School & District Management Commentary

Back to the Future

By Robert L. Hampel & Joseph M. Jones — April 01, 2008 7 min read

Whenever educators describe the history of school reform in terms of metaphors like waves, cycles, or pendulums, they overstate the differences from one era to the next. A case in point is the alleged eclipse of “restructuring.” Twenty years ago, bold proposals abounded for organizing schools differently. Today, the R-word is not heard very often, but we believe two crucial aspects of restructuring—the tasks teachers do and the way they use time—are on the horizon if teachers proactively shape the data-based decisionmaking prompted by the state and federal push for more accountability.


A batch of test scores and other quantitative information can unsettle teachers. Equipped with one undergraduate course in assessment, they often don’t know how to make sense of the array of numbers—or they think they do, only to find out they are mistaken. For those who truly do understand the data, some fear the information will be used, unfairly, to evaluate their classroom performance—or that it might be used, unjustly, to prejudge their students.

So we hear recommendations for professional development with teachers to enhance their skills and overcome their doubts. Articles, books, and workshops promise to coax teachers to scrutinize test scores and other indicators of academic progress. We also hear administrators admonished to do their part: The data they give teachers should be clearly organized, easily accessed, and timely. Principals should model data analysis in their own work, as well as praise the teachers who do it well.

If that is all that happens, then teachers will be complying with the expectations set by others, rather than forging their own destiny. There is an opportunity here for teachers to take the initiative to achieve two major goals central to restructuring.

Teachers have a clear field if they wish to establish their claim to data-based decisionmaking as an integral part of what it means to be a good teacher.

The first is jurisdictional: who does what. The major professions in this country have reliable ways to diagnose their clients and patients. Doctors and lawyers, for instance, sift information to decide what is relevant, ask questions to fill gaps or clarify ambiguities, and eliminate alternative explanations. It is a complex process, even when experts use shortcuts (a good doctor can size up a patient in a minute, while the same ailment presented to a medical school class can take 15 minutes to probe). What happens is not flawless, but it is usually much better than what patients and clients, nurses and paralegals, or quacks and charlatans can do.

In elementary and secondary schools, the number of diagnosticians increased throughout the 20th century. The specialists who used tests extensively—counselors, psychologists, social workers, special education staff members, instructional specialists such as literacy coaches—were rare in 1900 and ubiquitous by 2000. If their tools lacked the precision of X-rays, they nevertheless became the gatekeepers of the information used to classify students and prescribe treatments for emotional and cognitive challenges. Classroom teachers were not excluded from those interventions, of course. Their opinions mattered. But the hard evidence they brought to the discussion—grades, for instance—lacked the rigor of validated assessments, and few teachers had the expertise in child study and adolescent development acquired by school counselors, school psychologists, and others through graduate courses.

It is thus noteworthy that the diagnosticians, who have been light-years ahead of classroom teachers in the systematic use of data, are not now the models for data-based decisionmaking. Teachers rarely look to them for advice and guidance on how to make sense of data. This important aspect of the job of teaching is not monopolized by those colleagues.

Because the federal No Child Left Behind Act and state accountability systems require schools to focus their improvement efforts on instruction and curriculum, the accumulated experience of the diagnosticians is not tapped. Their decisions to refer, promote, punish, monitor, and counsel left unaltered what went on in most classrooms. Special educators keen on inclusion can sometimes alter curricular and instructional practices, but the various individual accommodations and supports spelled out in individualized education programs, or IEPs, often fail to do so.

Teachers thus have a clear field if they wish to establish their claim to data-based decisionmaking as an integral part of what it means to be a good teacher. Administrators usually have no choice—they must be skilled in this domain. Principals have to know how to compile and interpret the data that could determine whether or not their school satisfies NCLB and other mandates. The question for teachers is whether they will rely on their administrators—following their lead, carrying out orders, doing what they are told to do—or seize the opportunity to make data-based decisionmaking a core competency of a highly qualified teacher. The history of other professions suggests there is much to be gained from having the diagnostic jurisdiction. Without it, altering teachers’ workday responsibilities—an important goal sought by the restructuring efforts of the 1980s—will be harder to achieve.

The key task is to convince policymakers and taxpayers that the time away from classrooms will enhance rather than undermine instruction.

The second major goal concerns the use of time. If what we are suggesting ever comes to pass, the daily schedule in our schools will have to change. To do data-based decisionmaking well takes time. If teachers try to peruse data in order to understand individuals, not just groups, and grasp the particular strengths as well as the weaknesses of their students, the job cannot be wedged into a late-August professional-development day or piled on top of all the other work diligent teachers do. If that happens, the results will be superficial, if not inaccurate, and teachers will wind up as exhausted and frustrated, as many diagnosticians are today—burdened with 300 or more students, they rely on intuition, experience, and other heuristics to cope with an impossible workload.

To find that time requires paring either classroom hours or class sizes for teachers. There have been dozens of innovative schedules devised that free additional hours for teachers to meet and plan, and many of them have been tried. It is not necessary to strain to create yet another innovative schedule. The key task is to convince policymakers and taxpayers that the time away from classrooms will enhance rather than undermine instruction. Now is the moment for teachers to explain why the careful diagnosis of each student is as necessary in education as it is in medicine.

The case we need to make is not unprecedented. “In the school of the future, the failure of teachers to study their pupils’ individual characteristics—to ‘learn’ their pupils before they attempt to ‘teach’ them—will almost certainly be recognized as a social reproach, if not a legally defined offense.” That was Ben D. Wood’s prophecy in 1934. A pioneer in the development of standardized testing, cumulative folders, and scoring machines, Wood tirelessly built the case for restructuring schools around the notion of the teacher as a diagnostician, grounding instruction on frequent measurements of students’ growth over time.

He felt that the misuse of tests in the 1920s to peg students as smart or stupid stemmed from the absence of an educational philosophy to guide how tests results should be used. Without a clear rationale, neither parents nor teachers would support the continuous accumulation of detailed information (anecdotal as well as statistical) on students’ abilities, achievements, interests, and goals. Like most Progressives, Wood believed in individualized education, with the curriculum tailored to the specific needs of different students. The uniform standards so common today would disappoint him, but that only underscores his current relevance: He had a point of view, and he could articulate it to explain why change was necessary.

Educators today need to do the same. The widespread use of data does not guarantee its wise use. If teachers lack the authority and the time to make sure data-based decisionmaking is done well, the current accountability measures may do more harm than good.

Doing nothing is the great risk, we believe. If teachers take seriously the radical implications of data-based decisionmaking, they might bring about some of the changes sought 20 years ago. What seems to be a top-down imposition could be transformed into a teacher-driven movement to reshape and improve their careers.

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