From Fear Factor to Peer Factor

An Alternative Approach to School Improvement

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School reformers in President Barack Obama’s administration seem short on new ideas. Recycled solutions such as charters, school closures, and performance-based pay create improvements only somewhere, sometime—and often on the wrong things, like tested basics. It’s time to look elsewhere for reforms that bring about improvement everywhere, all the time, on the basics but also on the things that matter most, like engaging learning and classroom creativity.

There are better ways. We have seen them in high-performing systems across the world. Consider just four of them:

1. Rebounding from an unemployment rate of almost 19 percent in 1992, Finland now tops the world in economic competitiveness—and on the Program for International Student Assessment. One secret of Finland’s recovery lies in its educational mission of creativity and inclusiveness. This attracts and keeps the highly qualified and publicly respected teachers on whom the country’s future depends. In school cultures of trust, cooperation, and responsibility, these teachers design curricula together in each municipality within broad national guidelines—and care for all the children in their schools, not just those in their own grades and classes. Schools also work together for the benefit of the cities and communities they serve.

Inspiration comes before intervention—it attracts the best people to the profession and keeps them there.

2. Unlike racially homogeneous Finland, the London borough of Tower Hamlets serves an immigrant population from some of the poorest parts of the world, such as Bangladesh. In 1997, Tower Hamlets was the worst school district in England. Now, it performs at or above the national average on primary school test scores and high school examination results. Refusing to apply the punitive interventions that characterize England’s overall reform strategy or to develop market-like academies (similar to U.S. charters), Tower Hamlets’ district leaders have communicated high expectations to, and developed collaborative and trusting relationships with, leaders in their schools.

District administrators regularly are present in the schools. Relationships with people precede spreadsheets of performance. Schools set ambitious performance targets together. If one school falls behind, others rally round to help. Better teachers are cultivated and kept as a result of positive partnerships with local teacher-training providers. And droves of paid teaching assistants, hired from the borough, work alongside classroom teachers, easing the workload and developing trust and engagement with parents and the community.

3. In Canada, the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement, or AISI, contributes significantly to the province’s strong educational performance, which almost matches that of Finland. Created by a partnership of six organizations representing government, teachers, trustees, parents, superintendents, and business officials, AISI involves more than 95 percent of Alberta’s schools in self-initiated changes. These include moving toward more innovative teaching strategies, assessment for learning, greater engagement of First Nations parents in their children’s schooling, and other proven improvement practices. Schools select or design their own measures to monitor progress, calculations that extend far beyond test scores. They also are networked with each other to promote peer learning, assistance, and success.

4. Another Canadian province, multicultural Ontario, performs just behind Alberta and is catching up fast. One reason for its success is a systemwide reform strategy that involves every district in whole-school changes that are also aimed specifically at benefiting students in special education. The “essential for some, good for all” strategy relies on a team of expert system leaders who coach and collaborate with personnel in each district. The goal is to customize the district’s inclusive approach to meeting its own needs. Intensive cross-district networking has helped alter a long history of underachievement in literacy and math, and has secured stunning improvement rates in special education achievement scores—double those among “mainstream” students.

So, when we look beyond our borders at exceptional systems elsewhere, what do we learn? Inspiration comes before intervention—it attracts the best people to the profession and keeps them there. The right incentives really can unleash school-driven innovation. Professionally shared targets surpass bureaucratically imposed ones. The best districts set aside spreadsheets to build better relationships with schools.

Transparent and accountable networks trump charters in breaking down the protective barriers of district bureaucracies and also holding improvement efforts together. Strong schools can and should be used as resources to help weaker neighbors who fall behind. Giving community members jobs in schools does more than just restore confidence in public education—it develops active trust among professionals and the public as they learn and work together. Unions and school systems can combine to initiate change, instead of wearing each other down in wars of attrition.

The truth is clearly out there. The inspiring future of school reform lies in less bureaucracy and more democracy; in collaboration more than competition; in innovation and inspiration, more than data-driven intervention; in the fear factor giving way to the peer factor as the driver of reform.

This American president is a man of the world in almost everything he does. It’s important to be outward-looking in reforming education, too. Recycled local solutions are no longer enough. Bold, brilliant, and better alternatives beckon. Now’s the time to try them.

Vol. 29, Issue 03, Pages 30-31

Published in Print: September 16, 2009, as From Fear Factor to Peer Factor
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