In America, there is no shortage of ideas for improving education at every level, pre-k to college. These ideas fall into two categories: Federal, state, and district policy, and school and classroom improvement. Proposals for reforming educational policies almost always focus on issues far from classroom practice: governance, standards, assessment, funding, accountability, certification, district organization. Everything in this list is important, but none of them really matters unless classroom instruction greatly improves. My belief is that instead of starting from large-scale issues and then hoping that solving big funding, governance, and accountability issues will somehow improve daily teaching, we should start thinking about how to create effective classrooms and then to create policies to support them. A recent Brookings report by Chingos and Whitehurst makes the same point. Unless teachers are exciting kids, teaching them effectively, making them feel capable and be capable, things will not change.
The recipe for school reform, then, is deceptively simple:
Take one class.
So how do we stir one class? And even more importantly, how do we repeat? Everyone has seen great teaching, but how do we make this the norm for 3 million teachers and 50 million kids?
Obviously, we need better teachers and better generic professional development. But the way to bring about real change at a large scale is to improve classroom instructional models, then figure out how to support and sustain effective classroom models within schools, sustain and grow effective schools, and finally create district, state, and national policies to support the whole system. But the policy changes must start from the question of “how do we support effective classroom methods,” not be expected to solve the problems on their own.
What are effective classroom methods? They are ones that have been rigorously evaluated and found to be effective. They may be math or reading or science programs, or whole school designs. Our website called the Best Evidence Encyclopedia and the quarterly magazine Better: Evidence-Based Education highlight evidence-based policy and practice. Effective programs are very different from each other, but they all seek to motivate, engage, and organize student learning.
In earlier Sputnik blogs, I’ve described policies designed to identify, evaluate, and scale up proven programs, so I won’t go into the details here. What I wanted to communicate was the simplicity of the basic approach. Just begin with a well-founded model of what one class should be like. Then create a system designed to scale up these classes. That’s the recipe.
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