Federal Opinion

Solutions Are the Problem in Education

By Mary Kennedy — July 28, 2009 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

There used to be a saying that if you were not part of the solution, you were part of the problem. The implication was that we all, collectively, were creating the problem, and that the solution required all of us to change together.

But in education, solutions are a big part of our problem. School people are swamped by a deluge of solutions. They suffer from reform fatigue.

A few years ago, I visited teachers in several districts spread across the nation. I was struck by the variety of interruptions they experienced in their classrooms, and by how many of these had begun as good intentions. Here’s one example: A science teacher took part in a National Geographic Society project that gave his students a chance to collect samples from a local waterway and contribute them to a national database. Sounds like a great idea, right? His class got to participate in a national science study. But the timing of the project caused the teacher to interrupt his ongoing science unit. When the project was finished, students had forgotten where they were in their regular curriculum.

National Geographic is hardly alone in wanting to help educators. The number of associations, institutions, government agencies, and volunteers of all kind who want to solve educational problems has grown so large that teachers are now surrounded by helpful voices and besieged by ideas too numerous to attend to. Instead of strengthening teaching, this multitude of innovations and reforms distracts both teachers and students from their central tasks, making it difficult to concentrate, to stay on task, and to sustain a coherent direction.

Moreover, these improvements often contradict one another. Consider two ideas currently on the table for evaluating teaching practice. On one hand, we have lesson study, a highly structured undertaking that requires months of collective effort and careful thought. On the other, we have walk-throughs, quick and unstructured events that can be conducted by one person in under five minutes. These ideas seem to make entirely different assumptions about how we can learn about teaching, yet they are both popular right now.

There have always been zealous education reformers, of course. But the number and variety of helpful ideas is now so great that the solutions themselves have become a problem.

It is easy to brainstorm about alternatives in education, but hard to anticipate their unintended consequences. Take, for instance, pullout programs. These well-intentioned entitlement programs, introduced in the 1960s, pull students out of their regular classrooms for special instruction. The timing of the pullout has to fit the pullout teacher’s schedule, which means that the original teacher must adjust her instructional schedule to accommodate this movement. Since both teachers may be teaching similar content, they also need to coordinate their instruction, something that takes time. And that is not all: Every time a student is pulled from a regular classroom, and every time that student returns to the regular classroom, the ongoing instruction is interrupted. Students are distracted, and so is the teacher. Lesson continuity and coherence are at risk.

Pullout programs are one of many helpful ideas introduced to improve education. Every test, every assembly, and every public-address announcement is a helpful addition that ultimately disrupts instructional continuity. Every change of schedule, from hourly to block scheduling and back to hourly, requires teachers to revise their routines and strategies. Every new policy, from zero tolerance to team-teaching, pulls teachers’ attention away from their teaching and toward solving a logistical problem. Instead of thinking about how to engage students with curriculum content, they must think about how to revise their procedures, schedules, and strategies to accommodate the newest helpful idea.

Remember when we decided that teachers should have telephones in their rooms? The idea was to “professionalize” the job. Well, now that teachers have telephones, parents can call up at any time to leave messages for their children. So when students are struggling with the difference between ¼ and ½, or debating the merits of the Bill of Rights, the phone rings. And it is right there, in the middle of the classroom and in the middle of every lesson.

The problem is this: Both teaching and learning require sustained attention. Not only do students need opportunities to think, but so do their teachers. More than anything, teachers need time to compose their thoughts and make sure that, when they approach a new unit or a new lesson, they have a clear idea of what they want to accomplish.

Students are even more vulnerable to distractions. In my conversations with teachers, I have found that they care more about maintaining the momentum of the lesson than anything else. The central challenge of teaching is finding enough uninterrupted time to get students’ minds wrapped around an idea, and keeping it there until the idea makes sense to them. Disruptions don’t merely take a few moments of class time: After them, teachers often feel that they need to rewind the entire lesson and begin anew.

Yet we live in a time when reforms and fads have become so commonplace that every new board member or superintendent feels a need to make a personal mark on his or her district by introducing something new. As these policymakers come and go, teachers are buffeted by the raft of competing new ideas they leave behind. So routine turnovers in leadership reignite this continuing series of distractions, further reducing teachers’ chances of finding time for reflection and maintaining a stable environment for intellectual work.

No wonder that when the new superintendant comes to town, and the new professional-development program is brought in, teachers go into their classrooms and quietly shut their doors.

Every American teacher feels some level of reform fatigue. If you think you are part of the solution, check again. You may be part of the problem.

A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as Solutions Are the Problem in Education


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.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Start Strong With Solid SEL Implementation: Success Strategies for the New School Year
Join Satchel Pulse to learn why implementing a solid SEL program at the beginning of the year will deliver maximum impact to your students.
Content provided by Satchel Pulse
Teaching Live Online Discussion Seat at the Table: How Can We Help Students Feel Connected to School?
Get strategies for your struggles with student engagement. Bring questions for our expert panel. Help students recover the joy of learning.
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.
Science Webinar
Real-World Problem Solving: How Invention Education Drives Student Learning
Hear from student inventors and K-12 teachers about how invention education enhances learning, opens minds, and preps students for the future.
Content provided by The Lemelson Foundation

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

Federal The Senate Gun Bill: What It Would Mean for School Safety, Mental Health Efforts
Details of a bipartisan Senate agreement on guns outline additional funding to support student mental health programs.
6 min read
Protesters take to the streets of downtown Detroit June 11 to call for new gun laws. One holds up a sign that says "policy and change."
Protesters call for new gun laws in Detroit's March for Our Lives event earlier this month.
KT Kanazawich for Education Week
Federal What Educators Need to Know About Senators' Bipartisan Deal on Guns, School Safety
In addition to gun restrictions, a tentative compromise would also fund mental health and school safety programs—but it faces hurdles.
4 min read
Protesters hold up a sign that shows the outline of a rifle struck through with a yellow line at a demonstration in support of stronger gun laws.
Protesters gather for the March For Our Lives rally in Detroit, among the demonstrations against gun violence held on the heels of recent mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas.
KT Kanazawich for Education Week
Federal Senate Negotiators Announce a Deal on Guns, Breaking Logjam
The agreement offers modest gun curbs and bolstered efforts to improve school safety and mental health programs.
5 min read
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., speaks during a rally near Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, June 10, 2022, urging Congress to pass gun legislation. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Federal Education Secretary: 'Let's Transform Our Appreciation of Teachers to Action'
Miguel Cardona shared strategies to help recruit, develop, and retain effective teachers.
5 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during the 2022 National and State Teachers of the Year event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, April 27, 2022.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during the 2022 National and State Teachers of the Year event in the White House on April 27.
Susan Walsh/AP