“Getting better at getting better” is a catch phrase with half a century of solid research behind it. Its methods build a new path toward equality; one that I believe will save school reformers from the folly and heartbreak of chasing after the perfect program that will close performance gaps.
Anger, frustration, and lawsuits have followed the nearly universal observation that rates of improvement for white and Asian students continue to outpace those of their Black and Latino counterparts. The usual prescription has been to tighten the classification of who needs additional resources and to closely specify a prescription.
What if the Achievement Gap Is Built Into the System?
But if the problem is not in the program but in the system surrounding it, the search for a proven-practice solution will always lead to disappointment. For the last seven years since Anthony Bryk became president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, that organization has constructed a different pathway toward equity. I observed it in action at the organization’s fourth annual summit gathering in San Francisco last week. More than 1,200 people showed up, four times the number that attended the first summit four years ago.
Their message is pretty straightforward: you can’t move toward equality until you understand the system that caused inequality. This requires replacing solutionitis with improvement science. The standard solutionitis answer is to redouble efforts, blame the people doing the work, exhort them to work harder, and insure that the prescribed best practice solution is being replicated with fidelity. The improvement science solution is to see the system.
Bryk and his colleagues have called the propensity to jump quickly on a solution, “an education reform disease.” “We often don’t see the problem when it first occurs,” he said in his keynote talk. It gets passed on until it becomes big.
‘Learning to Improve’
The six principles need to work together. For example, networks are much more powerful than relying on an educational hero. Carnegie has championed Networked Improvement Communities, called NICs, and it has developed tools, including an online learning platform. NICs have been particularly effective in increasing success rates in math for community college students.
Another principle: focusing on variation in results is key to understanding how systems produce inequality. Academic research focuses largely on finding “program” effects. But even strong programs have a distribution of effects: the program doesn’t work well all the time, and it’s important to understand why it doesn’t work and for which students.
Understand What Causes Variation
Bryk illustrated the problem using data on the well-respected Reading Recovery program. It has a large main effect. But for some students in some schools it wasn’t working. Why? Were teachers in these schools trained differently? Were there operational breakdowns? Were there types of students that were apparently immune to the program’s positive effects? (See simplified chart below. More detail in Bryk’s speech to the American Educational Research Association.)
School districts working on achievement gap variation presented their efforts at the conference. Among them, the CORE districts, which enroll more than 1-million students in California, are becoming a NIC. Under the mantra that information should be a “flashlight not a hammer,” CORE has been building a culture around using data to support struggling schools.
Noah Bookman, CORE’s chief strategy officer, reported that African-American and Latino student achievement is improving in these districts, but the achievement gap is still growing. But there is huge variation in performance by school: from locations where nearly 70% of students meet state standards to those where almost no one does. Both race and poverty are associated with low achievement in Bookman’s data, but there are also powerful school effects for the NIC to understand.
Study Positive Deviance
At the top end of performance variation one finds positive deviants, places where students were doing far better than the norm. What can be learned from them? One example comes from the Los Angeles Unified School District, where Delia Estrada’s research shows the link between cultural proficiency and student performance on a wide spectrum of indicators. As part of her doctoral research Estrada examined the positive outliers and found an organizational culture that demanded very strong practices of student support.
Most of the Summit program and the handouts are available on line, and I encourage your browsing the nearly 50 breakout sessions and nearly 75 poster presentations.
California’s Leaders Should Listen
California’s leaders should listen to the Carnegie approach. Its thoughtful school reform is grounded in a rich history of research and practice. It can trace its roots to the 1950s and W. Edwards Deming, the American who taught quality production techniques to the Japanese. It incorporates several strains of thought and practice, including design thinking and “deliverology,” the latter developed by Michael Barber to keep British Prime Minister Tony Blair on course with his campaign promises.
These are detailed in blog posts and in the journal Quality Assurance in Education. The ideas have also been field tested and developed. Bryk spent more than two decades in the school reform trenches in Chicago.
The approach is perfectly matched to the game plan of the new California Commission for Educational Excellence with its emphasis on giving struggling schools and districts the will and tools to pull themselves out of underperformance. CCEE’s executive director, Carl Cohn, attended the conference.
Addresses Shortfalls in LCAP/LCFF
The Carnegie approach also addresses some of the shortfalls in the way California is implementing the Local Control Funding Formula and the companion Local Control Accountability Plan. If applied vigorously, it would provide discipline in implementation, which most school districts haven’t displayed. Networked Improvement Communities also offer an antidote to the inherent lack of capacity of school districts working in isolation.
The downside is that getting better at getting better is long and hard work. It’s difficult for officeholders and school administrators to admit that they need to look for causes rather than mandate solutions.
The necessary trust in the system’s capacity to fix itself is in short supply.
The opinions expressed in On California 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.