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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 03/17/2012

Fourteen reasons schools are troubled (and no, it’s not all about teachers)

This was written by Ronald Willett, a former university professor, researcher and administrator, and former corporate executive, entrepreneur and CEO. For the last decade, as an avocation, he has tracked and researched U.S. K-12, and advocated its legitimate reform and pursuit of innovation.

By Ronald Willett

It is both bizarre and egregious to see a big lie used in the movement to allegedly reform America’s public K-12 schools: That is, America’s teachers are the fulcrum and sole arbiters of whether U.S. public K-12 education is working.

Some underprepared and underperforming teachers are undoubtedly in the roster of causal factors for schools’ learning deficits. Juxtaposed against approximately 3.5 million U.S. human resources practicing the profession just in K-12, and the propositions by J. C. F. Gauss, it is amazing that the franchise is as excellent as it has been.

After a decade of studying U.S. K-12 education, in some cases up close and personal, I think it is likely that a larger fraction of underprepared, besieged, or dogmatic K-12 principals and superintendents are accountable. The two former conditions trace to marginal preparation for the organizational and management tasks faced, a product of sub-par managerial training, and an organizational culture that is more complex than most private sector firms a multiple in asset size or head counts.

The latter condition is more problematic, a function of Lord Acton’s most famous lament (“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”), and the discontinuity between qualities required by a de facto educational CEO versus how they are recruited and hired. Few local school boards have the experience to hire a superintendent, who may hold an EdD or PhD, and needs the vetting aligned with the management challenge of a complex system.

Aggravating the challenge, in the writer’s home state the only requirement to become a superintendent, given prior district or system service, is a one-page application and check payable to its Department of Education, along with a job offer as a superintendent. The department lacks even the manpower to verify degrees claimed.

This is just a beginning to understanding why our teachers should not be burned at the stake. There are 12 other entities that play a major role in whether a district, or school, or even a classroom can meet our learning goals:

* Inept local school boards; this is not just an off-hand pejorative, but the result of decades of refusal of states to attempt serious reform of how boards are chosen and held accountable. There is also this puzzling conundrum: How does a group of intelligent, generally public-spirited, and frequently professional citizens taken individually, turn into a paranoid, secretive, and self-righteous organization, that either micromanages, plugs minutiae, or hides and is intimidated by school administration?

* Politicized state boards of education as a byproduct of the mashup of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and ideology, leaving even educationally aware departments caught between the U.S. Department of Education, state legislatures, and limited dollar resources and information to assert better strategies.

* A corporate testing and textbook oligopoly, producing testing that bypasses genuine learning; now suspect of even rigging some testing to assure failures, to sustain the demand for tests and scoring.

* A small army of opportunistic charter school and voucher entrepreneurs.

* The U.S. Department of Education, that as late as a couple of years ago was actually focusing on legitimate classroom research on what actually works.

* A pedantic or “tracked” Arne Duncan, and misinformed President Obama, who in a liberal surge to erase educational inequity have smashed head-on into the “law of unintended consequences.”

* The political right wing’s sworn enemies of public education.

* Naïve advocacy by Gates and Kopp, et al., including even the now highly praised Kahn Academy and its bite-sized learning menu abstracted from MIT’s free STEM and other curricula, that still manage to bypass genuine knowledge creation as defined by students of learning.

* A sluggish and partisan U.S. Congress, that could have made No Child Left Behind into something rational.

* The K-12 public education establishment itself, and its unions, that delayed far too long to start internally reforming their strategies and rubrics to respond to both market needs, organizational innovation, and the neural science of learning firming up in the last decade.

* Most of our collegiate schools of education that have taken a knee or run for cover rather than stand up and execute needed self-reform.

* Growing American economic and cultural poverty surrounding too many of its children, and that even when it was earlier improving, was still an acknowledged tactical impediment to learning for many children at the classroom level.

The observant reader may note that the above list is one short. Here it is, though it is not politically correct to say: “America’s K-12 parents.”

So, metaphorically, kill the bad teachers and learning will automatically improve? More likely, do that and in ten years the United States will have to have most K-12 education online, or home-schooled, or see a doubling of class sizes.

Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp can work like a demon to extract more grant and foundation dollars, and the United States will still have a teacher crisis because every TFA teacher will likely need to have their hand held by a master teacher for at least several years to become effective in a classroom, or the cultural impact of demonizing some teachers will halo to all teachers — already happening — throttling motivation to even approach the profession. Another unthinking victim of the aforementioned “law.”

The arguments to date about the flaws in present standardized testing are damaging enough to be grounds for getting back to sanity. But even these arguments pale compared to the misdirection of reform created by simply ignoring that K-12 education is not a one-cause system, and that it will take a balanced portfolio to change U.S. K-12 learning performance.

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