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?


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