Monday, October 25, 2021

Reimagining Public Education: Living Humanely in a Technical World

This essay envisions that we are “A nation at promise” and seeks to begin a new conversation and agenda for educational quality for all—students, teachers, leaders, parents, communities, and stakeholders.

Public education policy today is fractured, incoherent and divisive. The equity movement enshrined in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965 that a good education is a civil right is now deeply divided far beyond usual differences in politics, strategy, ideology, and policy. Today’s civil rights community, and the larger constellation of like-minded allies, belies this divisiveness and incoherence. This community lacks an effective consensus, and its powerful voice is diminished, if not lost, in the noise of competing passions, voices and strategies. This is largely due to it being circumscribed by the decades-old framework of standards-based reform (SBR) –aligning standards, assessment and accountability to support the use of data to close opportunity, achievement and graduation gaps. All other reform ideas–charter schools, full-service community schools, personalized learning—must contend with this framework to get any traction. The partisan stalemate and polarization in Congress and state legislatures, and even more the irreconcilable attitude and stridency in upholding and rejecting positions, goes far beyond the natural “tumult and clamor of politics” that Alexis De Tocqueville long ago attributed to the American character. Even the potential opening to state and district leadership and innovation in the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act will likely die on the vine of SBR thinking. I attribute this in large part to a pervasive crisis in education theory (and perhaps a general crisis in democracy but that is not the subject of this paper). It is not simply that standards-based reform has failed as a unifying paradigm; actually, it has succeeded too well. Rather it is that it has been a misleading and distracting one, leading us away from attention to the real social and cultural forces fundamentally impacting the way “we the people” learn and teach, and the way we interact in schools, district and state level offices, and in the policy world. Because these forces remain unaddressed, there is an impoverishing lack of a unifying, shared intellectual framework for defining problems in a way that generates productive debate, consistent language, and clear dialogue. This essay offers such a framework to create the necessary conditions for discovery and creation of solutions and concrete actions that can have impact in changing practices and improving educational outcomes for all students.

Arguably, one might counter my view above by citing as evidence of a broad consensus the work of the National Commission on Education Equity and Excellence, which issued in 2013 its report, For Each and Every Child. This comprehensive set of findings and recommendations was “unanimous—an unexpected and noteworthy accomplishment.” The report, considered a “clarion call” and “polestar”  “for a decade or more of struggle to come,” includes five policy categories: (1) funding equity and efficiency; (2) teachers, principals, and curriculum; (3) early childhood education; (4) further mitigation of poverty’s effects; and (5) governance and accountability. While a broad policy consensus, and even aside from the fact that it represents “policy by elites” with the people left out, it nonetheless lacks an intellectual and philosophical framework to unify thinking at a deeper level. It thereby lacks the capacity to inform and guide in the same direction the interpretation of a relatively open and contestable policy “consensus.”

In every crisis, where there is threat, there is also opportunity. From a broad historical perspective, looking beneath the surface tumult and clamor, and the violent pendulum swings of temporal educational interests and ideas, there has been a profound but subterranean transformation in education, a steady and progressive change in the very landscape of American education. It mirrors and is driven by the same profound transformation in society, politics and the economy. This is of course the technical transformation in public education as a whole, most explicitly in K-12 education but spreading quickly to postsecondary and early childhood education. It is a transformation of accelerating speed and intensifying scope and scale, in education administration and management, school leadership, and the practice of learning and teaching. “Technical” is first defined as technology and the associated activities and habits of mind involved in using technology and data. But technology is here defined more broadly as the way we do things, the way we see the world and indeed as privileging a technical mindset that values the use of technology and technical methods not only in solving problems but in how we formulate the problems themselves. In the unfolding technical revolution, individuals become more competitive and authoritative to the extent that they have the mind, skills, and values to more effectively translate complex realities into technical problems that are amenable to research and solution according to technical and abstract standards and values. The intensifying technical nature of school bureaucracies and the data-drenched policy world reflect the relationships “below” in schools between individuals and their work and the interactions between individuals themselves. Our work and our relationships are now highly mediated by technology, technique, and data; we are thoroughly saturated by this technical transformation.

Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times

This transformation is one of those “long revolutions” (Italian sociologist, Antonio Gramsci) in history, great epochs of transformation that cause deep changes through the terrain of culture and values, beneath the surface of politics, strategies and tactics. To understand the power and meaning of this transformation, the analogy that comes to mind is how the new science of optics and the technology of the telescope in the 1500s did not just merely change the ability to see but led a “Copernican revolution” that changed the very cosmology of that age. This long revolution overturned the Ptolemaic model of the universe, radically decentering the earth and undermined social hierarchies and consciousness based on this model. The technical revolution in education arguably began in the 60s and has been intensifying at an accelerating speed every decade. This ongoing revolution proceeds every day, in every school and classroom, encountered by every teacher and student and principal, every educator, administrator, and all the stakeholders, vendors, partners and service-providers involved in the complex enterprise of public education. Our children are experiencing reality far more through screens than through the immediacy of their own senses. They are receiving information and knowledge virtually and “ready-made” as it is created and presented by others rather than through their own imagination and reason and no longer developed and tested in face-to-face dialogue with others. This transformation is here to stay. The only question is how to manage this transformation to serve and deepen our larger humane sensibility and perspectives. How do we harness this revolution and advance essential democratic values of courage, compassion, social trust, individual judgment and creativity? Can we manage its impact and enrich it so that it supports the whole of education, PreK-12 and higher education together, the whole community of education stakeholders, the whole school, and the whole child?

While this may be stating the obvious, public education is woefully and especially negligent in understanding and adapting to this technical change. For reasons perhaps unique to their distinct industries, the disciplines of finance, business administration and medicine are far ahead of public education in understanding these epochal changes and harnessing them in transforming their organizations and professions for effective and creative change. But there has been little deliberate attention given in public education to the relationship between technical change and the human and social factors that are swept up in this profound transformation. Standards-based reform, as mentioned earlier the diminant intellectual framework underlying education policy since at least the 1980s, gives at best an illusion of control in the face of the tsunami of technical transformation. At worst it leads to an endless argument over the abuse and misuse of testing and data, tired repetitive debates that actually harm children and the education community due to their limited relevance. Interestingly, this wrong course could possibly be seen in the original ESEA that required a nexus between federal funding and educational programs and initiatives. This therefore defined for educators and the public that data was extraneous to education, a necessary reporting burden to measure return on investment (ROI) for Congress. Correspondingly, data was to provide material for researchers conducting quantitative analyses and program evaluations to them inform models that must in inevitable condescension be implemented with fidelity to design upon the raw and uninformed material that are living and breathing schools. Data was not embraced as a way to enhance and enrich the way educators do their work. This perspective may have informed a deeply rooted institutional and cultural bias that has caused public education to lag behind in the effective use of data not just to measure progress but to enrich daily practice of administrators, leaders, and teachers. Instead of serious inquiry into questions related to the dominance of technical values in education, we have, on one side, superficial visions of “digital solutions” and effective data use promoted by marketers, futurists and enthusiasts, and on the other, reaction and distrust in data-driven standardization through assessment, evaluation and accountability as if a corporate conspiracy corrupting the character of public education.

In the absence of a unifying framework for adapting to and mastering this change, the scale, pace, and scope of this technical transformation is out of balance with the students and adults in our schools. It is far out in front of, and thereby in bewildering and frustrating, sometimes frightening, highly stressful conflict with human and social factors. Individuals and school communities are left to their own resources and wits to adapt, which often means to go against the current of official education policy and practice. This has created a bifurcation in the education world, those that have successfully adapted to this technical revolution and the far greater number of districts and schools that are lost in this tsunami of change. In this situation, it is impossible to achieve the goals of equity on nothing more than a limited and fragile basis. And the “lighthouse” and “flagship” schools and districts will remain incapable of scaling up. And even these exceptional cases are difficult to sustain without extraordinary funding and resources and will, which increasingly come from undemocratic private and philanthropic sources. In contrast, there is significant promise in anchoring public education thinking and action in a theory that deals directly with technical change.

Sociotechnical theory, which originated in England and Sweden, is such a theory. It has a strong international research base and has generated a significant and comprehensive body of knowledge across multiple industries and disciplines. Sociotechnical systems “is an approach to complex organizational work design that recognizes the interaction between people and technology in workplaces. The term also refers to the interaction between society’s complex infrastructures and human behavior.” Sociotechnical theory, as distinct from sociotechnical systems, refers to the “joint optimization of technical and social factors in an organization or society, with a shared emphasis on achievement of both excellence in technical performance and quality of people’s work lives.” At the macro level, this theory holds that robust, efficient and sustainable economic growth (substitute educational progress) depends upon the alignment of technical factors with social (and human) factors. Through good principles of sociotechnical design, these come together in a mutually-reinforcing integrated system, generating effective feedback, problem-solving and innovation, leading to a virtuous cycle of continuous improvement and enriching social relationships.

To forge an effective consensus for equity and excellence in education, we need to reflect upon our fundamental relationship with technology and technical methods. The idea of sociotechnical design is just one way to do so in a systematic and coherent manner, and not with divided attention or distracted thoughts but with focused attention and reflection. Technical change is inherently disruptive, engulfing all in “a gale force of creative destruction,” in the words of the economist, Joseph Schumpeter. We cannot resist this gale force but we can channel it to serve our human and social goals and values. What difference does the right theoretical framework make? Why is it important to address the current crisis in education theory? Here are some of the benefits:

  • Coherent shared structure for thinking and acting
  • Different, more promising way for framing problems and creating solutions
  • Consistent with historical understanding of technical change, both challenges and promise
  • Map where individuals policies and positions are in relation to each other
  • Promise of effective consensus across divided education community and polity
  • More robust, larger and inclusive education community dedicated to equity issues, with more unified and amplified voice
  • Brings together three great American strengths: technological innovation, human capital and social capital (Despite Robert Putnam’s justified concern about the loss of social capital, social capital is deeply embedded tradition in American culture and character and what makes American democracy so distinctive e.g. Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America)
  • An underlying framework frees from fear of corporate or government control. It serves as a kind of invisible hand guiding in the same direction and purpose, and provides a shared language that makes different voices more intelligible and clearly heard, and therefor actionable.

The breakthrough is that this concept can advance the ongoing technical transformation for achieving equity and excellence. Interestingly, according to this theory, the focus on optimizing the technical aspect alone “increases not only the quantity of unpredictable, ‘un-designed’ relationships, but those relationships that are injurious to the system’s performance.

Therefore, through the lens of this theory, the immediate future for ensuring equity is not to build a more perfect accountability system in isolation, albeit with better, richer multiple measures, more valid and reliable “systems of assessment,” and more clear and transparent triggers for intervention in low-performing schools based on subgroup accountability, as many in the civil rights community rightly see as the promise of standards-based reform. No, it is to thoughtfully and deliberatively integrate this technical system with values and ideas of human and social capital—teacher expertise, autonomy, and judgment, the effective collaboration of leaders and teachers, and the role and responsibility of community resources, services and stakeholders. Similarly, we cannot advance human and social capital ideas—such as “full service community schools,” the integration of social and emotional learning, student-centered progressive ideas about teaching and learning that many fear are being crowded out by SBR, as well as school climate and restorative justice—without integrating them with the momentum of this technical revolution. For example, with greater concern for social and human factors, we can build a consensus for seamlessly integrating secondary and postsecondary data (such as completion rates, GPA, employment and income) so that high school graduates and their families can make more informed decisions about colleges, and that the public can have better data for recognizing, evaluating and improving high schools as needed. This new framework could also envision the use of technology and data to create a more robust and equitable system of accountability, in which four constructs—technical measures of academic performance, school finance, human capital (e.g. investment in teachers, ongoing support, etc), and social capital (e.g. non-cognitive measures of learning and growth, parent and community engagement, etc—are correlated as essential factors of academic performance. In his kind of robust accountability, their overall integration is optimized by bundling these four constructs together and evaluated against institutional, community and student goals.

The Micheltorena School and Community Garden is the product of a collaboration between community members, LAUSD (Los Angeles public schools) and the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council.

The essential question then in policy and practice is, “How embrace and advance the promise of this technical revolution so that it harnesses and improves human and social capital, and thereby advances our pursuit of education equity and excellence?” There are many areas of American life that are overwhelmed by technical change. But in the case of education, the pace and extent of technical change has exceeded the capacity of schools to adapt. This is especially true of schools serving poor and low-income communities and children of color, English language learners (ELL), and native students. There are also many places where “sociotechnical harmony” is optimal, but it is often there by happenstance, against the grain, representing the exceptional in contrast to national policy. These places are the anomalies that, in Thomas Kuhn’s concept of paradigm in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, suggest the need for a new framework. They are often grant-funded lighthouses unlikely to “go to scale” or sustain momentum once funding dries up in the current climate. In general, given the current crisis in education theory, where education systems and schools have been successful in any policy or program or practice, success has been uneven across states, districts and schools. It has been out of alignment with systems of teacher and school leader education and professional learning. Out of alignment with existing curriculum and pedagogy.

Sociotechnical principles that ensure alignment and balance should be embedded in legislation, policy, programs and practices. These principles of advancing technology and data for serving human and social goals and values suggest the promise of alignment in such new concrete projects, as creating holistic multiple measures (i.e. tests, observational, student portfolio of work, self-inventories of strengths and interests, etc.) to support the “whole child” approach to education. Without an overarching problem-solving framework, educational progress will continue to be grounded on the shoals of false or impartial debates, wrong or misleading problems, and inadequate or even harmful solutions.

It is time for a new “think and act” national educational equity debate. The immediate goal is to effect a consensus among the civil rights community and the broader constellation of K-12 education and higher education thought-leaders, advocates, educators, administrators and policymakers. This essay has sought to start the conversation by providing sociotechnical theory as one way to proceed. What is most important, however, is to cure the deep intellectual and humane crisis in American education by suggesting a new framework, one that can liberate us from conventional and impoverished thinking and one that can generate new formulation of problems, research directions, and most importantly, concreate actions for achieving the equity and excellence all of our kids deserve and that all educators seek to provide. The value of a unifying framework is not to suppress debate but to unleash a new ferment of ideas, with greater coherence and cogency even in disagreement, and thereby to transform debate into that of greater purpose, dialogue and impact, debate that leads to concrete actions and tasks. New directions, new problems, and new solutions. The intent is to free us from tired and impoverishing debates over standardized testing, federal or state overreach, corporate or democratic influence and control, and to do the responsible work of understanding, adapting and mastering the profound technical revolution that is reshaping not only education but our lives.

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