Education Opinion

Classrooms Matter More than Policies

By Edward Pauly — January 19, 2017 7 min read
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Most of the current school-reform proposals offer little concrete help to teachers and students--the people who make education work in American classrooms. School-choice plans, site-based management, national testing schemes, teacher-certification requirements: They all may have a role to play in responding to the failures of American education, but their proponents are surprisingly silent when confronted with a classroom discipline problem or an alienated, bored class. The school-reform movement has failed to give us policies that provide direct, immediate assistance to the people in our classrooms who do the daily work of teaching and learning. What we need is a different approach to education reform--one that offers policies that are designed with teachers’ and students’ daily struggles foremost in mind.

The key insight that has never been grasped by school reformers is that the classroom, rather than the state government, the school district, or even the school, is where education really happens. Learning takes place because of the very special combination of ingredients in classrooms--the teacher and students, the concentrated time for work, and the shared energy that comes from intense, sustained involvement with each other.

In contrast, the school’s officially approved curriculum, instructional methods, and policies aren’t necessarily even used, much less used well, in the school’s individual classrooms. In fact, the research on educational innovations consistently shows that past reforms and innovations have never been carried out as they were intended in classrooms. Instead, they were revised and altered, or downright ignored, by the individual classrooms that were supposed to adopt them.

Ask yourself this simple question: Would you rather send a child to a classroom that is participating in Fabulous Reform X, but is doing it badly--or to a classroom where the teacher is using her own approach, and doing it well? It’s an easy choice, and it underscores the fact that no reformer has ever figured out how to guarantee that the latest reforms will be implemented as they were intended. The inevitable result: Reformed schools have just as much variation in the effectiveness of their classrooms as do nonreformed schools.

If the would-be reformers can’t tell the rest of us concretely and in detail how their plans will help teachers and students solve the day-to-day problems they face--including the mundane ones, such as discipline, low attendance rates, high turnover in the classroom due to the mobility of students’ families, and garden-variety boredom--then we should be very skeptical about their claims. Trust us, they say. Well, maybe this time we won’t be fooled again.

There are no panaceas for the schools’ problems. But there are policies that can help, and that have been consistently ignored by most reformers (with the striking exception of James P. Comer and Theodore R. Sizer, two real defenders of classrooms and the people in them).

Specifically, there are two kinds of policies that confront the problems of classrooms head on: classroom-membership policies and classroom-support policies.

Classroom-membership policies are based on the recognition that education is created by teachers and students, the members of a classroom. Policies that affect teacher recruitment and selection, new teachers’ assignments to particular schools, transfers for tenured teachers, and other personnel practices are a crucial influence on the classroom’s membership and its effectiveness. Personnel offices and policies are scandalously ineffective in most large and many small school districts, and must be greatly improved--by making the changes needed to recruit top college graduates to be teachers. Only if recruitment practices are radically upgraded will any of the benefits of higher teacher salaries or better working conditions have their intended effect: attracting the teachers we need.

Policies can also directly alter the membership of individual classrooms to stimulate effective teaching and learning by carefully assigning students and teachers to classrooms where they can work effectively. Shockingly, many schools assign students to classrooms at random--wasting the chance to put students where they can learn best. Teachers and parents possess a great deal of information on which classrooms are likely to work for particular students; classroom-membership decisions can and should be based on that valuable information. Many principals already welcome the involvement of teachers in deciding which classroom best matches a child’s needs. Parents can contribute to this important process, too. This approach may mean reducing the use of rigid tracking; even in schools that use tracking, students with identical achievement levels may do their best work in classrooms that are in different tracks, with teachers and classmates who work well with them.

Classroom-support policies are actions taken by the school principal to identify classrooms that are floundering, and to devise and put into action ad hoc methods, tailored to each individual classroom, to help its teacher and students get back on the track to successful teaching and learning. Many principals already use this approach, at least some of the time; unfortunately, others are distracted from the problems of classrooms by the demands of the central-office staff, the bus scheduler, the fire marshal, and the audio-visual salesperson--all estimable people, but ones whose demands can interfere with effective classroom-support policies.

Active classroom support can mean providing training to improve a teacher’s techniques for making lessons interesting, and sharpening his or her grasp of the subject matter. It can mean close daily observation of a troubled classroom, or actions to break up the tacit deals that people in some classrooms make to avoid hard work. It can mean changing the classroom assignment of a student who is beyond the reach of the teacher and is disrupting the classroom--or keeping students with their teacher for two years to promote stability and motivation. It can mean sustained counseling and step-by-step intervention with a teacher whose classroom is failing, to find out why and to work with the teacher to change it.

Above all, classroom-support policies promote flexible responses to classroom problems, creating new ways for the people in them to solve their own problems. The Yale University psychiatrist James Comer’s deservedly famous innovations in the inner-city schools of New Haven, Conn., and Theodore Sizer’s diverse efforts to strengthen classrooms are examples par excellence of classroom-support policies at work. Like other such policies, they help the people in each classroom change and adapt its instructional methods to meet its particular needs.

The actions needed to put classroom-membership and classroom-support policies into practice are partly those of state legislatures (which contribute heavily to teacher salaries, and can thus press local school districts to upgrade their personnel, recruitment, and selection practices), and partly those of school districts (which can train and encourage principals to focus on solving classroom problems). The federal government, if it is interested, can support demonstrations in both areas.

The only sensible way to judge an education policy is to look at how it affects the daily lives of teachers and students in classrooms. Strengthening classrooms should be the watchword of education policy--something that, sadly, is not true today.

The most powerful and consistent finding of rigorous education-policy studies is that students’ achievement is determined by the classroom to which they belong, and the things that happen there every day. In independent analyses of 17 separate samples totaling more than 6,300 students, conducted by researchers including Eric Haushek of the University of Rochester, Richard Murnane of Harvard University, and a rand Corporation team of which I was a member, the result was the same: Classroom differences greatly affected student achievement, while policy differences did not. Moreover, all of the national test-score studies have shown that the variation in student achievement within schools is vastly greater than the achievement differences between schools--demolishing the notion that school-level policies are the controlling factors in shaping students’ achievement.

The great, but little noticed, discovery of education-policy research is that classrooms matter more than policies. This simple fact, obvious to every schoolchild, shows the central mistake of the education-reform debate; it has ignored the classroom, the productive core of schooling. The policy debate has treated people in classrooms as underlings who are supposed to follow procedures and incentive schemes that are established by others. This is, quite simply, crazy. Until school officials and policymakers learn to base their decisions on the realities of life in the classroom--on the issues that confront the teachers and students who make education happen every day--education policies and reforms will continue to fail. The success of education requires education policies that actively, directly, and consistently strengthen the ability of teachers and students to make their classrooms work. In the end, we must rely on the people in classrooms to carry out the work of education--not because they will always do it perfectly, but because they are the only ones who can do it at all.

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1991 edition of Education Week


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