Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Closing the Books


A seven-year run of this education blog has produced 137 posts, covering an ongoing war between America's 150 year old public school system, and 35 years of what has been dubbed "corporate reform." 

Not automatically visible in that blogging has been the learning process needed to create those words.  Even with an academic base of a quarter century of high level social research methodology, jumping into the products of the second law of thermodynamics public education reflects as a metaphor, was demanding.  If that seems mysterious, I invite the reader to Google ‘the second law’ and reflect on how it may foot many of the dysfunctions now visible in America’s various education function trajectories.

Trying to explain public education – in contrast with the incredibly stupid comments of Betsy DeVos, disavowing that public education is a ‘system’ – means seeing it as a massive complex of nested systems. How one scopes that, to seek diagnosis of ills, means seeing analysis having longitudinal and latitudinal dimensions.  What drives present dialogue about our schools is primarily latitudinal, exploring all of the elements that comprise finally what happens in our classrooms along with their consequences.  The longitudinal dimension implies how high you go in trying to visualize the system’s core infrastructure versus just working parts.

But if you step back and get on top of this highly developed and ritually-driven ‘big system,’ there are some points of view that explain a lot.   At the top of the list are answerable questions:  

What happens to any system over time when it is handed a monopoly?  

What behaviors are triggered when a system is handed a public money pipeline vulnerable to being played, as well as activating the “ratchet effect” of economics, always expanding funding?  

What happens to the operating entities in the system when there is no genuinely effective oversight of frequently poorly vetted school administrators, handed unchecked capacities to manipulate a child’s learning and public monies?  If this question appears challenging, Google “Lord Acton’s Dictum.”

What happens to systems that have supporting constituencies inadequately educated to actually know when they are being provided subpar education or being conned? 

What happens when a function as universal and secular as the core learning of a nation’s children is exploited by political power to serve ideological ends? 

And what happens to that base of operating systems and its products when a false mechanism for inducing change – alleged standardized testing – is ignorantly and despotically installed overriding competent pedagogical strategies and means of assessing learning performance?

The answers aren’t per the riff of a protest song from the ‘60s’ “…written in the wind;”  they are demonstrated in the manifest dumbing-down of a nation’s children.


Trying to understand why and how America’s public education experiment – second only to constitutional and democratic central government – has begun to critically fail is one half of the issue, that bifurcates into the above core philosophical questions, and the education ‘street’ questions of how that has evolved?

That reform call apparently went public roughly 35 years ago, it likely represented even earlier some fraction of our major corporate leaderships concluding our public schools had started to visibly fail to turn out the human resource preparation they assumed was needed to satisfy their employee and leadership needs.  The call, paralleling a study called "A Nation At Risk," commissioned by then President Ronald Reagan, started a politically infused chain of events that ultimately led, in President George Bush's Administration, to the Federal mandates popularly called "No Child Left Behind."

The rest is recent history, and a massive and confused portfolio of attempts to change our public schools, to produce better learning performance.  Not a credit to American ingenuity, those attempts, to use a food analogy, have become a hash of trial and error, all of it pragmatically failing to materially elevate US public school learning performances.  That smorgasbord of alleged reforms has, however, driven our public system mammoth into a mess of variable compliance mixed with resistance, but sans anything that could be legitimately called reform.  The premise of this concluding postscript to educationredux is that our twisted networks of school reform have for all practical purposes left America's public schools in 2017 in a dysfunctional limbo.

Issues with the most current clarity are the very weapons that have corrupted the original reform strategies:  One, continuation of proven dysfunctional excessive standardized testing that persists because of the ideologies and ignorance of state education directorates, along with testing company lobbying; and two the attempts to privatize public schools via use of charters and to a lesser extent the ideological use of vouchers to try to force religion into our schools. Neither have proven productive in improving US learning, in fact, the opposite.  See Daniel Koretz, Why the school ‘accountability movement’ based on standardized tests is nothing more than ‘a charade.

The critical questions are, even if now increasing public resistance to both mechanisms offer some retreat and relief, how do you actually change for positive effect the infrastructure and behaviors in public education to generate true reform?  The tactics of the present Administration will not last long enough to materially change a massive public system into a private one.  The tens of thousands of public school administrators, many inadequately educated and wrongly conditioned by flawed collegiate schools of education can't be replaced in less than decades, and that assumes those training grounds for human resources can themselves reform their disciplines.  Despite the mythology of perfection of public school teachers, that is a grand lie, because of how many were initially educationally unqualified for those positions, and our systems’ overall ignorance or dereliction in not continually updating teachers’ knowledge.

How does a nation change this mess?

To answer the question, one has to address the almost unthinkable challenge of causing millions of beliefs and attitudes to be modified, and millions of tactical acts both in and out of our classrooms to be modified to enhanced specifications. In perspective one can emphasize with the top corporate CEOs who ignited the reform movement just prior to issue of ANAR.  They at the time logically believed that America's public schools had both become distracted with culturally defined learning needs, and had begun to become obsolete in dealing with exploding knowledge.  Not a pejorative assessment but a pragmatic one.  

By the decade of the '80s computer and digital technologies had already overtaken world business.  The automation of manufacturing of the '70s (that failed to address how the substitution of machines for human resources would impact our nation) was already being supplanted by digital industries and robotics.  What used to boggle the mind as billions of dollars has become scales of trillions of dollars.  America's educators, run through by then arguably obsolete schools of education in terms of that knowledge, could not provide the learning being demanded by industry. The second hammer dropped.

Our public schools by fundamental nature were not politically shaped organizations.  However, by that time social pressures to correct major national and social inequities had mushroomed.  The political mission of the liberal half of America had asserted itself, leading to putting the schools in the X-ring for the mission of correcting multiple issues of discrimination and bigotry. Simultaneously, the evolution of social psychology married to mass media expansion, made elementary and secondary education pawns of political ideology; political power via the vote increasingly hinged on attitudes, opinions and beliefs, installed either in the home or in those schools, becoming a hidden agenda of political and governmental treatment of schools.  The crescendos of those beliefs among our power brokers are now crudely and malevolently on the table.  Public education, to use a bonehead simple phrase, is now caught between the good guys and the bad guys.  Because both sides, and the system itself defensively, have become opaque to diagnosis and treatment, they also seem to be the sources of ultimate stalemate.

America, step out of the Mobius Loop?

If one is both cognizant of systems theory, and rational in recognizing the complexity of what has been now assembled, then flayed out among many actors with the resources and power to nudge our education system, the answer is there are few forces that can dominate.  The Constitution constrains one avenue, Federal takeover of the entire system.  Divergent state constitutions, and divergent core perceptions and values about education constrain state actions. Saying out loud, "our public education system," posits a universal and monolithic organizational entity that doesn't exist.  That becomes even more messy by the belief embedded in our nation that education is a matter of local control.  That belief, manifested in oversight of locally funded schools, lacking competent oversight and leadership from inappropriate local boards of education, is failure in motion.  As the latter deficit traces directly to the failure of our states for decades to upgrade the requirement for BOE service, that doubles down on faulting our states for US learning failures.

One might argue that the NCSL or National Conference of State Legislatures is a vehicle for reform.  Or the NGA or National Governors Association a similar vehicle.  Both have the stigma of state divergence and competence failures. Another more plausible opportunity could be a consortium of America's top institutions of higher education?  As that is precisely where our advanced knowledge gets processed before trickling down to K-12, it seems plausible. Those associations are already quietly in existence.  A vignette:  Two decades ago the Federal government, seeking to standardize -- for the benefit of parents and students -- the data for assessing college and university choice, could not get those institutions to agree to a common format for that critical information. Make higher education the rallying cry for reform of public schools? 

What remains after all else drops out is the same concentration of wealth and power that launched our reform devastation -- our corporate behemoth.  If the sundry billionaires putting billions into poorly devised schemes and personal ideologies, along with the power of our corporations constituting the Business Roundtable, operated within a unified private sector effort to sort reform strategies and tactics, it might offer a solution.  This is also plausible, but faces a major constraint.  The 'corporatizing' of America is underway, supportive of the concept.  But that movement will also eventually run into America's resistance to any all-encompassing takeover of how the nation is ruled.

Where does the buck stop?

It is hard to envision a pathway that doesn't require some social destruction, albeit that could be short of civil revolt or upheaval.  The hard reality is that the two 800 pound gorillas in this conceptual struggle are not the ones most would articulate or ones that will yield to the relatively peaceful transitions of the last century.  Public schools are an American entrenched reality; with 150 years of history they will not of their own volition give up the near nation-status they have constructed from public money, or easily yield to normative calls for becoming transparent and responsive to anything.  The have become a cultural enclave that by human nature will resist being changed much less ousted.  For all of the media reform blather, they are almost impervious to less than overwhelming disapproval at a scale that threatens their public funding pipeline.  

On the other side of the skirmish line, corporate America has become imperious and virtually immune to public oversight, as earlier public protections are being destroyed by political ignorance and demagoguery.
Many, who feel more comfortable with physical scales of Legos to tall buildings, time’s arrow in months or years, and action units that fit the prior, will not be comfortable with the proposed analog of education change fitting the Strauss-Howe concept of "Turnings."  That is a human trait; but it does not fit nor assist the scale of the work and accomplishment that the US must achieve with our schools to stagger successfully through even the remaining first half of this century.

World renowned futurist Mishio Kaku, in a recent presentation, argues that “intellectual capitalism” will overtake “product capitalism” in future. His thoughts about education in 2017:

"1) In the internet and digital age, where information is at the population’s fingertips anytime, anywhere, learning based on memorization and not concepts is incredibly outdated; and 2) junior high school is the biggest enemy of science today."  “Every one of us is born a scientist."  “We ask questions all the time about where we come from and why we’re here. And it’s in junior high, where students are still asked to memorize the Periodic Table, that science dies in the heart.”

“In the future, where knowledge is everywhere and accessed instantaneously, and where robotics and AI can perform a variety of functions once held by humans, intellectual capital will be valued over commodity capital.” “In other words, the ability to reason, to think outside-the-box, and to be creative will be the skills most valued."  "So if the old methods of teaching and learning through memorization and the presentation of facts are outdated thanks to the digital age, what should teaching and learning look like today?"

Paradoxically, our brightest students of education were articulating this wisdom even before the onset of this century, but a deaf and blind, qua self-righteous public school establishment chose to ignore the realities, creating their own reform adversaries.  A humorous sidebar but one not all will welcome, Kaku predicts one profession immune to the threat of AI replacement is, lawyers.  His argument, the combination of critical thought and creativity required by its practice will resist mechanization; parenthetically F. Scott Fitzgerald's assertion about being able to entertain simultaneously two opposed views also seems apropos.

The New York Times David Brooks, in an insightful recent column asserts that much of what currently ails America, destroying once common values and hopes, fragmenting the nation, is a “siege mentality.”  Noted by others who have sought to dissect the undiscriminating lobs of bile that litter our media his explanation is worthy:  "The fact is, the siege mentality arises from overgeneralization: They are all out to get us. It shouldn’t be met with a counter-overgeneralization: Those people are all sick."

Downbeat futurism

Early in this seven-year effort, there was a discouraging discovery; that a large part of our society, including many of this rural wedge of America, even its alleged educators and their BOE oversight, lacked either the will or the capacity to read for effect.  

There are multiple treatises on the theme, how societies fail; only one of many examples, the work of Jared Diamond, COLLAPSE: HOW SOCIETIES CHOOSE TO FAIL OR SUCCEED, or the work of Peter Senge, et al., in PRESENCE:  HUMAN PURPOSE AND THE FIELD OF THE FUTURE.  Public education, as a major national chunk of our infrastructure, but compared to that reflecting metaphorically bricks & mortar, is vulnerable to high speed decay when its human resource derived conventions for positive improvement break down.

Our staunch defenders of our public schools in this century merit applause, for bucking the multiple less commendable motivations for trying to privatize them.  They do not merit approbation for the tunnel vision or blinders that refuse to log the incompetence and lack of integrity that selectively streak that virtuous view of real schools.  In all explanation of phenomena, from quantum physics versus the behavior of large things, to the motivations that power individual behavior versus group and societal movements, both scales and all between require explanation if our nation’s future isn’t going to be ordained by a random generator.

I truly believe in the next decades, unless there is an epiphany in a population finally waking up, demanding better, our public education systems will continue to reflect the growth of entropy that brought us to 2017.  That may realistically be public education finally sufficiently abusing its delegated grants of money and power, that salvaging public schools may compete with climate change to see which first yields to any intelligence that reflects a civilized society, if either manage the task?

Ron Willett, 15 November 2017

Saturday, October 21, 2017

America’s Slo-Mo Public School Train Wreck: A Final Post


Enduring mysteries this century:  Why the American public education leviathan has acted with such comprehensive self-righteousness, with disregard of its evolving intellectual environment, and dismissal of challenge in the face of corporate reform, that its status is now threatened; as the education wars heated up primarily focused on the theme of replacing public schools with charters, why that solution prevails versus reaching across the aisle and truly reforming public schools; do the peddlers of “school choice” have such wholesale disdain for the intellect of our nation’s citizens that they believe the choice lie will fly; and how have our higher education institutions managed to rationalize tolerating deeply flawed schools of education for now decades?  What thinking, or if not attributable to thinking at all versus ideology or deeply embedded beliefs, foots the motivations for allowing present school dysfunction/underachievement to add to retarding national progress?

Because this is likely the last Edunationredux post, some liberties are being taken with its arguments; they may seem different, but they are deliberate.  The key one, both our composite public system, and its present portfolio of reformers and reforms, have standing.  There are pros and cons on both sides, the details of both frequently ignored in the strident but simplistic arguments lobbed at our public for political points.  As you navigate this post, both sides of the contest are given points when merited, critiqued when deserved.  It can be seen as ambiguity, or properly perceived as a natural effect of a national challenge that simply doesn’t have clear cut lines of resolution.

Cut to the Chase

A first alleged cut at reality, contradicting unthinking assertions by Mr. Trump, and delusional characterizations by Betsy DeVos, that our public schools are somehow a homogeneous mass of incompetent educators, freedom-deprived parents, with curricula that are irrelevant or even injurious to children’s futures, and a public sector scam. Sotto voce, you can also hear the politically inspired muttering, that public schools are installing insidious liberal philosophy in unprotected children, or are bent on conditioning their very thinking to make them Democrat votes. You have to be an oar short to really believe that version of the complex story.

The second real question is the alleged attraction of a charter, if you dismiss the total demagoguery of the “choice” pitch to citizens immune to its unreasonableness.  What, precisely, is that charter’s edge over most of our public schools?

One, presumably as a private sector aligned organization, it is more businesslike?  What that actually means, I doubt DeVos knows. Although our public systems are frequently light on competent management, it can be attributed to the organizational, managerial and economic ignorance of our schools of education rather than our schools in real communities, if they have any competent oversight.

Second, it is free to innovate?  The innovation hinges on high levels of subject matter knowledge, and the high level training that embraces disciplines supporting discovery and research skills.  There are no standards for such leadership in charters.  Any phony or con artist could wind up pushing a charter, for the overriding motivation of sucking up public tax dollars as a scam.

Third, where do its teachers come from?  What education has made them capable?  The education of teachers has been a frequent target of the reform movement, and there’s room for critique, but the broad corruption of teacher qualities offered by charters’ total lack of standards is far worse than the marginal naivety installed by inbred teacher education programs.

Fourth, where does a charter’s raison d'etre, the grist of what is to be learned, originate; it certainly doesn’t come from knowledge pros, it doesn’t come from higher education, parts are there but it doesn’t come from even higher order business thinking.  Is it supposed to come from the couple hundred of history's fictional 'bibles?'

Lastly, where does the board or topside oversight come from?  The learning implied by a valid K-12 level education universe is not something to be linked only to a ‘job,’ or be the simplistic insight that serves only short term issues, but something that prepares all facets of a student for life in a free society. Charters aren’t being held accountable.  Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is supposed to manage that?  Missed by virtually every right wing ideologue is the reality that there is no such animal as a “free market.”  Once the concept of a market evolved from primitive trade of primitive commodities, the driving force of a market’s players has been to work overtime to avoid competition. The lamest student of economics of any complex society knows this; that our right wing hasn’t grasped that basic truth should send them back to kindergarten.

A Brutally Honest Footnote on Charters

There are a few charter chains that are managed by competent educators, efficiently using the dollars scammed from public school financing.  Applause.

The larger portion of our charters represents some degree of scam, basically economically raping the good faith school taxpayer.  We’ve all experienced scams before; what is more telling is the misrepresentation of present charters as privatization of education.  The presumption has to be that Betsy DeVos has pulled most of her understanding of economics and business theory from a comic book.

You can theorize how a K-12 school might be organized as a profit or not-for-profit business organization, vending a complex service, to a segmented marketplace.  It won’t look like a charter.  And it will require some organizational invention and creativity to ensure its product delivery and compliance with the same tests, societal and financial and legal as any other business delivering a critical service.  Because of natural barriers to entry or replication by market, it will still have monopolistic overtones, closer to our public utilities than conventional markets.

The bizarre perception of our conservative extremists appears to be, that because our system’s designation invokes the term “public,” the nation has sold out to socialism. Reality is that actually making our public schools private sector fodder would introduce avenues for practices we already condemn in most markets, especially financial markets.  

Fundamental to so structuring a school is freeing it from multiple layers of control. That function, perceived as an asset, is supposed to be controlled by some form of competitive marketplace, and the flex to manipulate internal resources and even customers to achieve profit targets.  Apparently lost on those who refuse to read history, the effects of unrestricted capitalism required our original anti-trust legislation, circa 1890.  Sadly, the origins of those abuses have not diminished, just become more complex and arch with America's 'vulture capitalism' degrading equitable society.

The analysis can go on, but the take away should be that our alleged reformers relying on privatization have not executed their homework to make their case, and appear clueless how a simplistic rendering of a school as a business would cripple educational process.  At least most of our public systems have the right educational missions in their sights, even if the skill sets to fulfill them can be spastic.

All said, is the core battle between an improbable charter takeover of our massive education system, versus initiating a wake up call for a public system with too many heads in the sand; or is it the challenge of pointedly correcting what’s needed in our public systems to not unravel part of a century of still commendable and orderly learning evolution?

The Picture is Bigger...

The challenge to the U.S. public school system (and yes Betsy, it is indeed a system) dubbed “corporate reform” has been visibly gnawing at our public schools for 34 years.  It may have festered far longer, driven by a rerouting of U.S. educational needs by public school bureaucracies to a proliferation of liberal mantras versus core learning needed to accommodate a knowledge explosion.  

But even that attribution is a shabby explanation; where in those years the causes of American educational angst metaphorically resemble the Lernean Hydra of Greek and Roman mythology — possessing many heads, and for every head chopped off the Hydra grew a couple of heads.  So 34 years later, and in spite of the Bush and Obama years of generally literate and well intentioned education mistakes, to the now total stupidity of the Trump/DeVos debacles, our public systems are continuing to glacially degrade.  That is juxtaposed against a science-driven explosion of knowledge along with a digitally driven capacity to log and manipulate that knowledge. 

In short, the talking heads gush with piecemeal claims and counterclaims about why the nation’s primary and secondary learning drags, but with little integration of explanations that might expedite solutions and better policy.  

A Reality Check

Consider:  ‘Balderdash — there’s nothing wrong with America’s public schools.’  Huh?  So millions of observers with better education credentials than these defenders are all wrong?  The leaderships of the largest and successful members of our commercial and industrial universe are simply not capable of assessing the millions of human resources they employ; their experiences of deficits of learning in those resources are just myth, a bad night from some off-color crab cocktail?  I have some dry land in south Florida for sale.

A regular defensive theme:  Our teachers are not the problem.  Oops, our teachers are ‘a’ problem, for many were created by schools of education with retro educators, lacking insights about either the state of current knowledge, or how those prospective teachers need to be educated and trained to serve. Simultaneously, there are superb, educated human resources who grace our public classrooms, some of whom have even started to grasp first vestiges of education science finally emerging from neural science in the last decades (versus the phony and superficial methods gambits created out of air and smoke by educators passed off as strategists and tacticians).

Next, no our schools' ‘management’ isn’t the issue.  Sorry Throckmorton, it is a major problem.  The vast majority of America’s schools of education can’t spell either management or organizational behavior much less offer enough insights to equip an upwardly mobile education status seeker to manage a school.  Combined with self-service and pathetic vetting by BOE, some serious fraction of our ‘superintendents’ should be booted from education, or sent back to the classroom. Simultaneously, there are ones who could qualify for CEO status in excellent private sector firms.

If not critically any of the above, what?  BOE that are ignorant of education, ignorant of their responsibilities as sworn board members, wrapped in ego and self-seeking?  Frequently the case, along with electoral processes that are a mockery of democratic process.  A century old system of choosing oversight of public systems is corrupted by the low level of intellectual achievement required to serve.   Simplistic populism has been substituted for critical thinking and rational oversight for a century, compounded by 50 states’ disparate requirements to be on a BOE, along with refusal to change them.

Things we don’t discuss:  Grade bands that go back to Andrew Carnegie, who was likely clueless what those arbitrary categorizations of learning progress would induce in future learning.  They were motivated by another extremist ideological view, that the human rabble (from his perspective) had to reflect some discipline to create enough literacy to buy products made from his steel. Nobility in action?

What’s left?  The U.S. Department of Education, once before Presidents Reagan and Bush, at least a center for research and assessment, has been gutted.  Now it has become the podium for  ideologically twisted initiatives, trying to destroy the public system, but arguably lacking rational thought why that is good for the nation.

Fill in the blanks.  Profit-seeking lacking either integrity or propriety in our testing companies, and textbook firms that have been irresponsible in creating product validity and excellence?  Or politically rotten and extremist organizations like ALEC, never subject to any public sector oversight, that are the right wing’s metaphorical assault team.  Lastly, 50 states’ education bureaucracies that reflect the myriad ideologies among our states, and diverse intellectual and values capabilities, given life and protection by our Founders’ misguided belief that 'education’ could be trusted to our states?

What is Real?

Reality is that America’s ’school system’ is far more complex than “public schools” versus "charter schools.”  It is in the mass of the numbers describing just the counts that some understanding surfaces.  But it is in the conceptual model of interconnections of infrastructure and influences that recognition of public schools’ change challenge comes home.

You can theorize up from the trenches, or you can view our systems top down. Both likely expedite understanding.  You have the U.S. Department of Education with a few mandates that can be imposed because education was left in the Constitution to our states.   States ‘control’ education but only to the extent that legislatures pass relevant statutes, including those licensing school human resources, and affect strategy by state funding.  Widely ballyhooed ‘local control’ is diffused with state law, Federal mandates, and the vagaries of local BOE ranging from potentially representative of a community, to incompetent, to corrupt.

Stack on top of the above, union influences, textbook manipulation from the private sector, and the current testing overlays; we have a multilayered and multivariate system, and operationally all of the organizational negatives of bureaucratic thinking that confront the teacher and school administrator that may have integrity.

Consider the numbers, but do so with caution.  In spite of the massiveness and universality of education in the U.S., its numbers are anything but comparable, one of the overall failings of U.S. education.  We know more about toilets by housing segments in America than the stratified structure of America’s public schools, and particularly virtually nothing about their performances by function and over time.

We spend about $626B on public systems.  There are about 13,515 school districts.  There are about 98,817 ‘schools’ versus districts, about 6,400 charters, about 33,619 private and 6,841 Catholic schools. Public school enrollment is about 50,094,000, with about 2,514,000 in charter schools, about 5,628,000 in private schools, about 2,088,000 in Catholic schools, and about 1,773,000 home schooled.  There are about 3,109,000 public school teachers, and an unknown number of superintendents because the number is hidden (but one can assume at least one for each district). Unknown, how many bodies are employed by charters, or their qualifications for being there. Last numbers put our public schools’ funding sourcing at: Federal - 12.7%; State - 43.5%; and local - 43.8%.

All of the components of our public systems are in multiple ways hooked to each other; simultaneously our Federal Census/Survey function has never been employed to account for our school systems’ infrastructures, or operations, or performances.  Maybe three-quarters of a trillion dollars are sloshing around in America’s school systems with virtually no genuine oversight of how their deployment impacts their core mission of turning out an educated citizenry. Only one direct field study of public school students was ever conducted, by educator extraordinaire, Dr. John Goodlad.  Few public school educators have ever heard of it much less read the resultant book.

Change the system, innovate, increase learning productivity, advance learning rather than sports, create contemporary school organization, install competent school management, and transition to a fully digitally driven system?

Pray, how do you do that without first understanding what a century of moving target public educational thinking, bumbled schools of education, and refusal to reform both schools’ human resource sourcing and oversight, have wrought?  

The answers are not killing the beast to get rid of the fleas and the mange; not mangling an already complex and barely understood public system by substituting “charters” with even less credence, with distorted values, and with little oversight; and not simply dismissing the legitimate scholars who did foster part of a century of normalization of public education.  

The answers are not tasking your local BOE to provide motivation and guidance and expecting results; not petitioning your state’s education bureaucracy, with typically less knowledge and objectivity than some BOE, to lead; not expecting a citizen generation equipped by a sputtering education system to create better standards of performance for their systems; not expecting not infrequently incompetent to self-serving and integrity deficient superintendents to innovate; and not by expecting a total public to suddenly become critical thinkers.

A final bit of reality, that circumscribes what can be changed in a public school system, and with what speed, is the political platform.  The vast majority of our states are currently Republican dominated courtesy of gerrymandering, along with their legislatures.  As any true change in how our schools can be operated hinges on the states being in the middle of the initiatives, finding any reforms that can reflect the views of 50 states’ education bureaucracies may be a binding constraint?  Education’s version of “the medium is the message?"

Public Education’s Black Hole

Conspicuously missing from these observations is assessment of our public schools’ financial management.  The reason, despite voluminous press reports of school financial mismanagement, is the scope of this element of school performance, and the serious absence of comparable data and studies of their assessments and audits.  The comprehensive lack of transparency of public school financial performances is in itself a condemnation of much state oversight of its schools, and has enabled cover ups of schools' misapplication of resources, and lack of proper understanding of those assets' productivity. This topic should be a prime target of public school reform.

One Concept for Innovation

The already complex combination of K-12 school markets/environments served x varied qualities of oversight x 50 states’ bureaucracies x n communities’ cultures, complicates the vision of creating acceptable homogeneous reforms across multiple school functions and goals.  Even from the spare description above it seems clear there is no single track for public education’s improvement if the notion is timely change.  It took public schools over a half century to start failing some of their missions; changing that is formidable.

Federal action can’t do the task without Constitutional amendment.  State venues short of a major conceptual model change seem mission impossible. The large quality variances of local systems at least impede some local but viral movement taking off.  Lastly, the myriad and layered controls on and dictates to local systems are an impossible barrier even to an evolutionary shift in public standards of performance for their management or academic/learning performance.

Communities themselves are also formidable barriers to productive change. In the rural site of this blog, a long history of inbred influence, bigotry against outside views, a basically marginally educated electorate, and an anti-democratic culture have corrupted and intellectually cheated its local system. But as illustrated for decades, even poorly educated communities have still regularly seen the need for the nation's “public schools” to get better even if that is just vague and intuitive, but also inevitably think their own system is just fine.  Joining hands to defend a local school  — because it’s tribal and ours — has a damning effect on improvement.

One still unimproved idea for major public system reform cuts through some serious barriers.  It is:  The national — by agreement among the states — disconnection of all public systems from the most dysfunctional and self-serving restraints on change, by essentially privatizing all public schools, but controlled by a public-private model in which the states, as their systems’ owners, sign on to a national model for learning.  The 50 states keep control of education within the Constitution, with the 50 states governing their schools operations, but also serving as part of a consortium or governing body, becoming a unified legislative oversight and joint research/policy function, replacing the Federal education function.  Perhaps closer to the Federal Reserve, with separate status from detailed control by Congress or the executive function.

The conceptual argument is that products of a century of acculturation, built by almost uncountable agreements and accommodations among higher education, vendors, unions, advocates, need to be eviscerated without killing the host.  There must be a second layer to this concept, built around local representation, but creating local oversight requiring more standards than simple electoral installation.  That might be combined with local election, if the standards for serving came closer, for example, to how local judicial leadership is provided.  In any event, that oversight by local board or ‘visitor’ participation would entail training and certification, giving local oversight both some teeth and the knowledge to go with the power.

The concept for reform execution could take advantage ideally of redirected funding by some of our education billionaires, 'with conversion,' to create 50 sets (states) of demonstration K-12 system models, seeking to create viral reform signals to a state’s local systems.  While this appears hazy, reality is that nudging our locally entrenched schools is not going to be easy or perhaps even feasible by grand design and definitive legislation.  Seeking some tighter alliance of local schools with more enlightened future higher education assets, may be a better vehicle of reform than dictation or legislation. 

By chance today’s WP “The Answer Sheet” featured the story of Bill Gates’ latest attempt to regroup and take another swing at improving our public schools.  Two of its core ideas along with his ‘conversion,’ from prior genuflection to bully reform to a more thoughtful model, fit some of the above.  Unfortunately, it also suggests that premature grandstanding with $1.7B, before genuine critical thought and strategizing are in place, throws up a caution flag for sole dependence on this latest Gates’ play? 

There clearly may be other theoretical models for reformulating the public system, but as the arguments above imply, solutions are spare, the task the equivalent of rebuilding a nation.  The latter has happened in world history, but the most prominent descriptor seems to be ‘very painful.'


Edunationredux is being mothballed for now, perhaps in perpetuity.  All the words that can be said have pretty much been said.  Whether they have come from this blog, from the class act The Washington Post's "The Answer Sheet" and Valerie Strauss, from legitimate education gurus like Drs. Diane Ravitch and Marion Brady, or from dozens of other writings by competent educational theorists, the assessments and ideas are far superior to those emanating from our various governmental layers.  

In this last act of this blog, the most insidious and negative feature of the last seven years of posts, is that our society, and our public education bureaucracies, and our alleged educators appear to have either forgotten, or never truly understood -- or the most pejorative -- have rejected the need to read for effect, to look forward instead of via the rear view mirror, and critically to entertain any views other than their own. 

Worth reflection in a public education universe where, in spite of the need for this capacity to drive learning sought for America's primary and secondary students, its advocates and critics can only see the points of view from their reflection in a mirror.


Saturday, October 14, 2017

Our Public Education Debacle for Dummies


In a nation characterized by diversity and complexity, technologically gifted, it is reality that solutions to its problems tend to be seen as technological, and orderly.  Choose the right algorithm, turn on the right tool, all will right itself.  

Not the stuff, however, that will resolve our nation's current political quagmire.   Nor its ongoing public school wars -- 150 year old, dug in system, versus the privatization driven model of "corporate reform."

Our public education dilemmas are very much the product of history, off course evolution, and foundational rather than tactical.

Read On

Americans in this century have become increasingly prone to go into denial about the basics that have made our world more complex, unpredictable and contentious.

That psychologically compensatory drive also takes the form of majority tinkering with or contesting the detail or trivia surrounding an issue, rather than facing the hard reality at its core.  That is a large part of the continuing battleground pitting our public school system against an odd couples assortment of those naively advocating its privatization.

Both sides of the school privatization debate are, using an old metaphor, on the water missing one oar.

Are public schools up to knowledge speed and cool?  The system is simultaneously massive, but short of our military one of the most regimented and indictrinated segments of our society.  That reflects:  A previously virtually unchallenged 150 year monopoly on K-12 learning, with known effects of monopoly; controlling unions still quietly entrenched; schools of education monolithically isolated from knowledge’s trajectories; and an individual school organizational model obsolete for at least seven decades.  Add boards of education that became obsolete on the same timetable, and this $500 billion system, with the power to tax, lacking intelligent oversight and accountability, has – overall – been ‘running on empty’ for some time.

Hence, so-called “corporate reform” finally emerges, both because of the legitimate need for a different portfolio of learning products matching technological and cultural evolution, and the delusions about markets and competition, accompanied by political ideologies festering in the US since its formation.  Those advocating privatization apparently learned their economics from a comic book – ‘competition’ is not the simplistic “invisible hand” attributed to Adam Smith nor the economic mythology of Ayn Rand. 

How real is DeVos’ declared priority of making all public schools ‘businesses?’  Consider this; if over a half century of jawboning public education to do its own reformation, enlightenment and become contemporary, has produced where we are, how without a Constitutional change will DeVos overcome that massive public education inertia to go from 95+ percent of schools public, to privatization now at less than five percent of those schools charter?  She’s as delusional as the majority of our citizens who believe their public school is “just fine,” while it’s those other public schools that need to find their bootstraps?

The rallying cry of the privateers is a phony “choice.”  K-12 is heavily constrained by geography.  Even when proximity of options occurs, it is likely today to be limited to upper socioeconomic participation or gifted child status for multiple reasons, defeating the pitch that charters will magically equalize learning.  Most of the parents hearing that false call, the miracle of choice, are also rarely equipped to intellectually assess and choose how and where their child should best be educated.  Lastly there is no winner, this is not a zero-sum game. Irony, that overwhelming majority who missed some part of critical thinking in their own development, was produced by the same schools that are allegedly “doing just fine.”

Bottom line:  Neither side to this face-off is innocent, nor has registered close to a full awareness of what they are imposing on the nation, in expanding time and costs to achieve required change, nor of the nation’s opportunity costs, as our school wars drag on.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Psyching Out the “Knot” - Part II


Counting the Ways to Fail

The stated purpose of blog two of this sequence was to explore the motivational complexes mediating the choices and behaviors of the masters of our public schools, as well as the organizations with their tentacles either in or around those systems.  It was likely misstated, because the balled up composite of diverse reasons for choices reaches massively beyond the scope of this blog; but the complexity of the mission can be painted.

Before launching blog two’s POV, the measure of alleged public school reform was taken in an excerpt from Dr. Diane Ravitch’s book, Reign of Errorlinked here.  This excerpt should be required reading for every education civilian.  Another reading of note is a speech by educator Stan Karp, “Challenging Corporate Ed Reform,” linked here.  Both citations set the scene for this blog sequel.

Initiating this post’s arguments, I stopped counting the players connected to any public school, either supporting or otherwise influencing how that system functions (see Note A).  Critical, they may or may not be a constructive influence.  Some may be resource-eaters, using school funding for interests that do not deliver the prime function, learning. Even where the diversion of assets may be minimal, the normative mission of a school can be perverted, to feed egos or personal missions. Unfortunately, even tragically, the latter two factors are probabilistically far too common in the case of public school and system superintendents lacking integrity and or competence; the same failings are even more prevalent for obsolete BOE nominally charged with providing that leadership.

It may not be overstatement to single out 50 states’ systems of elected BOE school oversight as 'the greatest failure in American public education;' putting frequently unprepared strivers who are clueless about learning, and frequently reach those seats (immune for four years to public oversight if they’re dishonest or unprepared) by manipulated nominations and sans any legitimate testing of their capacities to serve. Right behind BOE are school administrators, chosen poorly and with the wrong criteria by those same BOE.  Rapidly overtaking the priors, Betsy DeVos, who because of education ignorance, or demagoguery promoting school privatization, is trying to sell the big lie that school ‘choice’ is the equivalent of a decision about buying something in your local super, and effectively made by people who may themselves be clueless how and where their child should be educated.

Whose Reasons Matter?

The stock answer is they all do.  The realistic answers are two.  It depends on the weight of their impact, their incidence, and when in school functions that occurs.  Add if the mission is more than explanation, but prediction and calibration of inputs versus school performance, the means of acquiring that intelligence becomes a technical monster.  By that criteria, we can bypass more of the list if the issue is assessing one community's system.  The rest of the factors can be further segmented, but the highest priority operating variables are those directly effecting the classroom and achieved learning.

In terms of impact and persistence of effect the issues reduce to a school's interface with its state education bureaucracy and representation; with a BOE; the quality of a school's superintendent and principals; the distribution of motivations of the teaching corps; the presence and permitted clout of a local union; and a frequently anonymous cluster of parents or school advocates who become entrenched in school strategy and influence its management. The ignorance, integrity, and real motivations of its BOE's members, the same for the prior group, have a major impact, frequently suppressing change and improvement of a system or creating discriminatory choices.

The above impacts are rarely factored into the critique, writ large nationally, in assessments of where and why American K-12 public schools are lagging our expectations, allegedly the driving force behind 34 years of "reform" that has accomplished little except terrorizing a generation of our children, and confounding teachers with misapplied and frequently flawed mechanical testing and specious value-added logic.  Even as finite a task as arraying Maslow’s "Hierarchy of Needs" against key players' psychological needs in serving a single system, is out of reach without primary research missing for a century.

Because we have never chosen to scientifically study and measure any of these variables for even an isolated system, or for a valid sample of our 99,000 schools, or executed a census of that universe, or even consistently supported additive qualitative research, the evidence to make good judgements is missing in action.  Yet, at the lowest common denominator, understanding the functions, processes, and getting a generic model of a school is a major building block to getting smarter about what’s been created and its breakdowns.  It is not too pejorative a representation, that ‘public education as an establishment,' intellectually inbred, and self-righteous, has been the principal impediment to letting some sunlight shine on failed evolution of methods and igniting genuine reform.


In the 34 years of our public schools being flogged by reform missions, undermined by failed methods, our systems can stake one paradoxical claim to fame; in the face of the weapons aimed at them, they have persevered in following the strategic game plan that emerged from public education’s inbred evolution.  Public schools as a system became one of America’s most consistent version of common goals.  Part of that likely is the motivation of most of its critical participants — 3.2 million teachers — believing they are creating the greater good by focusing on what has come out of their education for education, and our 50 states’ striving to carry out their learning delivery missions.

Simultaneously, in those 34 years our capacities to understand neural processes — specifically learning — have expanded well beyond the school establishment’s capacity to adopt and understand it.  Hence, over enough time, the limitations of the education provided has left a learning gap triggering attempted change.  In parallel, the tools now available have begun to close on the questions, and now might become one type of fix for our schools.

The tools to study, predict, and assess are out there.  Better human resource decisions from both psychology and organizational behavior — better information bases from statistical modeling and computer size and speed — better phenomena definitions from sensing evolution — better composite modeling of education from mathematical simulation, and emerging artificial intelligence permitted by digital methods and computer processing speeds.  

If one were to lay out a research program designed to bring our public system into this century it might feature in sequence:  Sampling of our schools nationally, with the goal of using current organizational modeling to understand with greater clarity school functions and behaviors; using the prior and simulation logic plus experimentation to understand how various school properties effect classroom performance — and by doing the former build an understanding how the major factors in education influence both the total costs of our systems, and their true value-added.

Part of that value-added involves better and timely understanding of the nation’s real learning needs.  They have never been a fixed entity.  A vital need has become retreat from the naive view that every American needs to enter kindergarten preparing for a college education.  The nation’s need for skilled resources has become a silent but pervasive crisis, fed by the arrogance to assume that class equals a degree.  The assets to install and maintain our infrastructure are retiring faster than they can be replaced.  The conflation of physical skills and ‘class’ is undoing America. Our culture would benefit beyond words by the emergence of skilled craftsmen and technical resources who are equally our cultural and arts contributors.  Eric Hoffer, philosopher longshoremen, fits the niche.  A second value-added is divergent from human evolution, offsetting technology.

That step beyond has already been demonstrated by IBM in expanding the capability of its signature “Big Blue” model using AI (artificial intelligence) to address diagnostic medicine and more.  The eventual extension of that approach to school decision making could enable far more effective choices among the services that both our states and the Federal government must field in future.  These kinds of research have been either pooh-poohed or never understood by the education establishment, but as our present total establishment shivers and shakes around the US in 2017, that might optimistically be an opening to rewrite the game plan to evolve our schools, and in a more productive manner than running them through a privatization meat grinder.   Importantly when you lift the lid, charters are proving materially a 'hollow man.'

Lack of Hope?

Counterpoint is exploding the myth of public system defenders, that “running a school in a business-like fashion" is a sell-out or contradictory to best education principles.  There is a major distinction between running a K-12 school as a business, a categorically false goal, and administering a school system using contemporary management and communications theories.  The pivot in the reasoning is recognition that a school is incontestably a complex organization, subject conceptually to all of the puts and takes of that arrangement of resources set against a backdrop of a mission, strategies, tactics, information flows, human motivation and activation, and all of the principles footing use of and accounting for resources employed and their productivity.  Most school administrators, unless they have received formal education in management, et al., are clueless that those highly developed principles, along with data management and pursuit of innovation, apply to any formal school (Indiana University, finally recognizing that education deficit, has developed an MBA degree specifically for public school administrators).  Both our public school education ‘establishment,' heads in the sand, and the business universe assuming education awareness not there, have been culpable in creating still another roadblock to an education truce in our time.

Ratings of states’ schools abound in the media, many lacking much credibility, based on averages of flawed and dissimilar test scores, or teachers’ salaries, or some other simplistic metric.  The ratings may be fluff, but a major public school deficit in a paranoid and fragmenting society is the failure of our public schools to effectively communicate with their real owners.  Curiously, one of the obscured measures of public education, and surrogate of quality may be the truthful, hype-free transparency of a system’s delivery of information to its community.  In some of our genuinely excellent school systems, the operations of its leadership and BOE are delivered by CATS, by openness about all academic decisions, by the integrity of a rare BOE that pro-actively invites citizen exposure to a board’s deliberations versus cover-ups, and by regular presentation to the community of briefings or competent publication of a system’s operations.  This mission rarely is served by the frequently amateurish and hyped ad hoc newsletters that issue, reliance on gossip, or reliance on many of the press ill-prepared to deal with education issues.

There was a rather harrowing episode of the popular TV series, “Blue Bloods,” where one of the ‘family’ was in jeopardy from internal corruption.  A breakthrough comes with the comment of the assistant commissioner, to an investigator, sotto voce.  The series writers created a memorable albeit folksy punch line, but it fits here:  "The bluebird of happiness may be in your own backyard.”

A more formal statement of that concept is a major principle of contemporary organizational design:  Where operations are at the boundary of an organization, keep the supporting decision making close to their execution consistent with the capacity of the human resources tasked.  This aligns with a proposed reform of the early 20th century and obsolete 'production model' of our schools, to put learning initiatives in the hands of the teachers in the classroom, and school decision making close to the community rather than in state bureaucracies. Conversely, the concern with the concept of putting oversight of an increasingly technology-driven school system in hands of a traditional BOE may have far more to do with the capacity of that oversight than its basic principle.

Ends and Means?

The US needs a new institution, the educational equivalent of the public accounting and auditing firm.  A collaboration of our state leaderships, their universities and colleges, and appointed action groups with the authority to take apart and reassemble local systems, then become their resident oversight and advisory source of school strategic direction.   Return full executive leadership of a school to a new brand of education administration, resources provided dual expertise in learning science and management, professionally recruited and vetted, subject to the prior auditing function.  Trash the amateur BOE, but make ‘local control’ a meaningful narrative.

The US needs a major rethinking of most of its schools of education.  For a long time, the impression offered by our universities has been that they either do not value a school of education — a simmering conflict between the self-righteousness of ‘higher’ education, and the consequent resentment among primary and secondary educators for their lower status assignment. Or they lack the courage to internally reform those schools, perhaps fearful that to start the process might spread by popular demand to other disciplines overdue for modernization.  Our increasingly endowment-driven, socially irresponsible, and technologically lagging B-schools are one example; the last time they were critically reviewed and amended was 1960; over a half century appears a reasonable waiting period for the responsibility to resurface?

Another basis for creeping forward with options for needed reform of our public systems — not present versions of "corporate reform” — may be addressing the decades of overlooked organizational issues, and redesign of the basic primary/secondary schools' organization. Remodeling of its formulas for self-governance and work seem way overdue, perhaps over half a century?  A blog to be considered.

Lastly, while seemingly dwarfed by organizational and human resource issues that root our systems on the dysfunctional side (while keeping the ship afloat has pretty much been the gift of over 3 million teachers who are 'taking care of business' even in the face of failed leadership), what happens to activate and feed learning must be assessed and reformed. That means aggressive critique of the decades of methods nonsense and allowing obsolete knowledge to dominate especially 9-12 classrooms.  The rates of change in 'knowledge,' both embryonic and that correct the mountains of learning error being supplied by our public schools, may even increase, along with the need to adopt tools wholly missing in present education for education.  Something as basic as core learning's mechanisms -- e.g., the education developments by Dr. Marion Brady, running hard against the business-as-usual splattered in our public schools, is a change need.

A late arrival, and pretty much a stake through the heart of zombie standardized testing as a basis for alleged reform of our systems, is the just issued book by Harvard testing expert, Dr. Daniel Koretz.  His book, discussed and linked here:  Daniel Koretz, The Testing Charade:  Pretending to Make Schools Better. One has to presume, a very large batch of our public school administrators needs to open the book and read something besides their own press clippings for a change.  

Meanwhile, a few million public school teachers can feel a large measure of vindication.


Note A:  The ‘players’ in public education, an abbreviated list:  POTUS; US Secretary of Education; its cast of anonymous bureaucrats; Congress, House & Senate committees and the whole; the National Governors Association; its bureaucracy (which incidentally consists heavily of education novices with MBAs); American Legislative Exchange Council (a lobbying and spear point for hard right-wing efforts); the Business Roundtable, that was a force in creating our standardized testing scams and misdirection of public school reform; National Education Association; American Federation of Teachers; state superintendents; state educational bureaucrats; state boards of education (not typically packages of intellect and objectivity, and typically riddled with political objectives and control); postsecondary schools of education; their university parental leaderships; local BOE in 50 states; local school administrators; those ubiquitous but typically anonymous teachers, our only real 'worker bees;’ local school non-teaching bureaucracies creeping up on more bodies than in the classrooms, contributing far less; local civic organizations, peddlers of school mascot gear; local business on rare occasions knowledgeable about learning but primarily when it is a profit opportunity; local training consortia now trendy, and on occasion staffed with human resources with more background than some machines' operations; state textbook boards pushing ideological solutions; textbook publishers, marginally discriminating in recruiting competent textbook writers, motivated primarily by the bottom line; test publishers and test processing, with even fewer ethics and greater profit thirst than their textbook divisions; every foundation with an ideological agenda; unnumbered billionaires who dabble in education without a clue what they’ve wrought; an assorted small army of true education scholars, but lacking the organization to make a difference; startups, e.g., Teach for America, both intellectually and motivationally flawed; Bill Gates and Eli Broad, who need both an education and a new hobby; parental interest groups, typically narrow-topic driven, and frequently clueless what an education system should be; the school board associations with more interest in power than education; our courts when episodically drawn into shaping schools’ functions in interpreting our education laws and disputes; and lastly, any curious local taxpayer with the smarts to know and employ a state’s ‘open records’ laws to petition a school system for transparency.