Special Report
School & District Management Opinion

Keep the Focus, Stay the Course

By Michael Barber — January 09, 2012 4 min read
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Over the last several years, I have had the opportunity to work on education reform in dozens of countries on five different continents. While the context in each country is different, it has become clear in the last decade that there is an emerging knowledge base about what good education reform looks like and how it can be implemented. Focusing on teacher recruitment, preparation, and professional development and good school leadership is crucial. The strong results of international-benchmarking exercises—most notably the Program for International Student Assessment, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study—from leading nations point to the critical nature of these elements.

But when it comes to the practice of implementing reform, this knowledge, while essential, is not enough. The day-to-day experience of having lived and breathed whole-system reform makes a big difference because, however clear the knowledge base and the direction might be, the realization of the reforms is another challenge altogether. Getting the policy right is difficult, but it’s only 10 percent of the challenge; effective implementation is 90 percent.

The four years I spent in Prime Minister Tony Blair’s administration leading the implementation of school reforms, from 1997 to 2001, and the four following years overseeing the implementation of wider public-service reforms, including in health and policing, taught me a lot. I learned as much, if not more, from the mistakes as I did from the successes.

The first lesson I learned from this period was that it is very easy to compromise on an idea in order to get buy-in, but the consequences of such compromise can easily lead to a watered-down version of the original idea that just doesn’t work. This is what happened with our literacy program in England a decade ago: Initially, we were insistent that teachers learn and immerse themselves in evidence-based pedagogy because we knew it would work. Later, under pressure from educators, the strategy became more a menu of options, and the pace of improvement slowed. When we should have gone deeper into the pedagogy, as did the reforms in Ontario which consciously evolved from what we did in England, we went broader and lost focus.

We should have invested far more time and energy throughout the process in communicating directly to teachers both the nature of the strategy, and, above all, the moral purpose behind it."

The second lesson was that it is all too tempting, especially for a new government, to announce one initiative after another rather than setting a strategy and sticking to it. In the Blair administration, we did have a clear strategy—indeed, Michael Fullan, the special adviser to the premier and minister of education in Ontario, described it as the first rapid whole-system reform ever attempted. But around it, especially in the first few years, we had too many other initiatives. On my regular visits to schools at that time, I often met teachers, some of whom were broadly sympathetic, who said in effect, “Well, you might think there’s a strategy, Michael, but to us it looks like one damn thing after another.” Eventually, we learned the incredible discipline required to drive big change: The benefits came through to some extent in education, but perhaps most visibly in the successful health-care reforms.

The third lesson was that it is easy to underestimate how difficult it is to change a professional culture and how long it takes. Looking back on those years, I can see I was naive. I genuinely thought that the clear evidence of success—significant gains in English and math in elementary schools; a greatly reduced achievement gap; a ranking of third in the world on PIRLS in 2001; the most-improved education system in the world in primary math from 1995 to 2007, according to TIMSS; massive reduction in school failure; steady improvements in end-of-high-school examination results—would convince teachers that this new system, which was also increasingly well-funded, had brought them into a new era. I thought that educators would feel pride in these achievements and recognize that this new accountability system was vital to convincing the public that what we were doing was worth the investment.

See Also

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We did make some progress in this area, but not enough for it to be self-sustaining. Our two biggest tactical errors were to underestimate the strength of the old culture, in which a teacher’s classroom was his or her castle beyond anyone’s reach, even the principal’s; and to underestimate the importance of effective communication, not so much to the public (we were generally good at that) but to the teaching profession itself.

We should have invested far more time and energy throughout the process in communicating directly to teachers both the nature of the strategy and, above all, the moral purpose behind it. Overall, it was a tremendous time in which we made real progress, but I’m glad to say that some who came to whole-system reform after us, such as Premier Dalton McGuinty’s government in Ontario, carefully examined our efforts and improved upon them. Mr. McGuinty, to his great credit, has stuck with a clear direction for eight years now, and the results are there to be seen. That kind of disciplined leadership is essential but all too rare. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in a very different way, has shown similar discipline, and if the United States sticks with the strategy he has set, it, too, can look forward to significant progress in the next decade.

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