Accountability Opinion

Professor Andy Hargreaves Talks Sustainability

By John Wilson — April 08, 2013 9 min read
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Professor Andy Hargreaves will be a featured speaker at the April 12-13, 2013 National Forum on School Improvement, hosted by The HOPE Foundation, NEA, AFT, AASA, and others. He is the Thomas More Brennan Chair in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. The mission of the Chair is to promote social justice and connect theory and practice in education. The HOPE Foundation shares their conversation with Professor Hargreaves as a guest blog.

Andy, thank you for chatting with me once again to share some of your insights with our readers.

At the National Forum on School Improvement you are speaking on ‘Sustainability’. Can you share a little more about what attendees will learn about this subject?

We often tend to equate sustainability with maintainability - can you keep an initiative going over time. We know, in this sense that the vast majority of initiatives concerned with improving teaching and learning have not endured. Ensuring that change endures means continuity of resources and support, orderly and well managed leadership succession and stability, and maintenance of focus despite surrounding distractions. All this is hard enough, but sustainability also means so much more. Sustainability means:

1. Depth of purpose and understanding - there has been apparently successful implementation of several literacy programs on a widespread basis to ensure fidelity but many teachers just go through the motions; they follow the bouncing ball of the script without really understanding what they are doing or why.

2. Distributed responsibility - teachers and leaders together have to have shared collectively responsibility for improvement and outcomes. An excessive emphasis on the wrong driver of top down accountability creates an atmosphere of fear and threat which increases isolation and detracts from shared responsibility. Accountability should be the small remainder that is left when responsibility has been subtracted - and so we are destined for unsustainable change in the current environment. Let’s be prudent, not profligate about testing - test in 2 or 3 subjects in a couple of grades such as 3 and 6 like other high performing countries, rather than testing every student (and teacher) on almost everything,every year in the US.

3. Shared responsibility across schools as well as within them. We cannot and should not criticize teachers for being non-collaborative independent contractors if this is how their principals and schools behave. The best way to raise performance is not through temporary top down intervention teams whose effects only last as long as they continue to occupy the school. We need to raise achievement as the top performing systems do, and as the HOPE Foundation first did in Newport News School District by having professionals working with professionals, schools working with schools and the strong helping the weak. I am delighted to be associated with the Annenberg Foundation’s work in association with Metro Nashville Public Schools to turn around underachievement through this method, I have been inspired by the California Teachers Association and their successful work in raising achievement in hundreds of California’s lowest performing schools by supporting robust professional collaboration, and I am excited about starting to work with Education Northwest in raising achievement in poor rural schools in five US States by them helping them to create architectures of mutual support and assistance in this way.

When I spoke with you last fall, you talked about the need to invest in teachers and the importance of high quality teachers in the classroom. Are you seeing more of a focus on investment in professional learning in education in the US? And if yes, is the investment being made correctly?

Investment in professional learning is starting to increase which is a good thing. Technology and online professional learning is a big part of this. The danger, though, is that this professional learning model will replicate the strategies that have failed in the past of individual learning undertaken outside the school, disconnected from practice and away from colleagues. Now PD is back on the radar, we must work hard, including with technology, to enable teachers to communicate and push the envelope of their practice forward with their peers inside and outside their own schools, and in relation to their actual practice with students.

President Obama again spoke about the importance of education in his State of the Union speech last month. Do the goals/policies of this administration align with your outlook? What do you like and what don’t you like about their education agenda?

The speech had an admirable acknowledgement of the value of and the need to invest in early
childhood education. This is one of the proven winners of educational reform that will save millions in years to come by not having to invest in remediation that early childhood education of real quality could have avoided. At the other end, the commitment to making college more affordable and accessible to more young people is also to be applauded. What was missing was the big piece in the middle on k-12 education. Are we just going to see more of the same on this? What’s the honest assessment of where have we come, what have we achieved and where have we fallen short? What ideas are there about the leadership and focus needed for the next stage? The leadership that gets you to one point is typically not the leadership that will get you to the next. I don’t really see any new ideas here. Perhaps they are there but we just haven’t heard them so far.

Your new book, called ‘The Global Fourth Way’, written with Dennis Shirley, is a sequel to ‘The FourthWay’. Why did you and Dennis decide to do a sequel?

The Fourth Way evolved out of work we already happened to have done - almost by accident. We had studied long term change over time for the Spencer Foundation and had gained a sense not only of the sustainability and non-sustainability of change, but also of how change varies over time from one generation to the next - this is how we grasped the first three ways of change - Johnsonian innovation that didn’t spread, Reagan-era markets and standardization that are still with us, and data-driven additions in the Third Way that can deepen conversations about teaching and learning but often distract people from them as they become too obsessed with the metrics instead. Then we had, by chance, been the first to study and explain the success of the Finnish system in 2007 for OECD; we had been asked to investigate a network of high performing schools in England in 2008, and Dennis had deep experience in community organizing in education in the US. From this, we began to assemble the beginnings of what looked like another way, a better way, that we called the Fourth Way, for want of a better term. It was a start, but the idea needed more deliberate investigation and development.

In the years running up to our next book, we deliberately began to look at some of the world’s highest performers on the international PISA tests and see what they had in common. We led a large team to evaluate a 10-year commitment to school driven innovation in Conservative Alberta: the highest performing English--speaking jurisdiction on PISA. With a team of nine, we undertook a 3-year evaluation of the reform strategies in Ontario (that performs almost as well as Alberta) in 10 (one seventh) of the school districts: the first prominent independent evaluation. We revisited our work on Finland and added to it new data on a partnership between Finnish and Albertan educators. We also went to Singapore for a month to investigate the Singapore system (highest performing country in the world) with our Singaporean colleague Ng Pak Tee who is responsible for all the training and development of school leaders in Singapore - so we really felt we understood the culture of Singapore in a deep way, from the inside. Then we added two outliers - high performers within low performing systems: schools in urban and highly diverse communities in England with extraordinary results, and the California Teachers Association which had committed itself to turning around 488 of the lowest performing schools in California.

What new ideas/learning will readers of ‘The Global Fourth Way’ gain?

They will learn that an inspiring and inclusive vision is more important than a Race to the Top vision. That when we benchmark ourselves against other systems and countries we should not be engaged in competitive bench-pressing to push harder and higher than them, but learn from industrial benchmarking in industry and learn actively and openly from other high performers. That the most important step forward in testing is not to have it or not to have it, but to be more prudent in how much we use it (a couple of grades rather than all) and with the resources saved, actually increase the quality of the tests so they truly reflect the deep learning and Common Core Standards we are trying to attain. That collective responsibility is a bigger driver than vertical accountability. That we need to reform unions, not replace them, and that many unions are already headed down that track. That technology is an important and essential resource for improving teaching, and that great teaching and smart technologies are a powerful mix; but that you cannot improve teacher quality by replacing teachers with machines. That - surprisingly - the best systems have very strong local districts or municipalities as a focus for professional efforts across schools and as a way of involving all communities in their children’s education - that we should start seeing reformed districts as part of the solution rather than just part of the problem to school reform in America. And that alignment works best not through regulations and bureaucracy but through intensive interaction and constant communication between leaders who are always in schools, policy makers and university faculties who are always trying to connect their efforts, and so on.

When we last talked I asked you about ideas educators (or our readers) could implement at the start of the school year. Now that the year is half over do you have any ‘words of wisdom for teachers nearing the end of the school year?

That the good things still happen - the children who can read who couldn’t at the start of the year; the child you comforted when they lost a parent or grandparent, the colleague you lifted up when they had become crestfallen. And the bad things will not last forever. There is an end to everything. Stay in. Hang on. Find support. Take the lead. This magnificent profession that changes people’s lives needs to have the best people to practice it, to lead it, to transform it. It needs you and so do all the children it serves.

Thanks Andy! To hear more from Andy and other leading education experts, attend the National Forum on School Improvement in Washington in April. Visit www.hopefoundation.org/ to learn more about the Forum and to register.

The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed 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.