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School & District Management Opinion

Failing to Learn From Failure

By Craig D. Hochbein & Daniel L. Duke — September 18, 2009 6 min read
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Failure often courts success. Learning from past mistakes informs future innovation and achievement. Transportation accidents, building collapses, business failures, natural disasters, and even deaths warrant investigations, commissions, and autopsies. Regulators and practitioners study the cause or antecedents of a dire event with the hope of preventing future failures by gaining knowledge that alters existing rules and procedures. But despite the inherent logic and benefit of such inquiries, the field of public education has yet to adopt similar practices.

Instead, the fulcrum of many school reform policies and turnaround strategies has relied on leveraging the elusive notion of “better.” Such school improvement plans focus on better recruiting, training, and pay of school personnel, better use of academic time, implementation of better curricula, access to better early-childhood education, or the betterment of various factors thought to be detrimental to student learning. Proponents of such reforms believe increasing efficiency and effectiveness in these areas will improve troubled school performance. And yet, although some of these initiatives and efforts have dramatically improved once chronically low-performing schools, no single strategy has proven reliably replicable or sustainable.

If the nation is to meet U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s goal of eradicating chronically low-performing schools, then education practitioners, researchers, and policymakers must adopt the probing attitudes and practices of our colleagues from other disciplines. In addition to designing potential turnaround strategies and techniques, educators and researchers need to investigate how and why chronic low performance develops in the first place. Increased understanding of the factors and processes responsible for initiating and facilitating declining school performance will enable the design of more effective and reliable turnaround techniques.

Besides informing the turnaround of chronically low-performing schools, the study of school decline offers another benefit to school reform policies. Identification and validation of the triggers and symptoms of school decline enable the development of predictive indicators. Monitoring this set of indicators, like getting an annual physical checkup from your physician, would equip education leaders with the tools necessary to prevent the development of chronic low performance within their schools. This two-pronged strategy aims not only to diagnose and cure the bottom 5 percent of schools, but also to prevent the remaining 95 percent from declining into chronic low performance.

Considerable folklore characterizes accounts of why schools decline. Various stakeholder groups, such as education lobbyists, nonprofit organizations, unions, and funding agencies, maintain a vested interest in winning support for their pet explanations. Depending on the group, the explanation might attribute decline to an influx of challenging students, loss or insufficiency of resources, lack of community support, teacher turnover, new state or federal mandates, or poor leadership. Each of these “causes” is certainly capable of sending a school into a downward spiral, as is any combination of them. But our present knowledge base, unfortunately, does not permit us to distinguish stakeholder advocacy from research-based reasons for the onset of school decline.

While the “why” of school decline is an important focus for investigation, so, too, is the “how.” We simply lack understanding of how school decline actually occurs over time. Take teacher turnover, for example. Is there evidence that student achievement plummets after the exodus of a significant number of teachers? Can the departure of only one “linchpin” teacher set off decline? It is not hard to imagine that the retirement of a remarkable 1st grade teacher would create a vacuum in the emergent-readers program that might not easily be filled. Such a loss could result in a cascade of serious reading problems as the students advance to higher grade levels.

Also consider the benefit of understanding how school decline unfolds over time. Are troubled schools the result of a short, cataclysmic process, or do schools linger on the brink of failure for extended periods of time? Do schools progress through a universal set of decline stages? Leaders of schools near the boundary of an acceptable performance level may undertake similar strategies to avoid federal or state sanctions. Although these tactics might temporarily raise test scores and avoid sanction, they might also damage the educational capacity of the school and advance the school toward further trouble.

The study of school decline and declining schools faces both philosophical and practical challenges, however. Opponents will object to diverting limited resources away from school turnaround. These individuals and groups will argue that devising effective turnaround techniques eliminates the necessity of understanding how schools falter. To this objection, we adopt the historian’s point of view: Those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it. This adage might explain why so many turned-around schools eventually regress to poor performance.

Researchers and practitioners interested in understanding the phenomenon of school decline also face several obstacles to their inquiries. Two critical challenges are the detection of and access to declining schools. Identifying schools in the midst of decline requires multiple years of observation and data collection. Even if one undertakes a longitudinal study of schools with the potential to decline, actually observing the decline process is not guaranteed. Such studies can be time- and resource-consuming without producing the intended results.

Examining historical data sets and information provides a less expensive and more expedient alternative to longitudinal studies. But this methodology risks interpreting incomplete, biased, or time-sensitive information. Consider Jim Collins’ best-selling book Good to Great, which employed this methodology to discover what characteristics transformed good companies into great companies. Less than a decade after its publication, two of the featured companies, Circuit City and Fannie Mae, encountered severe financial troubles, with the former eventually being forced to file for bankruptcy. Yet although these companies did not continue with their greatness, the lessons learned from how they achieved their once-vaunted status remain pertinent to leaders attempting to improve their own organizations.

We applaud the host of educators and leaders who are attempting to turn around or improve troubled schools across the country. And we are encouraged by and support the attention Secretary Duncan has given to these schools, in both his former job as schools chief in Chicago and his current post. But if we are “to do the job right,” as Secretary Duncan has suggested, then we need as a field to study and disseminate not only what works, but also what doesn’t (“Start Over,” June 17, 2009). Like Thomas Edison, who illuminated our world with lessons from his unlit bulbs, if we demonstrate the will to scrutinize why and how we fail our students, eventually no student will have to endure the darkness of school failure again.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2009 edition of Education Week as Failing to Learn From Failure

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