Sunday, August 4, 2013

Turtles and Hares in Modern School Reform

I ended my last post with a larger point about the problem of "disruption" in modern education reform:
"This is exactly what happens when you rush into big, 'disruptive' changes without thinking about them or fully understanding what you're doing. You break things that weren't already broken and you make messes."
This is not an original thought to me. For one, it's been said over and over again by many more knowledgeable about education than I am. For example, look at Larry Cuban's recent post about turning around urban schools and Paul Vallas, comparing wiser marathon turnaround superintendents to the more impetuous sprinters:
In many instances, sprinter superintendents follow a recipe: reorganize district administrators, take on teacher unions, and create new schools in their rush for better student achievement. They take dramatic and swift actions that will attract high media attention. But they also believe—here is where ideological myopia enters the picture—that low test scores and achievement gaps between whites and minorities are due in large part to reluctant (or inept) district bureaucrats, recalcitrant principals, and knuckle-dragging union leaders defending contracts that protect lousy teachers from pay-for-performance incentives. 
Such beliefs, however, seriously misread why urban district students fail to reach proficiency levels and graduate high school. As important as it is to reorganize district offices, alter salary schedules, get rid of incompetent teachers and intractable principals, such actions in of themselves will not turn around a broken district. While there is both research and experiential evidence to support each of these beliefs as factors in hindering students’ academic performance, what undercuts sprinter-driven reforms in these arenas is the simple fact that fast-moving CEOs fast-track their solutions to these problems, get spent from their exertions or create too much turmoil, and soon exit leaving the debris of their reforms next to the skid marks in the parking lot. Swift actions certainly garner attention but sprinters quickly lose steam after completing 100 meters.

Exactly. So where else did I come around to this way of thinking? Because, let me tell you, it does not come naturally to me.

1) I learned this from my parents. My father is a very cautious and thorough person who doesn't buy a toothbrush without researching it first in Consumer Reports. My mother has worked for thirty plus years as a civil rights lawyer and school finance expert in DC. She has witnessed change and disruption over and over again in the DC Public Schools--so much so that she's seen some of the same changes tried two times, sometimes by the same crop of people. It's not that some changes aren't needed, but first we must ask: How they might these changes work? Have they been tried before? If yes, to what effect? What do the affected communities think about these changes? People like her try to say:Yes, we tried that in nineteen such and such and it was a disaster. Um, yes, that needs to be changed but what are you going to change it with that hasn't been tried before? The school communities were really upset the last time that happened. The reformy response: History? Who needs it? Democracy is over-rated.

2) From the great school leaders I have worked for. This is why I don't argue when reformers (of any stripe) point out how much school leadership is crucial. The best principals and administrative leaders I worked for went about making changes carefully and deliberately with the input of their faculty and staff. I remember my first year at one high school was also the new principal's first year. The ESL teachers there (including me) were really pushing him to make some changes right away and he said, "No, I'm going to observe and learn about how things work already and then I'll see what needs to be changed." He was right. The next year he did make some changes. I didn't agree with all of them and they weren't immune to political considerations, but the transition was so much smoother than it would have been otherwise.

I remember when DC mayor Adrian Fenty came in and hastily replaced Clifford Janey with Rhee. The local community was jarred by the way Fenty did this (locking him out of his office, freezing his e-mail account, not getting input from the public or the City Council, etc.) but not one person said to me that it wasn't time for him to go. I remember saying, well, even so, shouldn't Fenty observe and see how things are working first before he makes such drastic changes? I was thinking of that school principal I had worked for.

3) I live in a very conservative area of Virginia. Sometimes, it's like a foreign country. There are many  things that don't jibe with me, but sometimes there are advantages. They are ssslllooooowww. Which means in education that they haven't instituted big changes without taking their time, though this is changing as the Tea Party slash and burn mentality is alive and well here right now. They didn't do whatever's trendy just to do it--they skipped the whole ed tech boom and invested in what has been thus far a very successful technical and trade high school instead (not that we don't desperately need updated technology and textbooks now, but that's a different story). They don't throw money at problems (although now they seem to be with-holding money at problems). All of this has prevented the hasty, "disruptive" thoughtlessness that pervades so much modern school reform, though as I said that is changing somewhat with the similarly minded "break everything" Tea Party presence.

Before I end, I do want to acknowledge that there is something invaluable in the urgency of a we-can't-wait-for-change-we-have-to-do-it-now modus operandi. There's certainly urgency to move, but just because you're not sprinting doesn't mean you're standing still. The problem is that in modern education reform, as with the Tea Party, there's not much slowing the sprinters down, especially when they are fueled by gobs of dollar bills.


  1. Interesting piece. A couple of problems. I get irritated by the anti-reform mindset that says, as you did, you might break things that aren't broken. An ahistorical mindset is starting to creep in among anti-reformers that suggests things were just fine until the reform movement upset the apple cart. The academic decline of US schools has been evident and measurable not just for the last few years, but decades.

    That said, I have equal or greater impatience when reform advocates move out of the classroom and into political advocacy on the theory that's where you effect change (cf. Michelle Rhee). Yes, I suppose reform needs political cover, but that is turtle-thinking, to use your analogy. I just don't buy the idea that who wins a House seat in North Carolina or California is more important to Jose or Malik's immediate educational outcomes than who their teacher is or what they're studying at any given moment in the South Bronx.

    In the end, where I am frustrated by both reform and anti-reform thinking is not in their speed or lack thereof, but their focus. If reform efforts are not aimed at improving classroom practice and enhancing individual outcomes right now, then why bother?

    1. @Robert: Agreed, improving classroom practice is the most important piece of reform--everyone loses sight of that, including me. But policy does affect practice, no? Well, at least I think it does. Otherwise, I think I have been pretty clear that things were not "just fine" before and yes, I don't have a lot of tolerance for that. However, I also have a problem with the "decline of US schools in the past decades" paradigm. Some things have gotten better, some worse (see this post on Cedar's Digest which speaks in part to that.) I think a lot has actually gotten better. My mother (referenced in the post) says when she was in elementary school, the girls and boys were separated at recess, and both groups had a concrete play yard with no playground equipment. Furthermore, has US education declined from the period of time when we didn't serve most SPED students? How about when we didn't have girls' sports? Or how about from the times of segregation? I have a hard time seeing correcting those as part of a "decline". But I also recognize that decline, reform, and change isn't entirely a linear process (to steal a phrase from a comment I got on twitter in response to the post--hoping he'll post his as a comment on the blog, too).

    2. Hey Robert, I think your frustration with the lack of attention on curriculum and individual outcomes actually fits in pretty well with an anti-reform (to adopt your label, even though...) point. To understand how to improve curricula, how to reach different sub-populations of students, you need to stick around a little while and learn about the community and the content. Michelle Rhee's insistence on the motto "all students can learn" is meant to convey a universal concern for all students, but instead conveys an ignorance of what is the best way to teach which students which topics. From my perspective, Rhee and other reform minded superintendents have an impatience with complex discussions about curriculum and individual outcomes, citing these as "excuses." What affects how much/how well students learn? To them, it is just teacher quality. Not teacher fit. Not an interaction of curriculum, population, class size and teacher quality. A complex puzzle indicates that it might be appropriate to slow down and consider how things fit together. One big lever is a reason to stop dithering and pull the damn thing.

    3. @Robert - Where is the academic decline of U.S. schools evident and measurable? As far as I can tell achievement and attainment are both up over the last few decades. (Safety's up, too!)

  2. An "ahistorical mindset?" Where is anybody--anybody at all--saying that public education, in toto, is a success, no worries? I just don't see or hear that. From anyone. Including those who teach in high-achieving public schools in the leafy green suburbs, where test scores are high and parents satisfied.

    The most frustrating part of the now-familiar meme that public schools are failing everywhere is the fact that pretty-good schools get shifted out of continuous improvement mode into back-to-the-wall defense of the things they're doing well, rather than continuing to (quoting Larry Cuban) tinker around the edges. I'm with Paul Bruno here. Show me the evidence, with the data sliced and diced by SES.

  3. My sense of decline is based on 40 years of flat 17-year-old NAEP scores and decline in SAT scores. But it's not something i care to argue about. If everyone agrees we can and should do better, that's fine. The data point that mosts interests me (and this get to the heart of "reform") is unknown and likely unmeasurable: the bar for success seems to be getting higher. If the big picture goal is to prepare America's young people for self-sufficiency in adult life, my sense is that doing so is hard, getting harder, and we are not well-prepared to increase the number of Americans who are self-supporting.

    @ Rachel Yes, policy affects practice. But I'm earnestly starting to wonder if the effect is less than we imagine. Or to put it another way, I'm wondering if practice overreacts to policy. I've become identified as a defender of CCSS, which seems to set people's hair on fire for any number of reasons. My general sense is that CCSS mostly "requires" what we should have been doing all along. But more to the point, much of the criticism reflects a mindset that anticipates federal monitors in every classroom timing the amount of fiction and nonfiction being read by students, pink slips in hand.

    @Cedar I've written copiously about Rhee and her blithe lack of concern with curriculum. You're taking issue with a position I do not hold. But if I haven't been clear, let me be blunt: I don't give a damn about structural reform except insofar as such reforms leverage improved teaching and learning, specifically the kind of knowledge and language rich schooling low-SES kids need and do not seem to be getting. My definition of a good policy is that which encourages those conditions. Bad policy does the opposite. I'm not seeing a lot of that discussion these days. I'm seeing a lot of sturm und drang about "corporate reform" and other not-terribly-interesting-or-helpful harangues that seem aimed at merely de-legitimizes who does and does not get to have a say in reform.

    @ Paul Good to see you, Paul. See my point about data above. I'm happy to concede the point. Academic achievement is up. Safety too.

    @Nancy I'm fine, thanks for asking. And you?

  4. Isn't it important to acknowledge that schools have taken on far more students in the last 40 years? IDEA passed in 1975 and Lau v Nichols took place in 1974 (about 40 years ago). We have made a conscious and positive choice a a society to include ELLs and sp ed students. Both populations are rising in most cities. If there is an issue with teachers, it's that not enough teachers are equipped to work with these populations and there is insufficient funding for bilingual education and supports for sp ed students

    1. @Ajay Srikanth Absolutely. That was my point in my first response to RP. It's also one of the only ways I was glad for NCLB--as a teacher of ELL students.

  5. Rachel,

    I agree and I love the way you said it. I remember when I was intimately involved in my district's reforms and when my wfe started with Consumer Reports and then surfed the net to research the purchase of a used Toyota. She put more study into a purchase of a few thousand dollars than the district did for a few million dollars investment.

    I also remember when our school started to grade Benchmarks because, "We've tried everything else." In three months, we pushed 40% of the students out of school and onto the streets.

    I believe that you improve schools the way you win in sports - you reduce unforced errors.Today's reformers are like a football coach saying, "we lose the ball with every fumble, but we make it up on volume."

    Robert, the question of whether schools have gotten worse over the last few decades is completely unaswerable - like whether America has gotten worse over that time. School reform, mostly, should limit itself to the question of low-performing schools.

    I support Common Core standards, but not a national curriculum or stakes attached to Common Core testing. Sure, I believe better curricula would be better. Just like it would be better if all kids went back to working in the hot sun and factory jobs in the summer so they can learn about life. I think that would produce a lot more learning than a better curriculum. You seem to disagree. But, these's no point getting cranky about the loss of jobs and lifestyles that have already happened. A better curricula, like better schools, might or might not keep up with the transformational changes in our society.

    But, I agree with Rachel as well as the old outdoorsman. When lost, the first thing you do is hug a tree. Once you get calm, then you proceed.

  6. Love the article. From a practitioner's (superintendent) perspective:

    Reform - Part I
    1954 - Brown v Board of Education - and since then, Title IX, PL 94-142 (IDEA), Plyler v. Doe and other benchmarks of inclusion that were not legislated or decided in the courts.

    Reform - Part II
    Then, Goals 2000 (only good part - "ready for kindergarten"), NCLB (you got our attention, now go away), RTTT (don't like the stick, here's a few carrots).

    Still tolerable until:
    1) Politicians recognized this education stuff could get them elected and
    2) Corporations recognized "We can make a boat load of money."

    Quick fixes get results to get elected. A pretty good gig for a politician since s/he's not around when the fixes fail and so do the kids.

    And, then there's the profits. Slap the "Common core" label on it like the Good Housekeeping Seal and States will hand over their RTTT $.

    So, they found Superman, hired rock-star consultants and short-term superintendents, turned the Peace Corps version of Teach for America into a business model and bastardized what could be / could have been quality standards, periodic benchmark standardized testing, professional professional development, touted test score victory after test score victory of which many turned out to be cheating starting with the Texas Miracle, and... segregated kids in schools where the adults could tout successes in controlling kids, behavior, and attendance (and never mention they don't accept kids with disabilities or don't speak English).

    Change is a process. It is deliberate and slow. It is persistence with models and mental models. A shared vision and systemic means to get there. It's sticking with a framework, a process, and programs and getting better at it every year.

    Bottom-liners like measurable results - fast, and cheap. So, what the heck - ignore process - just warehouse the kids, script the curriculum, test the kids, label the teachers, rank the schools...

    I'll stick with process, persistence, focus on implementation, professional standards and professional development, and letting kids get their fingernails dirty, ask tough questions, and find relevance in their learning.