School Choice & Charters Opinion

More About Reform and Instruction

By Sara Mead — October 12, 2010 5 min read
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In response to my blog post last week about “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” Robert Pondiscio writes that a lack of attention to instruction is not unique to “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” but more broadly symptomatic of the education reform movement—a sentiment echoed by commenters on this blog.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Pondiscio and agree with him on many issues, but in this case I think he’s slightly mistaken. Perhaps, if you define “education reformers” as a specific and narrow set of voices that are trotted out as the counterpoint to “teachers unions” in political/policy debates, then it’s true that there’s not a lot of emphasis on instruction in those conversations. But if you consider education reformers—as I do—as a much broader group of people and organizations working to challenge the problems with the status quo in education and improve outcomes for low-income kids, then you’ll find lots of people talking and caring about instruction. Many of the people who run high-performing charter school networks are passionate and deadly serious about quality instruction. Case in point: the intense reaction to Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion—a book about instruction born out of Lemov’s work to support quality instruction in the Uncommon Schools charter network. Or the joint efforts of KIPP:NY, Uncommon, and Achievement First to launch Teacher U, as an alternative to traditional schools of education, to train teachers for these networks in effective instructional practices. Or the Education Trust‘s work calling out the often vapid curricular offerings in high-poverty schools—and, in Karen Chenoweth’s excellent books, showing how high-performing, high-poverty schools deliver much better instruction.

So, let’s give some credit where credit’s due, here.

All that said, I think Pondiscio is correct that education reformers of all stripes often seem much more comfortable and engaged when talking about structural issues—charter schools, accountability, teacher evaluation and compensation—than instructional ones.

There are some good reasons for reformers to focus heavily on structural issues: Too often, broken structures—from outdated teacher credentialing regimes to hiring and placement protocols that treat teacher like interchangeable widgets—create conditions that stand in the way of improving instruction. Rick Hess’ work builds a strong case for why focusing on instruction in the absence of structural change is unlikely to produce dramatic and sustained improvements.

But on the flip side, even if I had a magic fiat wand I could wave and fix all the structural issues today, that would still leave a lot of curricular and instruction problems that would prevent our schools from delivering the results we need for kids. Case in point: D.C., where a strong charter school law provides many of the structural conditions reformers are seeking, but we’ve got a lot of lousy charters—in many cases because of their failure to deliver solid instruction and curriculum. Ultimately, structural reforms deliver improved outcomes only by changing what children experience in their classrooms and schools. Reform narratives that assume structural reforms alone will generate better results without improvements in curriculum or instruction risk offering an underpants gnome theory of educational improvement.

So if we’re serious about dramatically improving educational outcomes for kids, we have to pay attention not only to structural change, but also to improving curriculum and instruction. But there are some very real cultural and historical factors that make some reformers uncomfortable engaging with instructional and curricular issues.

Start with an emphasis on outcomes. A major theme of the past 20+ years of education reform has been shifting the focus from input measures of educational quality, to output measures of educational effectiveness. That’s meant school success as defined by student learning outcomes, and teacher quality as defined by impact on student learning gains. For the most part the increased emphasis on outcomes has been a positive and necessary development. But it’s also led some reformers to define outcomes as the sole measure of quality—at the expense of attention to other factors, such as instructional quality, that are not exactly inputs and directly contribute to those outcomes. I think K-12 reform debates could benefit from borrowing a concept from early childhood education: Process quality—measures of what children actually experience and adults actually do in educational settings (ie, quality of interactions between adults and children). Process quality measures fall somewhere between input and outcome measures, and the best are validated by research to predict child learning outcomes. We need similar validated and reliable measures focused on quality instruction in K-12. Some such measures already exist, and others are currently under development, but they have received relatively little attention in education reform or policy debates.

A second factor that makes some reformers reluctant to engage on instructional and curricular issues is a strong emphasis on flexibility at the local school level. Lots of reformers—particularly charter school operators—are coming from a place of frustration with overly restrictive state and local bureaucracies and rules that stand in the way of helping students succeed. That’s led to an emphasis on flexibility for charter schools or individual school leaders within district systems. But it’s also led to a reluctance to engage in issues of instruction or curriculum, which could be seen as imposing mandates or restricting the flexibility of schools in these areas. And, to be fair, many of the dumber rules and policies that have piled up in states and districts over time spring from past efforts to mandate “good” instruction in ways that have been anything but productive.

Focus on outcomes and emphasis on flexibility are two factors that contribute to some reformers’ reluctance to engage more in issues of instructional quality and curriculum. I understand Pondiscio’s frustration, but if he and other like-minded folks want to engage more reformers more productively around curriculum and instruction, they need to start thinking creatively about ways to overcome these factors—not just complain about them.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.