Education Opinion

Can Reform and Good Work Merge?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 05, 2013 5 min read
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Change in instructional practice cannot simply be demanded. Teaching and learning is a social engagement. Understanding what changes are ours to make and determining what they will look in each community and district and school is a local job. If done well enough, we make the difference that matters, child by child.

Implementing required change takes time for learning and time for communication. We have argued that the testing came too soon. We are not ready to be measured. Negative reaction to the CCS and testing appears to be growing stronger, more informed, and more organized. Within this maelstrom, we cannot be distracted from keeping the school environment safe and encouraging for all students.

Arthur H. Camins, director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. wrote an opinion piece published in the Washington Post. In it, he narrows the present challenges we face into three central problems. One challenge is race and class based disparities in educational outcomes, another are the narrow measures focused on ELA and math and the other is an attraction to quick solutions rather than systemic shifts. Let’s think about each of these a bit.

The gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to be a challenge both within our schools and between them. Superintendents and Boards of Education in districts that are dependent upon locally approved budgets face the challenge of passing budgets that maintain program; very few are now expanding programs. Yet, data tell us that children with culturally and linguistically different backgrounds are not doing as well as white children in many schools. And if they are poor, the differences are even more extreme. Data has indicated this for years but we have been unable to change the outcomes. We have improved, perhaps, but not enough and not fast enough. So, does the reform movement hold the answer?

There is so much on the plates of district leaders. Some are troubled by the fact that ELA and math are the focus while others are relived that there is focus. We fall into the first group....those who want a broader view of assessments and accountability, but only if well-conceived and thoughtfully implemented. There is pressure on the system to raise the scores. Districts have adopted programs like Balanced Literacy and Singapore Math, held professional development and followed up responsibly... all in an effort to improve the teaching and learning of those subjects. These may be Band-Aids, but they are attempts to respond to the demand. They are small, direct interventions that have data to confirm they help. CCS calls for a change in instructional practice; this will happen one teacher and one classroom at a time. Will these actions make the difference that is needed?

Then we come to Camins’ third point...the attraction to quick solutions rather than systemic shifts. Herein lies a profound truth. We are a society of immediacy, we want what we want and we want it now. We have no surprise ground to stand on. We should have predicted that policy makers would tire at the speed, or lack thereof, with which we were turning the ship of education. And, here we are ....this quick solution is now theirs to impose, not ours to choose. System shifts are very challenging and take leaders with skill and knowledge, specifically, about leading change. Many times real system shifts take a breaking apart of the old so that the new system can emerge and take root. Other times, pilots are created, flourish and become replicated. Rarely, will system change occur by mandate in a human business unless there is coercive motivation or punishment involved. So it is now. This reform effort, which is well intentioned we think, is a quick solution with accountability attached to prove its commitment and maybe its results.

Lest we cast blame upward for the quick solution attraction, those new programs and a call for more revenues can also be quick solutions that don’t result in real system change at the outcomes. What may be easier at the local level than the larger policy one is the convergence of servant leadership and moral authority. As defined by Thomas Sergiovanni,

The link between servant leadership and moral authority is a tight one. Moral authority relies heavily on persuasion. At the root of persuasion are ideas, values, substance, and content, which together define group purposes and core values. Servant leadership is practiced by serving others, but its ultimate purpose is to place oneself, and others for whom one has responsibility, in the service of ideals (p.138).

Perhaps, on the local level we may have a more tangible relationship with those “for whom one has responsibility.” The current mantra of “college and career ready” indicates a concern about graduating students. We embrace that mantra but argue it is not enough. Schools need to develop and maintain practices that create environments in which learning can take place. We want good citizens and lifelong learners to emerge from our schools as well. Each school and district, with their needs and priorities, their experience and talent, is unique. And whether successful or struggling, the teachers and leaders within those local communities know their work. While, quick solutions do not a system change, there are those who remember that in the midst of all of it, students must learn and grow every day.

In this current flurry of educational reform and the resulting backlash, local leaders are the ones who will really make systemic change happen. The implication, whether intended or not, that our schools are failing, and our teachers and leaders along with them, is both misguided and counter productive. It fails to take into account the very thing that makes our public schools community based institutions of learning. We want all students to read, write, and think mathematically to solve problems and create the future. We want them to be successful and good people who build our economy and our communites. We need our graduates to be ready for college, career and life.

The mandated changes have come with the accompanying measurements in the form of assessments and public revelation of the results. The stress on the system is palpable. If the ideals in which we are in service are to create successful learners, ready for college, career and life...we can not dismiss the work done each day in schools by teachers and leaders that contribute to an environment in which all students can flourish. That comes first and foremost. Isn’t that why we were called to the field in the first place? Isn’t that an ideal to which we are in service?

Sergiovanni, Thomas J. (1992). Moral Leadership: Getting To The Heart Of School Improvement. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.