With the launch of the U.S. Department of Education’s revamped School Improvement Grant, or SIG, program last year, thousands of educators came face to face with challenges previously confined to a vanguard sector of the reform community. Familiar with the more timid predecessors of the SIG’s federally prescribed intervention models, such as comprehensive school reform under Goals 2000 and the No Child Left Behind Act’s corrective action and restructuring, establishment educators now see a more urgent, more demanding, and, in some ways, more freewheeling approach to school improvement. In fact, through SIG, the emphasis now is less on improving schools than on providing students with immediate access to schools worthy of them, whether through dramatic change in their current schools or re-enrollment in better schools.
It is not surprising, then, that these toilers in new vineyards should pause to ask some fundamental questions—questions such as: How does “school improvement” differ from “school turnaround,” particularly when the Obama administration’s fiscal 2012 budget plan would rename the program, “School Turnaround Grants”? How do we define “best practice”? What do we mean by “innovation”?
The goal of improved student learning is the same for both pretty good schools engaged in continuous improvement and chronically low-achieving schools attempting dramatic change. To encapsulate a mountain of research in a succinct statement of effects on student learning, we might say that students do best in schools where their teachers: convince them that they know them and care about them, carve out a curriculum that is sufficiently meaty and well-organized, plan and deliver instruction that sparks their interest and coherently conveys new information, show them a pathway to mastery, allot adequate time for mastery, provide judicious feedback, and achieve a solidarity of purpose with the student and the student’s parents. These sound like “best practices,” and they are, with lots of detail nestled within each category.
In a pretty good school that is continuously improving, the teachers are like a baseball team with a savvy manager and a roster of .300 hitters."
Incremental school improvement assumes that school personnel—leaders and teachers—are willing and able to hone their skills and polish their practice given a reasonable amount of time and assistance. In a turnaround, that assumption cannot be made. Which is not to say that the staff will not respond to assistance, but it cannot be assumed, and, to be fair to the students, there is little time to find out.
In a pretty good school that is continuously improving, the teachers are like a baseball team with a savvy manager and a roster of .300 hitters who pay attention to their batting coaches, work hard on the fundamentals of their stances, perfect their swings, spend time in the batting cage, and the next season hit .312. They get better at the “best practice“ of baseball. A team in need of turnaround may include a few good hitters, but the team batting average languishes at .236, and the manager and coaches haven’t been able to shake them out of their doldrums. The team is dispirited, and its fans have abandoned the bleachers in despair. More time in the batting cages won’t turn this team around.
So if you take a pretty good teacher from a pretty good school, and you plunk that teacher down in a low-achieving school, do students learn more? Probably, a little, because you have just increased the level of “best practice” in the school, like trading a .236 batter for one who hits at a .312 clip. Does that mean the school has turned around? Of course not, but if you traded enough .236 batters for .312 sluggers, you would expect a baseball team to post more wins. To be a winning team, however, still requires a deft manager, skilled coaches, and good pitching. And a bleacher full of enthusiastic boosters doesn’t hurt.
For both the school on a continuous-improvement trajectory and the school in turnaround mode, the goal is a roster of .300 hitters, well-managed and well-coached. Excellent batting requires some natural talent, mastery of the fundamentals, and lots of practice. Even though good hitters exhibit slight variation in style, the basic physics of swinging a bat and squarely meeting the ball are the same for them all. Get the mechanics wrong, and the style is irrelevant. Just as there is a physics of batting, there are essentials of effective teaching and learning that are not subject to ungrounded deviation.
Innovation is deviation from best practice that produces better results, thus redefining best practice. While schools attempting turnaround are, first and foremost, assembling teams with solid fundamentals and good work habits, they are also experimenting in hopes of redefining best practice through successful innovation. Innovation, however, is rare. Seldom do we discover that what we now accept as best practice can be replaced by a better alternative. But sometimes we do, and when that happens, performance takes a leap. Looking to a different sport for an analogy, consider what the “Fosbury Flop” did to high jumping: The quirky, novel, backwards-looking launch perfected by American Dick Fosbury in the late 1960s became the new best practice and produced new world records. Such examples are few and far between, in education as well as sports.
In pretty good schools, honing practice produces incremental improvement, and that is a prudent course. In chronically low-achieving schools, rapid improvement comes primarily through an injection of sound practice, often through recruitment of new players, but innovation can also add a potent yeast to lift the loaf. Since the fundamentals of baseball and of teaching and learning are largely immutable, innovation is more likely to be found in the preconditions of play than in the playing itself—allocation of talent and skill (trade a relief pitcher for a utility infielder, a reading specialist for two teacher aides), performance incentives, and use of technology, for example.
From a parent’s perspective, if my child attends a pretty good school, I will be pleased to know that the school is cautious about adopting perceived innovation. I’ll prefer that the school allow experimentation to take place somewhere else, ina laboratory, and that only its proven fruits be introduced to my child. That is the case, especially if I have no choice about which school my child attends. Given a choice, I may take a gamble on a school that is “breaking the mold” in a way that resonates with me.
If my child attends a school that is chronically low-achieving, I will still expect to see that sound practice is restored, but I may also accept less caution in trying something new. Less caution, however, does not mean pie-in-the sky flirtation with just anybody’s notion of a better way. Fosbury Flops are rare.
The physics of effective teaching and learning are fundamental. Give me savvy leaders, skilled coaches, and teachers who convince my child that they know her and care about her. Carve out a curriculum that is sufficiently meaty and well-organized, plan and deliver instruction that sparks her interest and coherently conveys new information, show her a pathway to mastery, allot adequate time for mastery, provide judicious feedback, and achieve a solidarity of purpose with her and with me. Give me all of that, and give it to me soon. Then there will be joy in Mudville, again.
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as School Improvement and Baseball: Both Take a Strong Team