Education Opinion

Friday: Voices From the Field

By Jal Mehta — April 01, 2011 3 min read
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It’s snowing in Cambridge. We’re trying to run a meeting of our group, but its looking more like a snow day. I think God is punishing us for moving Opening Day to a Thursday in March.

We did have an inspiring and also grounding set of discussions yesterday with local students and teachers from Cambridge and Boston public schools. Favorite quote: “If they gave away Usher tickets when school started, we might be able to get people to show up for first period.”

As it’s Friday, I wanted to respond to some queries from you, and also highlight at least one promising example from the field:

Parry writes:

How is what you describe in A and B different from the professional learning community model, which is already described at length in the professional literature? What is the immediate incentive for schools to engage in C?

A and B are potentially identical to the best forms of PLCs, but differ from most PLCs as they currently function in practice. They share the insight of PLCs that part of the problem is teacher isolation, and that making work commonly visible is important. The difference lies in the level of discipline and iteration. In Tony and Louis’s vision of NICs, you have people consciously examining practice in light of their goals, documenting different strategies as they are being pursued in different classrooms and schools, and iterations every 90 days until you have a clear path towards improvement. That doesn’t sound much like most PLCs I’ve seen.

The incentive of C for the school is that you benefit from outside as well as inside knowledge. There are huge advantages for the system to do it this way, because the rate of improvement will be greatly accelerated.

Tgoble writes:

I would also like you define success. This seems to be a sticking point for many educators and reformers. Is this improved test scores? Is it improved attitudes toward learning? Is it improved community perception? Is it improved student engagement? The complexity of success when applied to human events is very difficult to quantify.

The million dollar question. I entirely agree with you about the difficulties of quantification. There is an interesting literature on “commensuration” -- the turning of qualities into quantities. (U.S. News rankings are a key example in this literature.) Doing so inevitably replaces the complexity of local reality into a set of categories that are observable from afar. So we should always keep in mind the limits of measurement.

At the same time, there are reasons to set goals and targets -- they motivate, they help you to see incremental improvement, they give you something to measure against as you revise practice, and they allow for comparability. The key is that they should be aligned with the goals and mission of both the school and the system. Schools should have a role in selecting them,and they should be consistent with aims the school is trying to achieve. One good example might be a school that is trying to move from seat time to an oral proficiency standard in language -- this is a difficult set of changes, but one that can be measured, and would be amenable to the NIC described above.

Catlike writes:

Hofstadter's classic work on anti-intellectualism in the US really explains a lot of what schools and teachers are up against. It really informs the difficulty in raising the status of teaching.

Agreed. It’s remarkable how relevant that work still is today.

Paulhoss@hotmail writes:

The idea here was that university researchers would identify good practices, policymakers would mandate these practices at scale, and again teachers would implement them." And where do the authors reside? Harvard Graduate School of Education, University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Foundation. Is there anything wrong with this picture???

I hear you, Paulhoss -- my Mom is a longtime teacher and had the same reaction. In the longer run, one of the key things that differentiates teaching from other more fully-blown professions is that it doesn’t have control over its domain. We are gradually starting to see some moves in this direction; for example with teachers taking control of teacher training at High Tech High and elsewhere. As public institutions, schools will always need to respond to multiple claimants, but a more strongly developed teaching profession (which got better results) would have a larger say in what happened in the field.

Tgoble (part 2) writes:

I agree in principle. However, the task at hand is almost overwhelming given the current climate toward education. The constant beating of the "our schools/teachers are failing drum" drowns out the need for support of the people who have dedicated their lives to helping children learn. I am not hopeful the pendulum will swing back the way you describe anytime soon. I would like to think it is possible and this forum certainly won't hurt.

I think there are some hopeful signs. There is more attention to practice-based knowledge now than ever. There are lots of people trying to rethink human capital. We know a lot about how effective schools work, and there is much more effort to train instructional leaders. And portfolio districts that seek to move from managing a school system to creating a system of schools are a recognition about the importance of the school as a unit of analysis, and the limits of top-down compliance. Finally, the fact that other high performing systems internationally are in line with these recommendations might also give us hope.

Finally, Kworthington tells us about one model that’s already doing this in Baltimore (my hometown!):

This new model has had remarkable, albeit underground, success in Baltimore. The work of Math Works professional learning community has led to sweeping changes in curriculum and instruction.

You can read more about the program, and Linda Eberhart, the teacher who started it, here.

Obviously, what I’ve said above shouldn’t be the last word -- any thoughts or reactions? Also, next week we have Ben Levin, Bob Schwartz, and Adam Gamoran to discuss “lessons from abroad” -- if you want to start posting any questions or thoughts about models in other countries, you can start here.

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.