Richard Elmore, with whom I had the privilege to work for two years on a National Research Council committee, has proposed what might be called Elmore’s Axiom of Educational Change: “The closer an innovation gets to the core of schooling, the less likely it is that it will influence teaching and learning on a large scale. The corollary of this proposition, of course, is that innovations that are distant from the core will be more readily adopted on a large scale.”
This axiom suggests that most educational policies, which are aimed at influencing practice on a large scale, will have little effect on practice and student learning. That’s because they do not touch what Elmore calls the “instructional core": the relationship among students, teachers, and content.
Elmore’s sobering proposition certainly applies to some of the most hotly contested policies in the current environment, which address who makes decisions about schools and how they should make those decisions, rather than what actually happens in classrooms. One exception might be the Common Core State Standards, which is a large-scale effort that directly addresses teachers, students, and content.
So it’s heartening to see another possible exception. Envision Learning Partners, the professional development arm of the Envision Schools network, has been working with teachers across the country to spread successful practices far from Envision’s home in the San Francisco Bay area. This month, according to ELP’s latest newsletter, 700 high school seniors in Detroit defended their graduation portfolios. The portfolios are a hallmark of Envision’s approach. Students, with the help of teachers, compile the portfolios to include evidence of the knowledge and skills they have developed over the course of their high school years. They then must defend the portfolios before students, teachers, and other adults, showing that they have met standards for college and career readiness and can reflect on their understanding.
Though it’s difficult to show an exact line of causation, the portfolios are a big reason why 90 percent of Envision students go on to college (60 percent are first-generation college students), and 85 percent persist beyond the first year.
Moreover, the portfolios produce a ripple effect that transforms learning and instruction well before the senior year of high school. In Detroit, for example, six K-8 schools arer beginning to pilot performance assessments, leading to a culminating eighth grade assessment that students will have to defend.
This type of transformation shows that innovation at scale is possible. In this case, it depends on teacher networks, where teachers are able to work with other teachers to explain the innovations and provide them with tools to implement them on their own. As Bob Lenz, the co-founder of Envision Schools and chief executive officer of Envision Education, said in a previous blog post, this is the way that good practices spread.
Policy makers would do well to examine these practices and create conditions that enable these kinds of networks. In that way, effective innovations really can expand at scale, despite Elmore’s Axiom.
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