Finding the Capacity to Build Pre-Collegiate Schooling Capacity
by Dick Schutz - July 11, 2016
U.S. federal government efforts over the last 50 years to strengthen elementary and secondary education have focused on instructional deficits and instructional gaps of disadvantaged students rather than on creating the capacity to improve the pre-collegiate schooling enterprise. The commentary finds that it is now feasible to operationally realize the intent of Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) 1965, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and Race to the Top (RttT) with transparent results and without additional taxpayer cost.
In reauthorizing the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 2015, Congress recognized that the commitment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to teach all children to read and do arithmetic by 2014 had failed and that the Race to the Top (RttT) commitment that all students would graduate from high school college and/or be career ready by 2020 had no likelihood of being met. The new bumper sticker law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), punts the responsibility for governmental leadership in pre-collegiate schooling to the 50 states. It is an opportunity for 50 bright beginnings but the states individually and collectively currently have nothing more than the failed capacity of the federal government to bring to bear. Where is the capacity to build schooling to be found? The time frame is now and not in some distant future and this commentary sketches an experience-based scenario for tapping present educational capacity.
A SOLID START IN THE BEGINNING
Imagine 50 years ago back to 1965. President Kennedy had been assassinated two years earlier and President Johnson promised the U.S. a Great Society. Elementary and secondary education is believed to be the prime means of realizing Johnsons ambitious intent and Congress has appropriated $100 million for the construction of Education Laboratories (Ed Labs) to conduct the research and development (R&D) intended to energize U.S. schools and sustain the Great Society (Bailey & Mosher, 1968, p. 254). This appropriated money would amount to over $700 million in current currency and bought a large amount of Education Laboratory space. The framers of ESEA were thinking big.
The labs were the brainchild of John Gardner, then Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), who believed that the only thing the federal government knew how to do well domestically was write checks. Gardner envisioned the Ed Labs as counterparts to the NASA Labs that were to get us to the moon: the federal government would pay for but not control the operations of the quasi-nongovernmental Ed Lab organizations. Not only was there no federal control of the Ed Labs but there was not even any hint of federal government intent beyond the big bucks appropriation for the construction of the laboratory facilities as per this hypothetical discussion:
Q: What is a lab supposed to do?
A: Meet the education needs of the region.
Q: What is a region?
A: You tell us.
Q: What do we need to tell you?
A: What is your region? What are the regions educational needs? What R&D are you going to conduct to meet the needs?
Q: What federal regulations do we have to meet?
A: None have been written. Just send us a prospectus requesting a planning grant of $90,000 for three months.
The U.S. Office of Education awarded twelve planning grants on February 23, 1965 (Bailey & Mosher, 1968, p. 170). I remember the date because the American Educational Research Association (AERA), a very small organization at the time, always held its annual meeting in Chicago over the George Washington Birthday holiday on February 22. While teaching educational psychology at Arizona State University, I had been working with colleagues at Systems Development Corporation (SDC), which is no longer in existence. SDC was a spinoff of RAND working on system development for the Air Force. It was also supposed to work on the prospectus for the Southwest Regional Laboratory for Educational Research and Development (SWRL) including the regions of Southern California, Arizona, and Southern Nevada.
Clerical staff at SDC arranged an initial planning meeting for the following Monday and I flew in early that morning to attend. When I arrived, the small meeting room was filled to capacity with over 50 people and I was told that SDCs chairman was home sick because he had forgotten to pack his overcoat when he visited bitter cold Chicago. In his absence, I was asked to chair the meeting. I told the group that the lab was just getting started and I suggested we could use the meeting to introduce ourselves and discuss anything people thought the lab should do. The attendees were from major local school districts and county education offices and were looking to leave whatever jobs they were holding. None had any experience or training in research. Most said they would help but some had ideas. The one idea I remember was from a principal of a middle school who told us, Middle school is the place to concentrate. Its the last chance to save the kids and unless youve lived with the kids and smelled them you dont know how to meet their needs. I found a lot of truth in what he said but the R&D gap separating tween smells and educational needs was daunting.
The meeting was a wakeup call that conducting the large-scale R&D I had been writing about was a lot more complicated than writing the articles. No problem! These were the human resources we had and we would make the most of them. What we required was a needs survey and anyone interested could sign on as a SWRL Needs Coordinator. The job ticket for a needs coordinator included eliciting responses from people in the assigned part of the region for the Survey Protocol for SWRL R&D Priorities. The survey was short:
HOW SHOULD THE LAB PLACE ITS CHIPS
Which age level should SWRL focus on: little kids, big kids, or middle kids?
Which school subject(s)?
Which aspect of these subject(s), if any?
Should we include all kids or any particular population?
Is there anything else you would like to add about Lab priorities?
A needs coordinator was paid $25 for each completed survey response (about $100 today). You could not get rich as a coordinator but it was easy work that complemented any day job and you could not complain about the hourly rate. We needed data from businesses, communities, parents, and various school and university segments. Since coordinators telephoned at least once a week to report on the responses they had collected, SDC clerical staff could track that we were obtaining balanced representative results during the course of the survey.
The consensus on needs was remarkable: we would focus on little kids and reading; for all of the kids, there was not anything in particular left to say except Best wishes. The sentiments expressed in comments were rhetorical but could be summarized as focusing on student problem solving skills. The conventional wisdom in EdLand is that no one agrees on priorities/goals/needs/values in education. However, when the discussion is where to place R&D chips consensus is more common than disagreement.
Kindergarten reading and general problem solving skills became SWRLs R&D priorities and through a series of flukes I became the labs executive director. Priorities are one thing but delivering on them is quite another. At the end of the $90,000 three-month planning grant the lab was awarded a $900,000 nine-month operational grant. When a press release announcing the award hit the local newspapers we were inundated with inquiries from people with great ideas who were looking for jobs and/or grants. We responded to all inquiries in the same way we did to the lab staff we were hiring:
SWRL Activity Description
What do you want to do?
How will you know when you have done it?
What is a rough sketch of the scenario for doing it?
What is a rough estimate of time and cost?
We never heard back from a single person among all the people with the great ideas. However, we were able to assemble a staff and a collection of activities that constituted an R&D program.
Meanwhile, the other 11 Labs around the U.S. were going through the same motions in different ways as described in Table 1.
Table 1. Regional Educational Laboratories1966 (Bailey & Mosher, 1968, p. 173)
Region Program Focus
Source: Bailey and Mosher (1968, p. 173)
What I find remarkable is how contemporary the overall program foci are today. It seems we are back to the future whether we like it or not; on the other hand, to conclude that nothing has changed in 50 years would be a serious mistake.
The Regional Educational Laboratories have certainly changed: the labs still exist but only the name remains the same. The federal government now controls the regional boundaries and scope of each laboratorys operations. The federal government now specifies the scope of work to be performed in each of 10 regions and the contract is fulfilled through standard five-year contract competitions open to both for-profit and non-profit bidders (Institute of Education Sciences, n.d.). Adding ten job shop research contractors was far from the intent of the ESEA framers and programmatic educational R&D is a dim memory at best. Indeed, the term development has been altogether eliminated from the federal education lexicon and elided between educational research and evaluation.
Greater consequential change has occurred in the technological environment of educational R&D conduct. These changes are summarized in Table 2.
Table 2. Educational R&D Laboratory Essentials, Then and Now
TurboTax or equivalent software
Not ordinarily required
Electronic devices with internet connection
Available worldwide communicating via the internet
Microsoft Office or equivalent software
Sales and Marketing
From your electronic device to the world
Board of Directors
Startup is debt free and future costs are controllable
Had todays information technology been available to those labs their programmatic R&D would have been considerably more powerful. Of course it was not available then but it is now. Taking advantage of the advances makes back to the future a bright prospect today.
Another consequential advance warrants recognition. An unnoticed positive consequence of the NCLB legislation is that it moved media attention to pre-collegiate schooling beyond a local level of coverage. Before this time, it was largely human interest stories and high school sports with only an annual story spinning a gain in standardized test scores that reached a national level of attention. As long as elementary and high school education was local news it was impossible to establish and sustain a programmatic educational initiative.
In a variant of Greshams Law, bad educational research drove out good educational R&D. The Regional Lab experience provides proof of the point. When Elliot Richardson was appointed Secretary of HEW in 1970, he asked what the labs had developed that could be put to use (Mann, 1978). Reviews determined that only the SWRL Kindergarten Reading Program had been developed to the point that it could deliver reliable instructional results. The reading program had deployable systems for training school personnel. It could instruct even the worst cases of kindergarten children in reading and obtain quality assurance information on the instructional accomplishments obtained by districts, schools, classrooms, and individual children.
By 1970, ESEA Title III was legislated to provide funds for local school districts to disseminate their good ideas and had demonstrated that the districts of the nation did not have anything worth disseminating. Title III was therefore being phased out but there was $1.3 million left in unspent funds. The U.S. Office of Education informed all state departments of education west of the Mississippi River that if a school district chose to use the kindergarten program in the 197273 school year with an option to replicate the initiative in 197374 with a second kindergarten cohort they would receive an incentive grant to purchase the instructional materials from the private sector publisher. SWRL would provide the personnel training at no cost to the district as part of its R&D and SWRL would publish reports of the results that would satisfy the districts ESEA Title III accountability requirements (Mann, 1978, p. 126).
The incentive netted the participation of 343 districts, 2,019 schools, 4,053 classes, and 115,554 students in 197273 with comparable figures the following year. The incentive amounted to under $6 per student for a full year of reading instruction (Mann, 1978). This bargain was obtained by each sector doing what it does best: the feds provided the marginal money and monitored the accountability, the states and districts provided the instruction, the lab provided the R&D, and the tax-paying private sector received the money on which they paid taxes that keep the government show on the road. This symbiosis operationalized the vision of John Gardner and the ESEA framers.
What were the results?
The data consistently support the explanation that the difference in the program performance of the various categories of users results from differences in the number of days spent on instruction rather than from any differences in the effectiveness of instruction applied to pupils with different biosocial characteristics . . . The data indicate that the concept of educationally disadvantaged is a creation of manipulable and manipulated conditions readily under the control of schools rather than a condition resulting from immutable genetic and environmental factors that inherently impede schooling. When teachers teach, pupils learn! (Mann, 1978, p. 145)
This information would now be welcomed as disruptive technology but at the time it threatened academics who were satisfied with counter beliefs. It also threatened educational publishers who were also satisfied with the instructional goods they were providing. The evidence was ignored and the rest is history. History is then, this is now, and the future is what we make of it.
A WAY FORWARD
The SWRL Activity Description is a feasible template for specifying the endeavor.
What do you want to do? Build U.S. pre-collegiate education capacity.
How will you know you have done it? When there are products and protocols for reliably accomplishing specified schooling intents and the more the better.
What is a rough sketch of a scenario for doing it? The capacity for the required R&D currently resides in the private sector but it has not been brought to bear on pre-collegiate schooling. Education venture capitalists have viewed K12 as a market to be exploited rather than served with newly developed technology applicable to the sector. The pirate and plunder view is unique to the education sector and different from the view of the health sector, military sector, or home/retail sector. Accountability in K12 has been mandated at the wrong end of the power chain: schools and teachers have been bashed while those at the top of the economic and political chain thrive without accountability. The scenario entails equitable accountability and a focus on transparent schooling accomplishments. The disruptive technology entailed is largely in the private sector not the public sector and the scenario recognizes that the private sector is capable, nimble, and that standard market forces will prevail.
The Common Core Standards were once viewed as a basis for private sector instructional marketing. That did not work because it left teachers holding an empty bag and an unfeasible wish list. Ask not what schools can do for the private sector, but what the private sector can do for schools and thereby teachers, students, parents, and citizenry.
What is a rough estimate of time and cost? No new government funds will be required and what you see is what you get. The main role of government at federal and state levels is to quit bashing kids, teachers, and parents and to stop doing stupid stuff.
The NCLB goal of teaching all kids to read by the end of Grade 3 can be met with immediate implementation. This accomplishment will provide proof of concept and provide justification for further investment.
The way forward can be deployed at any local education agencies (LEAs): the lowest level of K12 budgetary authority discretion. The pre-collegiate schooling landscape is sufficiently varied to provide shelf-ready opportunities for natural experimentation. What you see is what you get.
Bailey, S. K. & Mosher, E. K. (1968) ESEA: The Office of Education administers a law. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Mann, D. (1978). Making change happen. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Institute of Education Sciences (n.d.). About us. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs/about/