Thursday, December 3, 2015

How Public Schools Lose the Game: Stomping On Ants While Elephants Roam the Halls

November 30, 2015

There is a paradox of major proportion in the trajectory of most of America’s public K-12 systems:  The education being offered should equip our students, and by definition those doing the strategic oversight and leadership of those systems, to exemplify the spirit of 9/11’s “Let’s roll…” versus the ancient chestnut “...we once had a problem but we solved it.”  Unfortunately, the strategic and even tactical performances of too many U.S. school systems, and in extremis in this neck of Ohio’s woods, are woefully replicative of the latter.

Two items caught my attention this last week; one, an op-ed by the NYT’s David Brooks, and two, an interview (audio) on innovation with two of consulting giant McKinsey’s top resources;   Both are linked below:

(download podcast)

What do these seemingly diverse and certainly conceptual references have to do with the down-in-the-dirt and practical issues that fill the hours in the oversight of our public schools, consuming its BOE and frequently superintendents?  

Well, candidly, not a hell of a lot, compared with the trivia that dominate the cognitive function for most BOE.  And therein resides the paradox.  Most of our public system BOE reflect the POV you would get by seeing the world from the vantage point of a ground-hugger.  Having managed both academic units, and private sector firms totaling nearly a couple hundred million dollars, and practicing “MBWA” (managing by walking around for the novices) as well as strategic planning, of course there are nuts and bolts choices to be made, procedures to be forged, state bureaucracy to be straddled or deflected, lesson plans to be imposed lest a standardized test score tank, budgets to be massaged, sports to be scheduled and promoted sometimes ad absurdum, and other nits to be picked.  

There can be strategic choices to be made — e.g., finding school leadership, or deciding how to fund then spend double digit millions of dollars on school construction with both due process, ethics, and awareness of what product excellence entails.  But rarely are the priorities for decision processes articulated with clarity in advance, or exercised with either transparency or excellence.  In some cases, mirroring the worst abuses in our society, these processes are mindlessly executed or become corrupted by influence peddling.

But let’s crawl out of the prototypical bunker at least briefly. Referencing Brooks’ offering, over decades of a false sense of public school entitlement a schism developed between civic values and interests, versus the principles guiding core K-12 education efforts.  Schools erected castle walls and deflected oversight, developing a rigid sense of self-righteousness.  The proposition, that both broad institutional sets are actually inseparable for intelligent community, was lost; and because maintaining that duality of purpose was challenging hence pushed off, many civic enclaves and BOE/administrators not fit or up to the task. Brooks revisits prior arguments in light of the narrowly conceived and dysfunctional mechanization of our public schools via the testing/reform mafia which threaten to deepen the schism.

The McKinsey offering is sobering, because it highlights both the materiality and difficulties of organizational innovation; but without that innovation, pointedly creative means to improve learning productivity, school spending will continue to escalate while genuine learning sags, giving the reform gang even more ammunition for wiping out public schools in favor of privatization. Perhaps the McKinsey views should be augmented by another POV, namely that innovation needs to be paired with “kaizen” or continuous improvement, but not the version being ignorantly mouthed by the testing extremists.

The references bespoke two of likely only a half dozen magisterial POV that are the nuclei of strategic thinking that should guide an American public school’s organization and administration.  Neither is new news, being asserted for decades by genuine students of our public systems and learning that has evolved over time and now accelerating.  Half out of the bunker, also consider two realities:  That public education’s failure for decades to address our systems’ strategic needs is pragmatically what launched and fed present alleged corporate reform and the drive to put public schools out of business; and that too many ill-prepared BOE and superintendents are not only in denial of being under attack, but cluelessly are aiding the alleged reformers to undercut their own public schools.

Why those topics should be front and center in BOE's and administrations' cerebral cortexes should be transparent if the pieces are read/heard.  They go to the core of what educationally competent BOE and administrators should be massaging with their oversight as the strategic and overriding factors that govern systems' major choices.

December 3, 2015

There were a couple of responses to Monday's post, both asking the following question:  If the two core factors listed as strategic imperatives for public schools — learning and productivity innovation (that encompasses the need for entrepreneurship in our schools’ leadership), and the parallelism of school and community cultures — are two of a half dozen (perhaps plus one) overriding areas of strategic vision, what are the other four or five?

Fair question.  

One perspective — they are:  (3) Handling of STEM in most public schools; (4) workarounds to advance genuine learning while still meeting newly revised ESEA and state mandates for standardized test performance; (5) modernizing school organization structure; (6) replacing most public schools' obsolete curricular logic and contents (see for example the continuing crusade for K-12 curricular sanity by Dr. Marion Brady); and perhaps the most challenging of all for most BOE and virtually every superintendent — (7) summoning the intellect and courage, and tamping down the solipsism that blocks hearing and conversing with, perchance learning from those who are metaphorically stockholder activists in the search for better school performances (the private sector again eclipses public education, see from McKinsey, Read the article).

Arguably, there is an eighth heavy-duty strategic factor, but it really isn't under control of our public systems, at least directly.  That is the major reform of our collegiate schools of education, to update teacher education, and to reform curricula that are a century old in concept.  Even Bill Gates is getting into the act, allegedly investing $35MM to double that over the next five years to upgrade teacher training, though based on his repetitive past failures to translate hundreds of millions of dollars into positive education performance the quest’s utility may well be in doubt.  

Hard to define this as a factor that favors genuine public education growth, but another billionaire, Mark Zuckerberg, also just got into the act with the educational fad of the year, “personalized learning.”  Like Gates’ miscues, billions of dollars may not be matched by billions of truly functioning grey cells — some commentary on Zuckerberg’s grand gesture (or grandstanding, take your pick) was just authored by a genuine giant of primary and secondary education, Dr. Howard Gardner (read it here).

Notably, digital technology, hardware and even software don't make the list as chapter titles.  They are both, however, subsets of and embedded in STEM. STEM in most of our schools, especially the S, T and E are dismal to simply riddled with misinformation, dysfunctional deconstruction of concepts, or teaching misdirection.  Even present math curricula are frequently either too low level to support preparation for real STE higher education, or misdirected for students who will never become scientists or engineers.

Issues of school organization span both organization structure, organizational behavior, and the reality that many school leaderships are clueless about real management of a complex learning community.  Part of that fault resides with BOE that aren't equipped to hire competent education leadership; part is that our schools of education have for decades refused to acknowledge and adopt managerial science that has been in place for decades in our schools of business and the better segments of our private sector, and applies equally to school management.  Belatedly, recognition of this has spurred Indiana University’s Kelley business school to develop the "MBA for education administrators.”

Repeating a position stated in Monday's post, self-evidently our BOE and top level school leadership have to take care of tactical business — it goes with the territory in the leadership of any complex organization — but it is also achieved by a combination of leadership style, delegation, and understanding the model that defines how any organization in question achieves ongoing performance. It's simply what you reflexively do, if you are competent, on a day-to-day basis without expecting applause.  

Strategic direction is another matter entirely if the organization doesn't have a short term expiration date on its charter.  Like a flywheel, the organization can run for some time without inertial increments, but ultimately they are required — the basic engine — to achieve continuing performance improvement.  That strategic understanding, and it's enforced critical thinking, are also the properties that equip an organization to cope with environmental trajectories in play (e.g., 'corporate reform’), and to cope with unforeseen inputs that can threaten any organizational setting.

When the nitty-gritty is allowed to dominate execution of a school's oversight, it's capacities to grow are suppressed.  Local area schools currently reflect choices littered with such deficits; one glaring example is a mind-numbing plunge to spend large dollars on personal shopping lists of digital hardware for the classroom, but totally ignoring the mission, function, and fit of digital learning process as the prerequisite. Even more egregious is potentially spending millions building futures’ classrooms out of last century’s thinking.

The POV of what is truly strategically highest priority for a contemporary public school may well differ from the eight items referenced above.  What does seem clear is that addressing proactively some similar roster of core issues is what will in future distinguish the public systems that develop effective true student learning and critical thought, versus those finding themselves increasingly behind national need, risking further attack of the ‘reform grinch,’ or finally being identified by a tax-stretched public as hypocritical and ineffective.

It is also the stuff of ethical commitment to serve a community’s children, rather than a small cabal of personal egos unable to distinguish between "servant leadership,” and being crowned, or without the humility and grit to do the self-education needed to oversee a system.