School & District Management Opinion

Five Inconvenient Truths for Traditionalists

By Jal Mehta — July 18, 2014 7 min read
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In a post yesterday I argued that moving towards deeper learning would require an all hands on deck approach that neither the “reformers” nor the traditionalists could achieve on their own. In the spirit of open discussion, I highlighted five blind spots or inconvenient truths for the reformers; today I do the same for those who would put their faith in the more traditional actors in the sector.

Inconvenient Truth 1: Longstanding institutions are not good at doing things other than what they were initially designed to do: As Art Stinchcombe famously argued, institutions tend to continue to bear the imprint of their founding moment, and efforts to change them are uphill battles. State education agencies are organized to ensure that laws are followed and money is used in the ways in which it was appropriated; this is an understandable purpose that derives from the Woodrow Wilson vision of public administrators as civil servants carrying out the will of elected legislators. But it is not well-suited to the ways in which modern learning organizations function, where those who are on top don’t try to direct or control all of the work of those below, but rather try to support the work of front-line practitioners, using their coordinating power to provide infrastructure, build networks, and accelerate learning across sites. As someone in his 60s said at a meeting I attended last month, “I have heard that states need to move away from “compliance” and towards “performance” for 30 years, without much progress towards actually achieving it.” There are some examples of states that, with concerted and longstanding leadership, have made some progress on these issues, but the overall task of changing the institutions remain. One could say similar things about education schools (designed more for research and winning academic currency than for sustained commitment to training teachers for practice), or about schools (designed at the beginning of the 20th century to batch process students rather than to individualize instruction or provide opportunities for adult learning). The huge challenge for traditionalists is to think about how each of these institutions could be redesigned so that their routine operations would be aligned with a strong vision of what a good educational sector would look like.

Inconvenient Truth 2: There is a huge gap between where we are and where we need to be, and not just for poor children: Sometimes traditionalists, in response to the unrelenting barrage of criticism schools receive, are tempted to try to justify the quality of schooling. They point to America’s stingy welfare state and internationally high child poverty rates, the unequal funding of schools, and the ways in which no other public institutions and their practitioners are held accountable for clients who haven’t chosen to be there. There is merit to all of these points. But at the same time, they shouldn’t stand in the way of the urgency to improve schools. Not only do there continue to be large gaps across races and classes, students’ consistently report that the longer they are in school, the more disengaged they become. Instruction that really pushes students to think can be found in about 1 in 5 classrooms nationwide, according to one recent study. And nearly 1/3 of students who enter college needs to be remediated. I think the way to view these facts is that the expectations have greatly changed and the means to achieve them have not - we now expect all students to achieve what we previously expected for only a select minority, and we haven’t yet built a system that would reasonably achieve that. We shouldn’t downplay the magnitude of the challenge, we shouldn’t blame individual practitioners, we should build a better system, and we should adopt a both/and approach in terms of supporting students in and out of schools.

Inconvenient Truth 3: Implementation is not the problem: If a state or district adopts a program, and it works well in one place but not in others (which is the usual pattern), the problem is not “fidelity” of implementation. Studies going back to the 1970s have shown that, as Milbrey McLaughlin famously put it, “you can’t mandate what matters” meaning that programs work when people at the site figure out how best to adapt them to meet their specific circumstances, and that exercising this kind of discretion well is essential to success. And thus the problem is not that teachers and principals are not exercising fidelity to a particular program; the problem is that they don’t have enough skill, expertise, and potentially resources to make the program work amidst their context.

To put it another way, policymakers tend to “see” in vertical implementation chains (from state to district to school to teacher to student) whereas people in schools live in horizontal webs, in which they are confronted by lots of problems and lots of different inputs to solve those problems, of which any given program is just one input into the environment. The challenge then is not to more fidelity of implementation, but rather to design environments at the school level that are coherent and give teachers and principals a manageable number of aligned goals and a way to achieve those goals.

Inconvenient Truth 4: Traditional governance is itself a big part of the problem: I’m not the first person to have observed this, but that doesn’t make it any less true. We have a system of government in which no fewer than four layers of government (federal, state, district, and school) are involved in making decisions about schools. As my otherwise moderate colleague Bob Schwartz has argued, that’s probably at least one too many - in a number of other countries there are provinces (or ministries) and schools, with very little in the way of other layers of government in between. We also have locally elected school boards, and the result is a kind of constant churn in priorities that makes it extremely difficult to engage in the slow and steady work of improving schools. It’s not a coincidence that the districts (Long Beach, Montgomery County) and states (Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts) that have achieved the most progress had leaders who stayed in place for long periods of time. My own preference in the long run would be for the field to develop in a more professionalized direction, which would establish some standards of what good work looks like (much as you have in a hospital or dentist’s chair), and that these professional standards would be impervious to changes in leadership. A more professionalized system wouldn’t mean that there couldn’t or shouldn’t still be public control of public schools; different districts might make different decisions about how much money to allocate to sports or the arts, for example, but rather that the core processes that governed how schooling is actually carried out would fall in a professionalized domain. Whether we move in that direction or in one that devolves more power directly to schools (or both), we need to be honest with ourselves about the limits of the traditional governance arrangements. Andy Smarick has argued that there is not one district in America that really succeeds in sending large proportions of high poverty kids to college, and I think that is roughly true; that fact should make us rethink some core assumptions of existing governance arrangements.

Inconvenient Truth 5: There are things that can be learned from reform actors: Sometimes there is an urge to dismiss the work of reformers, particularly charter schools. They select their kids, and they can boot out kids who don’t conform to their standards, and thus what they do isn’t really relevant to us. I think there is some truth to this critique - even if there are charter lotteries, students have to have at least one parent who signed them up for the lottery, and the ability to exclude makes it much easier to develop coherent and mission driven school communities. At the same time, there is a kind of energy in some parts of the reform community to extensively examine each and every aspect of their practice and see how it could be improved. Some examples include: videotaping lessons and breaking them down the way in which NBA coaches watch game film, videotaping coaching sessions and similarly analyzing them for ways to increase adult learning; developing intensive and frequent cycles of observation and feedback, particularly for new teachers; and, more generally, analyzing both student and adult data in frequent feedback loops in order to improve organizational performance. More generally, I think that reform actors do well to see in terms of systems - if you enact these routines consistently, these are the kind of outcomes that are likely to emerge; and thus each problem creates an opportunity for a new system. Without becoming overly mechanistic, I do think that good teachers and school leaders of all stripes think like that - they have consistent routines by which they make students feel known, develop a positive climate in a classroom, develop a shared culture at a school, and so forth. Injecting more of this kind of thinking into the traditional sector can only help.

Neither the reformers nor the traditionalists have all the answers. If we want all students to learn deeply we will need a different kind of system; I hope the various parts of the sector can work together to try to build one.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.