Special Report
School & District Management Opinion

Building ‘Institutional Infrastructure’

By Suzanne Donovan — February 09, 2009 5 min read

President Barack Obama is striking two chords that, if played together in his education strategy, would produce a tune different not only from his predecessor’s, but also from that of many in his own party. The first chord, influenced by Mr. Obama’s past as a community organizer, is one that resonated throughout his campaign: Real change must be built from the bottom up, or, as he put it, “block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.” The second, heard in his plans for billions of dollars in economic stimulus, is that we must build the nation’s infrastructure so that dollars spent today will represent an investment in the future.

These two themes, sounded together, could produce some much-needed harmony of purpose in education—or at least reduce the discord that has accompanied the federal focus on accountability in the No Child Left Behind Act.

The question of whether accountability itself is good or bad does not deserve serious debate. As the current economic crisis reminds us, we must all be accountable. This is true especially for those who hold children’s futures in their hands. The real question is whether the No Child Left Behind law’s top-down mandate of accountability can, by itself, get us where we need to go. There is plenty of evidence that it can’t.

Our schools continue to struggle, in large part because the country has not created the kind of scientific infrastructure in education that the teaching profession needs to be able to educate all children to high standards.

Teachers, principals, and district leaders are entrusted with complex and demanding jobs that make the task of corporate management, where authority is rarely questioned, look easy by comparison. The unvarnished truth is that no one has a recipe that would allow most of our teachers to bring large numbers of highly diverse students, many of whom live in poverty and come from tough neighborhood environments, to high levels of academic performance. We marvel at exceptional teachers or individual schools that beat the odds, but we don’t know how to reproduce that performance on a large scale, or even how to sustain it over time in the sites where it is found.

As a nation, we cannot look the other way while our schools turn out, or drop out, poorly educated students unable to compete in the global economy. Nor should we pretend that the simple prescription of measuring progress and attaching sanctions is an adequate national response to so complex a challenge.

Progress at scale will require that a top-down accountability strategy be paired with the bottom-up approach President Obama emphasizes. The broad base capable of producing change in education is the community of teachers, school administrators, university researchers, and social entrepreneurs. Their collaborative efforts will be needed if we are to build and continuously improve the knowledge base for effective education. We also will need the best minds in research and development in the fields related to education to work alongside practitioners in an effort to learn how to effectively educate students from all backgrounds, in a full range of subject areas, across all grade levels, and to capture that knowledge in replicable and scalable forms.

The infrastructure necessary for this work is not just bricks and mortar, it also is institutional infrastructure. We need a set of school district “field sites” where university researchers, district and school administrators, and classroom teachers can find support for their efforts to work collaboratively to dissect, evaluate, and improve what goes on in classrooms and schools. These sites would play the role that teaching hospitals play in medicine. Continuing improvement in doctors’ practice is not produced by federal mandate; it arises from a profession that builds knowledge and then ensures its members are prepared to use that knowledge well. The same must be true for practitioners in education.

The federal government does, of course, aid the improvement of medical practice by supporting the institutions that engage in knowledge-building. In education, however, the problem is not just its comparative lack of research funding. It is also that, unlike medicine, which has built venues for research and development embedded in practice settings, education has not moved in this direction.

A national network of field sites located in school districts, where problem-solving research and development would be done routinely and the products and knowledge made there shared widely, was proposed in a 2003 National Academies report calling for a Strategic Education Research Partnership, or SERP. Since that time, such sites have been established in Boston, San Francisco, and several suburban districts in four different states. These forward-looking districts have welcomed the collaboration. Their teachers have contributed time and talent willingly, and some of the nation’s top education researchers have shifted their research agendas to work with practitioners at these sites on ways to build new knowledge and tools for teaching. Promising, innovative practices and programs that address problems and fit into the routines of the school day (a critical feature often overlooked when research and development are decoupled from practice) are emerging.

One of President Obama’s most important insights has been that people are eager to contribute to solving our nation’s problems when asked. As his campaign demonstrated, he understands that leadership is about both asking people to help and building the infrastructure that will allow them to do so productively and harmoniously.

A sustained federal investment in building a broad national infrastructure of local, district-based research-and-development sites would support the coordinated efforts among the many whose talents will be needed to build a knowledge base and the necessary tools to improve education. It is an investment of paramount importance, if we are to increase the scale of innovation and ensure that it reaches into the classroom.

A version of this article appeared in the February 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Building ‘Institutional Infrastructure’

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