Thursday, April 30, 2015

US Higher Education: Diverging and Descending? Round One

Introduction

Recapping, this series on higher education futures is premised on the complexity of educational institutions that have had a couple of centuries to nationally evolve, and with world roots that reach back almost a millennium.  Accordingly, the intent is to tackle in any single post just a few of the factors prompting current debate.   Round one will seek to define parameters of US higher education, a growth industry most of last century – albeit not without critique witness the first presidential commission on higher education (Mr. Truman’s) – but now undergoing challenge and potential change.

First Principles

Before there was a Harvard, before the Boston Latin School, before US public schools, before Horace Mann, before John Dewey, literally before most humans could broadly read and write, there was a university, the University of Bologna (Italy), followed shortly afterward by the University of Oxford (England).  Harvard was a latecomer in 1636.  The need for harboring and classifying knowledge, and for scholarship and research mark the evolution of civilized societies.  US colleges and universities expanded rapidly in the first half of the nineteenth century powered by land grants, followed later by states’ establishment of teachers colleges to feed the need from growing public education.  Prophetically, even at birth, many postsecondary institutions projected a measure of independence from the governance that was established over public primary and secondary programs, a factor that has come home to roost in corralling escalating costs of a degree.

The GI Bill, post WWII, launched unprecedented growth and democratization of higher education. Both Federal and states’ funding drove expansion of both campuses and faculties.  Until approximately the 1950s much curricula still mirrored the pre-war conception of a degree.  But prompted by technology and research growth, accelerated by Russia’s Sputnik, and the private sector’s demand for more prescriptive disciplines, the decades of the 1960s and 1970s saw another expansion of science-based disciplines and curricula, including the social sciences and business.

An exception to the call for greater basic discipline development in curricula, a few positive departures still standouts, was the generic collegiate school of education.   For whatever reasons, education as a discipline walled itself off from the increasing science content being demanded of surrounding schools and disciplines.  Even in this century, education dogma has skirted much neural science, clinging to the deductive models of learning – many plain wrong – used last century to shape classroom rubrics.  Part of the explanation may reside in the questionable rigor or misdirection of its curricula, and the quality of its recruits.  At the time in 1959 when this writer became a faculty member, schools of education generally were considered close to or at the intellectual bottom of the university pecking order, vying with health, physical education, and recreation (HPER) for that dubious honor.  Its students allegedly represented the bottom one-third of the college admissions ranks, though this oft-cited proposition lacks empirical testing.  That election by collegiate education to ignore the rest of academia was directly responsible, two decades later, for the launch of public school criticism and destructively what is now called “corporate reform” (actually inappropriately because no contemporary business is sufficiently misguided to employ its present tactics).

Related to the above, fault that must be attributed to the whole postsecondary academy, in the education and screening of those who would become public systems' peak administrators, little distinction was made between classroom preparation and fully equipping school leaders to perform with managerial competence.  As much to blame for public K-12 education's malaise last century as any other factor, the failed preparation, and vetting, of public school superintendents and principals stand out.  That failed comprehension of organizational behavior and proper leadership was compounded by broken oversight in the form of present BOE requirements to serve and frequent performance failures.  This factor has still not been touched by alleged reform thinking.

After calls for more science in all areas, all was cool in academia for a time, until states, pressed by ever-growing demands for services, started to reduce state higher education funding.  America’s institutions – by definition usually managed by smart people – responded by:  Increasing prices, i.e., tuition, residency, and services; by seeking more research funding; and by marketing the institutions to their successful alumni to create endowment dollars.  With that increased self-funding came a measure of independence from state oversight, launching the growth of higher education management that saw their institutions as independent entities, with increased power, both from control of advanced education, and by being the focal point of national sports obsessions.

All aspects of higher education expanded; more diverse offerings of education services, and the growth of students to be served, expanded both the core human resources manning the classrooms, but drove even higher rates of growth in non-teaching and bureaucratic head counts.  The cycle plus obsession with ever more campus construction created increased fixed costs, aggravated by “Baumol’s Disease” (failure to increase academic factor productivity).  An explosion of digital capabilities challenging traditional learning design, and over a trillion dollars of student debt driven by cost escalation, ultimately created the current calls for higher education reform.  Clearly there is more to the story, but for purposes of this exploration that is a thumbnail picture.

The Chess Pieces

The major factors impacting higher education futures span the differentiated segments of higher education institutions, through mushrooming demand for postsecondary work, to innovations in how that learning can be achieved.   Current rhetoric feeding critique of higher education ranges from the assertion that colleges will financially fail as costs and tuition push degrees out of reach, to the view that innovations like MOOC will undercut traditional institutions’ education delivery.  While some for-profit institutions are failing – the University of Phoenix losing double-digit thousands of students, and Corinthian Colleges shutting down, current examples – for-profits generically are struggling as the base of postsecondary institutions expands, and governments crack down on online postsecondary fraud.

Reading higher education’s tea leaves is not for the faint-hearted.  The most influential determinants of those futures may be:

  • The track of the leading 100 US colleges/universities, that may persist simply because they are at the top of the education food chain, where high level firms will continue to first search for human resources, and pay premium salaries.
  • Limits of Federal control of postsecondary education that is both Constitutionally and pragmatically constrained, stuck with trying to influence those leaderships with Federal student grants that have slowly become less significant compared to other funding.
  • MOOC (Massive Online Open Courses) blossomed as higher education’s salvation, then receded as limitations were revealed, the most prominent being their present limits in providing regular institutional credit hours.  Like all innovations, the skeptics pounced before all of the pieces of the game came together.  There are currently 12 or more non-profit sources of MOOC, many from our top 25-50 US institutions; and 14 or more commercial MOOC sources.  As these mature, expect their offerings to ultimately win credit toward degrees.  Perhaps of even greater portent, the unique presentation quality of the best MOOC is being recognized as a basis for blended learning, combining MOOC presentation that can feature the best of any discipline with localized student classroom work and/or constructivism.  The potential is for upgrading course quality, especially on community and satellite campuses, while cutting the cost of course delivery.
  • How many US postsecondary institutions can you name?  There are presently 5,300, a number that has been steadily growing as community colleges and satellite campuses have multiplied.  A growing issue is, there is no accepted national standard for assessing the quality of most of these programs.  Many will be fiercely defended by local populations that view any institution of higher education, irrespective of quality, as a major asset and source of pride.  Alleged accreditation is virtually useless as a basis for assessment of meaningfulness of degrees issued; short of national testing of the products of degree programs, or an unprecedented system of inspection of their faculties, curricula, and syllabi, there appears no easy way to assign quality metrics.  The product, if the present pattern of oversight prevails, may be an educational variant of Gresham’s financial law (“bad money drives out good”) – “mediocre or weak collegiate work drives out legitimate higher education?”
  • Because of how our major state universities have prevailed in the face of declining state support, developing their own controlled sources of revenue, there is an ego factor in university leadership.  Perhaps not as extreme as the “too big to fail” mantra of our financial institutions, before they did fail, our majors nevertheless have simply ignored the various calls for tuition reduction.  Some institutions, while those words were being offered in our national press and from the White House, actually raised tuition.  Mr. Obama’s saber-rattling accompanying a threat of rating our institutions had all the effect of a shower of that garden’s rose petals.  An inside budgeting source in a major public university has confided that planning models employed have factored in six percent annual increases in tuition.  The scary part of that university hubris should be apparent to those in stratospheric positions – that is not sustainable.  In economics the term is “bubble,” and bubbles can burst.
  • Next, a devastatingly ignorant game is being played in Ohio, threatening to accelerate a higher education version of Gresham’s Law.  That is the move (seriously lacking specification of process) to turn secondary public school teachers into college professors, sans any of the real screening, preparation, and scholarship that goes into creating the real resource.  Running such course work through filters, cultures, and assets with the norms for Ohio 9-12, and that can’t replicate the real academy is the formula for mediocrity to malfeasance.  Ohio’s parents and students may possess greater intelligence than being exhibited by whatever Ohio education brain trust hatched this tactic, and walk, no sprint the other way.  Simultaneously, some intelligent innovations need to be sought generically -- perhaps combinations of resident work plus contemporary online work and/or a better mechanism for creating an adjunct faculty that could use the logistics of local school assets to provide credit pre-college matriculation -- to get a handle on the stretched times being taken to achieve a degree, legitimately a material cause of the escalating total cost of getting through college.  How much alleged "collegiate" work should occur at a 9-12 level for cognitive reasons is itself an unanswered question. Ohio's underdeveloped "CC+" hatchling is not an answer, and the program dropped officiously, and sans intelligent pre-testing, on the state's parents suggests incompetence and/or unacceptable political sycophancy by both Ohio's state public school and higher education leaderships.  Equally egregious, ignorant to indifferent local BOE are rubber-stamping the proposal without challenge.
  • Lastly, a quiet crisis has been developing for years or even decades in scoping how higher education delivery and maintenance of standards are to be enforced.  Our major institutions – though not necessarily the top schools – have methodically reduced the proportion of courses being handled by tenure track faculty.  Arguably this was a coward’s way of dealing with the tenure issue; instead of tackling the reform of tenure that has been an elephant in the room for a half century, our institutions simply cut faculty costs and ducked the issue by now fielding from one-half to two-thirds of courses taught by adjunct faculty, lacking health insurance, lacking contracts, lacking any career path, and doing no research.  To the hard-nosed, this might appear a proper emulation of corporate values (prudent outsourcing); to those who have spent a lifetime in education based on better values, the question they might ask is – what does this do to teaching motivation, and the quality levels of delivered instruction?

Questions on the Table

Self-evidently, trying to create dialogue on these issues is not a matter of “one and done.”  Hence, the decision to try to partition the issues, and handle each material issue in a separate post.

The tasks as presently envisioned:

  • Just defining the postsecondary universe; there are tens of attributes that might be used to classify our institutions.  Without that specification, there is the risk of comparing, metaphorically, passion fruit and lemons.  The US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has a massive postsecondary relational database, but has executed literally no multivariate analysis that would help to classify colleges and universities for analysis of performance.  The NCES data combined with the US News' ratings detail, and other private data sources, could be a platform for making sense of sorting what is happening in 5,300 colleges and universities.
  • Try to project and assess the direction of MOOC evolution, and how it could materially change the entire postsecondary learning game, shifting emphasis from degrees to what its students can perform with the learning acquired.
  • Speculate how college/university student performance can be assessed and equilibrated across the various strata of institutions, short of creating the same standardized testing malfeasance akin to that degrading public K-12 learning delivery. 
  • Examine Ohio’s dubious to shatteringly ignorant attempt to turn public school teachers – coming from the same pool of human resources who have with only standout exceptions failed to create public 9-12 performance that is college-ready – into pseudo-college professors.  Failure can be a learning experience; simply replicating and extending the practice is one definition of insanity. 
  • Where are our universities beyond the top 25 or 50 heading, and what could overtake their penchant to simply ignore the criticism being leveled and continue expansion, increasing pricing, and executing learning business-as-usual?  Is this becoming a true bubble, and could it burst? 
  • What are the pragmatic limits of creation of so-called “community colleges” and satellite campuses – is there a point not sustainable, where the quality of faculty available, absence of research, and the limitations of their management become so tenuous that the systems simply become a version of high school II?  Reality is that some of our best private 9-12 schools, and even premier public 9-12 programs, are superior academically to community college and splinter satellite 2- and 4-year postsecondary degree programs. 


The list may go on, but next post will extend this series by asking perhaps the grittiest question:  What happens, if the gap in quality of learning between our top 100 institutions, versus the next tier of postsecondary work, versus community college and satellite education levels, becomes so substantial it ruptures the historical assumptions about what a degree means, and what it will return to its holder in the marketplace?  Hard questions, and miles to go.

RPW, 4/29/2015

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Higher Education Reform in Limbo

Preface

This post on US higher education was written months ago, anticipating a series on possible college/university futures and possible change scenarios.  It was put on hold for multiple reasons:  One the discovery of much critique since 2000, not previously seen or reviewed; and two, realization of just how complex and diverse even 5,300 higher education entities can be.  Compounding that awareness, seeing an exploding embryonic series of alternatives to traditional ivy-covered campus renditions of postsecondary work.

The result was resolve to "eat the elephant" by slicing issues into manageable bites.  The following deferred post asks more questions than offering proposed answers, which is perhaps how this series should launch.

Higher Education's Limbo

There is angst in advocating reform of our colleges and universities while public K-12 is in throes of either intellectual devolution, or soaring to new levels of rote achievement, depending on perspective and ideology.  But, one, there is an intimate connection between K-12 change and higher education’s future; and two, our post-secondary institutions are tracking vectors leading to a cliff.

'Tis the Season

The love-hate relationship with our colleges and universities by its students, parents and critics waxes and wanes with the seasons.  When graduation looms optimism and favorable attitudes blossom, buoyed by parental pride and the eloquent but generally meaningless rhetoric of ceremonial speakers; and perhaps the hope that the end of large cash outflows is imminent (discounting subsequent decades of loan repayment). Shift to the glories of autumn, where college application, matriculation and funding challenges give way to the football season. American competitiveness and escapism again elicit good feelings for our institutions, followed by March Madness. Behind that facade of twisted appreciation of the US academy, the real higher education beat goes on.  Is optimism justified, or is virtually every version of cognitive distortion acting to postpone or divert the need for core change in collegiate direction?

Comparing and contrasting reform of public K-12 versus post-secondary, major differences are immediately evident.  With the exception of the bursts of publications excoriating the teachers’ unions, and defending (or damning) test-based alleged reform, there is little material addressing the long standing issues with the public K-12 bureaucracy that produced the present reform movement.  In contrast, there has been an outpouring of critique of our collegiate institutions, reaching as far back as the first Presidential Commission (Mr. Truman’s), and now ubiquitous in both higher education journals and seemingly endless blogs.  The difference, the latter critique has deflected few of the alleged excesses overtaking US higher education.

Change Needed?

Current critique of the academy increasingly prompts headlines such as “radical reform of higher education is inevitable,” or “higher education is in crisis;” the latter spirit reflected even in survey of higher education administrators, with high percents of agreement.  Nevertheless, our collegiate presidents are going where few academic leaders have previously ventured.  That is:  The aggressive pursuit of not just dollars, but of major campus diversification veering away from the classroom; decision styles that conflate academic with corporate management; more bricks and mortar; higher administrator salaries; slack learning accountability; expansion of non-teaching human resources; and insensitivity to the calls for major tuition reduction, faculty productivity analyses and improvement, even deflection of the question whether four years of college are producing minimal learning as inferred from research by Arum and Roksa.

A recent ACT study demonstrated a major disconnect between K-12 educator, versus collegiate educator assessments of student readiness for college:  Of K-12 resources, 89 percent asserted their students were “well prepared” or “very well prepared” for college level work; for those responding in our colleges, the number was 26 percent. One implication is that higher education has failed to perceive the K-12 linkage that impacts their own success, another that our public K-12 systems are wading in cognitive bias.

The question also bores down on not just the academic culture, but into its major disciplines.  Are our collegiate schools of education responsible and accountable for the shrinkage of public K-12 learning performance that precipitated present reform?  Are our B-schools responsible and accountable for the values and ethics that marinate our corporate behaviors, and for the behaviors of our financial institutions?  Have the liberal arts simply dug a hole and crawled in to avoid critique and deny change?  Has a more than century-old organizational model of our academic disciplines ceased to deal with advocacy and assessment of actual learning, and impeded or blocked adoption of technologies that integrated into classroom models can improve that performance?

Have collegiate classrooms become “endowed,” coupled to reduction of accountability of faculty via traditional tenure?  Has the traditional depiction of collegiate learning driven by lecture and sometimes professor-student interaction become so entrenched that productivity change is frozen?  An organizational issue, has a faculty as a source of veto power on administrative change simply hardened into the inevitable roadblock?

Recent developments in online learning suggest change may be forced onto the academy by learning methods bypassing traditional channels and orthodoxy – MOOC, decline in dependence of job sourcing of graduates based on traditional credentials, and continued evolution of private and community post-secondary programs. The generally conservative leaderships of our collegiate enterprises, even while adopting some of the growth strategies of the private sector, did not typically get to those positions via managerial apprenticeship and success; they frequently fail in strategic positioning and leadership.

Are any of the present trends on traditional campuses sustainable?  Can a trillion dollars of collegiate student debt just be written off?  Has Federal funding of higher education without controls actually precipitated the academy’s ills by enabling tuition inflation?  Will token tuition decreases stop critique?  Will collegiate leaderships emulate the doctrine of “too big to fail,” or perhaps, “too smart to fail,” or experience some of the other perceptual failures that lead managements to defer needed change until capacity to intercept markets is too little too late?

A trenchant, albeit futuristic scenario is depicted in EPIC 2020 from a TED presentation titled “2012 The Tipping Point.”  Our colleges and universities may be impotent to intercept change that is emerging entrepreneurially from outside the academy, excepting only the handful of “A+” institutions that can likely survive any generalized post-secondary denouement.  Deniers may write it off as fantasy:  Reality is that Taleb’s “Black Swans” happen; US financial giants can collapse; GM did declare bankruptcy; Khan Academy endures; Coursera, Udacity, and edX have launched; and public K-12 education allegedly had such a secure monopoly that privatization couldn’t happen?  There seem some pretty robust arguments that US higher education must adapt.

The Shape of Reform?

The elements of reform are not a surprise.  The National Association of Scholars in a post offering “One Hundred Great Ideas for Higher Education” conveniently addressed them.  They run the gamut:
  • Comprehensively privatize non-teaching functions.
  • Creatively invest in productivity change.
  • Scale missions back to education and essential research.
  • Change the criteria for promotion and tenure from low value research and publication to classroom performance.
  • Make faculty and classrooms accountable.
  • Reform tenure.
  • De-emphasize the most corrupted collegiate sports.
  • Focus on learning instead of buildings.
  • Recruit and hire more effective senior management.
  • Reduce or eliminate non-instructional headcounts.
  • Set higher standards for grading; reward rigor.
  • Teach graduate students teaching how to teach.
  • Teach faculty how to teach.
  • Adopt value-based budgeting, versus responsibility center management that retains the status quo and invites organizational gaming.
  • Move more quickly to research, qualify and implement digital technologies that can augment the classroom.
  • Update curricula where many (especially professional) schools’ concepts of relevant knowledge are still rooted in the last century.
  • A veritable explosion of tactical changes related to how teaching is planned, executed and assessed.
  • Find a model of communication, involvement and compatible values to bridge the chasm between K-12 and the pedagogy of higher education.

They also challenge accomplishment because of the reluctance of higher education leaderships to acknowledge the need for change, or failure to see change in realistic terms.  An example was the assessment of a well-known educator, Chester Finn, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  Dr. Finn’s prescription:  “Less booze.  Less sex.  More Studying.  Problem eased if not solved.”  With respect, demonstrating the distinction between normative and pragmatic solutions, the probability of that solution set getting traction is roughly equivalent to Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner exchanging valentines, embracing each other, and linking arms to anchor the politically-centric dream team.

The Process of Reform

The reality of US higher education reform may mirror in jeopardy and sweep the Voyage of Ulysses.  Higher education’s institutions, though fractionally less than five percent of public K-12’s, are a level of magnitude more diverse and complex. Those public have evolved in order to survive drastic reductions in state funding, but that autonomy begets hubris.  Additionally, growth linked to external and sports funding may now seem irreversible.  Accountability is even more of a challenge because oversight is frequently with politically-sourced trustees, and because their chancy tenure drives more tactical than strategic problem solving.  Methods of faculty creation, career evolution and performance assessment may be too entrenched, and research and publication too linked to external organizations to be easily transformed.

There are also contradictory effects and land mines in any reform agenda.  What-if, some of the same forces and motivations that have produced test-based public K-12 reform take root?  For example, a frequently cited element of reform, elimination of tenure, may be counterproductive, because tenure may be the last line of defense against the imposition of test-based attempted reform of collegiate classrooms.  Another, the speculation that the reform mode in public K-12, with its rote indulgence, will when it expresses in future college readiness, vastly increase the chasm between secondary education and collegiate learning values. 

The above just skim the challenge of higher education change.  It is a no-brainer to articulate the non-prioritized “should be” that link to and could modify higher education, but charting the critical paths that reform must take to either achieve anything, or avoid tipping a still working system into turmoil is clearly “not for dummies.”  The irony of this reform venue is that it will take layers of creativity, wisdom, servant leadership and some extraordinary courage to either change the existing infrastructure, or fashion some non-destructive institutional bypass solutions for needed post-secondary change.

Lastly, all of US education is standing on pillar of questionable thinking, and false dichotomy.  K-12 education and higher education are two tectonic plates, sliding past each other with neither recognizing the interdependence.  Equally debilitating, even our core concepts of education look like Swiss cheese.  Reflecting the item that usually heads the list of cognitive distortions, “all-or-nothing-thinking,” where is it written that one can’t be an educated welder or plumber or technician or service worker?  Does the name Eric Hoffer (longshoreman/philosopher) ring a bell?  American educational leadership at every level needs to rethink the assertion that the ultimate goal is (present) college for all, versus training qua education that supports sustainable careers and civic intelligence.  On the table as well, what an “education” really means, and whether our present stratified systems need to be subjected to hard analysis, and creatively repurposed for a future all of those strata seem to have myopically ignored.

Monday, April 20, 2015

A K-12 School Reform Survival Guide

Please consider this a school “reform" survival guide for local parents and students.  Originally intended as a LTE, the word count disabled the channel. With no avenue for mainstream circulation, these retrospective thoughts on Ohio public school fact versus fiction are being offered via some local social media.  Enjoy.

Reform Debate Turns Nasty

As so-called “corporate reform” and NCLB have proven ineffective in raising US public schools' overall performance, and encountered wide parental resistance, the rhetoric has become heated.  It is not just two opposed armies, but a pastiche of different players, motivated by different ideologies or hot buttons.  What is common is that misrepresentation of reality has occurred on all sides.

Here are some of the issues that impact your children, and prone to questionable claims:  That present standardized testing is central to securing needed learning; that our best and brightest education scholars created the tests; that the CCSSI (or misrepresented as “the” Common Core) is either a government plot to undermine our schools, or that it was also created by our best and brightest; that you will be penalized for having your children opt-out of the testing including PARCC; that anyone plugging “corporate reform” actually thought through what they imposed; that public school administration is good enough without its own reform; and that in Ohio CC+ courses taught by high school teachers will really be higher education where it is real.

Standardized Testing and CCSSI Under Fire

Our testing fiascoes are now so documented they run to books (probably the best starter resource overall is “The Answer Sheet” column of The Washington Post); that testing has become the antithesis of K-12 learning, both in substance, and in consuming time for genuine teaching and understanding. But what is not always realized is that all of the testing is coming from a handful of testing companies, reaping billions of dollars of revenue, lobbying every state legislature and arguably state department of education. Strategically, the very worst of the testing is that a small number of corporations, not educators, and anonymously, are determining what our nation calls K-12 knowledge; that defies sanity.

The so-called Common Core is one anonymous group’s, of not terribly accomplished resources, perspective of what K-12 knowledge should be.  It was ramrodded by David Coleman, who manages a testing company, to drive more testing.  Subsequent legitimate science core material was destroyed by CCSSI after it was originally created by the AAAS and postsecondary scientists.  Two views prevail here:  One, the core is a liberal plot — it isn’t though Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan endorse it to push their own agenda — and there is good argument that knowledge doesn’t change across localities, and that there should be some nationally recognized agreement on what knowledge is critical and universal (physics is still physics even in Texas); the second, undiscriminating endorsement by people who believe there should be a K-12 core and naively assume CCSSI’s offering is it.

The State of New York is leading the opt-out movement at the moment (recognize that our coasts have traditionally been the initiating sources of opinion leadership in many venues), and that number will approach 200K students this testing cycle.  There is no overall national count of parents opting-out of their children's testing, but it is growing in a statistical pattern associated with what is termed epidemiology.  That pattern is a slow takeoff, followed by exponential growth, until it tapers and approaches some limit. Parents are being subjected in Ohio to intimidation and lies about penalties, including from demagogic or less than courageous school administration, to block or slow opt-out.  Pragmatically, you have every right to opt-out, and the real world is there have been no penalties for states, nor is there even formulated policy supporting that.  Because legislation frequently lags public need, it may take massive opting-out to wake up our legislators or deflect their attention from lobbyists in tow.

Cool Analysis and Test Before Launching -- Not Here

Documented, but virtually ignored in the imposition of test-based reform, none of the postulates or models for NCLB’s application was tested or piloted before being carpet-bombed on America's public schools.  The corporate testing behemoth, led by Pearson Education, simply became entrenched before a public even knew it existed.  The result has been dirty tricks for a dozen years, including illegal lobbying and tests designed to produce failure, and now hints that companies are linking test questions and contents of their text sales to schools to coerce systems to buy their teaching materials.  When what is being taught your children is determined by a handful of testing companies, not by those who actually represent legitimate education, the US is in trouble.

Totally ignored until very recently, that America’s collegiate schools of education became stuck in the last century, meaning that many of our 3.3+MM teachers, and several hundred thousand principals and superintendents, have not been adequately educated and trained for the learning modes needed this century.  If that evokes the usual, 'but ours are just fine,' consider one major reality:  “Corporate reform,” that launched in 1980, led by the CEOs of America’s 100 largest corporations, didn’t happen because someone uttered a few public school negatives — it was launched with full awareness of what was involved because American industry distrusted our entire public system of schools.  Pure and simple, they were perceived as failing!  Had private sector America remained in control of reform, maybe it would have turned out differently?  But that start was followed by an outpouring of political ideology, the right sensing this was the moment to try to get rid of or shrink hated (assumed socialistic) public schools; hence, NCLB, charters, vouchers.

Last Century School Oversight

Full circle, no one thought to also question whether America’s BOE — unchanged for almost a century in states' requirements to serve — were being upgraded in any fashion to deal with the challenges; that means recruiting the best to serve, requiring competition where elected, requiring training before they can be seated, and demanding public transparency of BOE operations. The result, the regular ineptitude in hiring school leadership, that once hired became impossible to root out unless they committed a felony.  This area, more the rule than exception, is populated with school leadership that is distorted or flawed, and failing in contemporary service.  The facts are:  That the current school organizational model is medieval; that virtually no superintendent is being properly trained to manage a complex organization; that once installed, where a BOE consists of the timorous or phlegmatic, there is virtually no superintendent oversight; nor in far too many cases proper educational and psychological assessment of those hired that might reveal values not supporting the real education mission, or spot those seeking power over service and integrity.

Ohio's CC+ Initiative; Boon or Bust?

Moving on, Ohio’s CC+, with planning gaps, and little transparency of the reasoning and motivations footing the program, may function for a time by forcing credible Ohio higher education institutions to accept potentially mediocre postsecondary work.  But faculties in major colleges and universities still possess a degree of autonomy that means they need not value or make allowances for second- or third-rate postsecondary course work, resulting in a rough road for parents/students who opt to short cut better pre-higher education preparation.  Based on witnessing the butchery in NBS of a course that might have been a collegiate prototype for CC+, the part of Ohio’s plan enlisting public school teachers is poorly thought out, arguably by a bureaucracy that doesn’t fully comprehend collegiate education.  

There is no argument that in general US higher education, especially in the largest, multi-function/market institutions, has taken on a life of its own.  As our largest state institutions had their state support reduced over decades, forcing self-funding via tuition, marketing of other educational services, and aggressive (and successful) pursuit of endowment dollars, they also bought themselves a degree of independence of state oversight and control.  In a sense they have become their own nation-states, capable of resisting even the current broad calls for reduction of the costs of, and speeding up a collegiate education.  Largely unrecognized, because these institutions have been so successful in creating the personnel powering our private sector, and in attracting loyalty illustrated by endowments, they have put the private sector on their side blunting governmental efforts to control education costs.

Concluding CC+, if institutions like WSLC and Rhodes State are managed to create high quality entry baccalaureate teaching, and enrollees are screened for readiness, that part of the plan may serve Ohio’s parents and students.  An issue is that there is little evidence that the leaderships of these campuses are being installed based on that criterion for selection or management of course work.  Aside from quality, the greatest risk to a high school student loading up on CC+ course work before moving on, is whether the offerings these local campuses can support will mesh with the diversity of curricula already installed in any major institution.  The formula for disaster is a WSLC, seeking local approval, becoming too ambitious in building curricula and offering options that they lack the faculty to support.  At the moment, there appears little recognition of the role that could be played by MOOC edX and Coursera in upgrading the quality, for example, of classroom work from a WSLC.

Ohio Secondary's a Loser; Fake Higher?

Perhaps the most telling criticism of, not just Ohio’s CC+, but other similar efforts across the US, is:  Why are we risking dumbing-down higher education by splinter programs on the periphery of 9-12, when we have broadly failed to upgrade basic 9-12 public school curricula and teaching capacities to support college-readiness?  One gets the impression of a point of view that says; 'well, we flunked 9-12, so let’s correct that by trying to offer even higher level work employing different pedagogy, but with basically the same assets and culture?' In some quarters where the real world intervenes, the reaction might be, you have one oar in the water!

Where the Buck Stops

If there is a benediction to this, it is do your own homework before buying off on any of Ohio’s current education non-thinking.  As in the standardized testing and PARCC cases, CC+ is optional as well.  A prudent parent would do some homework on cost-benefit before plunging into this Ohio flyer with a questionable rudder.  Also reflect that the “opportunity cost” of a CC+ track for their child probably swamps the actual dollar costs, and will hang around the student's neck far longer than it takes to pay the out-of-pocket bill.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Proposal to St. Marys SMCSD BOE


MEMO

DATE:   11 March 2015 

TO:       SMCSD BOE

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

Appendix:

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

Background 

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. 

Proposal 

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. 

Timing 

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. 

Instruments 

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. 

Preparation 

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. 

Resources 

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. 

Timetable 

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. 

Initiating 

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…