Education Opinion

Creating an Upward Spiral

By Jal Mehta — March 30, 2011 3 min read
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By Jal Mehta

Excellent comments--this is going to be good. A number of you are doing work on the cutting edge; I would encourage you, in the weeks ahead, to tell us about it in more detail, and provide links to your work so we can learn about it. You can also email me directly (jal_mehta@gse.harvard.edu).

Our commentary this week was largely about the knowledge part of the equation--how to develop and share more practice-relevant knowledge. My topic today is how to integrate this with the other things that the sector needs to do.

I would contend that all fields have four big tasks--developing knowledge (R & D); attracting, selecting, training and retaining people (human capital); creating processes that organize work at the site of delivery (organizational processes); and then developing a system of external accountability and support that is aligned with the previous three parts. A field like medicine, for example, invests tremendously in research and development through NIH and the private sector; is highly selective in the people it allows to enter the profession; and has well-established protocols (such as doctors’ rounds) that structure processes at the site of delivery. It is relatively weak on external accountability: there is no “No Patient Left Behind,” and malpractice suits have little statistical relationship to actual performance. However, the sector as a whole functions at a baseline level of competence because the first three elements provide most of what is needed.

Part of the problem with the education sector is that we essentially do all of this backwards. We select people to teach who are not, on the whole, among our strongest students, they work in a field that is not fully professionalized, they have a very limited collective knowledge base to draw upon, and they work in a country which by international standards has a weak welfare state and high levels of child poverty. Not surprisingly, they don’t consistently produce the results that we want, particularly for poor students, so policymakers, somewhat understandably, seek to intervene and control from afar. In turn, this leads practitioners to distrust policymakers as much as policymakers distrust them, and we create a kind of downward spiral of mistrust, where creative and talented people don’t want to teach because they find themselves as widgets in a machine created hundreds of miles away.

What we want is the kind of upward spiral we see in Finland and in other good systems. There they select talented people, train them extensively, provide social support for students (in and out of school), and give those practitioners an opportunity to collaborate, and develop and draw upon a growing knowledge base. Their level of success, in turn, builds public confidence, and allows them to avoid the elaborate systems of external testing that we use here. The system works because the elements are integrated--decentralizing power from the center works because of the care in selection and training that happens upfront.

Although history pushes against it, we could create this kind of system in the United States. There are some efforts to build the kind of practice-oriented knowledge base we outline in our piece. There is now a cottage industry of people thinking through the various aspects of the human capital pipeline, from attraction to selection to retention. There is a sizeable literature on what it takes to create an effective school, and there are various efforts to train principals to put these principles into effect. And there is increasing enthusiasm for portfolio districts, which shift the district from a compliance enforcer to a manager of a set of schools that each need to be coherent communities with their own identities and strategies for improvement.

For this to work, integration is critical. Sending talented people into dysfunctional school environments is a recipe for burnout; developing knowledge is useless if there aren’t talented people who could draw on it, and so forth. If we could integrate these upfront pieces, with a sensible back-end accountability system to match, we could create the kind of upward trajectories we see in other leading nations.

Your thoughts -- right analysis or not? Right prescription or not? What would it take to move towards such a world -- who would need to change and how?

Jal Mehta is an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The opinions expressed in The Futures of School Reform 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.