Education Funding Commentary

Educators: Reform Thyselves

By Hayes Mizell — April 05, 2000 7 min read
Change should be ‘thoughtful and efficient, rather than symbolic and chaotic.’

Ten years ago, we set out to encourage and assist a small number of urban school systems in making their middle schools more challenging and engaging. Over time, this initiative evolved to focus on “systemic, standards-based reform for the middle grades.” Now, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation is funding a few school systems that are on a trajectory of reform, with the potential to significantly increase student performance. Our experiences during the past decade have yielded some key lessons about school reform and what accelerates efforts to raise student achievement. Here are five of the most salient:

  • Many policymakers, whether state legislators, state boards of education, or local school boards, assume that teachers and administrators have a much greater capacity to implement reforms than is actually the case.

In nearly all instances, policymakers assume that educators have the necessary knowledge, skills, flexibility, will, and time to bring education reform successfully to fruition. Yet, the capacity among teachers and administrators to do what reformers are now saying is important—to cause all students to perform at significantly higher levels—simply does not exist among the majority of educators. This capacity will not exist unless states, school systems, and schools act intentionally to develop it. Teachers do not become more knowledgeable about the subjects they teach, nor do they develop and use more effective pedagogy, just because their schools’ test scores are published in the newspaper. Educators may work harder and may even pay more attention to low-achieving students who were neglected in the past, but there is little evidence that their students are either learning more or are better able to apply what they learn. This is not likely to change until education reform policy is more grounded in an understanding of how much change practitioners can learn and implement, at what pace, and what level of support they need to do so.

  • Context matters. Reform cannot occur in an environment that is indifferent or hostile to it.

Policymakers at all levels need to understand that the success of any policy depends on intensive, sustained, high-quality staff development. Yet, unfortunately, staff development cannot do much about other contextual factors that jeopardize reform. Even in school systems and schools that are serious about making changes to increase student achievement, over and over again we have seen reform jeopardized by the coming and going of school board members, superintendents, principals, and teachers. It seems that just when a school system or school is beginning to develop some hope that teaching and learning can improve, there is a shuffling of key personnel.

The real tragedy is that this is accepted in public education. The school board is always looking for a better superintendent, or at least one who is competent but not bold. The teachers’ union is perennially guarding the prerogatives of experienced teachers to transfer out of the most diverse and economically disadvantaged schools. School systems move productive principals too quickly, and ineffective principals too slowly. School reform cannot survive in this context, and even high-quality staff development cannot have as profound effects as it would in a more stable environment.

  • Site-based management alone does not ensure that a hundred beautiful flowers will bloom.

Although one of our major political parties repeats the mantra to “return decisionmaking to local schools,” experience shows that this strategy does little to improve education. Where there is a strong, entrepreneurial principal and a highly professional faculty, site-based management may provide the authority they need to implement significant reforms. Such cases seem to be the exception rather than the rule. The norm is that where one finds effective teaching and higher student performance, it is almost impossible to distinguish the schools that are site-based from those that are not.

Some school boards and superintendents seem to use site-based management as an excuse for why they cannot provide more forceful leadership for reform. They say they cannot act because under site-based management key decisions are reserved to the schools. Schools say they cannot act because, in fact, the central office exercises more authority than it claims. The result is a leadership stalemate that stifles rather than stimulates.

Schools need to make more effective use of the authority and flexibility they have.

  • Many school systems and schools have yielded their educational destinies to their states.

As the public has become increasingly frustrated by the slow, incremental improvements in student performance, policymakers have tightened the grip of state assessment and accountability systems. They have taken these actions because school systems and schools did not respond to previous cues from policymakers that there was a growing public dissatisfaction with the quality of schools and the performance of students. Some states, such as Texas and North Carolina, have taken a serious, coherent, and sustained approach to assessment and accountability with apparent good results, though there is strong disagreement about the equity and effects of even these states’ approaches. Some school districts are now mimicking the states and developing local accountability systems.

The short-term effects seem to be as the policymakers intended: The assessment and accountability systems are driving decisions at the classroom level about what is taught, how it is taught, and how long it is taught. This dynamic of alignment creates an unintended consequence that is not healthy for teaching and learning. Because powerful state assessments are now linked to fearsome accountability systems, most school systems and schools think of themselves as being accountable to the state for performance.

The result: Educators expect to be held accountable by their states or school systems, rather than holding themselves accountable for student performance. They obsess over their students’ performance on the state test, rather than over what their students really know and can do and whether there is credible, school-based evidence to support it.

State tests and accountability systems are so powerful that they threaten to overwhelm all other reforms. Increasingly, reforms are judged by their potential to raise students’ scores on state tests, rather than by whether they will set in motion a chain of professional behaviors that will result in more substantive student learning. Until local educators take the collective initiative to hold themselves accountable for causing students to meet and exceed academic standards, and until they persuasively demonstrate, for all the world to see, what their students authentically know and can do, we can expect education to be more about performance on state tests than about deeper student learning.

  • High-quality staff development, and a dramatic change in practice at all levels of staff development, is essential.

We know that what improves classroom practice and school leadership is tailored, intensive, sustained staff development that includes follow-up support, practice, feedback, and evaluation. There simply is no excuse for taking the time of teachers and principals to participate in anything else. Even though more school systems and schools are becoming aware of the features of high-yield staff development, the old approaches prevail. Few school systems exert quality control over staff development or even attempt to determine if it improves the performance of educators or, ultimately, students. This is not only an abuse of precious staff-development resources, but it also denies teachers and principals one of the few tools they have to improve their practice.

In every school, there are some teachers who, in spite of tremendous daily challenges, are deeply committed to their students and to their learning. In every school system, there are principals who want to lead, not just administer. These teachers and principals are the hope for school reform in this country. Time and again, they respond when there are opportunities for them to learn and strengthen their performance.

Schools need to make effective use of the authority and flexibility they have.

What we’ve learned is that the professionalism of tens of thousands of teachers and principals needs to be raised to the level of these few. They need to see that their school systems and schools are slashing bureaucratic burdens that have little or nothing to do with increasing student learning. They need to experience school reform as thoughtful and efficient, rather than as symbolic and chaotic. They need to know that they and their students are beneficiaries of the reform process, not just pawns of it.

Until we direct our energies and focus toward these lessons learned, I fear that our greatest and most unfortunate lesson will be that the critics of public schools are right: School systems cannot and will not reform themselves.

Hayes Mizell is the director of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s Program for Student Achievement.

A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2000 edition of Education Week as Educators: Reform Thyselves


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