Monday, February 11, 2013

Alternate K-12 Organization Part Two: Reality Bites

This is part two of a series, to try to assess other organizational models for public K-12, still mired in a late 19th/early 20th century “manufacturing model” of education.

The ultimate mission is to speculate about organization models that might better position public education to simultaneously deal with present invasive and despotic standardized test-based attempted change, and the real learning issues facing those schools in preparing their clients for a vastly different world beyond 2020-2025.

Part Two Vectors

For part two, the point of view attempted will be closer to the street level of a K-12 system, versus the normative introduction of part one.  This next in the series has been challenging, almost de-enervating, because of the chasm between the normative characterizations of part one, and the reality of how organizations – no matter the purity of original design – actually evolve.

The real world organization, irrespective of its venue, departs from design.  First, the formal organization almost immediately departs from the norm by evolving an informal structure, how work really gets accomplished.  The informal structure, if recognized by leadership, can be finessed to facilitate performance; unrecognized or ignored, it circumvents or warps processes and results.  Perhaps one of the more prominent recent examples of the syndrome was GM, where before and even after the bailout, and until rescue CEO Ed Whittaker’s changes, a massive informal structure and culture had crippled its capacities for competing.

Second, any organization in interacting with dynamic environments usually adapts, is twisted, nudged, or tweaked, and adopts exceptions to survive and achieve.  That is why classic simplistic depictions of organizations via boxes or tables of organization delude; it is why the 150 year-old model of public K-12 can still be offered up as functional, but create failure.

And third, while there is a theoretical independence between organization structure and the human resources tasked to manage it, reality is that the two can be highly interactive, where the character of leadership shapes effective organization behavior.  Risks in the latter mode in the private sector are usually recognized, for example, the firm that cannot survive the loss of its founder or peak coordinator.  A risk in public education is that while a corporate board, for example, can purge members, local school boards and their superintendent progeny can be almost immune from oversight in the short term.  

But if the goal is alternate models of K-12, where do you start?  One answer, and the preferred one for this outing, is with the organization’s missions and goals.  It is apocryphal that in the 21st century, many public school boards and systems have finally chosen to ask the question:  What is our mission?  Let’s be clear from the outset, the proposition of this blog is that the overriding mission of public education is not passing enough standardized tests to avoid a state’s F or D grade, or conditionally creating alleged “college readiness,” or even creating some target graduation rate unless the prequels to and standards for that achievement are fully designated.

Missions and Goals

The assertion is that the top of the chart of factors effecting organization form depicts the mission and goals.  Simplistically, would you organize a tactical combat unit in an active conflict zone as an academic learning community? Conversely, would you organize an academic and collaborative learning community along the lines of classic command and control?  Parenthetically, there are public K-12 administrators sufficiently ignorant of management to do that, but hopefully a minority.

While assuming the question of what a K-12 education should be and produce is clear, the answers to the question get messy very quickly. Google the goals of K-12 education:  One churns up 15,400,000 references.  But here is a start from a blog on “the trenches of school reform:”

“That’s been one of the unresolved issues in American education.  We have to teach so much content that we often end up teaching superficially and too broadly. What content must students  understand in depth? What can we leave out? As Sam Chaltain says in his blog on Huffington Post: “Of all the things we can do together, what must we do?” Not only does this quotation fit decisions about curriculum, but it is quite fitting for the school reform movement as well.

Goal #1:  Students must graduate prepared to be responsible citizens in a democracy.

Goal #2:  Students must be able to read critically and think critically. They must be able to distinguish fact from opinion.  I include two opposing points of view regarding critical thinking.  Some people, Lynn Cheney, fear that if American students learn to think critically that they will not be as patriotic as she would like. (If you have read Diane Ravitch’s, Life and Death of the Great American School System, you know that Lynn Cheney was largely responsible for putting the skids on school reform many, many years ago.) All of the items are there because we need to have a national conversation about what the goals of American education should be.

Goal #3:  “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire” (William Butler Yeats), and a life-time love of learning.

Goal #4:  “I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning to sail my ship” (Aeschylus).

Goal #5: “Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one” (Malcolm Forbes), and “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it” (Aristotle).

Goal #6:  “No one has yet realized the wealth of sympathy, the kindness and generosity hidden in the soul of a child. The effort of every true education should be to unlock that treasure” (Emma Goldman), and empathy – the ability to walk in another’s shoes, the ability to put oneself in another’s place.

Goal #7:  “The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives” (Robert M. Hutchins).

Goal #8:  “The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows” (Sydney J. Harris).

Goal #9:   “The one real goal of education is to leave a person asking questions” (Max Beerbohm).

Goal #10:  “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too”  (Voltaire).

Goal #11: “Students come to us having sat around for twelve years expressing attitudes toward things rather than analyzing. … They are always ready to tell you how they feel about an issue, but they have never learned how to construct a rational argument to defend their opinions” (R. Jackson Wilson, professor, Smith College).”

Parenthetically, being “college-ready,” being a high school graduate, and passing the last standardized test did not make the above list.

Quarreling With the Shakers, Movers, and the Myopic

In the real world of management – whether it is to direct the functions of a school, a not-for-profit, a business enterprise, or even an element of government – there are distinctions that permit the above three operational objectives to come to the front.  But the point is those objectives are the downstream products of the organization’s strategic goals, delineated to direct short term tactics, action plans, scheduling, and other disaggregated components of the larger mission, but in the context of the larger mission.  Not unexpectedly, the present reform mantras target tactics ignoring the rest of any intelligent depiction of management logic.

It has become clear that a few human resources – for example, Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation – are disproportionately driving present K-12 reform tactics; essentially imposing US school reform without representation.  It is equally clear that some or all of that few have not been educators, and even have difficulty comprehending the core missions of K-12 learning.  The reasons are not mysterious; a new book details the biases we harbor:

“For more than 30 years, psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald have been studying the unconscious biases that take root in our brains, coloring everything from hiring decisions to how doctors mete out medical care and judges pass sentence. If you don’t think you harbor any such mental stowaways…then log onto Harvard’s Project Implicit and prepare to be disappointed in someone you never knew held such appalling views: you.”

This is detailed in Banaji and Greenwald’s book, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.

But proposing alternate K-12 organization models demands, first, some consensus on goals as a prerequisite.  Fortuitously, there are US education resources far more eloquent than this blogger.  So here are some of the most impressive contemporary discussions of US K-12 goals as a platform for downstream proposals.

At the top of the list is a response to positions of the Gates Foundation by nationally recognized teacher Anthony Cody.  If you choose to only read a few of the following references, please read this one.  Cody eloquently addresses the issue head on, with effect. 

I would add only one observation to Cody’s effort to address K-12 purpose, the almost universal mantra of Gates, Obama, Duncan, and other alleged reformers, that the overriding purpose of public K-12 is a never defined “college readiness.”  For openers, it is doubtful those using the term know what that means, for the estrangement of US public K-12 versus US higher education is legend.  Next, the objective without major qualification is absurd, because of the diversity of postsecondary options now present.  Lastly, but perhaps the most potent reason, higher education is overdue for its own reform, and there is little consensus how exploding costs and technology may change even its basic parameters by the time K-12 candidates enter its input stream.

The second offering of K-12 mission is from an unlikely media source, Forbes, but featuring an opinion piece by management guru and author, Steve Denning, author of RADICAL MANAGEMENT: Rethinking leadership and innovation.  Denning believes a retro view of management being imposed by present reform has become a public K-12 poison pill.

A third offering goes beyond goals by operationalizing what middle primary and up US learning could and should be, by nationally-recognized educator and author, Marion Brady.  Marion, in education far longer than this writer, has created a process curriculum that is intelligent, creative, and doable, and develops genuine learning.  It might be termed the chemistry of learning 101 – just add content to his catalysts, where “content” is the substantive knowledge/principles/data constituents of the various disciplines applicable to middle primary through secondary education.  One could make a convincing case for dumping the bizarre methods-riddled CCSSI products steeped in political correctness, in favor of Dr. Brady's learning model.

A necessary fourth addition to goals is because our technology trajectory is real and will have to be mastered to support future R&D, economics, and even social interaction.   That technology will only expand, and will change the warp and woof of public K-12 and higher education whether it is resisted or not.  The offering is by Dr. David Thornburg, Director of the Thornburg Center and Senior Fellow of the Congressional Institute for the Future.  Prior to working in education, David was one of the first members of the Xerox Palo Alto Research (or PARC) Center, famous as the genesis of modern computing.

Trying to summarize these offerings diminishes them.  The complexity of their composite perspectives is what is needed to weed out of present reform the overly and destructively simplistic, the hypocritical, and the embedded biases many based on false premises.  Suffice to say, the sum of all linked is virtually the exact opposite of what present reform is superimposing on public K-12 and the nation’s children.  

Creation of the “standardized child” may be the noble goal of a White House steeped in utopian beliefs and a quest for social justice, linked with, paradoxically, less than noble corporate ideology seeking new markets and profits from exploiting public K-12 education and the good old days of creating minimally proficient human factory/office fodder.   But neither square with the world as it will evolve by the time its (uncontrolled, untested, and knowledge-challenged) ad hoc reform experiments have either run their course or undermined real learning.

New Inputs/New Debacles

Recently some new findings have been added to the stew.  Reported in the premier journal Science, a finding that reflects the risks of present reform tactics, and another development that undercuts the reform movement’s premises.

The first finding emerges from a study of IQ testing, and the question of whether, over time, our American society is getting smarter.  A finding is that performance on rote materials at the primary level is likely improving, but when students reach the secondary grades and adulthood, that increment disappears, based on testing.  The proposition is that later learning is highly dependent on constructivistic use of knowledge rather than recall of disaggregated materials and constructs.

The second emerges from study of K-12 science learning, and the development of “learning progressions” reinforced by practice, versus simply continuously layering facts or disaggregated concepts in greater detail or scope. 

This in turn has become a major issue in trying to improve science education via the NGSS, or Next Generation Science Standards, that are supposed to link with the so-called Common Core standards for reading and math.  Reported in the recent editorial in Science, the real scientists that evolved the NGSS standards:

“…put forth a vision of science education that is notable for emphasizing student participation in key science and engineering practices, such as asking questions and defining problems; developing and using models; engaging in argument from evidence; and learning cross-cutting concepts such as energy and matter, cause and effect, and structure and function. To allow room for these in the school day, the Framework stressed the importance of minimizing the number of disciplinary core ideas that standards require to be taught.

But the sheer volume of content referenced in the Framework moves to the foreground in the NGSS draft and threatens to undermine this promise. Any emphasis on practices requires a science-rich conceptual context, and certainly the core ideas and cross-cutting concepts presented are useful here. However, the draft contains a vast number of core disciplinary ideas and sub-ideas, leaving little or no room for anything else. 

The NGSS draft document addresses this challenge by delineating many performance expectations. However, current measurements and approaches do not allow these types of performances to be assessed easily; it is much more difficult to evaluate the quality of such engagement than to determine the accuracy of an explanation or a word definition. Urgently needed is a vigorous R&D agenda that pursues new methods of and approaches to assessment. This will be difficult but critically important long-term work. A systematic commitment to the wrong quantitative measures, such as the inexpensive multiple-choice testing of factoids, may well result in the appearance of gains at the tremendous cost of suppressing important aspects of learning, attending to the wrong things in instruction, and conveying to students a distorted view of science.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to discern what influences and what beliefs distorted these emerging science standards crafted by legitimate scientists, and how performance is to be measured.  Clearly, our best and brightest were not the culprits.

The Complexity of Organization Change

On the basis of what you will read from above, if you do, is a robust conclusion that continuing unchanged that 150 year-old model of public K-12 likely won’t pull America up by its K-12 learning bootstraps.  How could it change?  Is organization change per se the right or applicable mechanism for changing learning performance?  And, materially, what is the environment for evolving K-12 organization change?

Following are three vignettes that span the good, the bad, and the ugly, and underscore that envisioning alternate K-12 organization is not as simple as invoking the table of contents of a management text.  The first example suggests that present public K-12 can be fixed without structural change.  The second suggests that reform that simply targets the nation’s teachers is ethically challenged.  The third illustrates still another K-12 failure mode, the pernicious effects of ignorance and dogmatism.

The first example, by David Kirp, a public policy professor at UC/Berkeley, is reported in Sunday's New York Times.  It relates a genuine K-12 success story, in a very difficult setting, Union City, NJ, a poor community with an unemployment rate 60 percent over the national average, and where three-quarters of the students are in homes where only Spanish is spoken.  But the results belie the environment:

Public schools in such communities have often operated as factories for failure. This used to be true in Union City, where the schools were once so wretched that state officials almost seized control of them. How things have changed. From third grade through high school, students’ achievement scores now approximate the statewide average. What’s more, in 2011, Union City boasted a high school graduation rate of 89.5 percent — roughly 10 percentage points higher than the national average. Last year, 75 percent of Union City graduates enrolled in college, with top students winning scholarships to the Ivies.

What makes Union City remarkable is, paradoxically, the absence of pizazz. It hasn’t followed the herd by closing “underperforming” schools or giving the boot to hordes of teachers. No Teach for America recruits toil in its classrooms, and there are no charter schools.

Organization change here appears redundant; the subtle and creative capacities to manage and motivate within a traditional structure are a lesson in real management and leadership of public K-12.

Example two, reported by Cody, comes from Chicago’s K-12 system, not unexpectedly once Arne Duncan’s education domain.  It is self-explanatory: 

“Over the summer, teachers were asked to develop performance assessments aligned to the Common Core Standards. In some cases teachers were paid for their extra work, but in many cases, educators volunteered their time because they really wanted home-grown performance- and portfolio-based assessments. Those with whom I have talked - more than twenty - were excited that they were finally being deferred to on assessment development, that they felt that they were being treated as professionals, and they were glad to participate. They worked long hours over the summer, were proud of what they had created, and were excited to use it this year.

On Aug. 6th, teachers went back to school for five days of professional development. Over the course of that week, curriculum and instruction changes were implemented unilaterally, from the top-down. A very clear example is in a school on the southwest side where AP courses were taken away and replaced with remedial reading courses. The instructors were given 12 boxes of books with canned curricula from Pearson Education. It seems CPS made a contract with Pearson behind the teachers’ backs. Immediately all the teachers who had worked so hard over the summer to develop great assessments and aligned units, saw how CCSS was a ‘Trojan horse,’ for standardized curricula.”

Beat up the teachers to improve K-12; this suggests that alleged reform was launched at the wrong end of the education function silo?

The third set of examples is from the regional turf of this blog, a rural slice of Ohio that is highly politically reactionary and steeped in beliefs that are comfortable to self-rationalization, but unlike the NJ example is middle class, lacking minorities, with relatively high average family income and adequate school funding.  These are K-12 systems frequently quite savvy in at least one respect, proselytizing their parents to support the systems and levies without questioning the latter's true performance.  They can be identified by the almost dippy universal presence of school decals plastered on vehicles, their propaganda, and the proliferation of yard signs proclaiming a school mascot and their progeny’s sports association.

You couldn't even make up this stuff:  An area K-12 superintendent operating with a rigid command and control model, sarcastically vilifying and excluding anyone who violated the chain, including parents.  Add under that control, the system’s addition of a marketing course to the curriculum, accessible by 10-11-12 students, without any economics or behavior prerequisites.  When the course’s organization (and even relevance in those grade bands) was challenged, it required Ohio’s open records law and threat of a mandamus lawsuit to see the proposed course outline.  When revealed, and critiqued by two academic and practicing marketing professionals, the course was described as questionable for 10-12, and a collection of marketing buzz words, lacking any coherent structure, designed and to be taught by a marginally qualified teacher.  When that critique was communicated, and assistance offered, the superintendent misrepresented that the course would be reviewed, then immediately offered the course as is.

Next, envision an area K-12 public system detached from reality, existing in an imaginary world of its own construction, defensive, parochial, and resistant to transparency. This is a system that has since NCLB used test scores and "creative" data management to hype mediocrity as excellence.  Its last decade’s procession of four superintendents has ranged from being morally, and allegedly ethically, intellectually, and managerially to socially challenged.  Its graduates will exit to a real world they have never studied and futures never anticipated, a gritty but legitimate condemnation of such systems and their alleged leadership.

That system’s boards – also responsible for the vetting and those hires – have demonstrated dogmatism and resistance to public critique, and manipulation to try to control board membership.  The performances would appear incredible even as fiction. Its last levy attempt was allegedly laced with misrepresentation and fraud in basically trying to tax 150 percent of the funding sought for a new building, for purposes never revealed but rumored to be an attempt to fund another sports facility bypassing community scrutiny. But as explanation, albeit weak defense of the system and board, both are simply direct products of the community's ingrown culture, and a community-wide attitude that cannot admit it might ever be wrong.

The archetypes above are a tragedy of current isolated and bureaucratized public K-12 education in some of America’s non-urban heartland and bubbles. They demean local control.  They explain why high profile testing-based reform of selective or news-worthy systems will likely never change much of America's 99,000 public school population below the radar. Conversely, there are isolated local systems that are competent, transparent, and even creative, but have no way to fend off the invasion of testing and simplistic state grading (in some cases politically corrupted state departments of education) to continue to focus on what really works as learning and meets local needs versus political correctness.

Organization Change Opportunity

The citations above challenge any simple assertion of how to realign K-12 structure.  What is clear is that one-size-does-not-fit-all.  That speaks to the merit of allowing local inputs and environments to condition the specific organization for public K-12.  It also suggests some other forms of organization planning and control are necessary if local determination is to be preserved in the current drive asserting Federal, state, and shadow political controls.

Subject to more sorting, the prime candidates for K-12 structure change would appear to be:
  • Locus of system oversight, perhaps multiple points.
  • The way school boards are chosen; requirements to serve.
  • Oversight of school boards.
  • Restructuring reporting and oversight of school CEOs.
  • Alternative assessment/audit of education and finance functions.
  • Rethinking parental roles.
  • Roles and functions of a school CEO.
  • Functional assignments among system resources.
  • New roles for teachers.
  • Rethinking core processes.
  • Rethinking tracks.
  • Alternate grade bands; alternatives to grades.
  • Means of defeating learning costs of grade band transitions.
  • Envisioning new public-private alignments.
  • Structuring school-environment boundary management.
  • Outsourcing opportunities including instructional.
  • Division of instruction between classroom and online.
  • Instructional and testing technology development.
  • Outsourcing classroom research on what works.
  • Matching learning strategies to physical plant specification.  
Part three will seek a crosscut of the strongest K-12 mission/goals against the above elements of organizational design.  Perhaps, as the NJ example implies, the way to improve US public K-12 is in the soft but complex areas of how leadership is executed, a contrast with the hard(er) properties of change in structure?  

But the sobering property of that option is where change then has to be kick-started:  The sources of our public K-12 human resources, our MIA schools of education -- failing in screening selectivity and fully equipping potential teachers, failing to do needed research, and shorting contemporary managerial and leadership education for administrators; the complex process of recruiting and vetting school leadership, something few present school boards appear equipped to do; and the leveraged effect of poor leadership choice at a school level, then potentially reflected in suboptimal downstream human resource hires by that leadership.

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