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School & District Management Opinion

Memo to Ed. Leaders on School Improvement: The Right Questions to Ask Now

Good questions are more useful than rote answers
By Rick Hess — May 17, 2023 6 min read
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You’re busy. I get it. After the dislocations of the past few years, you’re busier than ever—dealing with emergencies, filling vacancies, and navigating hot-button political debates. It adds up to a lot of long days, hurried decisions, and too little time for reflection.

As I note in The Great School Rethink, this isn’t new—but things have gotten more frenzied of late. And, while disorienting, the upending of familiar routines is also an opportunity to revisit outdated habits and no-longer-effective practices.

You’re wise to view all the “solutions” you’re being pitched by advocates and vendors with healthy skepticism, but that doesn’t mean turning away from new possibilities. It means, rather, finding the time to pause, ask hard questions, and make sure those hurried decisions are taking us where we want to go.

You’ve raised crucial concerns about the decisions you’re having to make relating to federal pandemic-relief funds, staffing, program design, and plenty else. In lieu of pat answers, let’s consider a few of the key questions that emerge.

Time: You’ve talked about how students need more learning time and asked how we get it. The problem is that it’s not clear we’re making great use of the time we already have. Heck, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that, over their first nine years of schooling, the average U.S. student spends over 1,200 hours more time in school than their peers.

Meanwhile, Brown University’s Matt Kraft and Manuel Monti-Nussbaum have found that the typical Providence, R.I., classroom was interrupted by such things as intercom announcements and visits from staff over 2,000 times per year—costing two to four weeks of instructional time. Given such figures, just what do we mean by “learning time,” anyway? If students are in school but aren’t learning, does extending the school year or day make sense? How much learning time do students and teachers actually have and how well is it being used? And what data would help reduce distractions and help boost the time devoted to engaged, meaningful learning?

Staffing: Given all the system’s vacancies, you’ve asked what kinds of recruiting strategies or bonus payments will help fill those empty classrooms. But the staffing model itself may be the issue. Teachers report spending a lot of time on nonteaching tasks, meaning we need a lot more bodies just to fill out the faculty. This has contributed mightily to the teacher shortages that we’ve wrestled with for the better part of a century, even as we’ve added teachers and other staff much more quickly than we’ve added kids. Today, public schools need to hire 300,000 new teachers a year just to replace those lost to attrition. And college graduates no longer expect to stay in the same career for 30 years, which should prompt us to rethink our model of training, recruiting, salary, and benefits. Given this shift, are we making the fullest use of seasoned, skilled educators? How can we shape jobs that will help attract and retain teachers with different life situations? What kinds of roles would take fuller advantage of the leadership and expertise of veteran teachers? And how does all this change when we think about tutoring, especially AI-fueled tutoring systems?

After pandemic experience with learning pods and microschools, families and educators are pondering a raft of new options.

Technology: OK, so remote learning was a debacle. Teachers weren’t equipped. Families were frustrated. Turns out that muted, camera-off Zooming was dehumanizing and largely ineffective. But we’ve also emerged from the pandemic familiar and increasingly comfortable with an expanding suite of remarkable tools. While we had a century of overhyped technology failing to deliver—from the radio to the laptop—we now have face-to-face capabilities, smart tutors, virtual reality, and other tools that can reconfigure learning and give students new relationships, mentors, and experiences. But how do we ensure that these tools don’t become one more distraction for teachers? How do we equip students to navigate the destructive dimensions of social media? How do we draw the right lessons from the calculator, so that we don’t freak out and pointlessly ban GPT-4 (successor to the GPT-3.5 version of ChatGPT), from school servers but ensure that students are mastering essential skills and knowledge—not coasting on the back of AI-penned book reports? And can we use these tools to reimagine the shape of the school day or the teacher’s role?

Educational choice: You’ve expressed your frustration with the weird politics of school choice. After all, as you’ve said, the community wants more options but also values the public schools. Indeed, polling shows that more than 70 percent of parents say they like school choice and also their local public schools. They don’t see a conflict. It’s the ideologues who insist that we can’t embrace both, that everyone must choose a side. Meanwhile, after pandemic experience with learning pods and microschools, families and educators are pondering a raft of new options, even as over half of parents say they’d like their child to learn from home at least one day a week. After extended school closures and a couple disrupted years, just what does “public schooling” promise—and what kinds of options fit under that label? Should parents have more say in choosing their child’s teacher or routine access to hybrid home schooling options? Should there be a no-questions-asked remote public schooling option? Ought the district help families form learning pods, if they lack the requisite resources or relationships, or students find a quality microschool, if they seek a more intimate experience?

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Partnering with parents: You’ve noted that the pandemic surfaced oft-ignored fissures in the parent-school relationship. Indeed, during the pandemic, Baltimore public schools CEO Sonja Santelises thoughtfully observed, “I have been struck by the number of principals telling me about staff who have said they were wrong about this parent or that grandmother, now seen more as a vital ally rather than an unwanted adversary.” That adversarial dynamic is unfortunate and all too real. Indeed, when school systems reached out to families during the pandemic, we saw how spotty contact lists could be and how frail the relationship often was. Remote learning provided unprecedented transparency; in some cases, that built confidence, in other instances, it undermined it. What lessons can we take away that might help cultivate that kind of trust and communication? What pandemic practices should we retain? How might school routines or staff duties be rethought to more consistently engage parents? And, crucially, what can parents fairly expect of their schools, and what should educators be able to expect of parents?

Look, the easiest thing in the world to do is talk about school improvement. It’s a lot easier to write papers, deliver keynotes, or churn out PowerPoints than to change real schools in real communities. So, I don’t mean to suggest that asking the right questions is a substitute for rolling up our sleeves. It can, though, help ensure that all those tools and all that time, talent, collaboration, and hard work actually deliver the kinds of teaching, learning, and partnership we seek.

This is not the moment for more piecemeal programs or scattershot spending. It’s a time for leaders to ask the right questions in pursuit of more promising paths forward.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 2023 edition of Education Week as Memo to Ed. Leaders on School Improvement

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