Monday, April 20, 2015

A K-12 School Reform Survival Guide

Please consider this a school “reform" survival guide for local parents and students.  Originally intended as a LTE, the word count disabled the channel. With no avenue for mainstream circulation, these retrospective thoughts on Ohio public school fact versus fiction are being offered via some local social media.  Enjoy.

Reform Debate Turns Nasty

As so-called “corporate reform” and NCLB have proven ineffective in raising US public schools' overall performance, and encountered wide parental resistance, the rhetoric has become heated.  It is not just two opposed armies, but a pastiche of different players, motivated by different ideologies or hot buttons.  What is common is that misrepresentation of reality has occurred on all sides.

Here are some of the issues that impact your children, and prone to questionable claims:  That present standardized testing is central to securing needed learning; that our best and brightest education scholars created the tests; that the CCSSI (or misrepresented as “the” Common Core) is either a government plot to undermine our schools, or that it was also created by our best and brightest; that you will be penalized for having your children opt-out of the testing including PARCC; that anyone plugging “corporate reform” actually thought through what they imposed; that public school administration is good enough without its own reform; and that in Ohio CC+ courses taught by high school teachers will really be higher education where it is real.

Standardized Testing and CCSSI Under Fire

Our testing fiascoes are now so documented they run to books (probably the best starter resource overall is “The Answer Sheet” column of The Washington Post); that testing has become the antithesis of K-12 learning, both in substance, and in consuming time for genuine teaching and understanding. But what is not always realized is that all of the testing is coming from a handful of testing companies, reaping billions of dollars of revenue, lobbying every state legislature and arguably state department of education. Strategically, the very worst of the testing is that a small number of corporations, not educators, and anonymously, are determining what our nation calls K-12 knowledge; that defies sanity.

The so-called Common Core is one anonymous group’s, of not terribly accomplished resources, perspective of what K-12 knowledge should be.  It was ramrodded by David Coleman, who manages a testing company, to drive more testing.  Subsequent legitimate science core material was destroyed by CCSSI after it was originally created by the AAAS and postsecondary scientists.  Two views prevail here:  One, the core is a liberal plot — it isn’t though Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan endorse it to push their own agenda — and there is good argument that knowledge doesn’t change across localities, and that there should be some nationally recognized agreement on what knowledge is critical and universal (physics is still physics even in Texas); the second, undiscriminating endorsement by people who believe there should be a K-12 core and naively assume CCSSI’s offering is it.

The State of New York is leading the opt-out movement at the moment (recognize that our coasts have traditionally been the initiating sources of opinion leadership in many venues), and that number will approach 200K students this testing cycle.  There is no overall national count of parents opting-out of their children's testing, but it is growing in a statistical pattern associated with what is termed epidemiology.  That pattern is a slow takeoff, followed by exponential growth, until it tapers and approaches some limit. Parents are being subjected in Ohio to intimidation and lies about penalties, including from demagogic or less than courageous school administration, to block or slow opt-out.  Pragmatically, you have every right to opt-out, and the real world is there have been no penalties for states, nor is there even formulated policy supporting that.  Because legislation frequently lags public need, it may take massive opting-out to wake up our legislators or deflect their attention from lobbyists in tow.

Cool Analysis and Test Before Launching -- Not Here

Documented, but virtually ignored in the imposition of test-based reform, none of the postulates or models for NCLB’s application was tested or piloted before being carpet-bombed on America's public schools.  The corporate testing behemoth, led by Pearson Education, simply became entrenched before a public even knew it existed.  The result has been dirty tricks for a dozen years, including illegal lobbying and tests designed to produce failure, and now hints that companies are linking test questions and contents of their text sales to schools to coerce systems to buy their teaching materials.  When what is being taught your children is determined by a handful of testing companies, not by those who actually represent legitimate education, the US is in trouble.

Totally ignored until very recently, that America’s collegiate schools of education became stuck in the last century, meaning that many of our 3.3+MM teachers, and several hundred thousand principals and superintendents, have not been adequately educated and trained for the learning modes needed this century.  If that evokes the usual, 'but ours are just fine,' consider one major reality:  “Corporate reform,” that launched in 1980, led by the CEOs of America’s 100 largest corporations, didn’t happen because someone uttered a few public school negatives — it was launched with full awareness of what was involved because American industry distrusted our entire public system of schools.  Pure and simple, they were perceived as failing!  Had private sector America remained in control of reform, maybe it would have turned out differently?  But that start was followed by an outpouring of political ideology, the right sensing this was the moment to try to get rid of or shrink hated (assumed socialistic) public schools; hence, NCLB, charters, vouchers.

Last Century School Oversight

Full circle, no one thought to also question whether America’s BOE — unchanged for almost a century in states' requirements to serve — were being upgraded in any fashion to deal with the challenges; that means recruiting the best to serve, requiring competition where elected, requiring training before they can be seated, and demanding public transparency of BOE operations. The result, the regular ineptitude in hiring school leadership, that once hired became impossible to root out unless they committed a felony.  This area, more the rule than exception, is populated with school leadership that is distorted or flawed, and failing in contemporary service.  The facts are:  That the current school organizational model is medieval; that virtually no superintendent is being properly trained to manage a complex organization; that once installed, where a BOE consists of the timorous or phlegmatic, there is virtually no superintendent oversight; nor in far too many cases proper educational and psychological assessment of those hired that might reveal values not supporting the real education mission, or spot those seeking power over service and integrity.

Ohio's CC+ Initiative; Boon or Bust?

Moving on, Ohio’s CC+, with planning gaps, and little transparency of the reasoning and motivations footing the program, may function for a time by forcing credible Ohio higher education institutions to accept potentially mediocre postsecondary work.  But faculties in major colleges and universities still possess a degree of autonomy that means they need not value or make allowances for second- or third-rate postsecondary course work, resulting in a rough road for parents/students who opt to short cut better pre-higher education preparation.  Based on witnessing the butchery in NBS of a course that might have been a collegiate prototype for CC+, the part of Ohio’s plan enlisting public school teachers is poorly thought out, arguably by a bureaucracy that doesn’t fully comprehend collegiate education.  

There is no argument that in general US higher education, especially in the largest, multi-function/market institutions, has taken on a life of its own.  As our largest state institutions had their state support reduced over decades, forcing self-funding via tuition, marketing of other educational services, and aggressive (and successful) pursuit of endowment dollars, they also bought themselves a degree of independence of state oversight and control.  In a sense they have become their own nation-states, capable of resisting even the current broad calls for reduction of the costs of, and speeding up a collegiate education.  Largely unrecognized, because these institutions have been so successful in creating the personnel powering our private sector, and in attracting loyalty illustrated by endowments, they have put the private sector on their side blunting governmental efforts to control education costs.

Concluding CC+, if institutions like WSLC and Rhodes State are managed to create high quality entry baccalaureate teaching, and enrollees are screened for readiness, that part of the plan may serve Ohio’s parents and students.  An issue is that there is little evidence that the leaderships of these campuses are being installed based on that criterion for selection or management of course work.  Aside from quality, the greatest risk to a high school student loading up on CC+ course work before moving on, is whether the offerings these local campuses can support will mesh with the diversity of curricula already installed in any major institution.  The formula for disaster is a WSLC, seeking local approval, becoming too ambitious in building curricula and offering options that they lack the faculty to support.  At the moment, there appears little recognition of the role that could be played by MOOC edX and Coursera in upgrading the quality, for example, of classroom work from a WSLC.

Ohio Secondary's a Loser; Fake Higher?

Perhaps the most telling criticism of, not just Ohio’s CC+, but other similar efforts across the US, is:  Why are we risking dumbing-down higher education by splinter programs on the periphery of 9-12, when we have broadly failed to upgrade basic 9-12 public school curricula and teaching capacities to support college-readiness?  One gets the impression of a point of view that says; 'well, we flunked 9-12, so let’s correct that by trying to offer even higher level work employing different pedagogy, but with basically the same assets and culture?' In some quarters where the real world intervenes, the reaction might be, you have one oar in the water!

Where the Buck Stops

If there is a benediction to this, it is do your own homework before buying off on any of Ohio’s current education non-thinking.  As in the standardized testing and PARCC cases, CC+ is optional as well.  A prudent parent would do some homework on cost-benefit before plunging into this Ohio flyer with a questionable rudder.  Also reflect that the “opportunity cost” of a CC+ track for their child probably swamps the actual dollar costs, and will hang around the student's neck far longer than it takes to pay the out-of-pocket bill.

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