Friday, August 12, 2016

Prospectus — Reframing the Debate: Our Public School Reform Fiasco

Appended are the bones of a thought paper underway.  Its title will likely be: "Reframing the Debate:  Our Public School Reform Fiasco."  The mission, and why this preliminary display?

To the first question, because the debates to date are becoming stylized and hardened, reflecting the inner biases of the competitors for the high ground. In that process far too many of the real but complex factors at play get reduced to talking points and slogans.  No effective public policy in the history of these United States has ever been served by that simplification and its related bigotry.  The reformers aren't knuckle-dragging cretins; but public K-12 education in turn isn't totally populated by teaching saints, many teachers are inadequately educated to handle the knowledge cluster assigned, and many public schools' imperfect systems for finding and ensuring competent and honest leadership have more holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese.  Our states’ systems for creating and ensuring the professional function of local BOE may be the most flawed function in public education.

The second question:  Why this prospectus?  Because the writer sees and values others' properly considered and documented points of view, and the offering appended below is in the hope of receiving some intelligent critique. My defense of that assertion is in my very neural nets — I had the good fortune to be trained at the doctoral level, plus the innate disposition from childhood on, to be a researcher.  One can't practice that professional commitment successfully for decades without being able to dissect complexity, probe the inner workings of a system, and consider alternative explanations for phenomena.


Some educators, most public system parents and taxpayers, and many members of BOE are clueless about the history and motivations that resulted in the creation of America’s public schools.  Far from being the product, overall, of nobility, soaring values about learning, and thirst for equality, most of the motivation stemming from public system drivers was to create a workforce literate enough to support last century’s growing manufacturing economy, but not intellectual enough to question authority or become wary of the power establishments of the era.  It is probably fair to say, that as ignorant and naive as Ronald Reagan and George Bush were about real learning, they reflected more altruistic and lofty views of the reasons for mandatory education than most of its prior pioneers.  Simultaneously, there were education giants, with intellect, who went with the development flow, but pioneered the ideas related to how to structure the processes, and fashion infrastructure to make learning effective.

Systems and Public School Genesis

Public schools over last century quickly became the dominant source of student head counts, if not its highest and best learning expression.  The latter were, and still are, the private schools and academies that could be afforded by our nation’s wealthiest and elite families.  Those schools  — not even remotely resembling charters  — have frequently resembled small colleges, and indeed, the pedagogy practiced more nearly mimics very high quality postsecondary education than our public schools’ monolithic reasoning and protocols.

The core mechanism installing our public schools was the creation of, first, teachers colleges across our states, then gradual creation of mainstream schools of education in most colleges and universities.  That process did two things that became the eventual causes of the present reform fiasco:  One, it isolated many schools of education within the broader universe of higher education knowledge creation and codification.  That autonomy was likely initially conceptualized with some legitimacy, that the teachers being created would operate with immature human beings, children, requiring an emphasis on methods that might be considered pedestrian when propagating or employing knowledge among the adults and establishments in our society.  

Secondly, that created a culture in which teachers easily developed and even became dependent on a sense of entitlement from opting for the role of teacher.  That was reinforced over decades by salaries that were constrained by the vagaries of taxes as the source of school funding, and by an anthem as onerous as many in today’s political arena, “them that can’t, teach.”  But once installed, no matter how much respect for and compensation of the profession improved, the composite teaching profession hung onto that sense of entitlement.  In any system where such a cultural basic is installed, its recipients acquire a measure of self-righteousness that erodes the willingness to look beyond their environment for clues to how well its practices are accepted, and even more importantly, whether those practices are fulfilling the mission the larger society ascribes to their profession.

Education Tunnel Vision

This culture, by itself amenable to deflecting alienation from society in general, was thrown a curve by the failure of our educational training to recognize that management of what became highly complex organization was neither understood by most educating the educators, nor was it addressed by the social science those schools understood.  I have used this true story before, but it is very pointed.  At the end of last century, an education professor authored a journal article proclaiming the “discovery” of principles of organizational behavior and management that should guide school administration.  To anyone versed in modern understanding of organizational behavior and management, the concepts floated as “discovered by education,” had been pioneered at least decades before in our business schools. Additionally, every principle “discovered” had been assigned a different name than the universally non-education intellectual community recognized and employed.  This manifests a form of isolationism that ultimately became public education’s trajectory to an unfortunate place — the conclusion that our public schools were broadly failing to create contemporary understanding of rapidly changing knowledge and skills.  The systems for training, recruiting, qualifying, vetting, and controlling our alleged school administrators may be the most flawed, even corrupted component of contemporary public education.  Instead of leaders, the system has created unsupervised managers who can gravitate to those positions because of desire for power and greater incomes, not out of the highest visions of service.

A second sequela of public school evolution has been its adoption of the view that one of its roles as the mainstay of moving children into adulthood was to do the social engineering to shape those values as much as install a command of sufficient knowledge to move into a next learning world, or into earning a living.  This cultural assumption, coupled to a second factor, multiplied by decades of relatively unchecked freedom to write its own tickets for tax-funded infrastructure and methods of operation, plus expansion of a technology revolution it still hasn’t in whole grasped, is what catalyzed 1983’s private sector rebellion.  The rest of the conservative ‘bit in the mouth’ initiative, to penalize public education for being unresponsive or overtly aggressive in pushing its own values, is what’s been visible since launch of NCLB. Add that a second failure quickly joined the first; the failure as an institution to sense and research its own inability to meet the differential and growing needs of minority and disadvantaged population segments for educational change.  A different audience than corporate reform, but taking the same punitive form of the prior, it simply multiplied the damage being inflicted on real learning. A sidebar here is as simple as trying to find out, as a citizen paying for our public schools, or even a parent of enrollees, precisely what a school is teaching its students.  Try it some time; ask your local superintendent to open its metaphorical curriculum books.
How Public Education Became Alienated

Conventional wisdom is, that though these properties taint the history of public education, its need to practice in and secure the funding of local communities is a countervailing force, requiring systems to respond to local oversight and acceptance. In a perfect, and erudite citizen world, it might.  In the real world of schools, citizen deep belief in education, acceptance of its taxes, and citizen ignorance of what a school can do, should do, and does, those are naive assumptions.  Part of the reason for that lies in the benign culture and optimistic views of most of our society, part is the original error in strategy for oversight of this major piece of our society, and part is that educators can be as flawed as any other profession, possessing in the case of a school system’s monopoly in equipping its children for life, the capacity to intimidate both parents and a community when power is unchecked.  Parents are inevitably reluctant to challenge administrators and teachers when manipulating their child’s assessments can be used as a weapon to suppress. Horrors, does that actually happen?  In a local system it has been observed blatantly exercised in public meetings.

One factor above has already been noted.  The image of the teaching gestalt as a unique identity and culture creates the beliefs that our educators alone possess the magic sauce of learning.  It reinforces that sense of teacher-administrator entitlement that promotes looking in rather than out.  It creates opportunities for dictatorial practice and malfeasance.  Even the most empathetic educator can be caught up in this ego trip.  A very recent report of research on earliest childhood learning suggests that children create their own learning models, and can even experience less effective learning when it is fed or orchestrated by an adult.  Spoiler alert:  Schools as we depict them are in the long swath of history a literally new invention.

The second factor is the typically American trait of assuming that we are the good guys, that the joint presence in a community of educators and parents/taxpayers makes them equals.  In fact, most educators in our public systems see themselves as superior intellectually, even when that assumption is quite flawed by their comparison level with a general population versus resources who practice intellectually at a higher level.  In a nation of “all created equal” the misinterpretation of that concept has caused more damage to civil tranquility than many other societal discontinuities. There are systems in which some school administrator writes the minutes of a BOE meeting before the meeting occurs.  That sounds a bit paranoid?  Perhaps.   All of that and more have for over a dozen years characterized the system in the village from which this post is originating.

The third factor is the one “whose name one should not say,” that is, the debacle created by our utopian belief in intellectual equality applicable to oversight of public schools  — our incredibly unprepared and frequently incompetent to demagogic boards of education.  Bypassing the extensive history of early education formation for the sake of brevity, education became constitutionally the province of states and local communities.  In our early evolution of systems, both parents and general citizenry, and boards popularly elected — frequently then and to this day on the basis of general popularity and not competence to assess and control education — could achieve reasonable oversight, because their knowledge was on a par with that of the systems so governed. That ceased to be true decades ago.  Our states in turn failed to upgrade laws determining the qualifications for BOE, and in parallel create regulations that would assure elections were based on reasonable testing of candidates.  At the moment one can be on a BOE and be illiterate, have never graduated from a high school, and experience zero testing of qualifications in the electoral process.  In fact, our systems have increasingly abused that process by setting up candidates for a BOE, acquiring necessary signatures for them to be on the ballot, covertly promoting their election, and the basis is virtually always identifying candidates who cannot or will not challenge school administration wishes, as well as look the other way for example if teacher or parental complaints are blocked.  System integrity in action?  BOE cannot be recalled, and except for the rare critical mass of public protest, and an occasional press that doesn’t give them a free-get-out-of-jail-card, they receive little oversight.  

Public Schools In the Real Trenches

Two heroines of the remonstrance against standardized testing as the right prescription for improving public school performance have been Dr. Diane Ravitch, reflecting both academic and public sector education excellence and power of rational argument, and Valeri Strauss, the seemingly indefatigable editor of the Washington Post’s "The Answer Sheet."  It is difficult to do anything but marvel at the latter’s reach and grasp of material by accomplished educators who have dissected the errors in the alleged corporate reform movement.  A hero of that cause is also Dr. Marion Brady, who has authored some of the most potent arguments for a different approach to school change, possessing a background as rich in excellence as the two above. But for all of the arguments mustered by Ms Strauss, she is categorically adamant about acknowledging that not all teachers are peerless, nor that a bungled pattern of acquiring and supervising school administrators has been the most destructive human resource factor in blocking public education’s self reform to blunt the destructive corporate version. The latter has been more destructive of school reform than even the still malingering recognition that our schools of education are what’s broken, and need radical change.

Let’s promptly acknowledge, that as in all attempts to generalize about complex systems, U.S. public education is a segmented, fragmented, stratified assembly of systems that range from almost angelic to horrible — precisely the status of any real world system that possesses the capacity for independence in its values, choices, and manner of operation.  Were there contemporary research and data on what is actually happening in U.S. public schools we might be able to comprehensively and accurately diagnose where the worst of public K-12 is occurring, and those causal factors.  Not based on research to date, totally impressionistic, the incidence of felony indictments of public school teachers for cause appears to parallel the comparable indictment and release for cause of school administrators.  If that is even within miles of truth, it is a massive indictment of public school leadership — because the number of teachers is many levels of magnitude greater than the number of administrators.

Parenthetically, a documented event, in its history there has been only one attempt to do a projectable empirical study of our public schools, surveying adequate numbers of students teachers and administrators — the study directed by premier educator/researcher Dr. John Goodlad.  Paradoxically, this study was being concluded at the same time a report was being prepared for President Reagan, the now famous “A Nation at Risk,” that was the ignition point for the subsequent condemnation of our public schools by the CEO of IBM emoting to the National Governors Conference, cascading into what became finally NCLB, then under Mr. Obama’s ideological thrust, the egregious RttT.  Goodlad’s real data on our systems were available to the group that crafted ANAR, were requested by it, then ignored in the report. What Goodlad concluded and recommended for improving U.S. public K-12 was virtually 180 degrees away from the punitive current style of corporate reform.

The Crisis of Knowledge

An assumption that appears to underlay much if not most of public education’s organizational monolith is that whatever knowledge is perceived and being conveyed in its classrooms is immutable.  In most cases all that its teachers actually grasp is what came out of their postsecondary training, even masters work.  So-called teacher development rarely extends beyond bureaucratic drills to make life less taxing for school administrators; how often is core knowledge they pass on as fact updated?  In fact, all knowledge that fits into our arbitrary K-12 Procrustean Bed is probably wrong; some material obsolete, all we think we know scientifically, biologically, and sociologically subject to continuing correction and updating by virtue of better research tools, better digital capabilities, and the cumulative effects of focused study in both higher education, national research entities, and by private sector R&D.  Most K-12 text materials are prepared by some of the most mediocre intellects around, further twisted at state levels of textbook review by ignorance and religious ideologies.  A very small number of books critiquing school text adoption have survived censorship, but the message they convey is disgusting; corrupt practices at every seam, perpetrated by both publishers concerned only with profit, and authorship manipulating systems to maintain their authors' strangleholds on adoptions and their royalty stream.

Couple the above to both teachers and administrators, even ones with integrity, who have been indoctrinated from training through Praxis One and Two, to mechanically plod through classes with fixed rhetoric, and you get the nucleus of what actually provoked corporate reform.  A couple of generations of our public systems, thanks to self-righteousness and adopted isolationism, compounded by incompetent administration and ineffectual BOE, have in fact neutered most creativity and genuine intellectual competence in some fraction of our overall public systems.  As counterproductive and mean-spirited as the ‘means’ of present alleged corporate reform have been, it is very hard to actually blame the Business Roundtable, thinking conservatives, and any entity that depends on being able to count on critical thought coming out of public education, for rebelling and putting into motion attempts to replace public systems with charters if public systems refuse to reform themselves.

The partial counter to this is in the necessary use of “some,” “a few,” “too many,” “most,” and on, the product of our cluelessness about what pragmatically occurs in our massive public school universe.  Repeating a previous point, except for Goodlad’s work thirty years ago, that encompassed the experiences of 36,000 students, and their associated teachers and administrators, we don’t know what public K-12 actually is in actionable detail.  We don’t know except by chance encounters with systems that invite scrutiny, precisely how many of our systems are good, to mediocre, to poor, to corrupt.  Alexis de Tocqueville said: “America is great because she is good.  If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”  There are robust arguments for the assertion that our public school systems have evolutionarily ceased to be overall good because of pedestrian beliefs and training, and refusal to adapt to contemporary understanding of virtually all phenomena and even modern understanding of organizational behavior and management. But which ones, and to each of those characterizations, how much; then to each of those fragments, with what causes?  Lacking any of the answers to those questions, present corporate reform does have the ambience of a knuckle-dragging gang of cretins swinging clubs and throwing rocks to “improve” systems they can’t accurately characterize and critique; simultaneously, commentators of the stripe that grace the WaPo’s “The Answer Sheet,” can with sophistication, always find a haphazard sample of excellent and highly effective systems to hold out as shining public schools on a hill.  Haphazard samples if they are misinterpreted as truth have a nasty historical habit of undermining the universe they only accidentally and temporally reflect.

Up Close and Personal

It would be uplifting to segue to a narrative that now describes a pair of shining examples of public systems in America’s heartland. Unfortunately, the opposite of that is the curse of the site of this essay.

Two places in America’s culturally semi-insulated heartland of west central Ohio nevertheless make the point that we have miles to go to actually cope with over a century’s drift of our public schools from inception, to major tax and asset users, to virtual monopoly in critical preparation, or failure of preparation of our youth for adulthood.  As the saying goes, “is not your grandfather’s or even father’s world or America.”  But those places, a village, New Bremen, OH, and technically, a small city, St, Marys, OH, missed educationally joining this century.

Both places could easily have visually come out of a piece of Norman Rockwell art, brimming with wholesome and benign display of people and things.  A difference, New Bremen could be a comic book reconstruction of a far grittier history, one notch short of being fiction.  St. Marys would be that Norman Rockwell wholesomeness aged by decades of loss of industry and a center of the modern meaning of community.  Both house the relics of a historically brief and not terribly distinguished or prescient era of the Miami-Erie canal. New Bremen’s as stated was reconstructed mostly as fiction; St. Marys downtown is peppered with dry rot, its canals presently riddled with cyanobacteria, the product of a man-made lake historically feeding the canal (now being saturated with nutrients courtesy of surrounding farms and farmers irresponsibly leaching animal waste into that reservoir).  

Both communities survive, New Bremen though civically insular prospering because of the presence of a major (and controlling) manufacturing business that is outstanding in historical business terms.  St. Marys is a blue-collar place, that one native describes as “a place where a whole bunch of us live, but it is not a ‘community.’”  Both have school systems that physically would impress the naive observer, Norman Rockwell ambience.  Lift the lids, and a closer look might suggest that the educational highlight of the upcoming school year is the onset of the games on its groomed football fields, and the next round of historical liberally-rooted feel good mantras that will grace the extensive propaganda and self-promotion from both schools.  To know what either school is really doing to their children, you would have to file in Ohio with its supreme court for a writ of mandamus to force open school records.

With the exception of a single BOE member out of the composite ten, the BOE constituency ranges from ignorant, to bullies, to the cowardly, to the Machiavellian, to sock puppets for special interests, to alleged human resources who pursued the post not to work, or even to provide oversight of both the communities’ use of tax monies or how its children were provided the assets to learn, but to burnish personal egos. Not unexpectedly, these BOEs’ defaults in hiring leadership reflect the above superlative traits. New Bremen’s system in this century has had superintendents who: Trafficked in child pornography; were dishonest in administration virtually across the board in school policy, accepting public input, and misreporting; have been educationally retro or incompetent accompanied by personality disorder bordering on socio-pathology; and have demonstrated plagiarism, educational fraud, and regular lapses of ethical management.  Four-fifths of St. Marys BOE might have looked ‘good' if they had simply emulated New Bremen, and the SMCS’ system leadership has made New Bremen’s look almost kosher.  This is the reality that is never seen by the critic who stands on a peak and observes public education at a great distance, visualizing only the products of this nation’s obsessive and excessive spending on public K-12 buildings and sports infrastructure.  

Simultaneously, the excesses and omissions and dysfunction of these two systems may be the exception, or the tip of the iceberg?  We simply don’t know how low an entitled, self-righteous, and incompletely trained, but very tightly cultured and self-identified education community can really go? Lastly, state education departments are almost a farce; Ohio’s has now ousted more officials in that function by implication of, or accusation of wrongdoing than most of Ohio’s bureaucracy.  


The punch line to all of this is both optimistic and dismal.  Congress in its rewrite of the original ESEA (now ESSA) sought to hand more power to mediate public K-12 back to local communities.  Mr. Obama, still guided by a deeply ingrained desire to equilibrate childhood learning across our population segments, his own partly flawed ideology, is still seeking to override that local control.  The point is that the opportunity has been put on the table for local systems to reform their own venues. The dismal conclusion is that, except for the exceptional systems Valerie Strauss digs out and highlights, some unknown fraction of our systems has some variant of the rot or venality described in New Bremen's and St. Marys’ systems, accompanied by the dysfunction and cowardice of their BOE to grasp and be innovative in real reform and upgrading quality and integrity.

What happens over the rest of this decade and the next is a major factor in where this nation goes intellectually, civically, economically, culturally, and environmentally as this century unfolds.  Will it sink to the low depicted by the rhetoric issuing from the “orange cowbell,” or further dissemble from the distorted self-interest suffocating both public and private sector better values? The stark reality is that national policy and lunges into places not planned have increasingly been ceded to the young.  The young for better or worse will act out based on how they receive learning now and in the near future.  If their received wisdom rotates around mythology, or inaccurate science, or distorted values, or meaningless feel-good mantras, and lacking the capacities for critical thought and innovation without a crib sheet or being beaten with a standardized test, envisioning our nation’s possible futures is not a pleasant undertaking.

Cutting through all of the qualified rhetoric surrounding how to rescue public education, what would it take to roll back corporate reform, sink charters, and stick a fork in the hybrid collection of entities collaborating by chance, greed, and mischief to attack America’s public schools?

Real Reform  

One, it would take a champion with the scope and authority to intercept and torpedo present functions and their perpetrators. Ideally, if the GOP wasn’t obsessively trying to roll the nation back to what they, experiencing delusions, believe constituted the U.S. mid-20th century, and Mr. Obama didn’t have a neural short-circuit in his wiring for conceiving public education, it would have been spiritually the U.S. Department of Education. The issue here is that even through the W. G. Bush administration, that department retained most of the brains to accomplish the task given far more enlightened and operationally oriented leadership. If one started today, it would take a decade to recreate that human resource assembly and intellectual capacity trashed by Arne Duncan.

Alternatively, it could be major reform of the top 100 schools of education in the U.S. That would take starter dough of the leading U.S. universities to challenge those schools and with real teeth demanding change.  Potentially, if that ignited and took off, some consortium of those universities and schools could be a force and organizing concept.

Like the other President Bush’s 1,000 points of light, a movement by some of our largest local school systems, backed from epiphanies by some thinking governors and legislatures, aligned with rethinking of roles by our various education practice and school board associations, might prove a critical mass for attracting other institutions to join the anti-testing movement.

It would take Bill Gates actually engaging his neural nets, and a handful of other rich but shallow thinkers having an epiphany, redirecting major dollars to actually installing in our public schools the concepts already researched that could with innovation improve real learning.  In practice, those dollars applied to re-educating America’s present teacher force with a massive program of real teacher development, employing the most contemporary learning technologies and virtual access to knowledge, and adjusted for every development as it occurs, would actually be an exciting prospect and challenge.

Lastly, it would take major rethinking, with new vetting of every sitting public school superintendent, coupled with the re-education in management of those who survive to teach them how to actually manage their systems and learning. Imagine, a small revolution in our increasingly twisted B-schools, to redirect some of their time spent building more greed-driven finance MBAs, to re-educate to a doctoral level the nation’s educational administrators with the intellect to do it.  Who knows, the concept of social responsibility and ethical leadership might come back in fashion.

BOE?  Without states massively rethinking how public schools are governed and provided oversight BOE don’t enter the picture.  As inept as they are, an argument is that actually valid and competent leadership installed in every school could allow most BOE to simply be ignored — few would have the courage, energy, or intellect to challenge.  Yes, it’s true for many right now; however, the issue is that too many of the latter are being mismanaged by superintendents needing separation or indictment. The alternative positive strategy; modification of state laws to require, one, higher levels of education to be on a BOE, two, training and testing before one can be seated, and three, changing present election of all BOE to a mixed system of elected plus appointed.  A parallel idea is that every BOE has to be linked to, and is subject to ‘visitation’ by a credible state college or university.

It might take an effort to cross-functionally and sharply focus Federal law enforcement on the collective abuses of our cabal of testing companies, in conspiracies to defraud, improper buying of influence in our public sectors, bribery to acquire public contracts, turning over every rock to expose how they have essentially thumbed their nose at public policy since they were allowed into the education loop by public system malfeasance.  Might the RICO statute even apply?

Lastly, in precisely the opposite of the disastrous adoption of all aspects of corporate reform, from NCLB, through RttT, to every debacle allowed by our testing vultures, every proposed initiative could be concept-tested, via small scale experiments, or pilot programs, to estimate issues, costs, application protocols, project performance, and capacity for scaling – all of the correct development action that should have preceded dumping on public education an untested and ignorant massive system of mechanical alleged change.  Even our greediest firms, indifferent to even the concept of social responsibility, use that model in development before betting the farm on a potential opportunity for functional and/or market failure.  Amazing, that almost the first words spoken in higher education work on product development are “market testing.”  Did our standardized testing companies and their sundry consultants, and trailing demagogues, deposit their brains in their left-hand desk drawers before launching our learning Titanic?

Real Reform In Action

After posting this draft, a report issued that embodies many of the prospective elements of real reform; in this case issuing from a consortium of our states. A major such resource is the NCSL, standing for the National Conference of State Legislatures.  Not as politicized as the NGA (National Governors Association), the NCSL has frequently sponsored and reported policy research that straddles our political poles.

Such a study was featured in a regular newsletter from NCSL, just appearing in my email.  That feature and lead item were so low key that it might easily be missed by those who should heed its findings and recommendations.  What makes the report in question so pertinent is that Mr. Obama’s current U.S. Department of Education overreach on the rewrite of NCLB — ESSA — is skating on Constitutionally thin ice, because public education is the province of our states and local communities.

The NCSL report, titled “No Time to Lose:  How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State,” tackles the question how a balanced, rational, multi-dimensional approach to public school reform might be structured, if our states would come to the party with their neural nets working. In a measured way it is candid, most specifically demolishing the current “silver bullet” mentality as the fix for upgrading public K-12.  However, the study and report on which the recommendations are based stops short of "naming names and kicking butt."  

It states what should be, but, and perhaps understandably to hang on to readers, it never fingers the classes of culprits who have been responsible for where we are.  For example, repeated to a fault, that we need overall far better equipped teachers, but is silent on the reality that two major factors are responsible:  The wholesale failure of our collegiate schools of education to reform themselves, and move their awareness of learning out of the 20th century, and their command of knowledge into this one; and the endemic failure of both local BOE and the administrators they elect to comprehend, recruit, and support competent teachers rather than their own agendas.  Of course we have good, even great teachers, a tribute to the power of empathy and values that draw one to teaching as a vocation — that is not enough.  

A discriminating reader, allowing defense screens to recede sufficiently to entertain the generic prescription offered by the NCLS effort, will find there is in it a spirit and sense that foot virtually all good decision process.  As with every such prescription, goal specificity, the action plan, the milestones, the contingency plans, the human and other resource assignments, and timetables to create movement are in its extensions into the specific environments.   They are in this case states’ initiatives, then relay down to local systems, to make work happen.

I can’t suppress using the favorite quote from an executive to whom I once reported, referencing some new and daunting performance goals for my profit center:  “Of course it’s hard; if it was easy I’d do it on a cocktail napkin over a martini."

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Lament for the Cessation of Reason


Edunationredux has been silent for some time, witnessing the unrelenting push — even in the face of demonstrations it has failed — to reform public education by brute force, and punitive application of standardized testing and flawed value-added teacher assessment.  After a material hiatus it seemed timely to reflect on the shifts that have occurred in so-called corporate reform of our U.S. public schools over the last year or so.  

What follows is an attempt to backfill without whitewash the current reporting with some realities that framed the onset of current testing excesses, value-added assessment of teachers, the rise and decline of the alleged common core, and the same-o, same-o by players such as Mr. Obama and his obsession with testing, Mr. Gates with his obsession with playing amateur and ignorant education advocate, with our profiteering testing companies, and lastly with our real public systems still defensively dug in or in denial they are under attack.

Let’s be clear and direct on a couple of issues:  No one legitimately aware of K-12 education is rejecting or has rejected the need for school testing, a common rhetorical device injected by our testing vultures — the issue has always been whether the right stuff is being tested, and who bears the design responsibility for test creation and use of insights therefrom; and few legitimate educators dispute the need for some common knowledge components to be the backbone for all learning K-12 — here the issue is whether the right human resources, for the right reasons, and with the right research backdrop created a viable knowledge and tools core.  Gathering evidence suggests both issues have been fumbled in current reform, some of that fumbling incompetence, some ideology replacing critical thought, some self-righteousness, some outright corrupt action.

In the 21st Century, “spare the rod and spoil the child” once seemed too bizarre to contemplate as civilized public policy.  Companies profiting from that testing have dug in, becoming ever more bold in simply ignoring critique, and doubling down on installing untested products to extract public dollars. The following observations are prompted by two core beliefs:  One, that only a broader electorate can now exert the force to mediate present trends; and two, on balance that electorate, most parents, and even the public resources who signed on to at least nominally serve public schools, are either confused by the reform lenaean hydra poisoning public education, or blissfully unaware of what it is costing the nation in futures.

Genesis of the Reform Movement

From many sources, and over a great span of time our society has assessed how words matter.  If you research the most destructive words in our language there is a proliferation of negative syntax.  But oft quoted:  "The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’"

I want to contest that conclusion in a brief essay dealing with the current sturm und drang surrounding America's public schools — the argument is in essence that the most dangerous words for our society are the words that are never spoken, the truths preferred unsaid.  Public education has been a prime inheritor of the condition.  The words won't issue even from the prolific anti-testing press advocate, WaPo’s "The Answer Sheet:"  Public school systems in the U.S. over the last half century have reaped, by failing in multiple ways, the punitive, test-based, alleged "corporate reform” currently being endured.

Let's do a bit of reality testing.  Did this alleged reform movement just fall like a random shower?  Was there no activating causal sequence?  Did the notion that our public schools were failing to prepare tomorrow's decision makers just pop into some executive’s head during a Starbucks break?  Were our schools wth low variance equally equipping America's children?  Was our private sector seeing its employees (and customers) outclass the rest of the world?  Was it seeing in new hires critical thinking, creativity, and capacities for both excellence and innovation?  Were our local public schools the recipients of the best and brightest in our society as oversight, our famous or infamous system of boards of education accessible by popular vote to even school dropouts?  As any complex system evolves and creates deep roots, and breeds defenders, did the public systems remain humble, rejecting entitlement, and resisting the temptation to socially engineer the embryonic society they obviously footed from pre-K through the end of high school?  Did the players in those schools resist the temptation to demand more of the nation's resources because they could tax, or their personal returns were outstripped by alternative professions?  Did our public schools, presciently recognizing advancing digital technology, become the leaders in related education? Unless you believe in the tooth fairy, one or more of these or ones left unsaid will resonate as 21st Century public K-12 system failure modes.

The list goes on, but quickly, for public educators long protected by society to have absolved every source of critique would have been the persona of saints. For all of the credit public system teachers deserve for persevering there was and still is massive resistance to change in most public schools, resistance to upgrading obsolete texts and knowledge proffered, resistance to and ignorance of technology rolling out in the private sector, and the latter as will be seen a key factor in launching an attack on those systems.  Couple this with most collegiate schools of education to this day as retro as most local systems.  Local systems have regularly allowed poorly equipped and trained school administration, compounded by incompetent BOE oversight of that management.  You have the nucleus of rebellion by the market-based segment of society dependent on that education.  And there was a first shot fired.

That event was the 1983 National Governors Association (NGA) meeting, dominated by a speech and proposals by the CEO of IBM, Lou Gerstner.  At the time still America's preeminent technology company, the POV expressed by its representative was the genesis of attacks on public education.  That speech was followed by comparable rhetoric about America's public system mediocrity at The Business Roundtable, a consortium of the CEOs of America's largest corporations. In turn the NGA's staff dealing with education, already conservatively oriented by Republican governor dominance, became populated by MBAs from U.S. B-schools — not educators, not even the better education gurus. Then the perceived need for major change migrated to the Bush White House.  The anthem became, “aggressive, no excuses K-12 discipline to get tough when the going gets tough.” The result was NCLB (No Child Left Behind) which in fact had some rational and egalitarian roots, though short on human resources genuinely knowledgeable about learning just beginning to be understood as neuroscience.  (Dr. Diane Ravitch, then Assistant Secretary of Education, championed the reforms of NCLB based on testing, but subsequently witnessing their downsides became that testing's most aggressive opponent.)  Then, in the vernacular, all hell broke loose.

It is this next phase of alleged reform evolution that was and still is not recognized by most of our states, by virtually any local BOE, and arguably by few public school administrators and even teachers.  Once the metaphorical public education reform toothpaste was out of the tube it not only couldn't be returned to the source, it stuck like plaque.  All of the diverse special interest critics of public education entered the emerging battle, but lacking any coherent composite position on what it was.  (Subsequently, reform created such disparate odd fellows as the Obama Administration at least tacitly joining hands with the most vehement advocates of charters and public school replacement.)

At this juncture, actually pre-NCLB, both our collegiate schools of education and America's public systems had a chance to intercept what has since occurred — both populations reflexively retreated into defensive positions, BOE and schools’ leaderships in denial, teachers leaning on unions for a buffer or just retreating to foxholes.  The moment, when leadership within the education establishment might have deflected corporate reform attack, was lost.

I would interject a brief personal experience that reinforces the above observation. In the early 1990s, the retiring dean of my doctoral alma mater's school of education created a program named, Center for Excellence in Education.  Its purpose to research and bring related seminars to public school superintendents in that state.  Its faculty consisted of a half dozen of the brightest scholars I had witnessed, none the product of a traditional school of education.  They assembled cutting edge tools for school administrators, and offered these in seminars for the small number of public school resources who perceived the need and opportunity. Although long off of that institution's faculty, I was serving as a consultant to the university's vice president for research and graduate studies, and prevailed on that resource to enroll me in the CEE summer program.  A quarter century ago, what was being taught and advocated are some of the tools just emerging in our most contemporary (irony) public schools.  The point of the story, however, is the ultimate fate of that program — the literal day that former dean finally left the education school the traditionally-bent replacement started to dismantle the program.  It was never replaced. 

Our broader public education establishment has been its own worst enemy in the reform wars.

Uncontrolled Fragmentation of School Warfare

At this point in history the previously referenced wave of public school criticism experienced the arguably predictable, but never predicted sequel — that population of critics fragmented, uncontrolled, into aggressive splinters of public school attackers, all pretty much on their own wavelength, but all in the common spectrum that envisioned evisceration of the universal public system to its complete replacement.  Each faction created its own weapons, and many of the splinters quickly became candidly quite corrupt in the quests.  It became open-season on public schools.  The players were diverse, either in purpose or in methods, but the target was the same.  Many of the players, in large measure many of our unprepared or naive state departments of education, became more pawns than activists, the political tail wagging the education dog.

An incomplete but telling list of the enemy:  Right wing ideologues who saw this corporate rebellion against what they saw as a retro, liberal public education monopoly, to be a chance to dismantle at least part of it via "charters;" migration of that political force into the Bush Department of Education, finally resulting in ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act), popularly known as NCLB as its promotional tag; via the NGA, creation of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council -- sounds noble, right) a right wing organization that created legislation for conservative-dominated state legislatures incompetent to write their own laws, pushing standardized testing (and subsequently the alleged "common core”); the rise of the corporate testing cabal, that saw this as a naive new market worth billions of dollars with little need for development expenditures, and no ethical prerogative to do needed research; the creation of a then (and still mostly) anonymous group of primarily non-educators (instead of the professionals who guard the quality of their area of knowledge), chaired by the CEO of a testing company, that produced "the common core," now increasingly proving to be a terribly flawed effort (being rejected by states and schools, just branded as misguided, and torpedoed by sensible work like Marion Brady's approaches to learning); "Teach for America" was created on the premise that modest discipline expertise and five weeks of education training would save the public schools, then and now failing; enter the misdirected dollars of a Bill Gates to push standardized testing, with the same lame understanding of creativity and managerial excellence installed at Microsoft; and last, but devastating, the Obama Administration's venal endorsement and deepened installation of the testing mentality, arguably prompted by the belief that forcing some idealistic equilibration of education for minorities — aware it risked partially destroying public schools — was worth that cost (this policy in the opinion of many is as bad as the worst abuses of power and bigotry issuing from the current Republican Congress).

The enemy within has been equally devastating:  Ignorant, to fearful, to lazy, to self-righteous, to duplicitous BOE; sports obsessions and idiocy vamping learning priorities; school administration almost universally poorly trained to supply managerial excellence; compounded by the failed vetting of leadership hires that has produced school leaders ranging from simply educationally retro or incompetent, through the fraudulent, to superintendents' out right arrogant pursuit of power and corrupt practice; obsolete curricular thinking; naive substitution of usually already or near obsolete technology hardware for needed digital logic preparation; and slavish adoption of even the most obviously retro or insane directives from state education departments (branding tweaked secondary teachers as college professors certainly ranks high on the list of Ohio stupidity, and based on performances since CC+’s [College Credit+] launch has become a quality issue).

Welcome to U.S. public education, 2016 style.   

With candor uncommon in the present venue of squeamish or gutless public school spokespeople, it was said well in a recent WaPo/TAS post:  “Civil rights icon James Meredith:  ‘We are in a dark age of American public education.’”  Perhaps the greatest insult to the American public, and its children, has been the refusal of any of the above list of culprits for the current education train wreck, to either do the research or listen to legitimate research showing they are wrong, or even acknowledging the publicly-visible failures of their various tactics.  U.S. public systems and their oversight have in turn generally simply gone deeper into denial of a need for unforced change, and misguided by both incredibly lame state education departments and the usual BOE performances, have not only not created contemporary fixes, but reinvested in those that failed.  

Can Local Control Save Public Education?

The rewrite of ESEA (now ESSA, "Every Student Succeeds Act") under Lamar Alexander was alleged to reduce the standardized testing binge, and restore more public school local control.  Actual text of the revised Act did that; however, four major impediments stand in the way of a healthier educational outcome.  First, the Obama Administration has already abused that spirit by its appointment of John King as Secretary (having failed in New York State), and demonstrated that it has learned nothing from present reform’s failures. Two, the moronic push powered by Bill Gates’ legacy dollars continues, with that cabal even taking the wrong message away from the repetitive failures that effort has produced.  Three, most school policy is still either crafted at the state level or has to survive that gatekeeping, so to actually assert some intelligent local control means finding paths through frequent state education incompetence or ideology — witness the corrupt and massively politically inspired fumbling of Ohio’s Department of Education, and of its State Board of Education, courtesy of political cronyism by Ohio’s current Governor.  Four, lastly, local control means having BOE with the intelligence and professionalism to not simply rubber stamp school administrative action, but summon the courage to do independent homework and innovate.  Both capacities are notably absent in two local school systems.

James Meredith is right, an educational "dark age" has descended on American public education, and there appears no clear vector to a renaissance. The best chance of system change in the current chaotic political environment is local parental and taxpayer emerging awareness that their school system is shortchanging a community’s children.  The fix is not complicated, but historically by tradition has been very difficult:  Recognition of their children’s vulnerability to ‘good enough’ education and specious inspirational nostrums; awareness that BOE have been products of electing resources who are an umpteenth cousin, or happen to belong to the local Rotary, or have been manipulatively positioned by a dominant private sector, or are cherry-picked by a school because they are considered harmless and unlikely to challenge administration despotism; then demanding competition and voting for professional competence on a BOE.  A last factor in Ohio; a BOE member can’t be recalled, so unless they can be removed by the court for commission of a felony or gross violation of sworn oath, "what you sees is what you gets.”  That currently in this neck of the woods is dysfunctional.

There is no fully satisfactory way to exit this national crisis.  Smaller countries, with less diverse populations (e. g., Finland) have addressed the equivalent of K-12 with greater creativity and even greater rigor than the U.S., and have succeeded. The occasional education voice in the wilderness, e. g., an accomplished lifelong educator and guru, Dr. Marion Brady, has offered ways to update classroom thinking.  Dr. Diane Ravitch has authored best-selling books on the damage to sustainable learning being inflicted by excessive and misdirected standardized testing. A genuine neural science of learning is finally emerging, contradicting just about every aspect of present reform. Parental instinctive awareness of the cost of specious reform has produced the highest level ever in refusals to have their children so tested. Congress remains tone deaf, as are most state education departments and legislatures slavishly following the conservative party line.  The testing companies long ago ceased to be good corporate citizens with awareness of public responsibility.


The dispersion of power in a republic is and has been a point of American exceptionalism.  It can also when things go off the rails be an impediment to timely repair or redirection.  Lacking the combination of social responsibility and selflessness as the governing principles for school change moderation, by seemingly all parties, this reform lenaean hydra of mythology will continue to strike and poison U.S. public school systems.  Any vector for reform of the reform appears at this point a mirage.