutions are packed with tenured and tenure track faculty who are being over compensated, are not infrequently either subpar classroom teachers or minimally committed to the classroom, and unless they perform a needed research function aren’t really needed to execute the higher education learning mission.  It may even raise the question of whether it is time to scrap out the concept of collegiate tenure.  A majority of higher education classes – for better or worse – is now being taught by part-time and non-tenure track faculty.  Egregiously, on many distance and community campuses, alleged collegiate–level work is being taught by unprepared teachers who could not pass those courses in legitimate university work.
  • Four, it would require coming to grips with the reality that much of now heavily hyped higher education’s lack of on-time graduation performance is attributable to the failure of public PreK-12, and especially its high schools to fundamentally equip their students to operate successfully in higher education.  That should open the door to a new model of education years 9-16, breaking down the disconnect between public education and higher education.  One form that might take is redefinition of current grades 11 and 12, and collegiate 13 and 14, eliminating the grade bands, regularly allowing higher education courses to be more fluidly applied and double counted toward high school completion as well as degree progress.  One simple (but major) factor that could reduce the recipient’s cost of higher education without major challenge of the establishment, is to materially shorten the time a student takes to complete a degree. 
  • Five, arguably every collegiate academic discipline would be tasked to assess and revise as necessary both curricula and how that knowledge is imparted/induced, with some form of oversight of the resultant work by a national academic board for each discipline.
  • Six, a major part of the cost model for higher education is the extended residential environment.  One concept is a staged learning procession that goes one better than tying loan repayment to subsequent employment, but makes some combination of on-campus learning and earlier professional employment the mainstream model.  That in turn would require new processes to allow MOOC to supplement campus work, and/or see that knowledge sourcing tied to a new level of inter-institutional cooperation to cross-recognize academic work.

What’s It All About?

Even the above short list, if one has been sensitive to the arc required to change any major institutional system, immediately becomes discouraging.  If the perpetually more optimistic would dispute that, consider the product of present public PreK-12 alleged reform – 35 years, acts of Congress, high double-digit billions of dollars, an army of idealistic zealots, an underclass army of professionals intimidated to change some undesignated behavior, states slavishly applying and wallowing in test data they usually do not understand, teachers and children degraded by the insensitive application of ESEA without addition of common sense, a procession of Bill Gates’ intrusions and flubs, now emerging protest movements still unable to create sane reassessment of PreK-12 education reform tactics – and a national system barely nudged.

Is the better learning factory the answer, or is the basic theoretical structure being forced onto our public systems simply wrong, based on false assumptions about learning, driven by ideology rather than the learning sought and wisdom, and now peppered with corporate and market self-interest, and political goals that drive out positive organizational learning of a century?

For all of the above reasons, there has to be great macro skepticism that change will occur in higher education venues over less than decades, and without the appearance of the metaphorical “black swan” that disrupts national beliefs and infrastructure.  But in the trenches, America is still graced with great and committed teachers.  For anyone who has spent serious time in the classroom, the event that makes it all worthwhile can be a single episode. 

Years ago the writer, in close to the last class taught before exchanging the classroom for corporate leadership, was offering an advanced MBA course in marketing research.  This was an unusually talented, but also pretty prideful group of about to become MBAs.  The course by design employed both traditional methods exposure and a constructivist approach.  The latter; three real-time marketing research issues underway at Piper Aircraft Corporation.  The class, knowing all that an MBA could possibly want, was pretty dismissive of the projects’ challenges.  They vocally branded the work a no-brainer.  Meanwhile Piper granted funding to buy just about any professional survey resources required to carry out the projects and cover any expenses, and shared proprietary data about past, present and prospective customers for framing the research.

Shortened story, the class had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the awareness that they really didn’t yet comprehend project management, or the market behaviors that had to be assessed.  Prodding but permissive, the class was allowed to seek its own timing levels, with the understanding that performance not pro forma procedure was the mission and test.  As the class approached the end of the term, and graduation for most, their past experiences predicted that if they didn’t finish the work, the worst case was an “Incomplete,” in virtually every case allowing their graduation.

As “fish or cut bait” time neared, it was made clear to the group there would be no Incompletes, rather an F because the course grade was premised on their actual performance; an F would have blocked graduation for all.  We’ll skip the rest of that session which became a bit emotional.  To give all an opportunity to succeed, a classroom was exceptionally sequestered for 24/7 use.  Funding for renting hotel rooms and related expenses was extended for any who were losing their resident housing.  School services were arranged 24/7 as support, and the writer was on call 24/7 for consultation.

The mission:  Piper sent a cabin class twin to pick up the class, and the results of the (hopefully) completed research for all three projects were to be presented in Lock Haven, PA to a full complement of Piper corporate vice-presidents and department/product managers.  The teams completed their reports at roughly 3-4 AM the morning of the flight, just in time to suit up.  All three teams had to practice their presentations for the first time in flight.

The performances:  A bit shaky out of the hopper, but all three teams pulled it together and did an excellent job of reporting their findings, generating from the Piper group praise for the work, a highly respectable congruity of the teams’ findings with Piper’s own professional research results, and praise for the IU MBA.  The flight home was smooth and initially quiet.  The writer was co-pilot in the right seat, the flight compartment separated from the rest of the cabin, but any conversation was audible.  About halfway through the flight home, the buzz started; all three teams congratulating each other, individuals doing the same, all to a person vocalizing how they had made all three projects work, impressed a corporate enclave, and aced their de facto test.  That is why you teach.

Perhaps, as another education writer with major K-12 credentials recently put it, that principle is where present public PreK-12 reform circuses should have started, where any higher education reform should focus, and where its resources and positive reinforcement should be directed -- not to punitive factory quality control logic that was obsolete when the scourge was launched?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Rating US Colleges and Universities: An Inconvenient Reality

The US Department of Education/Duncan proposal (Postsecondary Institutions Rating System or PIRS) to grade America's colleges and universities -- at the moment into three still vague performance categories -- has not yet issued in any detail.  Representations have been that three factors are involved:  Affordability, access, and results.  Implicit has been that the three factors will need to be measured using data already Federally available, byproducts of various Federal programs, including ones not directly involved in the various Federal education "Title" authorities.

If one had just landed on earth from a distant planet, with the technological prowess that implies, the notion that over 4,000 diverse higher education institutions could be successfully characterized and rated by those three factors might actually seem to make sense.  What could be simpler:  Do a nation’s applicable citizens have equal access to those institutions; can they afford the price of attendance; and what has been the value added by their participation?

After a few trips around the societal track, that visitor from another place becomes linguistically proficient and starts to understand organizational behavior and our societal hangups, concluding the proposed scheme for characterizing an educational institution, by analogy, has the credibility of studying earth's life and its behavior by simply designating it bacteria, archaea, or eukaryota.  (We as multicellular organisms are constructed of eukaryotes, microbes, et al., but that true depiction falls a bit short of characterizing the sentient human.) 

In fact, the scheme proposed by the US Department of Education is a total whack job, calling into question Secretary Duncan’s intellectual competence, or surfacing the question of what values and ideological excursion precipitated the proposal?

Both the rating scheme, and in fairness this writer’s challenge, fit the trope  “says easy, does hard.”  Let the reader be the judge, based on the reality of the behaviors, factors, and rating process being proposed for PIRS.

What are the issues?

The US Department of Education/Duncan depiction of the need for this scheme remains vague; what are the reasons the proposal has been floated now, and how do they hold up under scrutiny:

  • Are the proposed ratings – even if valid and reliable – needed?
  • What is the valid unit of analysis, i.e., the total institution, intra-institutional colleges and schools (there may be great variance inside an institution.)
  • On any factor requiring differentiation to constitute a rating basis, is there greater intra-organizational variation than variation among institutions?
  • Will the ratings differentiate institutions judged deficient in providing equitable access?
  • Will the ratings differentiate institutions based on cost of delivery of a degree; will those costs be comparable based on the quality of the degree delivered?
  • Subsumed in the above, how are the times for delivery of a degree accurately determined?
  • How is it determined that ratings of institutions are based on valid assessments of comparable institutions?
  • How will the punitive measure proposed change institutional behaviors?
  • How does a limited number of ad hoc measures of existing variables translate into a rational scheme to measure performance of any institution that is, de facto, a system and complex layered organization?
  • Are the variables proposed up to the task of alleged measurement: Genuine accessibility–true net cost–education value added, and valid comparisons?

In the wake of undercutting of genuine learning experiences by dogmatic Federal pursuit of standardized testing as the backbone of US public school reform, it seems fair to propose that future initiatives be judged by one of the same standards as medical practice – first, do no harm.

Ratings needed?

There are currently in excess of 20 US web sites devoted to search that can mate a collegiate prospect and a college or university, and multiple ratings already published, e.g., US News, Forbes, Princeton, et al.  Add the online sites of virtually every credible college and university.

The categories of information may not be comparable among these sources, and they have variable credibility; however, the proposed assignment of multi-thousand institutions into three crudely defined hoppers, even if those assignments were valid, appears destined to add nothing to a prospect’s effective discrimination in choosing a collegiate destination.

The unit of analysis?

A fancy phrase for a core issue; what measure of homogeneity, or level of disaggregation makes institutions being assessed comparable?

This is an example previously used, but it makes the point:

“Indiana University (IU) has two main campuses, Bloomington and Indianapolis, different academic environments.  It has six regional campuses. The Bloomington campus has 14 separate schools plus a College of Arts and Science.  All 15 major units have multiple departments, multiple faculties, heterogeneous curricula (and some institutions differential tuition) — that factually determine the quality of a degree — with 180 majors, in 157 departments, representing 330 degree programs.  The other campuses have variable presence of the same venues, plus where a campus is a joint IU-Purdue campus, there may be additional departments representing engineering, nursing, et al.”

What is the appropriate unit for measurement:  The composite institution; each campus location; the college(s) embedded in each campus; the various schools; even subject matter departments that may be as large in student enrollment as some small colleges?  Those differences in programs and enrollees may produce very different results for the variables proposed as the basis for ratings.

Foreknowledge of the universe?

Is there any a priori basis for the Department/Duncan proposals based on even sample research of how ratings factors show dispersion across institutions, or within institutions and across the above potential units of analysis?  Thus far the Department has offered no evidence of prior or ongoing research that would foot any rational proposal of this magnitude and potential for negative effects.

The second factor impacting validity is comparability.  Are any two institutions of higher education comparable given their capacity for independence of action and complexity of offerings?  What research on multidimensional properties has been executed to provide categories of institutions that can arguably be comparable?  The factors allegedly being rated are intrinsically linked to many of those properties, therefore have a potential of being misinterpreted as performance gradients rather than just concomitant effects of those properties.

A college/university is a complex organization.

In the rush to rate higher education institutions a fatal error is failure to recognize that every college and university, even the most austere, is a level of magnitude more complex as an organization than, for example, a public school that has narrower roots, fewer human resources, and relatively a fairly simple organizational structure; even with those similarities our public schools are not automatically comparable in assessing learning performance or even test-based metrics.

Breathtaking is the naïveté to believe any organization, and ones as complex as a college or university, could be assessed for quality based on a handful of incomplete or flawed variables (if that is the true motivation, venality if it is not).

The scope of measurement of organizational performance – especially for an entity as layered and complex as a college or university – is impossibly beyond the scope of this blog.  Many assessment models exist, and the real factors, variables, functions, actors, and internal behaviors that foot an organization’s true performance are massive.  Just one example of such a guide to determinants of performance is linked here.   The Department/Duncan model is roughly the equivalent of trying to build a real operating system with Legos.

Assessing student access to higher education?

As complex as every other factor footing the proposed rating scheme, this one is presently categorically blocked by both a lack of longitudinal research on how admittance is sought and played out in real time, and confidentiality law installed by Congress.  To answer this question would require comprehensive access to college applicant records leading to acceptance or rejection, not permitted by law except at the moment available to the applicant. 

The latter access was just exploited by a cluster of Stanford University undergraduates, who demanded and received their full files.  The results underscore the complexity and nuances of the admissions process; such full disclosure would be needed to assign faults for failures to admit, and to attribute that failure to some form of discrimination other than student performance criteria.

Time to acquire a diploma as a performance factor?

On its face this factor appears one, that coupled with the cost of the educational experience, might be defensible.

In 2011 a group within the US Department of Education was tasked with assessing the factors that might be measured for rating colleges/universities, initially targeting two-year institutions.  Of the multiple factors noted above, only one was thoroughly vetted – the time required to acquire a degree/diploma.

At the moment the only data the Department has to quantify that factor is the measurement of the number of years taken to acquire a degree or diploma, by a first-time, full-time degree seeking student.  As focus shifted to four-year as well as two-year programs, it is from that narrow data concept that the various alerts have come, stating that some material percent of BS/BA level students fails to get a degree within the nominal four years, and now six years.

The Department’s own report, citing the errors in that measure, because it did not track transfers and possible degree completion or subsequent degree pursuit and acquisition after the initial drop out, has seemingly been ignored in the PIRS ratings quest.  In short, that six-year figure for a four-year degree, popularized by our press, is likely a misrepresentation of reality with little or no research undertaken to rectify that to pursue the ratings.

Still another idea floated, use of Federal job placement data of new graduates as a surrogate for quality of education delivered.  Your average eighth grader could slam that rendering of uncritical thought; at the most basic level, starting salaries of new graduates are tightly linked to job and professional service type, and our institutions are diverse in occupational preparation supplied, therefore salaries are confounded with job type.  As the occupational types number in the hundreds, type would have to be held constant to impute a salary quality indicator.  The universe of college and universities categorically can’t support the data logically needed.

Punish to change?

First question is, to change what; the time to degree, the net cost, the quality of learning generated?  The first item is unresolved, the second subject to measurement of a total cost to the student as yet undefined, and the third will allegedly not be attempted.  One hammer proposed is tying availability of Pell Grants to a college's or university's rating.  Other public critiques of PIRS suggest, that because of the crude reasoning and categories footing the scheme, redirecting Pell Grants may actually worsen support for collegiate candidates most needing support. 

Next, will the crude ratings being proposed by the Department/Duncan affect the behaviors and performance of the institutions targeted?  Because of the complexity of decision making in present higher education, with the layers of stake holders, it is highly questionable even if the ratings induce greater deliberation.  Using the prior IU example for a moment, student financial aid measures roughly seven percent of composite cash flow associated with annual operations, and that does not include the influence of endowment funds flowing to the institution.  Presently, the departure or hire of a handful of sports coaches in some quarters might have greater impact than everything the US Department of Education can use to put a brand on an institution.

The list goes on, to where?

Pre-dating NCLB, and blossoming in the period immediately prior to the Obama Administration’s installation, there was a small explosion of studies and conferences addressing the core issues surrounding change in America’s colleges and universities.  Some of the most comprehensive work, now simply being repeated in most discourse on higher education change, was originated by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and by a small number of states, the latter focusing on measurement of the quality of community college outputs.  This work was seemingly lost in what subsequently became, it is asserted, an unthinking and unreasonable commitment by the Department/Duncan to ideologically driven postsecondary reform tactics.

This generic topic is only scratched by the above observations.  There is cause to argue that America’s colleges and universities should be assessed for mission, and for operating performances that miss or contradict the mission. Staying with the former academic stomping grounds for an example, and with a prior small window into IU’s 2014 strategic planning for its Bloomington campus, the resultant plan was narrow in perspective, institutionally self-centric, virtually void of any recognition of the national and strategic issues that vex present higher education.  Procedurally the planning process was less than inclusive, literally taking properly credentialed faculty representation out of the loop, substituting a set-piece of submissive faculty for broader campus faculty input.  Change is arguably needed in present US higher education organizational leadership as well as in the mechanisms of pursuit of student learning.

But overall, the present US Department of Education/Duncan initiative is arguably the flimsiest and most disingenuous proposal thus far for the purpose of producing positive change in our collegiate institutions.

There is lastly also obvious room to argue that none of the narrow and simplistic reform designs currently being floated for higher education, irrespective of the origin, should be permitted to advance without some meaningful research that first codifies key characteristics and performance indicators for all 4,000 plus institutions, or minimally a projectable sample of those institutions.  Sequentially, that likely is not possible without creativity currently evading higher education, and a new level of inter-institutional conversation and cooperation among university leaderships, along with comparable states’ cooperation via perhaps the National Governors Association (NGA).  The assumption is that the present US Congress is unlikely to grant such power for discovery to the present White House.


Viewed against the common sense of most of Tuesday’s SOTU address by Mr. Obama, this proposal simply doesn’t satisfy a “sniff test.”  The complexity of the mission, juxtaposed against the ignorance and ad hoc tactics proposed to rate higher education, has to be viewed as failed logic and programming.  Compared to pragmatically failing testing-only based alleged reform being impressed on public schools, this proposal is not the product of competence that should guide national education advocacy. 

American public higher education that was formerly dominated by state funding and occasionally adequate oversight has executed a 180 over the last several decades.  For example, using IU again for convenience, that university system’s funding from the State of Indiana is now less than 24 percent of total annual revenue.   There is an inevitable loss of practical public control of oversight of institutions that must retool to support themselves.

Our collegiate managements reflect intelligent and highly educated human resources, but are as vulnerable as any private sector firm to managerial failure; perhaps to a greater extent in many institutions where leadership has come through the academic ranks and lacks the managerial expertise demanded in the private sector.  That has become increasingly evident in higher education leadership’s emulation of corporate leadership that formerly dismissed strategic thinking.  In short, our collegiate leaderships can learn something from our private sectors and from resources who have pioneered change in management thought; the question is whether leaderships will register that in time?

America’s colleges and universities are also vulnerable to obsolescence in spite of the intellectual capital they inventory.  Change is needed, as suggested in a prior post, to:  Prioritize the real missions; get on the same page in providing information for potential students; make the process of accepting students as transparent as possible within the context of existing confidentiality laws; address the phenomenon of substituting part-time faculty for tenured and tenure-track teachers, or verify that the former’s vetting equals traditional scrutiny; combine cost effectiveness initiatives with learning output assessment to increase productivity; get back to four years (or two years) means “four years;” consider the possibility that “lean” techniques applied to industry do have a role in education; and move beyond present institutionalization of curricula to aggressive updating of knowledge being offered.

Lastly, it is impossible to avoid the reality (provocative to the guilty) that a whole lot of America’s higher education shortfalls do not spring from higher education, at least tactically, but because US public schools, and especially the secondary grades are simply not performing.  Over a dozen years NCLB, in spite of the hype, has produced from a quarter to a third of America’s children that have been “left behind” in spite of the hype, and will struggle to get beyond that fate.

There is really no mystery why America is still in a form of educational crisis – you only have to pull cognitive function out of where it has been slumbering. Look critically at too many of our local schools still dug in to last century’s rituals and knowledge obsolescence, refusing change, exhibiting administrative venality, and BOE that are unprepared or misdirected. That is amplified by inadequate teacher training by our schools of education, offset only by the better fraction of US teachers who have internalized stronger academic values and taken the initiative to advance their own learning and classroom skills.

Perhaps there is discovery afoot precipitated by a shift in emphasis to higher education:  That a century, of disassociating US public PreK-12 systems and practices from the post-secondary education function, has to come to an end, or will at least begin to register educational and legislative awareness?

Monday, January 12, 2015

US Education Reform: Stumbling "Through the Looking Glass"

Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” seems an appropriate metaphor for the distorted cognition and magical thinking characterizing current alleged reform of US public schools, and now prospectively its colleges and universities.  The premise is, present education reform illogic fits.

Upside Down and Catawampus

The US has now endured over a decade of public K-12 education infighting, but on a battlefield resembling current real ideological warfare; multiple adversaries with some trouble defining the good guys versus the bad guys.  Combatants:  Our entrenched public systems; NCLB; NGA; the latter’s spawn, CCSSI; ALEC; testing companies; state education bureaucracies and legislatures; charter entrepreneurs; anti-testing coalitions; anti-CCSSI coalitions; sundry education opportunists; even direct parental action to block the testing tsunami.  The dispersed power blocks on all sides of the skirmishes promise no easy or quick resolution.

On the table but still lacking execution, the Obama/Duncan proposal to grade US colleges and universities.  That proposal’s dubious distinction; trying to scale performance of 4,140 higher education institutions with a handful of available variables already possessing metrics.

Now, the latest evolution of NCLB, Mr. Obama’s “line in the sand” doubling down on standardized testing.  Mr. Obama’s lines in the sand, however, have proven to be less that durable.

Last out of the chute, the proposal for free tuition to two years of community college, reflecting little transparent awareness of the implications of further loading up enrollments for community colleges, with largely unknown intellectual provenance and capacities for quality learning.

The take from all of the above initiatives is that there is a root agenda that has been put in place by the Obama Administration – distinct from the origins and original highway for corporate reform, but borrowing its standardized testing/punishment hammer – and one of its targets encapsulating utopian educational equity is ‘some college for all.’  This ideological tenet hasn’t been sufficiently challenged.

Three overarching shadows sully this grand vision:  One, there is no present strategic support for the notion that all of America needs or wants a collegiate diploma; two, the proposal crudely ignores the reality that failing public K-12 has created and exascerbated the need, but piling another challenged system on prior failure isn’t a fix; and three, the entire reform movement totaled the reform bus before it was out of the terminal. 

Specifically, every reform scheme floated has adopted some quick and dirty end game assessment to drive change, but by ignorance or haste ignored the essential linkages between where performance is flagged, and the underlying organization and processes that actually cause and change that performance.

Four logical conundrums weaken the foundations of present education reform models:  Deconstructed knowledge does not equal critical thought and sustainable learning; academic organization is not a monolithic ‘it;’ the economics of learning quality assessment and assurance are real and critical; and egregiously, where have all the sages gone along with “the cooperative principle?”

Deconstruction Naïveté

Deconstruction, and its Siamese twin analysis, have always been the lally columns of K-12 education.  Break any knowledge into its constituent parts, memorize them, and voila, learning?  Oversimplified, but the core model still dominates public education's conceptual thought processes.  The parts have been over time connected, extended to constructs/relationships formed, but still fail any test of more advanced understanding of the science of explanation and prediction.

The reasons go back over a century, and form the roots of divergence, to the present day, between higher education and our public schools.  The early intellectualism that sculpted public schools, whether from a learning path, or more likely the ego driving public K-12 pioneers to want their own identity, created a system of education for education that never aligned with the science of inquiry and explanation driving collegiate education.  The process of conveying bits of knowledge, and especially the supporting classroom protocols, became public K-12's dominant theme. The application of knowledge components to larger constructs and models, explaining behavior of phenomena, was either lost in teaching preparation or was simply never understood by the public K-12 teaching factory.

Offering the benefit of a doubt, it seems incongruous that the high level leadership currently flogging test-based school reform can be unaware of the learning dysfunction and deficits imposed by those venues and tactics?  The obvious questions:  What leadership values are driving “corporate reform;” what ideologies can justify the negative strategic learning effects of present reform tactics; and is there in that thinking any calculus for the downstream effects of the approaches? 

Lastly, literally screaming at one, the hypocrisy of Obama/Duncan; specifically, employing the trope "college readiness" from virtually PreK on, while arguably aware that collegiate academics engage a different cognitive set and mechanisms than transient early learning based on memorization and ritual learning.

Testing Versus the Mechanisms of Performance

In an article in the January 10 Washington Post, unfolding Mr. Obama’s proposal for a free two years of community college, the reporting also covered this Administration’s “line-in-the-sand” commitment to standardized testing. An admittedly overused cliché, but that reaffirmation appears the humorous definition of insanity – "continuing to do the same thing but expecting a different result."

The same article featured a quote from Charles Barone, “…policy director of Democrats for Education Reform and who helped write No Child Left Behind as a congressional aide,” and who was quoted:  I don’t know how else you gauge how students are progressing in reading and in math without some sort of test, some kind of evaluation." ”If you want to see a kid’s vocabulary, how they write, if they can perform different math functions, the only way is to sit them down and give them a test.” 

Intellectual and sane policy?  We don’t know what that learning is supposed to be except as defined by magical third-party testing.  We reject the view that our teachers can ensure learning and assess classroom formative or summative performance without the 'psychometrician in a bubble.'  But externally testing until hell freezes over will surely provide that enlightenment?

Let’s try a hypothetical.  You manage a division of a technology firm.  The word comes down; the corporation needs a state-of-art xflipvoxcomp (a computing device qua voice recognition qua AI) to fill a market segment gap in the corporation’s consumer technology offerings.  An obvious next step; you query topside, what are the product performance and design goals, target market positioning, and pricing-cost-incremental investment criteria for the development?  The answer comes back:  We don’t have a clue, but we’ll be testing your result the minute it is prototyped to see if you keep your job.  Duh? 

Whether prompted by ignorance, or venality, or simply ideologically driven thinking, this second factor rivals the first in undermining the alleged logic of present public K-12 reform, now proposed by Obama/Duncan to be extended to our 4,140 colleges and universities by a simplistic rating scheme.  No acknowledgement of the factors or processes that ultimately determine whether a desired learning effect is achieved; no acknowledgement of the organizational complexity of collegiate structure; no acknowledgement of the delta separating teaching assets and process in collegiate settings, versus the assets and administration in public K-12; and no acknowledgment colleges and universities are systems featuring even semi-autonomous layers of sub-systems because of the role of faculty governance.

By what logic of systems' thinking is it assumed that beating on the aggregate of a collegiate institution with ratings will produce positive change in learning process and performance?  There is some evidence that pseudo social science, like the US News' and Forbes' collegiate rating schemes, have produced dysfunctional tweaking of academic recruiting and reporting, obscuring rather than clarifying information for those seeking higher education options.

Higher education’s sample look-alike for public K-12 testing cheating isn’t a great reach; for example, a direct and quick way to meet the time-to-diploma criterion being flagged is dysfunctional, surreptitiously reducing the requirements for achieving the diploma.  Not exactly a useful strategic quality goal for America's higher education trajectory?

Achieving Quality Learning

Virtually from the first, early 1980s rhetoric about change in public K-12 education, the arguments were characterized by aggression and retribution for perceived wrongs.  In public K-12 those offenses seemed to revolve around the perception that our public schools had become ideologically socialistic, more concerned with student self-esteem and vague learning objectives than preparation for succeeding in our market-based systems.  Hence, the earliest reform language prominently stressed “accountability,” the presumption apparently that there was none. 

The basic premise of both public K-12 and now prospectively higher education change, seems to be that it must be punitive to create motivation.  Is the implicit assumption for collegiate reform that the genre is elitist, and needs to be punished?  The corollary of that in present reform is that the good guys and the bad guys must be sorted by the analogous process to manufacturing quality control; inspect, measure, correct flaws, scrap out the offenders.   That logic worked for early decades of the 20th century for American industry, it should work for education?

One small glitch:   In the private sector quality achievement of product or service output was displaced post WWII by a cluster of routines, starting with the work of Juran and Deming among others on statistical quality assurance techniques, dramatically reducing the cost of achieving quality.  That was followed by the Japanese revolution in TQA, or total quality assurance, that changed the auto and subsequently most other US industries.  The concepts of process control emerged to place assessment far earlier, and continuously, in the evolution of output, even eliminating traditional late stage inspection logic, further reducing costs and ensuring quality.  Lastly, the contemporary concept of how organizational performance is motivated and achieved is not your granddad's.

These are not soft arguments, but hard economic realities.  By delaying quality assessment until the product pops off its assembly line, the cost of a quality deficit soars.  The earlier in the process error is detected, and the more traceable the assignment of cause, the minimum resources are scrapped or wasted, the lower the cost of output, and the lower the opportunity cost of the total assets deployed.

Applying this to education systems is not rocket science:  Among many genre of processes creating utility, education has the most to lose, by its recipients, and by its agents.  The costs, economic, social, and opportunity of discovering flawed learning only after that process has reached a terminal point are major.  The effects for education recipients may not even be recoverable.

Flat out, the present mechanism of trying to change our educational effects and productivity by testing or grabbing metrics, after the processes for learning are already expended, is somewhere between senseless and insanity. Present extravagant testing and post-instruction measurement leave systems clueless about sources of need for internal change, and defensive.  The fix is to employ systems thinking in how student learning is achieved, ultimately knowing how the factors of learning’s processes interactively work, focusing quality planning and assessment in the earliest stages then extended continuously through education process.

Reformers’ reliance on a nearly century old, and arguably obsolete conception of quality assurance is almost inconceivable, but has been the key motif of alleged reform.  A bold-faced ‘why’ is certainly a component of another needed test of accountability – this one for those prosecuting present reform?

Trashing “the Cooperative Principle”

As contradictory of American intellectual achievement as current “corporate reform” and proposed higher education attacks are, and as dismissive of professionalism, the fourth issue with present education duress may be the most egregious.  It is driven by evolving disregard for “the cooperative principle,” defined as “specific rules for conversations,” or the social interactions that in civil societies become the basis for successful negotiation and problem solving.   

Overstatement?  Develop metrics that will measure the volume of constructive, cross-aisle communication in our 2015-2016 US Congress?

The US has now experienced the first 30 years of challenge of public education; how many more decades of opportunity costs should this nation incur before critical thinking about critical thinking finally emerges?  The reformers have become legions with differing interpretations of reform, with different values and tactics, and none show the capacity to either listen to the targeted systems, or communicate among factions in any arc.  There are two perspectives footing this segment of critique:  How did embryonic education reform become so contentious, and what is driving this societal conflict?

The first question has a discrete answer in the case of public K-12.  It begins with former President Reagan’s refusal to name in the 1980s the National Commission on Excellence in Education, followed by US Secretary of Education T. H. Bell’s creating that body on his own authority and naming its members; the Commission chair, David Pierpont Gardner, an accomplished higher education administrator associated with the University of California, then President of the University of Utah.  His biography is impressive but gives no hint that he was well versed in public K-12 issues.  The product of that Commission was “A Nation at Risk” (ANAR), the report that politically launched “corporate reform,” subsequently precipitating "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB).

Simultaneously a team led by Dr. John Goodlad, equally applauded but for public K-12 education leadership and pursuit of change in public K-12, was completing the only large field study of US public schools, covering 27,000 children and a carefully stratified sample of systems.  As ANAR was being drafted, the Goodlad team’s results – suggesting a vastly different and strategic approach to changing public K-12 education – were requested and presented to that Commission.  Those results, from Dr. Goodlad’s subsequent narratives, were ignored because the Commission wanted ANAR to issue a “thunderclap” that would startle and panic Americans, justifying an aggressive public school reform agenda. 

There is no way to reconstruct what might have been, but the contents of John Goodlad’s work suggest America might be an epoch ahead had myopic and politicized results and policies not prevailed.

Part two of this factor seems to mirror our political milieu:  Extreme partisanship; unwillingness to compromise; dogmatic refusal of transparency; unwillingness to communicate across education fiefdoms; perhaps evolution of values and even the meaning of language that makes exchanges for problem solution turn into warfare; and increasingly dissolution of former virtues that made self-interest and power trips the stuff of many public school administrators, college administrators, BOE, and higher education boards of trustees.

Particularly damaging to American public education is that the above seem to have become endemic in our society.  Call it organizational isolationism, or circling-the wagons, but education enclaves from local schools and especially their BOE, through college and university administration, currently demonstrate the incapacity for cross-group communication and problem solving.

Our media have documented that the US Department of Education and especially its current leadership, have been neither good listeners to systems' feedback, nor receptive to education expert critique of policy.  Have our state education bureaucracies been any better?  The long view of public education reform in this beginning of a new year is that none of the critical factors, effecting either PreK-12 or higher education quality and performance, have dramatically or even more than marginally improved.  

Backing Out of the Looking Glass

The above arguments dispute some of today’s education Pollyannaism, that sees our systems now moving to learning, enlightenment, and goodness.  One has to ponder that Obama/Duncan and the back rooms that have powered present accountability attempts, may have with utopian visions, but precipitating unintended consequences, accepted and nurtured a test-based reform activation model that is flat out dysfunctional.  As long as public school success continues to be tautologically defined by the same standardized testing – supplied by the same developers and vendors of testing reflecting vested interest – that constitutes its measurement, the claim is false.

There is an obvious mechanism for objectively and empirically testing present testing initiatives.  It involves creating a consortium of America’s highest rated foundations/think tanks, with demonstrated objectivity on the mechanisms for public K-12 assessment.  

The mission would be sponsoring a three-phase higher education-staffed research effort:  To first assemble more robust models of needed learning, by grade band, by knowledge types, free of political ideology; two, do the meta research needed to create testing representative of each of those learning models (much already exists but has been with prejudice ignored); and three, execute sample-based field assessments of the various test logics, with the same rigor and controls already illustrated by accepted NAEP testing. Standardized test versions are part of the assessment; the question, what parts of more valid learning assessment can they replicate?

One hypothesis is that some to much of present standardized test contents has relevance, but selectively by grade band, by knowledge type, and by the epistemology that fits the knowledge.  A second hypothesis is that such a research effort would surface more valid and comprehensive understanding of what constitutes learning, and what configurations are most material for our evolving economy and society.  Almost by definition, the last couple of decades of neural research, implementation still scarce in both K-12 and even higher education pedagogy, would up the game.

The battle, between what education should produce -- recognition, literacy, explanation, measurement, capacity for prediction, capacity for creativity, intellectual values -- and what has been occurring in our systems and society, has been captured by analogy in many of the (economic) assessments of Nobel Prize economist Paul Krugman.  There was no resisting paraphrasing one of Dr. Krugman’s trenchant New York Times editorial offerings, spinning it to reflect our educational malaise.  With apologies:

The main point is that we’re looking at political and educational subcultures in which ideological tenets are simply not to be questioned, no matter what.  The vendor-driven and psychometrically defined testing is valid no matter what actually happens to the student’s capacity to critically think and create, classroom teaching without the ritual mechanics of school of education mantras must be a failure even if it’s working, and anyone who points out the troubling facts is ipso facto an enemy.


Next post will tackle the earlier higher education question:  If you wanted to rigorously, and with any hope of measurement success, create a scaling model for our colleges and universities, what factors would you target, what units of analysis would you employ, what variables would you seek to make metrics, and how would you stratify/cluster institutions to allow valid comparison?  How would you attempt to combine what is measurable into some composite normative model of institutional quality?  How would you accommodate the internal variability in institutional quality?  Lastly, how would the modeling and metrics produced be structured and communicated to our potential college matriculates to become more meaningful information for choice?