Monday, February 13, 2017

America's Public Schools: Dead Man Walking?

Dr. Ron Willett
13 February 2017


America’s public schools' massive culture is complicated.  Unfortunately, even in this mushrooming era of “big data” our government has never sought to gather sufficient data on public K-12 to tell its truth, or make a difference in assessing it.

At the same time, public schools have historically democratized the learning that supports a democratic and free society, but also have become by self-righteousness and being inwardly directed, a cocoon wrapped around last century’s knowledge and reams of alleged rules for educating that grew up in ignorance of how genuine learning happens. The perpetuation of this culture via increasingly obsolete teachers colleges and schools of education, and inept and politicized state education apparat, has set up present conflict. The real world is that most of public education, even our best, in spite of 33 years of assault by "corporate reform,” is still in denial that their intransigence and intellectual failures precipitated that clumsy and punitive reform.

It is still lost on most of our public that many of them are equally responsible, by permitting the creation of ignorant, poorly prepared, ideologically driven, and even corrupt boards of education as the only real check and balance on how learning happens where there are teaching boots on the ground.  Of all elected offices in the U.S., BOE stand out as the least responsibly elected, tested and accountable.  Most aren’t subject to recall; many become so arrogant and able to deflect transparency that they can’t be insulted or shamed into exiting after malfeasant performances.  The failure of our states to reform BOE requirements to serve may well be the proverbial key log that is finally crashing America’s grand universal education experiment.

It shouldn’t be lost on a perceptive reader that what is bringing our public model of education onto the rocks is also systemic.  A century of slowly degraded public models of learning has created most of the very population that would have had to recognize the potentials for failure; those learning failures beget the failure to be able to assess environments, processes, and values, and what now laps at parental doorsteps. It has to be argued as well that the decades of "corporate reform's" thrusts circle back to our public systems’ failures to possess the intellectualism and invention to recognize that they were burying themselves in, and thereby re-broadcasting obsolete knowledge as alleged education.

Large scale systems can and do reverse and repair their rips and craters; but pivotal in that capability is whether the critical environments within which they operate, and the core explanatory models that predestine performance, stay relatively stable.  Change the underlying concept of what we’re about, of why things actually work, and systems’ capacities for restoration of various equilibriums go berserk.

And that is what may well be coming down the chute, aiming point blank at America’s public K-12 systems, that have ignored too long the tsunami of core technological change brought about by over a half century of innovation curing and scaling up in labs, and entrepreneurial garages, and in the largest corporate enclaves.  To the naive, this mass of strange unfamiliar products and processes built out of zeroes and ones, or particles/forces they can’t see, appears to be sci-fi or from a comic book. But as the "internet of things" demonstrates, basic knowledge and advanced technology really don't ask the permission of the average citizen if they can burst forth.

Present “reform” may be the very least of U.S. public education’s problems in 2017.  Today’s Edunationredux blog addresses a few of the possible implications for U.S. public education of unprecedented technology now rapidly emerging in this society.

Current Point of Crisis

With the prospect of Spring on the horizon, a sense of renewal around the future corner, businesses, institutions, even families traditionally move their focus in February to at least near term futures.  It is normally a month lacking excitement, delivering more ‘cabin fever’ than a sense of opportunity.  But by virtue of the normal silence, a chance to think and plan.

Segue to 2017; a nation scrambling to find some middle ground.  A White House providing the gravitas of a third-rate reality show, punctuated by commercially driven ethical lapses, ‘alternative facts,’ haphazard directives, and the nasty divisions that prevailed in November 2016 now even more virulent.  Cap that off with human resources nominated to lead this nation you might not relish occupying even local government, or gracing your next dinner party.  Poisoning the education component of our nation, the forced acceptance of DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education temporarily set a new low.

DeVos is a potential threat to our 100,000 public schools, and 3.5 million public school teachers.  Even more threatening, her past actions in promoting, thoughtlessly, privatization of public schools, backed by the ignorance and illogic of our POTUS, goes further than either Bush or Obama in being an existential threat to the very notion of ‘public system.’ What is not clear is how much of the now multi-pronged threat environment surrounding public education is just DeVos/Trump, versus public education’s own dysfunction, versus our private sector’s idiosyncratic abandonment of clear thinking and invocation of a false and ridiculous logic for public education reform?

When you intensively inspect and tease apart the issues that have brought our public systems from a zenith of popularity mid-20th century, to being under attack from all sides, and now lapsing into the last couple of decades of denial, a conclusion is that they are heavily responsible for their own vulnerability. But in the vernacular of the day, ‘it’s complicated,’ and our society has itself lapsed into an unthinking mode splattered with delusions and attention spans of the immature.  But there’s a branch in this road that has reached a point of evolution making all of the reform rhetoric potentially moot, and our public systems per our subject line, a potential “dead man walking.”


Firms, institutions, congresses, parliaments, governments alike can become so internally focused or committed to some deeply invested history, that two major forces occur.  Either the very environmental basis for all of that structure is just assumed to be stable or advancing discreetly and therefore projectable, or the entire notion of futures fades into the background, and what is selectively perceived as the settings for all choice is only what the actors see in front of them.  Certainly there are parts of this earth where there are or have been long periods of relatively calm even glacial change.  Further complicating seeing the future is what is termed "punctuated equilibrium," the major event that changes the composite landscape but that was unanticipated, and for which there was never a contingency plan.  One author terms such an event a “black swan,” happens but never anticipated.  Consequently the whole notion of predicting the future of a swath of human activity is frequently seen as hopeless, or naive, the stuff of sci-fi, but not the solid grist of our reality that we can see or feel, or offering a place to plant a foot.

The U.S. has for over a half century precipitated technology revolutions, perhaps aside from once moral leadership and support of the mechanisms of individual freedom, its historical contribution to civilization as we know it.  Easily forgotten when one becomes jaded witnessing the outpouring of American invention over decades, all of that innovation and technology had a birth, an adolescence, and a slog to maturity called "the experience curve.”  A companion function is referred to as "scaling,” meaning the creators of this technology had to find the formula to make it work in counts of millions and up, rather than just the proof of concept in a laboratory environment.  Technology that can be scaled is not a given, it must go through another development cycle.   The point of this trip down technology lane is that long technology gestation periods can lull decision makers and institutions into believing their methods and tools won’t be challenged on their watch.

Coming Down the Pipeline

American education, especially our highly structured and inward-looking public school system, has been vulnerable for a long time to disruptive innovation.  What has slowed and blocked it is the sheer mass and once credible history of public education’s long trek from occasional to mandatory schooling for the nation’s children.  The second factor keeping our public model alive is the core of what education is all about; not the cute inventions of materials and gambits that inhabit today’s classrooms, but the truth of 3,000 years of how civilization fostered learning, via that almost magic interaction between the teacher or master, and the student or apprentice.  A constant supportive background historically has been the steady but not explosive change in knowledge that footed early learning.  With WWII that changed.

All discovery since has developed as in a pressure tank simply percolating until pretty much formed it has exploded on our society.  We like to think it is incremental, that what we know is sufficient to sense and grasp what’s coming along.  It isn’t without embracing new models, new assessments, and retooling.  In this emerging milieu U.S. public education hunkered down in the apparent belief that if they simply followed the classic education lore and guidelines all would adjust.  It might have, we’ll never know.  For an American business society flexing and growing in size and complexity, and in sophistication, finally discovered they were being delivered unacceptable human resource products by our public schools.  Public education was still living in the 20th century, while American business was being forced to confront the opportunities for and threats to business success of the 21st century.  A major theme that finally cut across every aspect of business among the top 1,000 U.S. corporations was "corporate reform.”  Simultaneously there was commercial digital reinvention of just about every process and marketable output, all demanding modified human resources.

American public education missed the basic heartbeat of the digital revolution.  It misinterpreted the tsunami as the need for computers, or pads, or electronic boards, or whatever gadget was trendy, instead of a basic and profound change in how knowledge is found, expressed, processed, funded, employed, and extended.  Digital logic is now not just another point of view, but the core raw material of every aspect of future knowledge.  It doesn’t make any difference if the raw materials are cells, or polymers, some other arrangement of molecules, or data, if you can’t quantify it nothing happens.  The stuff that unthinking educators and school boards still see as sci-fi, and a basis for rolling their eyes, is close to wiping out conventional wisdom.  The terms “big data,” “machine learning,” “artificial intelligence,” “robotics,” “Big Blue,” are now realities starting to poke their muscular functions right through traditional organization of work.  In the space of just a few years all of the above have started to replace not just the manufacturing jobs of the mid-70s that were decimated by automation, but are targeting the jobs once seen safe, white collar, thinking employment.  In fact, some of these models are challenging human brains for supremacy.

Collision in Two Parts

Two massive movements in civilization’s track record have finally begun to collide:  One, the relentless march of knowledge updating and creation that evolved simply because knowledge begets knowledge (along with techniques that support its discovery and verification); and two, discovery that zeroes and ones can be made to capture and manipulate everything that evolved in softer form as language and graphic representations of reality.  Living within the beast that has been expanding exponentially is deceiving.  In a way the inhabitants are insulated to an extent by the other world being sown and grown. Specialists for a time are the keepers of the digital zoo, and don’t interact fluidly with the non-digital societal clusters.  But when all the threads start to converge the game changes.  Sci-fi becomes science reality, and science reality gets teeth that first gnaw at how we think, then swallow it. One prominent digital age guru also in a heady fraction of our income one percent, said it:  “Software eats everything.”

Consider just a small patch of what is now being documented for those prepared and not too fearful to look, starting with the contrast with what we presently pathetically bill as K-12 education versus the knowledge that conceptually has to be spanned and absorbed to keep the pace.  For example:  The knowledge doubling curve.  “Buckminster Fuller created the “Knowledge Doubling Curve”; he noticed that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today things are not as simple as different types of knowledge have different rates of growth.  For example, nanotechnology knowledge is doubling every two years and clinical knowledge every 18 months. But on average human knowledge is doubling every 13 months. According to IBM, the build out of the 'internet of things' will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours.”

In digital terms the trajectory and present state are even more pronounced. "The BBC reports on an article in Science about scientists who calculate that the sum of all the world’s data is 250 exabytes; that can be expressed as 10 raised to the 18th power."   Put this in perspective against our universe. Multiplying the number of galaxies — which is about 2 trillion — by the 100 million stars in the galaxy suggests there could be about 10 raised to the 19th power stars in the universe.  So the process marches on, but in this decade what we now call knowledge is close to exceeding the stars in our universe and may soon eclipse that. Even speculation is revealing — how many magnitudes of change have public school textbooks (controlled for decades by states’ ideologies, and a textbook mafia) experienced in even decades, versus the explosion of knowledge in the briefest current periods of history?

Oh yeah the skeptic snaps.  But those are just digits, knowledge is far richer and textured.  Is it?  Try playing a chess game with IBM’s Big Blue, or diagnosing the presence of cancer in a patient, using thousands of bits of real world reporting of cases and diagnoses, or in real places in 2017 seeing an entire enterprise run by robotic logic and execution.
The other piece of a divide between assumed reality — that paper textbook or lesson plan in a 9-12 classroom — versus the swarm of data coming out of thousands of journals fed buy thousands of researchers covering virtually very facet of human knowledge, is that what used to be assumed right is now likely wrong.  Call it the half-life of existing knowledge:  Half of what we are teaching in public schools is probably wrong, and our educators have not been trained or recruited for the capacity to upgrade that knowledge.  As the arrow of time moves on, even the half assumed right, with ever more knowledge production, is likely proven half wrong, and on.  Couple this with the continuing more quiet percolation to maturity of substitutes for the traditional classroom in especially the secondary grade bands and first rounds of higher education. (MOOCs for example haven’t disappeared but like all technology are working there way up the experience curve — ditto for self-administered and extra-classroom digitally-based learning.)

An aggressive but not unrealistic conclusion about our present public schools is, that even the very best of the genre is close to being an obsolete modality to prepare an upcoming population of workers and decision makers.  Public education has no one to blame save its own internal failure to search and grow.  In parallel, the obsolescence of what our systems still contend is knowledge may well mean that our entire fabric of what is learned, and how, needs to be reformulated.  That, however, may still not exhaust the bad news.

Part Two:  Non-Humans Only Being Hired

In the last few years two events have unfolded with many of our citizens missing the beat:  One, the combination of computer/cloud capacities, the refinement of machine learning, the practical emergence of the holy grail of decision science, “artificial intelligence,” and the rapid takeover of what’s termed “big data” as a research device, have all started to bleed together to challenge large chunks of the jobs currently being done by humans.  Two, the notion that it is immigrants that have ripped off most American jobs is myth, ignorance of what American technology has invested for much of a century.  In reality:  Our corporate business universe started the snowball in the mid-70s, with exploitation of investment tax credits, to “automate” manufacturing.  And they truly did, essentially sending millions of factory jobs to oblivion (if this stretches credulity for you, tune into a contemporary Canadian TV series titled “How It’s Made;” the reality becomes transparent).  To no one’s credit, research at the time revealed that, though automation dramatically increased U.S. corporate productivity and profits, our brainy executive suites gave zero thought to what those displaced workers would do.

What they did was more luck than smart government.  The prosperity and middle class wealth being created at the time translated into a massive and growing service sector that in the aggregate helped absorb that manpower.

Fast forward to 2017.  AI, big data, and robotics are merging to create work suites capable of replacing white collar jobs that have repetitive operations, and even creative components.  They can replace humans in service assignments.  They can write full news stories, compose music, and design art.  Before popping a neuron, the robots referenced are not the comic book robots of fiction, but systems that contain machine learning algorithms and can duplicate human performance, sans wages, medical insurance, time off, and all other benefits.  They don’t take breaks, and they don’t picket.  As it turns out, thinking in an effective sense isn’t a  machine barrier anymore.  We are miles away from creating an artificial brain based on the actual behavior of neurons, synapses, et al., but it doesn’t matter.  If the right stuff goes in, and the right stuff comes out, if productivity soars, and you don’t have to pay human wages, will the system favor flesh and blood?  It hasn’t yet.

The current best estimates by genuine expertise about what will happen to future jobs our schools mistakenly think they’re preparing students to get, are that by 2025 there will be 25 percent fewer human-based jobs — this includes white collar and tech — and by 2035 that loss factor may be as high as 50 percent. For what mission do we then educate the next full generation of elementary/secondary students launching in 2018 or so, and hitting the job market in 2030?  Public education may also want to start seeking rent-paying alternatives for their present physical plants.

Early ‘April Fool,' Right

Human nature is to head quickly into denial of some or all of the above. Fiction.  As an old classroom stomper for some quarter century, I confess these are unnerving assertions.  It would be far more comfortable to believe that time’s arrow will do a reversal, and the good old days of still unfocused and benign students, not too demanding, occasionally performing and elevating your spirits, will again assert itself.  Software product life cycles wouldn't be measured in hours or minutes.  Not in the cards.  What should be in near term mission statements of human resources still assigned great responsibility for learning, is the quest to take in the views, and data, and assessments, and reasoning, and predictions of an army of the human resources that think about these issues.

One just revealed example of the speed of technological change, a speeding up that challenges the civilian to do a reality check to make sure they haven't dropped through Alice's 'rabbit hole,' was just reported in the world journal Nature.   It is being proposed that the holy grail of computing, "quantum computing," using thousands instead of a few "qubits," could be built right now, enabling computing power unmatched in our history.  The resulting 'box' would be the rough size of a football field, but there is apparently no roadblock save funding preventing the development.

There is surprisingly an ancient remedy for developing the backgrounds, and instincts, and tools to deal with our next decades of societal planning and prodding.  It is called ‘reading.’  Many talk about it, and many don’t do it, including egregiously many especially public elementary and secondary educators.  Here are a few current works that elaborate the above arguments. What is important to register is that these highly rated and coherent materials increasingly are coming from human resources who are not only intellectually competent but practicing the science for profit, and they're increasingly telling exactly the same story.

Some Starter References

Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable:  Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, Viking.

Alec Ross, The Jobs of the Future, Simon & Schuster.

Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots:  Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Basic Books.  ("2015 Business Book of the Year" Award Winner)

SCIENCE, 3 February 2017.  SPECIAL ISSUE, “What can we know in advance about human activities?”  PP. 469-489.

There are many other references of merit; repeating what’s important is that there’s increasing consensus among the credible researchers and authors about the futures factors that are likely to impact our educational systems, and even their finer points.

Game On

A bit frivolous to capsulate the complex messy issue of what happens to America’s public schools of over 190 years as ‘game on,’ but in a real sense that is where history has dealt our hand.  Consider that all of the many puts and takes that have pummeled our public schools for 33 years since the inception of what became “corporate reform,” are coming home to roost.  Betsy DeVos, over the massive objections of the human resources who know anything about education, is now empowered to pursue whatever mission she sees.  Total mystery what that is at the moment.  The standardized testing grinch is momentarily stilled, but its negative effects on real learning are still deeply entrenched, and the corporations profiteering by continuing to use every ploy to keep cranking out testing won’t back off short of full bore assault by proper government; that isn’t going to come out of the present White House. Most of our public education establishment, from legitimate teachers at one pole, to too many power mongering and unethical administrators at an opposite pole, hasn't shifted enough to change anything, including reducing the denial that our systems are heavily their own worst enemy.

What is its fate:  “Dead man walking” if a political maelstrom is orchestrated to attack the core idea of K-12 as a public system and good? What is scary is a fascist school model, all present schools converted into poorly overseen charters, eventually competing with each other for public tax dollars, lacking the controls on learning achievement and ethics in asset use.  Almost equally scary is the less extreme option of a quarter to a third of all public schools converted to charters, also rolling religious myth back into alleged learning, but with the chaotic redeployment of tax dollars that would destabilize decades of present school resource allocation, apparently with little community recourse to appeal results that were destructive.  What is clear are the hypocritical and demagogic appeals being employed to try to sell privatization by continuously mouthing, 'but it’s choice.'  Reality is that present charter illogic makes such conversions a zero-sum game for ordinary Americans who will have no voice in redistribution of their taxes paid.  That is not ‘choice.'

There appears no present force that can intercept the naive, simplistic view that by privatizing a K-12 education, some never explained mythological transformation via Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” will suddenly create a new era of learning.  As a former business professor, student of markets, and student of American and world business for over six decades, that simply rates the assessment — stupidity.  Not as questionable however, if this had been the thrust of business-driven public schools, would have been forcing into public education the knowledge collegiate education schools never self-discovered, adopted or installed, the rich theory and practice around development of organizational design and behavior, and the entire discipline that created firms capable of managerial excellence in achieving both short and long term mission objectives.  Our public systems into 2017 are overall still blundering incompetents in terms of using contemporary organizational design and decision processes to plan, execute and assess within their missions.

Public or Private Sector

The astute reader will pick up on a thread woven among these paragraphs; that neither is present U.S. public school structure seen as viable in our future, nor are vouchers and simplistic charter renderings of public schools seen as a way to improve the game.  What are the options?

Another day, another big data exploration, but one elephantine hypothesis is that our public schools could be successfully privatized as a universe, if there were major assumption changes.  Education in the Constitution belongs to our states.  Lots of ifs and buts, but if our system was seen structured as 50 public-private corporations, by state, using most of the present teaching human resources, but creating competent administrative ranks, driven by business values and principles, with a totally modern school organizational model instead of the 19th century’s, with school-by-school oversight jointly by accomplished executives paired with representatives of a state’s colleges/universities, overseen by a national congress of states’ public-private education partnerships, there might be a chance?

Miles to go to sort out the proposal, but a scheme that might merit thought experiments and conceptual testing.  Alternately, maybe former House Speaker and Buckeye, John Boehner was right, when he frequently intoned (paraphrased):  ‘If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas in edu-land.’  Maybe Mr. Boehner was right more than any of us knew in seeing a society broken and cranky...

-- Blog Transmittal -- 

TO:        Edunationredux Learning Community

DATE:   13 February 2017

Good morning.

Yes, the DeVos train wreck is coming, but it may get lost in the perfect storm.

Not news to anyone not oblivious to America’s love-hate relationship with our almost two-century old public school labyrinth — of ever-escalating taxes, pockets of genuine learning excellence, juxtaposed against dismal low-income and discriminatory urban systems, disguised incompetence of rural schools, physical plant and sports excess precedence over learning, schools of education becoming culturally isolated islands, and the blend of near-sainthood of a large fraction of dedicated teachers versus the conflicting large fraction of pseudo-educators lacking proper training dominating school administration with self-interest and power trips — public education is still under attack.

A simple pointed example of why our public systems are still drawing fire is playing out in Indiana’s current Legislature.  Its school spending has exceeded inflation in five of the last six years, but simultaneously "...more of the new money has gone to operations and overhead than to classrooms.”  This in spite of a major effort earlier this century to emphasize the goals of increasing that dollar fraction directly supporting the classroom, plus former Governor Mitch Daniels’ effort a decade ago to make it possible for systems to join together to cut the costs of various services.  By last year the ratio of dollars going to the classroom “...had dropped to 57 percent.”  In spite of the self-evident attention of anyone who has successfully managed a corporate enterprise, Indiana local systems simply offered evidence that they were indifferent to, or unwilling to exercise the discipline to meet the need for spending reform.

It is hard to even conceptualize school leadership so naive, or so arrogant, that after decades of attempted reform, they simply offer in-your-face refusals to seek to meet stated public needs to change the game in favor putting their public dollars into instruction rather than empire building.  There is major realization highlighted by this anecdote — American public school leadership has probably never in this century had either its educational or operating functions ‘professionally managed’ where the rubber meets the road!
The latest tactical assault is of course the appointment of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education; seemingly her qualifications for that post being her husband’s billions from plugging Amway products, and a destructive path of unaccountable charters through Michigan’s K-12 systems.  But DeVos may prove to be a minor inconvenience for our public systems, compared to the strategic shifts starting to roil the need for and shape of public learning.

Present “reform” may be the very least of U.S. public education’s problems in 2017.  Today’s Edunationredux blog addresses a few of the possible implications for public education of unprecedented technology now rapidly emerging in this society, linked here.



      Ron Willett  

Dr. Ronald Willett
New Bremen, OH