Interview: Design Flaws

November 12, 2004 5 min read
We're not going to solve our educational problems by asking the government to help us—educators are going to have to take control.

Of all the education reform efforts that Richard Elmore has studied during the past three decades, he says the federal No Child Left Behind Act is the worst. As the Gregory Anrig professor of educational leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Elmore specializes in analyzing policies that make schools accountable for improving student achievement. NCLB, he argues, not only is virtually unfunded but also wrongly assumes that we only need to get tough with teachers to improve the situation. His own view—espoused in his new collection of essays, School Reform From the Inside Out: Policy, Practice, and Performance (Harvard Education)— is that true accountability has to begin with buy-in by those working at individual schools.

Elmore recently spoke to Teacher Magazine about a variety of reform issues from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is on sabbatical and working on a new book about school accountability. While he writes every day, Elmore also makes his “usual rounds of school visits,” he says, “talking with teachers and administrators and sitting in on classes.”

Q: How do you find teachers are responding to school accountability?

Richard Elmore

A: I think their attitudes have been portrayed negatively, as if they’re resentful. But in truth, I don’t see much of that. I see teachers taking the work of improving achievement very seriously. You won’t see much opposition anywhere anymore to the idea that schools should be accountable. But teachers are also very aware of the major design problems with accountability systems. They realize, for instance, that at both the state level and in NCLB, there is massive underdevelopment in skill and professional development. There’s a belief out there among the designers of these systems that there’s a huge amount of underused capacity, ... that teachers are deliberately not doing things they know how to do. But there’s no evidence that that is the case.

For instance, we have [such] a well-developed knowledge base in literacy that no child should reach 3rd grade without being a fluent reader. But much of that knowledge has not yet found its way into classrooms.

Q: You say in your book that many teachers are actually working too hard. How can that be true?

A: This is most characteristic of novice teachers and experienced teachers who have been told that they are extremely good teachers. People without a strong knowledge base make stereotypical judgments of what good teaching is like. They want to see energetic teachers and students who are not being disruptive in the classroom—control is a powerful norm, especially with adolescents. So as I walk through schools, I’ll see novice teachers, maybe from Teach for America, emphasizing order and control, which is a survival strategy for young teachers. These teachers are working very hard, and the kids are watching them teach. You’ll also see this in middle- and upper-class schools, where the teacher becomes a kind of revered sage. In this case, the teaching becomes a performance, which is loved by both the kids and the parents. The kids may be inspired by the performance, but I’m not sure how much [they] are learning from it.

Q: So what should be happening in a classroom?

A: I urge people working on issues of instruction to pay attention to the work students are actually doing. In many classrooms where the teachers are working very hard, the kids are doing absolutely nothing because their job is to sit and listen quietly. But fundamentally powerful teaching requires transfer of agency; that is, the task of the teacher is to give students control over learning. This involves asking questions appropriately, getting students to articulate a point of view—a whole series of skills that teachers need to learn. When I visited District 2 [a New York City district renowned for improving student achievement], I saw teachers spending substantial time teaching students how to be students. The walls were covered with rubrics about what a good question is, what a good discussion is about. All of this is about helping students become agents of their own learning.

Q: Time and time again, you emphasize the importance of teachers getting good professional development. But how can they do that if they’re working in a dysfunctional school district?

A: The long-term answer is that we won’t get anywhere until the profession itself starts to take control. Take hospitals and emergency rooms, for example. These places are basically run by nurses, who work off a very well-established body of knowledge. Their skills and understanding of interpersonal relationships allow them to take responsibility for patient care. How did they get that way? Well, they have substantial control of the institutions that provide that knowledge.

So over the long haul, we have to get educators to accept that there is a body of knowledge associated with high-level teaching. Whether we say it or not, we still have the idea that teaching is pretty low-skill work. And what I tell [my] students is that people who have authority in our society have it because they claim it, not because somebody gives it to them. So in the long run, we’re not going to solve our educational problems by asking the government to help us—educators are going to have to take control.

In the short term, teachers have to form learning networks to help each other. California once had very powerful networks, but many were driven out of business by state politics. Right now, the unions are useless. If it weren’t for the subject-matter associations, we’d be in real trouble.

Q: If you had to design the perfect accountability system, what would it look like?

A: We’d begin by setting three or four design problems on the table for discussion. The first would be assessment. With NCLB, the incredible pressure to test all kids in all grades has caused us to make some really bad decisions about how to use tests. Should we be using just one kind of test? Must we test every kid every year? I think that we need more variability in assessment than we have now. Another problem is that NCLB thinks you can expect straight linear improvements in student achievement over time. If it’s actually a developmental, stage-wise process, as the evidence suggests, then we’re penalizing some of the most-improving schools in the country.

Finally, we have to think much more deeply about the relationship between professional development and accountability. What’s the level of investment required? What’s the budgetary requirement? Right now, policymakers leave little for professional development. In fact, NCLB is the most unfunded mandate in the history of federal education. How in the world they’re getting away with this, I don’t know. The degree to which districts and states are solely responsible for funding accountability is astonishing. We have this odd situation where the federal government somehow claims it is responsible for education and all the improvement going on. How this has all happened with a nominally conservative administration, I will never know.

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