Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Why Education Improvement Strategies Always Disappoint

By Laverne Srinivasan — December 05, 2018 4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Those of us who work for change in education need a new set of habits to avoid a repeat of recent reform disappointments.

We must learn how to study the problems we aim to solve in the contexts in which they occur, before latching onto solutions. We must listen more closely to students and practitioners, to better understand their circumstances and needs. We also must be deliberate in forging a shared understanding among stakeholders about how to best support young people in their development.

In doing so, both officials at all levels of public education and leaders in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors would greatly reduce the extent to which their well-intentioned strategies create conflicts and unnecessary burdens for the people they mean to support.

Improvement strategies often don’t fit well together. Or they don’t fit well with the contexts in which they are implemented, or with the realities of how people learn and adapt to change.

There are many examples of this fragmented approach to new education strategies: teacher professional development initiatives that don’t help educators teach their students what they need to learn, academic standards that were changed without looping in parents, or one-size-fits-all programs that fail to address the varied needs of individual students.

This fragmentation prevents young people from receiving the full benefit of the energy invested in their education. It also forces educators to expend their own effort figuring out how to deal with contradictory and unsupported demands.

Improvement strategies often don’t fit well together."

As a long-time participant in educational reform, Carnegie Corporation of New York—where I serve as the program director for education—sees this diversion of energy as a large part of why improvement strategies so often fail to produce significant gains in student learning, or significant progress toward equity in outcomes.

We can do something about this. The full spectrum of people who create, promote, and implement strategies for educational improvement can learn to work differently, and support others in doing the same.

What all of us need to do differently is to put the students whose circumstances we aim to improve at the center of our attention. That means building our understanding of how students and educators experience the system whose outcomes we want to change. We need to test innovations with multiple small trials before moving to full implementation. And we must do so while being more inclusive of different perspectives.

A recent report on a Carnegie Corporation initiative, the Integration Design Consortium, sheds some light on how education leaders can build these habits. In this consortium, grantee organizations across the country work with teams of leaders at the state and local level to improve how they develop and carry out strategies to improve the lives of young people.

Participants in the consortium’s five projects include teams from state education agencies and local districts, community organizations, teacher leaders, and social service agencies. What binds them all is the recognition that their constituents will be better served if they better coordinate their efforts.

Participants are learning to apply a variety of approaches to problem-solving that, while already well established, have yet to be employed extensively in education. For example, human-centered design begins the design process with an understanding of how people experience a problem and its potential solutions. Another promising approach is systems thinking, the discipline of identifying the key actors and forces at work in producing a particular set of outcomes.

Education leaders in the consortium also are learning to orient themselves toward equity in a way that goes beyond addressing longstanding differences in outcomes among different populations. In viewing their improvement strategies through an equity lens, they are confronting the hard truths about the causes and consequences of inequities. As a result, participants are focusing on including marginalized populations in the planning and development of new strategies and initiatives.

Importantly, the IDC projects were not designed to promote particular programs for educational improvements. This was not a case of stipulating that resources be used, for example, to expand after-school programs or improve reading instruction. The consortium’s goal is to enhance the capacity of those involved to address whatever challenges are before them, in ways that produce coherence and not fragmentation.

Building this capacity is essential to break free of the long running cycle of reform and limited improvements. Certainly, there are strong cases for the new bets being made on social-emotional learning, curriculum guidance, and competency-based instruction. But if we pursue these as we typically do—with isolated programs imposed from on high—we will again be disappointed with the results.

To achieve better outcomes, we must learn to work differently.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Academic Integrity in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
As AI writing tools rapidly evolve, learn how to set standards and expectations for your students on their use.
Content provided by Turnitin
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
The Science of Reading: Tools to Build Reading Proficiency
The Science of Reading has taken education by storm. Learn how Dr. Miranda Blount transformed literacy instruction in her state.
Content provided by hand2mind

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion Your School Leadership Needs More Student Voice
When one Virginia principal moved from middle school to high school, he knew he would need to find new ways of soliciting student feedback.
S. Kambar Khoshaba
3 min read
Illustration of students holding speech bubbles.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management First Latina Selected to Lead National Principals Group
Raquel Martinez is a middle school principal in Pasco, Wash.
3 min read
Raquel Martinez, the principal of Stevens Middle School, in Pasco, Wash., was named president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. She’s the first Latina to hold the position.
Raquel Martinez, the principal of Stevens Middle School, in Pasco, Wash., was named president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. She’s the first Latina to hold the position.
Courtesy of the National Association of Secondary School Principals
School & District Management Four Things to Know From a State's Push to Switch Schools to Heat Pumps
Installing a heat pump is complex, but the payoff is well worth it, says an expert in Maine who's pushing their adoption in schools.
4 min read
Close up of a heat pump against a brick wall
E+/Getty
School & District Management 3 Things That Keep Superintendents in Their Jobs
Two experienced leaders say strong relationships with the community and school board make all the difference.
5 min read
Magnet attracting employee candidates represented by wooden dolls
iStock/Getty