Commentary

Why Education Improvement Strategies Always Disappoint

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If we want better educational outcomes, we must work differently

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Those of us who work for change in education need a new set of habits to avoid a repeat of recent reform disappointments.

We must learn how to study the problems we aim to solve in the contexts in which they occur, before latching onto solutions. We must listen more closely to students and practitioners, to better understand their circumstances and needs. We also must be deliberate in forging a shared understanding among stakeholders about how to best support young people in their development.

In doing so, both officials at all levels of public education and leaders in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors would greatly reduce the extent to which their well-intentioned strategies create conflicts and unnecessary burdens for the people they mean to support.

Improvement strategies often don’t fit well together. Or they don’t fit well with the contexts in which they are implemented, or with the realities of how people learn and adapt to change.

There are many examples of this fragmented approach to new education strategies: teacher professional development initiatives that don’t help educators teach their students what they need to learn, academic standards that were changed without looping in parents, or one-size-fits-all programs that fail to address the varied needs of individual students.

This fragmentation prevents young people from receiving the full benefit of the energy invested in their education. It also forces educators to expend their own effort figuring out how to deal with contradictory and unsupported demands.

"Improvement strategies often don’t fit well together."

As a long-time participant in educational reform, Carnegie Corporation of New York—where I serve as the program director for education—sees this diversion of energy as a large part of why improvement strategies so often fail to produce significant gains in student learning, or significant progress toward equity in outcomes.

We can do something about this. The full spectrum of people who create, promote, and implement strategies for educational improvement can learn to work differently, and support others in doing the same.

What all of us need to do differently is to put the students whose circumstances we aim to improve at the center of our attention. That means building our understanding of how students and educators experience the system whose outcomes we want to change. We need to test innovations with multiple small trials before moving to full implementation. And we must do so while being more inclusive of different perspectives.

A recent report on a Carnegie Corporation initiative, the Integration Design Consortium, sheds some light on how education leaders can build these habits. In this consortium, grantee organizations across the country work with teams of leaders at the state and local level to improve how they develop and carry out strategies to improve the lives of young people.

Participants in the consortium’s five projects include teams from state education agencies and local districts, community organizations, teacher leaders, and social service agencies. What binds them all is the recognition that their constituents will be better served if they better coordinate their efforts.

Participants are learning to apply a variety of approaches to problem-solving that, while already well established, have yet to be employed extensively in education. For example, human-centered design begins the design process with an understanding of how people experience a problem and its potential solutions. Another promising approach is systems thinking, the discipline of identifying the key actors and forces at work in producing a particular set of outcomes.

Education leaders in the consortium also are learning to orient themselves toward equity in a way that goes beyond addressing longstanding differences in outcomes among different populations. In viewing their improvement strategies through an equity lens, they are confronting the hard truths about the causes and consequences of inequities. As a result, participants are focusing on including marginalized populations in the planning and development of new strategies and initiatives.

Importantly, the IDC projects were not designed to promote particular programs for educational improvements. This was not a case of stipulating that resources be used, for example, to expand after-school programs or improve reading instruction. The consortium’s goal is to enhance the capacity of those involved to address whatever challenges are before them, in ways that produce coherence and not fragmentation.

Building this capacity is essential to break free of the long running cycle of reform and limited improvements. Certainly, there are strong cases for the new bets being made on social-emotional learning, curriculum guidance, and competency-based instruction. But if we pursue these as we typically do—with isolated programs imposed from on high—we will again be disappointed with the results.

To achieve better outcomes, we must learn to work differently.

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