K-12 Reform: The Fog of War

The public K-12 reform movement that was initiated with NCLB has now been underway for a decade. The perhaps unintended consequences of the alleged reform have expanded to expenditure of double-digit billions of taxpayer dollars without material K-12 improvement, and have taken on the properties of a cold war. The protagonists have multiplied, in this election going beyond a government versus public education dyad, to engaging education’s civilians, parents and voters as in Indiana’s state superintendent race.
As any conflict escalates, the categories of adversaries expand, and all can become enveloped in the “fog of war.” The term, coined by Prussian military analyst Carl von Clausewitz in 1837, “seeks to capture the uncertainty regarding one’s own capability, adversary capability, and intent during an engagement, operation, or campaign.” Our reform conflicts have now reached a stage where a growing question is; who is doing what to whom, and inferentially why? Intentions may not be what they seem.
The Protagonists
The expanding list of competitors in reform now embraces: Public education unions; our K-12 teachers under direct attack on a battlefield tilted to undercut them, and virtually without defensive weapons; public education’s administrative bureaucracies and bureaucrats, distinct from its teacher foot-soldiers, some gingerly responding to the attacks on public K-12, some in denial and acting out retro dogmatism; states’ departments of education frequently politicized; the US Department of Education and an Arne Duncan who may or may not represent either intellectualism or Federalism; political advocates such as Jeb Bush, arguably using public education as a whipping-boy to press a political aspiration; billionaire zealots such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Mark Zuckerberg, and others, who have become self-anointed thought promoters in education; one-cause advocates such as Wendy Kopp and Michelle Rhee with uncertain motivations that may include personal self-promotion; a growing number of professional students of education championing learning ideals over pragmatism; a Common Core State Standards Initiative with a murky provenance and mission; our states’ Republican governors pushing an apparently party line advocating wholesale privatization of America’s K-12 schools; a cabal of corporations supplying for profit the standardized tests and related scoring inundating K-12 schools nationally; some cluster of collegiate academics marketing their alleged expertise to push VAM teacher assessment models; collegiate schools of education almost invisible in foxholes; and finally as noted above, the general public is now becoming directly engaged.
Even the above narrative may not capture the subsets of public education contestants, or the reform enclaves, with still other motivations.
In this evolving mass of protagonists, the motivations of each becomes more and more difficult to clearly discern; what has become evident is that many of the players have values and mission objectives for the competition that have little to do with improving our nation’s K-12 learning. One theme that becomes clearer with every escalation of testing and attempted privatization, is that critically, political ideology is in danger of trumping pursuit of real learning.
The Fog of War
Consider some of the bizarre contradictions littering the present US K-12 reform venues:
  • In numerous rural and suburban public K-12 systems and their bubbles, the public education enclave seems virtually oblivious to being challenged, covering their eyes and ears. One explanation for the denial may be that one of the reform mission objectives seems other-worldly — it would involve replacing almost 100,000 US public schools with privatized versions, and absorbing almost 3.5MM teachers, where there are presently few competently managed and successful takeovers of public K-12 systems.
  • Most public schools, in turn, are acquiescing to respond to every test demand, even sacrificing teachers to discredited testing and VAM models to not offend the reformers and jeopardize funding. Simultaneously, most public education administrators can’t surface the courage to address the simplest question: Why do all of those folks hate us?
  • Present organization of US public schools is over 100 years old, but has never been challenged, or allowed challenge, though behavioral concepts of organization have undergone major change and refinement.
  • Hunkered down in this milieu are public school boards, an electorate, and even our press, who rarely see their own system as a problem (it’s always the other community’s system, and ours is just fine thank you), and are frequently too intimidated or trusting to demand system transparency and accountability.
  • The so-called corporate reform movement, the authors of standardized tests and VAM teacher assessment, still lack credible research validating that standardized testing. Yet the back room psychometricians in those firms are becoming the de facto arbiters of what constitutes K-12 knowledge in public schools. That is frightening, not because there may not be reasonable knowledge awareness in that expertise, or even because the function is motivated by greed and control, but because the education system is essentially in danger of outsourcing without adequate quality assurance their basic stock in trade as an institution, and as professionals.
  • Appearing in this week’s mail was a nationally promulgated and passionate assault on the Common Core Standards — the highly indignant basis, that they are the product of an overreaching Federal initiative. Except the actual title of the process that developed these alleged standards is CCSSI, standing for “common core state standards initiative.” Its own web site aggressively, even sarcastically, proclaims that the standards have absolutely nothing to do with the US Department of Education, or any other Federal initiative. Adding to the bizarre assault, the standards’ contents were overseen by a committee of some of the least impressive and highly parochial educational resources in the US. To introduce even more weirdness, public K-12 is gobbling them up, when the educational values being represented are proximate to ones being expressed by some of those trying to torpedo public K-12.
  • Our collegiate schools of education, watching a Wendy Kopp and her “Teach for America” reap millions of dollars for advocating bypassing those same schools for our K-12 teachers, stay hunkered down and have shown even less visible awareness and defensive vitality than our public school bureaucracies.
  • Lastly, repetitive studies dating even before the onset of this century and NCLB, have asserted and demonstrated evidence that virtually nothing in public K-12 education tactics that can be reformed can materially change the learning of children lacking stable families, or socioeconomically challenged, or culturally challenged, or experiencing unattended physical or psychological challenges, short of changing those familial, socioeconomic, cultural, and health basics.
Digesting the above, one is tempted to actually believe that one sequela of quantum “string theory,” that we may inhabit a multiverse, could humorously well be true. Metaphorically, the entire population of public K-12 education’s protagonists and segmented participants in conflict could easily be viewed as existing in alternative universes. The issue is, that as presently arrayed, public K-12 reform challengers and defenders are all over the map in mission objectives. Reform is still being positioned as a zero-sum game; public K-12 has to surrender for reform to win?

On the other side of the skirmish line, a part of our public K-12 infrastructure and leadership is still living in a past century, self-righteous, resistant to learning innovation, many inadequately trained for the 21st century’s knowledge and technology explosion, and either retreating into denial of the conflict, or willing to cheat and prostitute themselves to sustain control.

The US system of public school board oversight has its own challenges, either intimidated by system administration, or sycophant to an enclave that elected them, but regularly resistant to transparency and input. Many boards enter their terms nobly, and with high aspirations, but are quickly subjected to conflicting local values and wants. In many communities despite our states’ low bar for candidacy, well educated candidates are elected, but still enter that service as educational neophytes. What comes to dominate is risk aversion and concern with routine; versus properly vetting administrative hires, reducing K-12 school costs and resisting new levy solutions, modernizing budgeting and planning models, brainstorming how to increase learning productivity, lassoing out-of-control system bureaucrats, and putting learning objectives ahead of safe choices?

Where can you cut into the Gordian Knot?

Just appearing on the horizon, one factor that may change the game is a product of the 2012 election, not its outcome, but the grass roots processes it innovated, now virtually daily expanding and applied to citizens’ capacities to be directly heard. The Internet and social media have exploded the capacity to acquire within days and even hours, millions of virtual public signatures petitioning for redress of perceived wrongs, whether in governments or the private sector. As person-on-the-street awareness of the public K-12 wars finally increases one game changer may be their direct entry into the fray.

At the opposite end of a continuum, it may take a top down political solution to end conflict, and restore American public education and K-12 stability and progress.

Growls and Fangs
This is like throwing one ribeye into a cage of hungry pit bulls, but reading of some real history of our founding suggests that the Founders, as prescient as they were, were clueless what would happen to knowledge of all aspects of this universe. Imagine envisioning in the late 1700s, moving from buggy whips to Martian Rovers, to complex social diversity, to electrons replacing an abacus, the human genome and related genomes of all living organisms, to quanta to galaxies to dark matter/energy, or that an entire nation’s citizens (in counts never conceived) would ever need a broad liberal as well as science-based education, and that it might need to be compulsory.

The Founders and Constitution did not factually and overtly dedicate public education control to the states, but simply had no basis for projecting learning for national parameters never envisioned, and that the process would need some central values and checks and balances. It will infuriate our K-12 privatization and local control radicals, and it may not be the ultimate prescription for an entrepreneurial America, but any remediation of an untenable and unsustainable K-12 future, as being currently railroaded, may have to come from Constitutional change to allow more Federal integration and control of parts of our full K-12 education system.

Education in America, standing just behind defense, and in close proximity to environmental remediation as a future harbinger, is arguably a function that should be selectively coordinated at a national level to end a war on learning. The argument that genuine knowledge is now different in Mystical, TX versus Myopic, OH, versus Imaginary, IN, versus Funky, FL, or in any other population center in our nation, or materially depends on religious beliefs, is the thinking of those who categorically missed a genuine education.