Federal Opinion

What Do We Know About Improving Schools?

By Diane Ravitch — January 21, 2009 2 min read
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Dear Deborah,

You are undoubtedly right that what we have been calling “reform” is not producing better educated young people, but I don’t think we can move on and forget about what is happening now. We have to keep talking about why current schemes don’t work because so many politicians and journalists are convinced that they will work if we just keep plugging for another five or 10 years. If a journalist finds one school that seems to be doing incredibly well, that is considered an existence proof, demonstrating that every school can do incredibly well. The fact that almost 30,000 schools (out of 90,000) did not make “adequate yearly progress” under the No Child Left Behind act doesn’t register with the public consciousness. The fact that the number of “failing” schools increased by 28 percent in the last year alone is not newsworthy, except in Education Week. What happens by the year 2014, when nearly 100 percent of all elementary schools in California will be deemed “failing” schools ?

The public will be riveted by a story of a little girl who falls down a well, but will shrug with indifference when they hear or read reports of the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people in Rwanda. I guess that is why an uplifting story of one turn-around school gets so much more attention than little-noted, humdrum reports about thousands of public schools that are on track to be restructured or closed.

Speaking of turn-around schools, I want to draw your attention to a research publication that I received last week from the National Center for Evaluation Assistance and Regional Assistance, which is part of the Institute of Education Sciences, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education. Whew! The publication is titled “Turning Around Chronically Low-Performing Schools,” and I opened it with great interest. My scan of research to this point has convinced me—at least for now—that no one has a formula for turning around chronically low-performing schools. I have been amused to see that several universities have opened programs to train “turn-around specialists,” as though there were a set of lessons and techniques that anyone could learn to do.

So when I read this publication, I discovered that it contained four recommendations:
1. Signal the need for dramatic change with strong leadership.
2. Maintain a consistent focus on improving instruction.
3. Provide visible improvements early in the turn-around process.
4. Build a committed staff.

What astonished me was that each of these recommendations was accompanied by a notice that the level of evidence supporting it was “low.” I wondered why in the world the U.S. Department of Education (and its related entities) was publishing a set of recommendations where the evidence was so slim that they were not willing to vouch for their effectiveness.

What always troubles me about recommendations of this kind, even when they do have evidence to support them, is that as phrased they are bromides. Every one, I assume, wants strong leadership; everyone wants better instruction; everyone wants quick improvements; and everyone wants a committed staff. Between having these goals and having a way to get there is a huge gulf.

This, it seems to me, is a problem with education research. If all they can offer practitioners are maxims and bromides, no wonder research gets a bad name. It is even worse when the bromides do not actually have research evidence supporting them. And worst of all, when the U.S. Department of Education has the chutzpah to publish findings for which there is “low” evidence.


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