Four Flawed Assumptions of School Reform

And What Can Be Done About Them

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The good news: Despite the economic downturn, the U.S. Department of Education is stoking the development of a multitude of initiatives that might help improve schools. The bad news: Many of those initiatives still focus on the same flawed assumptions that have undermined education reform efforts for years. These assumptions reflect a simplistic view of what it takes to improve schools, and they contribute to the repeated failure to address the basic conditions needed to sustain long-lasting improvements in schooling.

Assumption One: We have the capacity to significantly improve the performance of all students; we just need to put in place the goals and incentives that will encourage teachers and schools to do it.

Schools do not have all the knowledge, expertise, and resources needed to address many of the basic challenges of teaching and learning across multiple subjects on a large scale. This flawed assumption was reflected in some of the initial efforts to implement systemic reform in the 1990s, and continues in many current calls for “national standards” that imply creating common goals and aligning policies, incentives, and supports can unleash some previously hidden capacity to dramatically improve educational performance.

The same belief underlies many of the recent initiatives that suggest that producing smaller schools and smaller classes, or establishing rewards and penalties based on student test scores, will suddenly equip struggling teachers—in every subject and at all levels—with the knowledge and skills necessary to enable all their students to be successful in college and beyond.

Those who hold out hope that a few successful “turnaround” efforts, model schools, or charter schools can quickly spawn a legion of more effective schools embrace this assumption—and do so as well when they fail to recognize that improving many schools at once takes a vastly different set of skills, structures, and resources than transforming one school at a time. Ultimately, improving schools depends on working harder, increasing efficiency, and building capacity for more powerful instruction.

Assumption Two: If a school makes some improvements and hits some performance targets at one time, it has the capacity to continue to make meaningful improvements in instruction over time.

There are many different ways to reach short-term goals and outcomes, and some of them can actually undermine the ability of an organization to sustain performance and reach long-term goals. Sports teams demonstrate the tensions between focusing on short- and long-term goals when they load up on established stars to win a championship, but then suffer in subsequent years because they failed to invest in a strong system for developing younger players. The simple fact that a team reached the championship in one year does not mean it has the capacity to sustain such a high level of performance consistently in the future.

Similarly, even if schools do meet some performance targets—making “adequate yearly progress” in reading and math, or even reducing achievement gaps a bit—those accomplishments do not necessarily mean that they are on their way to meeting the needs of all learners or reaching “world class” standards in any subject. High-stakes, short-term pressures focused on narrow outcomes may make it particularly difficult for low-performing schools to make the investments in the basic organizational practices of managing staffs, establishing productive work environments, and developing common expectations that they need in order to meet meaningful goals and sustain high performance over time.

Assumption Three: Competition for students will lead to innovation and improved performance in many schools.

Regardless of whether students and parents have a choice of schools, the ability of schools to provide innovative classroom practices is constrained by limited resources, difficult external conditions, and public perceptions of what counts as “real” schooling.

The true competition is for scarce resources, such as effective teachers, strong leaders, high-quality professional development, capable external assistance, adequate facilities, political influence, and public support. Unfortunately, successful schools—regular public schools as well as charter schools and other alternatives—often capture these scarce resources and gain a competitive advantage over others. That advantage reinforces a system in which a small number of schools can excel, and does little to build the capacity for large-scale improvements for all.

Assumption Four: The way to improve the system as a whole is to “scale up” the successes of individual programs and schools around the country.

The ability to “scale up” a successful school or education program depends more on finding the right conditions than it does on developing the right practices, curriculum model, or other innovation. In the business world, start-ups need to find customers, suppliers, facilities, equipment, and employees in order to spread across the country. Put the “right” business in the wrong place and it will founder, regardless of how good the basic idea might be.

In education, even the most successful school networks and model programs only work in some places, under some circumstances. Any attempt to scale up successful schools and programs has to be accompanied by a concerted effort to create more favorable economic, organizational, social, and political conditions that will give all schools a better chance to make significant improvements.

What can be done? First, instead of infusing the system with money when times are good and demanding cuts when times are bad, put in place stable funding streams.

Second, make sure those funds address basic needs that have direct benefits for students and parents—renovating inadequate facilities, building new schools where necessary, putting in place effective child-care and after-school programs where they are needed, and strengthening the day-to-day support for more powerful learning.

Third, provide useful feedback on how schools, districts, and states are doing in providing equal opportunities for all students and for meeting meaningful learning goals. But reward schools for making improvements over the long haul, without imposing short-term penalties on particular individuals.

Fourth, give parents and the wider public opportunities to see what goes on in classrooms, and develop their understanding of what “good” student work—in the United States and around the world—can look like.

These efforts have to go far beyond the usual initiatives to publicize data on school performance, sway public opinion on education, or put in place another set of standards. If the wider public does not demand the kinds of instruction that truly support high levels of learning for all students, describing most teaching as “high quality” and labeling low levels of performance as “proficient” or “adequate” will continue to suffice.

Especially in this age of accountability, policymakers, funders, and education leaders need the vision and the courage to make the basic investments that will improve conditions for all schools, even though the real results may be hard to see for some time.

Vol. 29, Issue 14, Pages 24, 32

Published in Print: December 9, 2009, as Four Flawed Assumptions of School Reform
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