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Looking Beyond the Simple School Fix

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Few things in our world are helped by looking through an either/or lens. Reality, in my experience at least, is far too ambiguous to be seen as all one color or another. Unfortunately, many “school reformers”—often with little teacher consultation—come across as having just that sort of view, offering a short, simplistic list of “answers” (merit pay, charter schools, ending tenure, standardized testing) to the challenges facing our schools.

For the past year, I have been part of a group of 14 teachers from high-needs schools in urban districts around the United States. In partnership with the Center for Teaching Quality (and with financial support from the Ford Foundation), we’ve “webinared” with some of the most respected researchers and practitioners from all sides of the school reform debate, reviewed reams of data, and delved deeply into our own professional experiences. Last week we released our TeacherSolutions report, describing what we believe needs to happen to bring about effective and sustainable school reform. Drawing both on what we have learned through this study and what we have experienced in our own classrooms, “Transforming School Conditions: Building Bridges to the Education System That Students And Teachers Deserve” includes these key recommendations:

Preparing Effective Teachers: Our schools and students would be better served if all teacher preparation programs— traditional university credential classes or alternative certification (e.g. Teach for America and others)—provided far more closely supervised time to candidates working in the classroom. We were particularly impressed by the work of dozens of urban teacher residency programs across the country. In such programs, teacher residents work alongside specially trained master teachers—similar to the way that medical residents work with fully credentialed doctors—before they are released to teach in their own classrooms. Residents are well-supported but held to rigorous standards, and those who are not successful in both grasping theory and executing practice are not recommended for licensure.

Evaluating Students and Teachers Using Fair, Valid and Reliable Measures: We need to reduce our dependence on standardized testing as the primary method of assessing students and teachers. Using multiple measures, including portfolios of student work, allows us to evaluate students based on work they have constructed themselves, as opposed to their skill in selecting the one right answer from a list of possibilities on a multiple choice test.

Starting in the late 1980s, Kentucky’s Alternate Assessment Program and Vermont’s Portfolio Project implemented precisely these types of multiple, performance-based measures at scale statewide. A RAND evaluation of Vermont’s portfolio assessment found that teachers’ ratings of student work were surprisingly unbiased. We have hopes that the federally funded Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium will call on teachers to help them craft these types of performance-based tasks. Likewise, multiple measures, including regular meaningful observations and self-assessments (like I describe here), need to be used to accurately assess teacher performance, as opposed to complete reliance on unstable value-added models.

Enhancing Collaboration Between Teachers: Making time for peer learning is a critical step toward improving instruction and—as studies have shown—reducing teacher turnover. Providing strong administrative support for weekly meetings and engaging teachers in discussions about the kind of professional development we want and need is necessary to help move us beyond our “egg crate” model that limits professional collaboration. These steps can lead to the growth of healthy professional learning communities—teams of teachers organized by subject area, grade level or professional development interests who work together to better their practice. PLC members may offer each other ongoing support through peer observation and reflection on practice, co-teaching, analysis of student data for joint interventions, lesson studies, action research, or discussions of recent research or books.

Shared Leadership and Accountability in Schools: Schools that include substantial teacher input across many levels of school decision-making—or that are actually run by lead teachers rather than principals—are being launched in Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles and other urban districts nationwide. Teacher-led learning organizations may not be a good fit for every school system, but the emerging models suggest some best practices that translate well to nearly any school environment. These practices include site-based decisionmaking to the fullest extent possible, with all school staff playing important roles in determining how school budgets will be spent, how school-wide programs and policies (e.g., discipline or parent policies) will be organized, which new staff will be hired, and how those new members will be inducted into the school’s educational community.

Building Bridges Between Schools and Communities: We understand and embrace the idea that teachers are the most powerful in-school predictor of student achievement. But there are many factors outside of the traditional scope of schools’ work with children that must be addressed—health care, job training, affordable housing, etc.—that have an enormous impact on student achievement. Still, until these broader solutions are in place, schools and education systems can do a great deal to leverage the resources, both human and financial, that are available to their students during school hours. Funding is needed for school-based health clinics, counseling and work services, and food programs—serving both students and entire families.

The short lists of simple answers that now dominate the school reform debate make for easy media delivery, but they do not point the way forward to improving our schools. Noted teacher, administrator, and author Larry Cuban suggests that those who look for simple answers make the mistake of looking at schools as complicated systems that rely on data, flow charts, and certainty to solve problems. Rather, he writes, schools are actually complex systems filled with constantly moving parts that require constant adjustments. He questions the wisdom of “grafting” complicated procedures onto complex organizations.

The recommendations in our Transforming School Conditions report are both research-based and rooted in the realities of school life and the everyday practice of teachers. They offer a practical and effective guide to the kind of reform our “complex” school systems—and the students, families, administrators and teachers within them—need to thrive in challenging times.

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