Monday, March 23, 2015

Proposal to St. Marys SMCSD BOE


DATE:   11 March 2015 


SUBJ:   Proposal/Contribution

As a byproduct of two recent experiences and some history — working on some generic public school issues now challenging public education, and revisiting recently contemporary material on measuring a public school’s capacity for excellence — I have a request and offer. 

That is, to present this memo, the appended proposal, and appended supporting material to your BOE. The full proposal is documented with the attached pdf files including one for this memo of transmission. Repetitive of that information, but for perspective, what is offered is free consulting — design, execution, analysis, and interpretation, along with personal donation of the dollar costs of any materials or royalties required to execute the proposal to assess SMCSD performance. 

The offer and project are to assess a public system’s capacities for K-12 excellence, including delivery of technology to teachers and students, various teacher and administrator self-assessments, and teachers’ assessments of both the system and its administration and oversight. 

The reason for offering this is timely.  It is clear and documented that the standardized testing approach resulting from NCLB has both failed, and is creating exponentially growing disenchantment among both its target students and teachers, and parents.  When the cracks in the bureaucratic dogmatism supporting these tactics become a chasm, political pushback may quickly diminish that testing. 

The issue is, that in the absence of some new initiatives to maintain assessment of systems, there will be an unacceptable gap.  What should fill that void is some variant of what I am proposing, measurement of system attributes with methods already out there, pretty much pretested, and with results from other schools that offer benchmarks.

I will likely also make this same offer to New Bremen’s BOE, but in spite of the greater number of college degrees represented on that board, there may be a smaller chance of recognition that a BOE serves an area’s children first, and only then some of the other motivations and agendas that can dominate a BOE.  One would have to be intellectually impaired to argue that SMCSD needs no pulls on its bootstraps to crank up its excellence and standing in Ohio.  But it is hardly alone, even where false quality flags have been hoisted to try to shield a system’s learning practices from inspection. 

The place you start with those bootstraps, whether in a business or a school, is with a solid baseline understanding of where you are; using proper social science measurements versus hunch, opinion, squat-and-squint, or too frequently with denial or bias that represents self-serving judgment. 

There is another dimension to this process not expressed, that is, the self-assessment of a BOE and the efficacy of its operations.  A BOE poses a problem. In professional organizational assessment I have been involved in, as both subject and direction, this appears best accomplished out of the business/institutional environment, staged to allow non-competitive and non-confrontational conversation, and takes time and confidentiality.  Obviously this poses a problem for a public body, which is why it doesn’t get accomplished with the same dexterity as in business, and why the public sector can trip over their own feet. Likely the only way to do this with a BOE would be one-on-one sessions that are genuine in-depth interviews.  Would take some guts on the part of a board, and some trust that what is subsequently pieced together represents a true picture.  It’s also very hard work for both subject and the interviewer, and demands introspection, humility, and honesty.  Not recommending this but offer the observations for reflection. 

I would appreciate a timely up or down position on the present offer.  If down, no fault; that puts the issue squarely on the adopted and accepted values of your BOE.  I make no value appraisals of that, and the resolution is between the board member and her/his conscience and respect for the oath taken. 

Lastly, another reason for this offer goes back a ways. What few people know is that 60 years ago the St. Marys’ retail market was the subject of a research effort and my masters thesis at Miami University, made financially possible because a dozen accomplished high school students from SMCS, with a school sign off, expedited with help from The Evening Leader’s editor, became my market research and survey crew, doing a professional job of completing several hundred personal interviews with area households. Even at the time and with the naiveté of optimism in all things, this was over the top and appreciated…(-: 

As you know, my services since being in universities for a quarter century have been in corporate places where you decide, and act, and are accountable.  I know many school systems, and frequently with justification, are snarled in debate because of having diverse stakeholders.  However, as this is a free offer, I count my committed time and assets as subject to hard assessment, hence an answer with minimum delay. 

If you need more than what is appended, obviously don’t hesitate to call. 

Best regards, 

      Ron Willett
      New Bremen


Project for Measurement of Public System Excellence
Dr. Ronald Willett, March 2015. All rights reserved. 


The standardized testing of NCLB has now been shown to have been ineffective, in addition to resulting in misdirection of many classroom and student learning approaches, misuse of time, and distorted learning priorities. The opt out parental choices, and professional educator critiques of the testing are accelerating, with the likely result that there will be political pressure to reduce the testing.  ESEA may even be gutted if even for the wrong reasons. An issue is, that if that action occurs, there will likely be a gap in adopting alternative assessments of public school performance. There are however already out there measures of school performance/properties that can be employed to get a better reading of a system's potential for excellence than present testing. 


To, applied to SMCS, and as a free consulting offer, assemble, provide, administer, and analyze some of the existing social science measurement of factors shaping a school's potential for excellence. 

The factors include:  Selective present school metrics; selective student performance metrics — specifically excluding standardized test results; appraisal of both teaching and administrative human resource backgrounds and subsequent development; what is termed school climate or culture, based on survey instruments; what are termed teacher and administrator beliefs, attitudes, and practices using existing survey tools; and survey of teacher and administrative assessment of technology assets and their application, and any other preferred support assets specific to the system. 


Target for survey measurement is the end of the present term, but before human resources have scattered for the summer, with results available tentatively, and with some lead time, to the BOE prior to the Fall term. 


Most of the proposed paper and pencil survey tools are in existence, pre-tested, and many have been used enough times to extract some norms. Whether a system is compared with others is largely irrelevant because the results can be used to infer where there are weaknesses to be addressed, or where performance is par or above, or where there may be potentials for innovation in learning objectives or rubrics. 

Some of the instruments may require purchase or royalty payments, and for this single exercise the offer is for the consultant to personally fund those. 

All refinements of, development of, or licensing of measurement instruments from this project would become the exclusive property of the consultant. 

All data subsequently created, and their interpretations would become the sole property of the SMCSD BOE. 


Consistent with best managerial practice, the BOE would be briefed on all aspects of the assessment, provided the instruments to be employed, and the likely analyses of results to be used, all in advance of execution. 

All measurements of individual responses would need to be anonymous, used only when aggregated. 

The consultant would complete a confidentiality agreement with the BOE, assuring that no results or their interpretations could be used in publication or made public without BOE consent. 

The BOE is responsible for determining whether subsequent findings are to be shared with the system's personnel, or with the community; although, as a matter of principle, transparency is advised and favors getting the results out to the stakeholders, including the public, to produce changes in behavior. 

One caveat: Any attempt by the BOE, or any system employee, to manipulate the measurements or results, or to censor data or findings, or to suppress legitimate findings, will result in the immediate cancellation of participation by consultant, and of responsibility for any ongoing work by the consultant, with consultant held harmless for any completed or remaining part of the mission. 

Resource Commitment 

Open as yet; however, a rough estimate is that the total subject survey stages of the process would consume maximally a day of time and focus. Depending on the system's internal data systems, and the quality of metrics already employed to assess both students and teachers, that phase of the project might require administrative coaching and some investment in processing.  TBD. 

Project Extensions 

In some full scale efforts, both students and parents have been included.  This engages a different level of research, including permissions, more preparation, more expenditure, and additional issues of confidentiality and feedback.  There is no question that level of input can inform a system on strategic as well as tactical needs, but it is at much higher cost for both assets needed and human resource hours inputted.  A suggestion is, that may be a project for another day, and after the above core measures can be viewed and digested. 


No firm number on dollars needed subject to assessing the instruments, but a rough guess is that needed tools will require up to $5K investment from the consultant. 

System compliance is required with all necessary requests for school data that is not covered by statutory administrator, teacher, or student confidentiality requirements.  Best efforts to employ needed system data are a condition of both initiating and continuing the project. 


There is a good deal of staff work to prepare for the window described. So prompt decision is needed on whether the project is seen with merit by this BOE. Caveats are that the final measures and instruments are likely not available for complete review without the start-up work, and that considerable effort won't be invested without BOE commitment.

However, again, the process will be open and fully accessible to the BOE. Once dollar expenditures are started by the consultant the project will be considered ongoing and barring the demise of the consultant (-:) will be considered non cancellable.  Depending on the expressions of good faith from your BOE, open whether some incurred cost recovery needs to be built in if system-induced lack of cooperation should sidetrack the project. 

Outcomes and Risk 

With the provisions for non-disclosure except with BOE concurrence, there isn't a high degree of risk in the effort.  Risks that are latent are:  Objections from the teachers' union, that should be addressed by full and honest disclosure and the request for that cooperation; concerns from the teachers who see this as intrusive or a threat, managed by being up front,
with full briefing on the goals, process, and handling of all findings including anonymity; and the technical issue of whether written permissions are necessary from survey recipients to eliminate any liability for either the BOE or the consultant. 

This process goes well beyond the internal assessments used by most small systems, but it also has the potential of giving a school's oversight and administration the awareness to get it right a higher percent of the time in crafting human resource, development, and asset acquisition and deployment strategies. 

One example is something that appears to some vague or theoretical, but is not.  That is what are termed teacher and administrative "beliefs."  Normally you discover these only by accident or when organizational behavior bad stuff hits the fan, as the saying goes. But research has demonstrated that those beliefs are usually not obvious, are complex, are difficult to adjust, but directly influence both behavior in the classroom as well as the management of system resources.  Clearly better understanding beliefs and attitudes about what your school and learning are all about gives you a leg up in carrying out your responsibilities.  This is one case where a pound of good measurement is really worth a ton of ex post remediation. 


Because considerable digging and assessment are required to carry this off, the suggestion is that a decision about going ahead needs to happen by end of March. 

Contingency planning: If roadblocks develop through no fault of the system, or the work needed to pull this off threatens the target window at the end of the term, a low loss alternative would be to reschedule the behavioral measurements for a period just prior to start of the Fall term. 

Rather than running into the legalities of some Ohio BOE meeting requirements, if approved by the BOE, the recommendation is a small working group, less than a BOE majority, be named to coordinate internal needs, be advocates and troubleshoot cooperation issues, and receive the interim briefings on progress on the project. 

RPW, 3/11/2015 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

How the Testing Grinch Hijacked Learning

Part A

Every US public school student, and their parents, by now have experienced the joys of NCLB’s standardized testing.  Think of it as how the testing grinch hijacked learning.

An answer is a twisted path, but the only way to enlightenment.  So let’s assume you overhear the séance of a concerned parent with the departed spirits of two architects of our public schools, Horace Mann and John Dewey…

Parent:  Horace and John, please, help me!  Why is some massive “corporate reform” movement beating up our children and teachers in public schools you created?

HM & JD:  Good morning; while we try to avoid your current society, especially your Congress, we’ll make an exception.  Recognize that I, John the humanist, and fellow spirit Horace, more authoritarian, come philosophically from different places – like your present Congress – but we still communicate with harmony.

To your question, why?  Four reasons:  (1) Because what we call the “nanny state” now trusts neither you, nor your teachers to prepare your children for life and work; (2) because your “advanced” society apparently believes all children are manufactured products needing to hew to a common knowledge mold; (3) because some segment of your society believes learning can be expressed as a “metric” (not fully understood, though one of us invented the "Dewey Decimal System” for libraries); and (4) because something called the Business Roundtable, and a person labeled a CEO from an IBM, once decided your schools weren’t adequately preparing their future employees.

Parent:  Whoa, I’m deeply offended.  You are saying we are failed parents?  Are you saying our public schools – that both of you helped configure – are failing?  Are you saying our leaders don’t trust us?

HM & JD:  Unfortunately, precisely.  What was the last non-fiction book on learning you read, or last adult education class you attended?  When was the last time you addressed your BOE with questions about your school’s curriculum, teacher quality or leadership; or challenged your BOE’s lack of transparency?  In fact, when was the last time you demanded BOE candidates answer some real education questions before their election.

Parent:  Really hurtful, but reform is working, right, based on standardized testing?  Our kids will be able to cope with a different future?

HM & JD:  You wish to move to the heart of that matter?  Admirable.  A new arrival up here, Leonard Nimoy, aka Mr. Spock, heard us and had a logical suggestion:  Type into something called your browser and an Internet, the following inquiry:

The reference is a brief but devastating critique of that testing by an extraordinary and experienced educator, originally from and taught in your Ohio, Florida’s Dr. Marion Brady.
The issue is that no amount of penalty ignorantly heaped upon your public schools, even by your White House and states, will constructively improve their capacity to deliver needed learning.  Changing the schools we envisioned must happen from the inside out, with their most important asset — your teachers — playing a crucial role.  We are baffled:  Your 21st century, sophisticated concept of corporations and management seems based on understanding of organizational behavior and human interaction we never fully conceived, but your alleged reformers are acting out one hundred year-old beliefs and concepts?

Parent:  Oops, help, you’re fading!  Our medium is losing the contact.

HM & JD:  Have no fear, good lady, well try again later; we’re not going anywhere…

Part B

A dreary day in Ohio, fitting for a séance.  A partially satisfied parent, still seeking answers, is back knocking on the portal to the spirits of architects of US public schools, Horace Mann and John Dewey.

Parent:  Hello, please come back, President Mann and Dr. Dewey!

HM & JD:  Good afternoon good lady.  We do wish to continue our conversation.  When we faded, we were about to probe your testing inquiry.

Testing is not just what your contemporary tongue calls “testing.”  Common use has made the term generic.  Your standardized testing is:  One type of testing; assumes one correct answer; emphasizes memorization of alleged facts or small packets of knowledge; puts more emphasis on tricks in answering than mastery; provides little diagnostic value; based on neural research we see emerging will quickly be forgotten; won’t solve complex problems; and your society has been what you call “scammed,” with a small cabal of profiteering testing companies deciding for a nation what constitutes knowledge.  To us, preposterous. There are many types of assessment, all crucial, and your knowledge is repetitively doubling; you will never succeed with simplistic learning.

Alas, the alleged reform is also failing.  Indeed, your present society’s unbalanced and discriminatory social, economic and cultural properties now rival the tableaus we mercifully departed.  These properties have more to do with your test results than your classrooms.

Parent:  Why don’t I know all of this, and what can I do about it?

HM & JD:  This is complicated.  Your “reform” has been going on for 35 years.  But your – our – public schools have ignored modernization responsibilities, and retreated into comfortable inbred enclaves avoiding change, complicated by failure of your schools of education to properly educate both your teachers and schoolmasters.  Instead of creative public school improvement we see schools fearful of government and transparency, with underdeveloped educators, and lacking the courage to change.

What can you do?  That is a tough question – you’re learning.  The representation of reformers is, that without standardized testing, you wouldn’t know what your children are achieving.  We contest this.  Many decades ago parents knew what their children were achieving because teachers developed and gave tests, they heard recitation, they gave out report cards, and parents talked to both their children and their teachers.  Right now your Congress is even conflicted on renewing what you call ESEA/NCLB, leaving in doubt whether they will double-down on, or scale back testing?

Parent:  (Censored), so now what?

HM & JD:  We both believe that local control of education is still the best path for learning.  Looking down, we see across the nation hundreds of thousands of parents now courageously opting their children out of that testing.  Testing is improving, adding more reasoning to questions; but the present format will never measure a child’s capacity for critical thought and complex problem solving, and social and civic competence, which is after all, what school and learning are supposed to be about.

Parent:  But isn’t it all about just getting a job on graduating?

HM & JD:  No!  That is rhetoric that drifted up from a political aspirant named Scott Walker, trying to re-write the mission of a venerable institution of higher education of our vintage, but that’s another story. 

Sorry, but we must go; a chorus of discordant voices from below, with incomprehensible labels, are starting to assert that perhaps the two of us don’t belong up here, versus, er, the other place…

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Public PreK-12 Reform: A Baker's Dozen Inconvenient Truths

This is the last post on public school reform before some blog hiatus on that topic.  After nearly 100 posts on various issues embedded in that alleged reform’s history, on standardized testing and VAM issues, and on other challenges in and surrounding our schools courtesy of “corporate reform” and NCLB, there seemed little to add.  But the outbreak of political correctness, and myopia permeating current rhetoric on the above called for a reality check.

The current status of test-based reform is fluid.  Senator Lamar Alexander is chairing the Senate’s education committee, taking testimony, and apparently in line to propose changes to ESEA (NCLB).  It is unclear whether the pendulum is coming down on the side of some sanity that would reduce destructive testing and at minimum cause the CCSSI debacle to be reviewed?  What is apparent is that defenders of continuation of present and proposed testing are ramping up rhetoric in response to public protests of testing, offering some marginal to idiotic reasoning why this testing is necessary to save our discriminated or disadvantaged children from “falling through the cracks,” whatever scientifically that is supposed to mean.

As egregious as the above technically disputable wisdom, the principal argument the advocates seem to muster is that the nation’s public school students will not be evaluated in grades three to eight, and again in high school, if present testing is not pursued.  Do over three million teachers, the vast majority more committed to real education than the cabal of testing companies lobbying every state legislature or the US Department of Education, simply vanish from the classroom when the time comes to do some formative or summative testing of their efforts?  Get serious.

Straight talk on public education is increasingly hard to find.  Some is proposed here, in the form of perceived truths however inconvenient to both reformers and anti-reformers:

Truth #1

Both the reformers and the public school establishment are wrong, both culpable for the state of American public PreK-12, and self-righteously turning out the least prepared generation in a half century to deal with a nation’s survival problem-solving.  

How did you get there?  Give us at least one fact that is a legitimate assertion?  Top down:  A U.S. President and Education Secretary who believe they have the high ground, but are ideologically so liberally twisted or delusional that the utopian obsession with tactically elevating all discriminated or disadvantaged children's education is rationalized as a legitimate basis for destroying a century-old public school system; the present U.S. Congress (need there be more elaboration?); and a cabal of testing companies motivated by distorted business theory and greed, given carte blanche to define what constitutes contemporary knowledge.  Bottom up: the marginal to dismal performances of some fraction of 15,000 systems and 90,000 schools, in both international testing, allegedly per the private sector in preparation for employment, and in lack of preparation for postsecondary work based on remedial work; the fumbling of some fraction of 15,000 BOE; the ineptitude to demagoguery of some large fraction of 15,000 superintendents who should not be there; and some fraction of over three million teachers unprepared for their job description.

Not complex or detailed argument, but usually conceded to be general knowledge:  That 35 years of highly involved reform challenges would not have endured if there was not some basis for deficits traceable to the public schools' performances (over and above deficits attributable to the income and cultural discrepancies among the nation's children); and on the flip side, over those same 35 years failure of testing- and VAM-based "reform" to actually produce measurable public school process and behavior changes not negative to genuine learning.

Truth #2

The present motif for reform – hammering both students and teachers after the fact with simplistic learning logic and convoluted tests – is so bizarre in the 21st century it defies societal sanity.  Truth:  America is turning out a generation of its youth with an inventory of disaggregated facts that will be neurally extinguished with disuse, so unbalancing legitimate critical thought and problem solving capacities that the nation will be populated with a constituency neither capable nor creative in discriminating among increasingly complex and risky options in every civil venue.  Truly bizarre:  Calling for every child to be “college ready” literally from kindergarten; juxtaposed against the content of that college readiness based on standardized testing; juxtaposed against the near irrelevance and even dysfunction of that alleged learning to success in the college/university mission parroted?  Does this actually go beyond simple ideology or idealism to outright stupidity?

Truth #3

The values for those fractions cited in Truth #1 are?  Truth, we know virtually nothing definitive about the full condition of America’s public systems, because – with the exception of Dr. John Goodlad’s earlier research spanning 22,000 public school students – our national leaderships have not chosen to invest in that knowledge.  The quick retort from the dissenter, that is not practical for that massive universe.  Response:  What’s needed is not necessarily census, but a valid and reliable model for assessing those systems based on data from a projectable sample of our schools, verified, then made available to our states and systems as a nationally required DIY format for self-assessment and benchmarking. 

Truth #4

America’s colleges and universities should have been in the forefront of any public system reform, because they have ignored primary/secondary education for a century, and because they have the stewardship for the training of our nation’s public school teachers.  Those schools of education have failed, for lack of intellect, and dogmatic pursuit of the wrong learning rubrics.  Our colleges and universities in turn have been too cowardly to address that higher education failure. 

The least known, but most egregious contemporary reform act, involved the creation of common K-12 STEM standards.  That chore, undertaken by legitimate scientists in higher education in concert with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), was advanced with a proposed process to make that knowledge accessible for critical thinking and problem solving.  Required, however, the hand-off of that intelligence to the CCSSI crowd; the standards were promptly trashed and subverted to become more disconnected fact chaff for support of standardized testing.

Embedded in this truth, both higher education and our public systems could have demonstrable gains from breaking through the wall of mutual distrust or contempt that separates them.  Higher education could materially reduce its costs of delivery if public K-12 delivered true college-ready students (not the ersatz version insanely advocated by Arne Duncan and the unthinking), making a four- or even three-year degree the norm.

Truth #5

Some fraction of America’s BOE is a disaster.  Present methods of electing those supposed to provide oversight are not uncommonly failures of democracy.  Frequently there is no competition for joining a BOE, there is electoral manipulation by a system’s administration to promote compliant BOE members, there is ineptitude in knowledge of educational theory and practice, there is no requirement for their training on education before being seated, and in too many cases service is sought for all of the wrong reasons.  Below the radar, this may be our nation’s weakest electoral office, and until 50 states upgrade that system for assigning local school oversight, it is a controlling roadblock to any genuine change in our public systems.

Truth #6

An arguable material fraction of our public systems’ superintendents has obsolete managerial education, is poorly selected by incompetent BOE, is poorly vetted, and should be re-educated or booted from public education.  A fraction increasingly earns jail time.

Perhaps west central Ohio is an anomaly, but its schools also feature some of the most incompetent, venal, and arrogant alleged education administrators seen in 15 years of research.  Ohio has virtually no valid system for removal of such administrators from office unless they commit a high order felony; even theft of resources, failure to perform, insubordination, and violation of education open records laws are challenged as a basis for dismissal.  Just plain educational ignorance, managerial ineptitude, despotism and power seeking, and even sociopathic behavior barely tip the scale.  Incredibly, those illustrious attributes can result in promotion to broader superintendent responsibility, a sick case in this area.  One egregious example of system venality is a case where three of its BOE members cannot be conceptually viewed as having been elected, the result of system manipulation of nominations, and three candidates for three BOE seats.  They effectively elected themselves if they voted, and voted for themselves – school democracy in action?

In another large public system in a sister state, its superintendent (already on the record as educationally naive and a leadership failure) is currently seed funding an attempt to enact state law that would restrict public system transparency and reporting.  Say again?  Its BOE is complicit in the quest, and the community’s taxpayers, parents, and its press appear as dumb as rocks in response to this effort.

Truth #7

Ultimately the truth is that there are good US public schools, but no way currently in place of comprehensively identifying and classifying those successes; equivalently, the difficulty in singling out the systems that actually should be reformed.  Another truth is that the testing army can succeed in beating on our public systems for the next decade, and they will not measurably reform or genuinely improve learning in those systems.  Because any real change in the complexity and culture that is a public school system will have to be executed from within the organization, and have to actively engage all of its critical human resources.  That has been borne out by decades of sophisticated business practice, but ignorantly or deliberately ignored by the reform horde.

Truth #8

Another truth:  Present school grade bands were an invention of the early Carnegie attempts to manipulate public education; present school organization is a century or more old; both are arguably obsolete in our present society and world.  Virtually no effort has been made by any educational authority to innovate these infrastructures that are confining and misdirecting real learning.

Truth #9

The most righteous in our present uncharacterized mass of public schools, differentiated by 50 states with varying levels of educational oversight credibility, are likely its teachers.  An accompanying reality, that is because they are mostly in the profession by self-selection, and rooted in empathy that makes them valid in the classroom.  Simultaneously, that focus on the children they must support, with what is regularly now formulaic to despotic school administration, results in their retreat to their own space, rendering them incapable of leading any real reform charge.

Truth #10

Reality is that little of the substance of the genuine challenges, debates, and information that surround present school reform manages to appear in our general press, allegedly guided by journalistic integrity to see some truth.  For whatever reasons, ignorance of the detailed questions, desire to report only good news, fear of offending local systems' educators or parents, or that school learning deficits are just not as newsworthy as a good killing or scandal, our press seem incapable of informing the public of what's driving testing, VAM, and other assaults on their systems.  The most blatant lie regularly allowed past the "Pinocchio Test" is, that without present standardized testing, parents would have no idea whether their children are succeeding in their schools.  Our schools, our teachers, do not test any aspect of the learning process they conduct?  Even the most ill-informed parent couldn't swallow that.  In turn, the so-called education pages of your average newspaper report primarily the feel good propaganda put out by local schools.  That there is literally a war with public schools underway is lost or unwanted intelligence to most press.  Some editors go so far as total denial, or censorship, to deflect that knowledge from their readers.

Truth #11

Really inconvenient reality:  Too many of America’s parents and taxpayers, victims of Truth #10, are products of the same school concepts being aggressively attacked for 35 years as inadequate, and perhaps because of that education, are blind to or incapable of critically thinking about their local schools, or too timorous to object to local education failures or system malfeasance.  A perversion of the mantra “local control:”  As the costs of local public education are increasingly diverted by our states to local funding, that shift with electorate disinterest or evaluative deficits in assessing local system performance, further complicates any positive change.

Truth #12

Call this summative assessment of the truth about America’s public system attacks:  The 35 years of targeting public education did not originate out of thin air; the performances overall of our public systems in the last several decades of last century were the trigger.  Schools of education, and public systems taking their cues from that platform, adopted a series of silly liberal motifs, ignored innovation, and evolving from managerial weakness and lack of proper teacher education, led to systems dropping the learning ball.  The build-up of private sector resentment finally led to the proactive reform events that started long before NCLB, factually in 1980 spearheaded by The Business Roundtable and the National Governors Association (NGA).  This quietly stayed under our general population’s awareness until "A Nation at Risk" (ANAR) issued, formulated to panic the nation.  That Commission perverted its findings to support NCLB and a market give-away by the Bush Administration to our testing companies already deeply rooted in control of school texts.

Our public schools with any intelligence responded as expected to the testing onslaught; they did whatever it took in the short run to execute a testing work-around.   First teach to the tests as quickly as possible, then in a few quality cases also create legitimate learning.  In the not so quality cases, teach to the tests, if that came up short cheat on the testing, and if that was inadequate manipulate who was tested to control scores.  In this decade a runaway test load has in many cases invalidated even better schools’ attempts to weave in real learning because teachers are intimidated or the time simply doesn’t exist.

Truth #13

Lastly, it is almost unfathomable how an army of reformers and established educators, who must have some intellect, have managed to ignore virtually every precept of the science of explanation and increasingly sophisticated understanding of human behavior and neural processes forging learning, and wagered all on fraudulent and ignorant process for forcing change.  Is this ideology overtaking every vestige of critical thought?  Is it naïve belief in single cause systems?  Are these value systems that are truly warped to self-centric beliefs that override even common sense?  Is it all of these?  Perhaps at the most macro level our public education fabric is fragmenting into factions with only myopic self-interest, or into some subtle level of national insanity?  That is really serious inconvenient truth; because there seems no pat prescription for disrupting the present reform trajectory generating public system fragmentation and entropy.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

US Higher Education: Quo Vadis?

An opinion piece in Friday's Dayton Daily News, by the president of Ohio's Antioch College, jump-started today's post.  The promised offering of alternative futures for America's colleges and universities has been delayed, and a puzzle.  The puzzle, however, was not for reasons one might suspect.

Antioch's president addressed the core need for higher education to achieve not just pro forma housecleaning, but material basic reductions in the cost of a college education, citing the now prominently displayed findings that over 50 percent of America's public PreK-12 students now live in poverty.  That finding doesn't magically improve when those constituents try to educationally move into the next level of education, where they encounter a level of magnitude greater costs.

Reflecting on Antioch president Mark Roosevelt's common sense statement of need, its contrast with a reality became writer’s block.  That reality:  Few if any of the contemporary depictions of why the cost of higher education is what it is capture the full scope and depth of the issues, and there is little candor in describing prospects that those costs can even be nudged.

Prevailing Wisdom

The most common assertion – true – is that the last decades’ college tuition escalation reflects long term reductions in state support of those institutions. Next in line is the plea that human resource costs have soared, both required salaries to hold quality faculty, and the costs of health insurance and pension reserves.  Kept low key in reporting, the cost of debt incurred to support bursts of campus construction, some justified, but much designed to dress those campuses to compete for students.  Next, legitimate, some fragment of those costs is attributable to meeting regulatory requirements.  The net costs of sports to our institutions is rarely transparent – a mixed bag, in some cases profitable, in other cases football and basketball revenues offset the costs of other sports. Lastly, add the soaring costs of research assigned to our universities to support the nation's technology needs, some moved from the private sector and imposed on our research universities.

Collegiate administration, an increasingly savvy lot in this century, squirm or bob and weave, but rarely find the industry or courage to try to re-write their strategic game plans.  The dirty little secret that has blocked higher education reform for decades is, with rare exceptions, they have no need to change.  A virtually isolated exception in this last decade was the University of Virginia, where an initial brouhaha slowly dissipated moving the dial back to virtually where the revolt started.

Reality is that our traditional colleges and universities have few natural predators as a check and balance, pragmatically receive perfunctory oversight, and increasingly corral a captive audience of sports-intoxicated supporters, and alumni who where successful and with nostalgia for their campus salad days feed those institutions endowment dollars.  That wake, funding diverted to student recreational infrastructure, doubling of bureaucratic resources, naive over-compensation of privileged faculty in the guise of staying competitive, and pious refusal to entertain the use of various learning innovations (MOOC) pleading they will reduce education quality.

The Riddle That Is US Higher Education

The list goes on for any willing to dismiss the hype, and look deeply into what the academic legions are and have been doing for the last 25-30 years.  Complexity, however, is that the academy is not an organized entity aligned with private sector organizational design.  It is fragmented, with mixed levels of faculty versus administrative governance, with operating rules and values installed over most of last century.  Inside the whole, every discipline can also be an organizational subunit reflecting a different set of management and performance criteria.  The presence of faculty tenure virtually ensures that there will be little slack to remove unproductive human resources at the academic level; lack of administrative courage in turn virtually assures that once bureaucracy is planted it will mightily resist uprooting, even in the face of reduced need or obsolescence.

Vivid in memory of being a collegiate administrator, was the realization after a few months in the saddle, that the faculty for whom I was responsible did not typically see themselves as employees of the university; rather with uncharacteristic boldness they perceived themselves as independent contractors to the institution.  Tenure meant you could not terminate a poor teacher, or faculty member who would rather wander the campus smelling the flowers than do research, or write, or even regularly meet their classes.  There was great diversity of organizational behavior depending on the colleges/schools/departments, and at some complex level based on the nature of the disciplines represented.

Because of the writer’s prior academic venue, better known cases in point are US schools of business.  Last century, circa 1960, spurred by widespread private sector critique and scathing criticism by two major foundations, those schools were forced to retool their curricula.  What had been a practical but simply descriptive view of American business was prodded to find disciplinary roots for business as a legitimate social science.  In the early 1960s that widespread curricular change occurred, creating a new B-school model, one driven by psychology, sociology, research methods, mathematical modeling, economic theory, and computer technology and computational business solutions.

That regimen legitimized our B-schools academically, but had an opposite effect than the private sector anticipated.  Some sound but exotic conceptual research blossomed, but the manner in which basic disciplines were incorporated damped interest and application of emerging social science to real, street level and especially bottom line oriented teaching and problem solving.  By the late 1970s that approach had again disenchanted the business community, but it had created a bipolar business education revolution. 

Business teaching incorporated some of the science bases of explanation of market and business organization phenomena; simultaneously B-schools’ imports of faculty from more liberally oriented disciplines to reach the earlier reform goals had instilled in those schools – at least for a time – the roots of societal values and ethics to accompany harder edged business practice.  That included 20th century consumerism, and the notion that business had social responsibilities distinct from simply unleashing market-based forces.

By the late 1970s because of corporate voices, and even in B-school internal debate, there was forced evaluation of whether the “social science” missions of that education had diffused and weakened the need for business teaching to be paired with usable applications of theory.  At this point, reminiscent of the reform of the 1960s, a constructive result might have been another update of curricula to marry contemporary theory and business practice.  That need was lost to emerging B-school leadership, pumped up by ramping faculty salaries, emergence of successful prior graduates bringing in endowment dollars, and the misconception that teaching management imbued one with the capacity to practice the best of it.  That preferred result did occur in a few specific business disciplines, notably in organizational behavior and selected research applications, but the overall myopic result was narrowing of focus of educational preparation for business.

For the subsequent 35 years our B-schools adapted to business’ needs by sharply refocusing learning on working to maximize bottom lines, by aggressive development of MBA work and executive education.  Prior sensitivity to business ethics and societal responsibility gave way to current conservative beliefs and myths about the supremacy of “the market” in resolving management decisions – that also created the present public PreK-12 reform debacle.  Bizarre to those of us who practiced through the reform period of the early 1960s, our B-schools began to evolve similarly to our public school system, into learning “factories” premised on standardization, highly programmed curricula, and the ritual MBA.

One might argue that in the last quarter of last century our B-schools created too many myopic marketers; in this century, too many myopic finance graduates, many who helped bring us the prior financial meltdown.  No mistake, tactically the MBA phenomenon brought our B-schools major success, mega endowment dollars, and escalated faculty salaries frequently without justification.  Simultaneously, the last 25-30 years of that academic progress has been a business research wasteland, and has contributed virtually nothing to our advanced understanding of business organization or market behavior.  Only the fairly recent emergence of behavioral economics has added any intellectual accomplishment to business academia.  Even digital applications, once embryonic in our B-schools, were quickly eclipsed by businesses willing to innovate and assume risk.   Paradoxically, assuming risk, and willingness to make mistakes were never tolerated in the academic places supposed to be teaching those arts to the private sector.

Borrowing the term, the ‘bottom line’ is that academic business is long overdue for self-assessment and curricular and learning methods reform.  With the present leadership of most of our B-schools, and without an external force majeure, that is not likely.  To some extent, with the possible exception of our hard and biological sciences, similar critique can apply to most parts of the academy.  Most egregious, among the already questionable, is an obsolete conceptual model for teaching the teacher, the worst of the collegiate breed, our schools of education.  Even that disgrace is not sufficient motivation to prompt collegiate leaderships to enact reform; perhaps because of the belief that would set in motion a view that more of higher education should also be subject to real change?

This is an all too brief survey of why much of higher education needs reform in the worst way; also too brief in part because paradoxically, there is precious little research on higher education that would allow comprehensive diagnosis.


This part of the argument could form the basis for a book or two.  To compress an answer into a few words, the assertion is that there is little threat to higher education, therefore little incentive to generate major internal debate or change, and enduring for the rest of this decade and perhaps the next. 

The Obama/Duncan rating scheme, to shame(?) or with a financial wrist-slap force the institutions into strategy change is so lame it merits no further mention. 

Our states long ago lost effective control of state higher education institutions when majority funding was transferred to tuition and corporatization. An example cited in the last post, the Indiana University system currently received only 24 percent of recent annual revenues from the state.  Collegiate sports in turn have become the armored columns protecting the academic franchise. 

Business practice as an institution is not a current threat, but promises to further compromise academic values by transferring initial training for future hires back to our colleges and universities. 

Too many collegiate boards of trustees or regents are either politically inspired or lack the intellect to exercise that oversight.  Peering into the hazy future, what threats or events could force higher education leaderships to move – to date there appear none.

What Would It Take?

The first answer to that question is, an epiphany by an army of collegiate leaderships that is bright, keeps its heads down, hides behind alumni-bureaucracy-sports, appeals to a swath of America’s middle class parents, and has a formidable if undeserved reputation for being the backbone of American future invention, industry, and prosperity.  In sum, not likely.

The second answer then is almost irrelevant, but still food for thought:  What would that change look like if one could wave a magic wand and scare the bejeebers out of a few thousand collegiate presidents, and cause a sudden internal assessment of their institutions’ missions and methods?  A rough try at an answer:

  • One, it would take the assembly of the full financial statements of a projectable sample of our institutions to understand the financial components that are susceptible to change, and longitudinally, their demand and organizational elasticity.
  • Two, it would require rebuilding the conceptual model of higher education into a major departure from a millennium of history; recognizing that the very nature of knowledge and access thereto has undergone a fundamental change, displacing the core concept of “university,”
  • Three, it would require acceptance of the reality that our institutions are packed with tenured and tenure track faculty who are being over compensated, are not infrequently either subpar classroom teachers or minimally committed to the classroom, and unless they perform a needed research function aren’t really needed to execute the higher education learning mission.  It may even raise the question of whether it is time to scrap out the concept of collegiate tenure.  A majority of higher education classes – for better or worse – is now being taught by part-time and non-tenure track faculty.  Egregiously, on many distance and community campuses, alleged collegiate–level work is being taught by unprepared teachers who could not pass those courses in legitimate university work.
  • Four, it would require coming to grips with the reality that much of now heavily hyped higher education’s lack of on-time graduation performance is attributable to the failure of public PreK-12, and especially its high schools to fundamentally equip their students to operate successfully in higher education.  That should open the door to a new model of education years 9-16, breaking down the disconnect between public education and higher education.  One form that might take is redefinition of current grades 11 and 12, and collegiate 13 and 14, eliminating the grade bands, regularly allowing higher education courses to be more fluidly applied and double counted toward high school completion as well as degree progress.  One simple (but major) factor that could reduce the recipient’s cost of higher education without major challenge of the establishment, is to materially shorten the time a student takes to complete a degree. 
  • Five, arguably every collegiate academic discipline would be tasked to assess and revise as necessary both curricula and how that knowledge is imparted/induced, with some form of oversight of the resultant work by a national academic board for each discipline.
  • Six, a major part of the cost model for higher education is the extended residential environment.  One concept is a staged learning procession that goes one better than tying loan repayment to subsequent employment, but makes some combination of on-campus learning and earlier professional employment the mainstream model.  That in turn would require new processes to allow MOOC to supplement campus work, and/or see that knowledge sourcing tied to a new level of inter-institutional cooperation to cross-recognize academic work.

What’s It All About?

Even the above short list, if one has been sensitive to the arc required to change any major institutional system, immediately becomes discouraging.  If the perpetually more optimistic would dispute that, consider the product of present public PreK-12 alleged reform – 35 years, acts of Congress, high double-digit billions of dollars, an army of idealistic zealots, an underclass army of professionals intimidated to change some undesignated behavior, states slavishly applying and wallowing in test data they usually do not understand, teachers and children degraded by the insensitive application of ESEA without addition of common sense, a procession of Bill Gates’ intrusions and flubs, now emerging protest movements still unable to create sane reassessment of PreK-12 education reform tactics – and a national system barely nudged.

Is the better learning factory the answer, or is the basic theoretical structure being forced onto our public systems simply wrong, based on false assumptions about learning, driven by ideology rather than the learning sought and wisdom, and now peppered with corporate and market self-interest, and political goals that drive out positive organizational learning of a century?

For all of the above reasons, there has to be great macro skepticism that change will occur in higher education venues over less than decades, and without the appearance of the metaphorical “black swan” that disrupts national beliefs and infrastructure.  But in the trenches, America is still graced with great and committed teachers.  For anyone who has spent serious time in the classroom, the event that makes it all worthwhile can be a single episode. 

Years ago the writer, in close to the last class taught before exchanging the classroom for corporate leadership, was offering an advanced MBA course in marketing research.  This was an unusually talented, but also pretty prideful group of about to become MBAs.  The course by design employed both traditional methods exposure and a constructivist approach.  The latter; three real-time marketing research issues underway at Piper Aircraft Corporation.  The class, knowing all that an MBA could possibly want, was pretty dismissive of the projects’ challenges.  They vocally branded the work a no-brainer.  Meanwhile Piper granted funding to buy just about any professional survey resources required to carry out the projects and cover any expenses, and shared proprietary data about past, present and prospective customers for framing the research.

Shortened story, the class had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the awareness that they really didn’t yet comprehend project management, or the market behaviors that had to be assessed.  Prodding but permissive, the class was allowed to seek its own timing levels, with the understanding that performance not pro forma procedure was the mission and test.  As the class approached the end of the term, and graduation for most, their past experiences predicted that if they didn’t finish the work, the worst case was an “Incomplete,” in virtually every case allowing their graduation.

As “fish or cut bait” time neared, it was made clear to the group there would be no Incompletes, rather an F because the course grade was premised on their actual performance; an F would have blocked graduation for all.  We’ll skip the rest of that session which became a bit emotional.  To give all an opportunity to succeed, a classroom was exceptionally sequestered for 24/7 use.  Funding for renting hotel rooms and related expenses was extended for any who were losing their resident housing.  School services were arranged 24/7 as support, and the writer was on call 24/7 for consultation.

The mission:  Piper sent a cabin class twin to pick up the class, and the results of the (hopefully) completed research for all three projects were to be presented in Lock Haven, PA to a full complement of Piper corporate vice-presidents and department/product managers.  The teams completed their reports at roughly 3-4 AM the morning of the flight, just in time to suit up.  All three teams had to practice their presentations for the first time in flight.

The performances:  A bit shaky out of the hopper, but all three teams pulled it together and did an excellent job of reporting their findings, generating from the Piper group praise for the work, a highly respectable congruity of the teams’ findings with Piper’s own professional research results, and praise for the IU MBA.  The flight home was smooth and initially quiet.  The writer was co-pilot in the right seat, the flight compartment separated from the rest of the cabin, but any conversation was audible.  About halfway through the flight home, the buzz started; all three teams congratulating each other, individuals doing the same, all to a person vocalizing how they had made all three projects work, impressed a corporate enclave, and aced their de facto test.  That is why you teach.

Perhaps, as another education writer with major K-12 credentials recently put it, that principle is where present public PreK-12 reform circuses should have started, where any higher education reform should focus, and where its resources and positive reinforcement should be directed -- not to punitive factory quality control logic that was obsolete when the scourge was launched?