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Standards Opinion

Incentivizing Educational Ingenuity

By William G. Wraga — January 05, 2010 5 min read
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Over the past 25 years, high-profile school reform efforts have addressed false problems with flawed solutions. By imposing blanket reforms on varying local circumstances, policymakers have stifled educational ingenuity. To actually improve the education of America’s children, state and federal policymakers should formulate and implement policies that provide incentives for problem-solving in local settings.

To do this, they will first need to recognize that some of the “problems” our public schools are called upon to solve are problematic in themselves. These include claims that U.S. productivity lags behind that of other countries, that students’ achievement here is far eclipsed by their international peers’, that academic achievement translates into worker productivity, and that we have a shortage of workers with math and science skills.

Equally problematic is the fact that the principal “solutions” offered to address these false problems—centralization of curriculum, high-stakes testing, single-score decisions about pupils, and the imposition of a business model of organizational improvement—are in fact flawed practices that, if experience and research are any indication, are not likely to improve student learning.

Most troubling of all, the standards-and-accountability movement assumes that when all locales implement the same standards, using the same practices, every student everywhere will be able to meet them. This one-size-fits-all approach to school improvement ignores the reality of unique circumstances in different settings.

Both research on and experience with curriculum development indicate that the most effective way to improve learning is to identify and solve actual problems in local settings that impede effective teaching and learning.

How might this work in practice? Local educators would first need to identify their real, and particular, educational problems. There are at least two ways for them to do this. One is to look for local manifestations of wider problems identified in research.

Research on testing, for example, has found that when high-stakes tests obtain, educators tend to teach to them. Other things typically happen as well: The curriculum narrows to what is tested, instruction narrows to test-prep skill-drill, and students previously disaffected with academic studies become even more so, as they suffer through more skill-drill work, and consequently tend to drop out. These are usually kids from low-socioeconomic backgrounds.

Local educators who work within a high-stakes testing regime would look, then, for evidence of at least three things happening in their schools: narrowing curriculum, narrowing instruction, and an increasing dropout rate among academically disaffected students.

Another way to identify real educational problems to solve in a particular school or school system is obviously to examine local data sets in search of opportunities to improve student learning. Local problems, such as a high dropout rate, a difficult transition from middle school to high school, high student absenteeism, and so forth, can be similar from setting to setting, but also can vary. Likewise, a solution to a problem that works in one setting may not work in another. Public schools are such complex organizations, and communities are so variable, that silver bullets and uniform approaches to reform are ill-advised and usually ill-fated. Solutions must be tailored to, and demonstrated to work in, the local educational setting.

There are strong historical and philosophical reasons for improving education by solving actual local problems.

Since at least the 1920s, teacher participation in the identification and resolution of local curricular and instructional problems has been an approved practice in the literature of the field of curriculum studies. This is because it works. If politicians and policymakers are as committed to improving education as they claim to be, they should make such time-tested local problem-solving the centerpiece of school reform policies at the state and federal levels.

Moreover, a commitment to solving local problems represents a particularly American way of improving education, because it is consistent with the philosophy of American pragmatism.

During the late 19th century, the country experienced a series of interrelated transformations—industrialization and urbanization, the transportation and communication revolutions, not to mention the impact of the Civil War and the implications of the new theory of evolution—which together challenged many ways of thinking and acting that had long been taken for granted, even considered immutable. These rapid changes presented Americans with novel and problematic circumstances that old ways of thinking and acting could not effectively address.

In response, American philosophers, prominent among them Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, devised a new philosophy based not on immutable ideas, but on a method of thinking that approached everyday human experience as a testing ground for ideas. In a nutshell, American pragmatism embraced science as a problem-solving method, and democracy as an exaltation of ordinary experience.

American pragmatism rejected the imposition of preconceived ideas on novel circumstances. It entrusted individuals with the task of solving problems unique to them. Pragmatism is the philosophical manifestation of American inventiveness, of American ingenuity.

Unfortunately, the current standards-and-accountability movement, which effectively imposes a single idea of reform on all local circumstances, regardless of local variation, runs against the grain of American pragmatism. But identifying and solving local educational problems is consistent with it.

Here are some suggestions for enlightened state and federal policymakers for devising policies that will facilitate and incentivize local educational problem-solving:

• Create grant programs that enable local school systems to develop processes for identifying and solving their locally based educational problems;

• Support professional development for teachers and administrators that will aid them in the identification and resolution of their local problems;

• Provide training for school board members in the identification and resolution of educational problems;

• Provide resources and technical expertise to assist schools in the identification and resolution of such problems; and

• Recognize and reward schools and schools systems that document that they have identified and solved their singular educational problems.

We can best improve public education not by focusing reform on false problems and flawed solutions, but by applying real solutions to real educational problems. Education policy at all levels should encourage—even compel—local educators to identify the problems specific to their school settings, and then support their efforts to resolve them.

Let us think and act as pragmatic educators. Let us exercise some American educational ingenuity.

A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as Incentivizing Educational Ingenuity

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