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School & District Management Opinion

Ending the Great School Wars

By James S. Liebman — December 11, 2012 6 min read
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In his Nov. 7 victory speech, President Barack Obama noted Americans’ “fierce” differences on “big” issues and urged us to come together around shared goals. First among the goals he hopes will unify us, despite our “noisy and messy” disagreements about how to reach them, is access by children “to the best schools and the best teachers.”

There is no escaping the angry debate about K-12 education in the United States, whether in battles over teacher evaluation in Chicago, “rubber rooms” in New York City, parent triggers in California, privatization in Philadelphia, or charter schools and “teaching to the test” almost everywhere. What’s missing is a framework for understanding what’s actually at issue in the debate.

Filling that gap is the goal of an intensive graduate-level course I teach with talented and public-minded Columbia University, New York University, and Yale University students, many of them former teachers. They have enrolled in business, education, law, and policy schools in search of ideas, skills, and careers in public education reform. My students work in consulting teams that provide affordable design, management, and implementation support to state and local education departments around the country. That work has helped us isolate the issues framing the current debate and identify a powerful family of solutions that offers a unifying middle ground.

To begin with, unlike the recent election, the K-12 debate is not about politics. Despite the left vs. right rhetoric about corporatized schools and slothful public employees, many of the adversaries in this battle are Democrats who agree on most political issues. In fact, liberals ally with conservatives, as in last year’s New York Times op-ed essay by Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond and the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick M. Hess. And some, like the respected education historian Diane Ravitch, seem to have switched sides entirely. This fight is also not about public school pedagogy or curriculum. Instead, it’s about whom we can trust to decide these and other questions of deep public concern, and whether government still has a key role to play.

BRIC ARCHIVE

My students and I developed a framework for understanding and evaluating the contending positions that may help others make sense of the great school wars (to borrow a phrase from Ms. Ravitch) and move beyond them.

We start with bureaucracy and interest-group politics. For many Americans, these are dirty words that epitomize public school systems. The widely held view is that one-size-fits-all edicts from central administrators at a distance from schools and constrained by labyrinthine work rules and clunky textbooks cannot possibly satisfy diverse student needs. The search is on for ways to rescue schoolchildren from command-and-control bureaucracies and self-serving adult interests. The conflicts we’re seeing in our class and consulting projects are a series of skirmishes and shifting alliances between competitors for bureaucracy’s mantle.

Some observers argue that centrally managed solutions fail only because we don’t fund them sufficiently, and that unless spending surges, student results will not. But the United States already spends more on public education than nations whose students consistently outperform ours, so this solution requires more money and hope than American taxpayers are likely to muster.

Others want to stop “feeding the beast” altogether and give families vouchers to use in a private market for schools. Because most families are happy with their public schools and fear a cheapened market substitute, this solution would require both a subsidized public system for most families and vouchers for others. Funding this dual system—and conjuring up a market for middle-class schools that doesn’t now exist—would demand even more capital and credulity than feed-the-bureaucracy solutions.

Despite the media attention lavished on calls to fatten or strangle the beast, my students and I have concluded that the real fight is between three more moderate views, all of which reject central mandates and promote school-level autonomy.

“Managerialist” strategies call for school systems to run as successful corporations supposedly (but rarely) do, by giving educators outcome targets and leaving it to them to solve the mystery of how children learn. Clever school and classroom managers who hit their targets should be promoted; inept ones should be fired. Without needing to know how effective educators succeed, student results will improve.

“Professionalism” or “craft” strategies replace chief executive officers with a vision that resembles how good family physicians supposedly (but rarely) work. Proponents of this approach urge school systems to abandon input and output mandates and let gifted, board-certified, and well-paid teachers work their magic with students whose unique needs and qualities they intuitively perceive. Here again, the secret to success is mysterious, but good results follow.

Neither approach explains, however, where all these master managers and professionals—and the money to attract them to schools—will come from. Worse, by themselves and unexamined, the student test scores that managerialist strategies use to sort educators are too insensitive to identify the best. And, as former New York City Schools Chancellor Anthony Alvarado discovered when he implemented a craft solution in the city’s District 2 in the 1990s, master professionals’ instincts, by themselves and unexamined, succeed only with the middle-class children most familiar to educators. They don’t alter patterns of failure by poor and minority children. As Alvarado—and John Dewey before him—realized, success will not spring magically from the brow of master managers or teachers. Instead, it requires systematic and accountable inquiry into how empowered and incentivized leaders and educators succeed.

There is no escaping the angry debate about K-12 education in the United States. ... What’s missing is a framework for understanding what’s actually at issue."

Institutional-learning strategies of just this sort are in use with strong results in the Aldine, Texas; Denver; New Haven, Conn.; New York City; Sacramento, Calif.; and other school districts and underpin the Obama administration’s No Child Left Behind waivers and other initiatives. These strategies use test scores not just as “lagging” indicators of success, but diagnostically, to direct attention and resources to students a school or teacher has failed. They use parent, student, and teacher surveys and qualitative peer review as “leading” indicators to delve inside the black box of management and teaching and distinguish real from lucky results. They use structured-inquiry teams to make professionals’ tacit knowledge explicit, spur innovation, and customize successful strategies to struggling classrooms and schools.

Though vilified by the left for making success a prerequisite for continued funding, by the right for trusting government, and by believers in managerialist and professional strategies, the idea that adults in schools, no less than children, should be self-conscious and systematic learners is more promising than the other models. Institutional-learning approaches make teachers and principals into self-conscious, collaborative innovators who can steadily help children accelerate their learning by tailoring improvement strategies to each student, educator, and school, then carefully monitoring results and adjusting interventions based on what does and doesn’t work.

Our consulting teams have helped school systems solve problems and reduce conflict by applying institutional-learning strategies to a number of issues, including how to conduct rigorous, qualitative, and outcome-based evaluations of teachers and schools; and how to empower parent working groups to shape school reform. The teams’ success provides more evidence that it isn’t magic, but self-conscious and accountable inquiry into institutional success and failure, that enables committed managers, professionals, and stakeholders to come together around shared goals, as the president urged last month, and devise solutions that improve schools and boost the life chances of all children.

A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2012 edition of Education Week as Ending the Great School Wars

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