School & District Management Opinion

Improvement Without ‘Reform’

By Justin Baeder — January 14, 2011 2 min read
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The only way to improve student learning in our schools is by implementing “reforms.” Or so we’re told by the preponderance of current rhetoric about education.

But what is a reform? Logically, if something is to be reformed, it must be changed, so presumably we’re talking about changing from old practices to new. For the logic of reform to hold, the new practices must be better than the old.

But it isn’t so simple when you consider how practitioners actually experience reforms. We’re often told that the biggest problem is a lack of fidelity of implementation, but even if the reform is implemented exactly as intended, we have to consider several questions:

Is the new practice actually better—in the abstract—than the old? Plenty of popular reforms (such as pay for performance) have no empirical evidence indicating that they "work," though of course the same can be said of many status-quo practices. Is the new practice better in context than the old? This depends more on the local on-the-ground conditions. Digital projectors aren't better than overhead projectors if you can't get replacement bulbs for them. Smaller class sizes aren't better if you have to hire unqualified teachers to staff them. How long will it take practitioners to reach the level of skill with the new practice that they have with the old? This is the process of working through the implementation dip. Serial reforms are the norm, so we spend a lot of time in one dip or another. Conversely, competency traps can occur when we stick to inferior old practices simply because we're better at them. Even if the reform is superior to the status quo, will the disruption to other aspects of our work result in a net gain to effectiveness? Or will we have to take a hit in too many other areas to make the reform work? In other words, can we afford the reform, in terms of money, time, energy, and attention? Try implementing a new math curriculum, a new reading curriculum, and a new writing curriculum in the same year and tell me that bandwidth isn't a very real issue.

Let me be clear: These are not objections to the idea of reform, but very real questions that must be asked of each reform if we’re trying not just to change but to improve.

The alternative to reform-based change is practice-based change. In other words, we can get better results by getting better at what we’re currently doing, rather than by doing something else. No one likes to acknowledge this type of change, because it relies heavily on practitioners (ick!) and the difficult process of actually improving.

This idea is fairly hard to find in education; we tend to act as if practice is binary. I’m either teaching the new math curriculum, or I’m sticking with the old one. We’ve been conditioned by decades of serial reform to get very good at implementing reform du jour, while developing a certain cynicism about our prospects of refining our practice over a very long period of time (such as a career). Principals are often to blame for this—lacking a clear sense of whether someone is improving their practice, we tend to focus on how well they are implementing the current hot reform.

Making sure the people actually doing the work are improving is very, very difficult. Even if you know exactly how students are performing, it’s not always clear what aspects of practice contributed to those outcomes. So it’s understandable, but still not acceptable, that we tend to look elsewhere when trying to find ways to improve student learning.

I understand the frustration of policymakers who are far removed from the reality of the classroom. You want to make a difference, so you enact reforms that you hope will solve certain problems. The problem is that not everyone who will have to implement your reform actually has that specific problem, and the reform will not uniformly work the way you intended.

But I’m not asking policymakers to do nothing; that would be irresponsible on their part. Instead, I’m suggesting that we need to acknowledge the role of actual improvement, and to support the people doing this difficult work. To ensure that students learn at ever-higher levels, we need to ensure that teachers are constantly getting better at what they’re doing, which requires that principals get better at what they’re doing, which requires that directors and assistant superintendents get better at what they’re doing, which requires that superintendents get better at what they’re doing.

It’s understandable that few people want to be superintendents. It’s more popular today to be a “reformer,” because you don’t actually have to do anything—much less improve your practice or that of those for whom you are responsible.

But improving our practice—not just implementing reforms—must be at the heart of any serious attempt to get better results for kids.

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