The Edifice Complex: Why Building Monstrous Structures Fails to Change Instructional Practice

Top down innovation is orderly and dumb; bottom up innovation is chaotic and smart.

Think of our education system as a mega-corporation with 3,000,000 franchises (think classrooms), an ineffective paramilitary organization in which the five star
generals (think Arne Duncan) give orders, the innumerable supernumeraries
salute and the privates close their doors and do what they think is best.

Larry Cuban and David Tyack’s Tinkering Toward Utopia (1995) should be required reading for the legions of education policy makers.

The remnants of the hierarchical command structure …still undermines teacher autonomy … Few schools give teachers the incentives or the time for curricular planning … in many districts … teachers have lead the way in reshaping instruction.

Change is never embedded without teacher buy-in at the bottom. Education highways are littered with the detritus of ideas, programs and initiatives costing billions that were cast aside by the franchise holders, classroom teachers.

The legions of so-called school reform policy makers advocate,

Hire the “best and the brightest.”

Certainly careful hiring, in times of surplus applicants you have innumerable candidates, is the goal of every school system. Teacher for America, the New Teacher Project and other organizations have crafted tools to assist schools/school systems in selecting teachers with the requisite skills.

If we are hiring potentially the most effective teachers we must ask,

Why do 50% of carefully selected new teachers leave within five years?

Why do more than 50% in high needs schools leave within three years?

Why do “more effective teachers” move from inner city “high
needs” schools to higher achieving schools in more middle class
neighborhoods?

Susan Moore Johnson at the Project for a New Generation of Teachers at Harvard examines teacher attitudes. We know why teachers leave, (“lack supervisory support, poor student discipline, job pressures, feelings of inadequacy, isolation, etc.”), yet the “generals” fail to provide solutions.

Teachers stay not because of policies created by five star generals, they stay because the “private” next door, or the “sergeant” (assistant principal) down the hall or the “lieutenant” in the office (principal) provided comfort and support.

Drive out the less effective or incompetent.

In New York City 38% of third year probationary teachers had their probation extended for a year. The reason: they fell in the lower half of teachers on their year two value-added measurement (Teacher Data Report). The Teacher Data Report, a regression analysis tool, with a wide margin of error, is used to measure teacher effectiveness based on student test scores. However, the use of
different tools with the same data sets produces widely varying results.
Charlotte Danielson, the author of the most widely used teacher assessment
rubric abjures the use of student achievement data to measure teacher
effectiveness.

Negotiating a system in which trained teams of supervisors and teachers utilize a jointly agreed upon metric (i. e., Charlotte Danielson or Kim Marshall, or a few
others) to measure teacher performance, i. e., including the “privates,” just seems too complex, using a deeply flawed spread sheet to “fire” teachers is the corporate way.

Encourage “better” teaching with carrots and sticks.

How can we get teachers to be more effective, as measured by student scores
(value-added) or observations of performance? Do threats of extending
probation, or discharge produce “more effective teachers”? Does the
carrot, tying financial remuneration to test scores, result in producing more
effective teachers?

Not only is there not a scintilla of supportive evidence, the evidence is that the
answer is “no.”

In spite of the evidence policymakers continue to drive punitive threats and
monetary rewards. Support, whether we call it professional development, or mentoring, or teacher assistance provided by well trained colleagues at school sites; collaboration in a nurturing, supportive culture will improve practice. It’s not carrots or sticks, its hugs.

The enigma: to weaken or work with teacher unions.

For Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, the Wisconsin governor or author Steve Brill the path to better schools requires the disempowerment of teacher unions.

Brill’s current book is sharply critical of teacher unions; however, Sara Mosle’s NY Times review skewers Brill.  I presage that a lot more people will read the Mosle review than the book.

Randi Weingarten’s speech at the AFT TEACH conference lays out a model of school district-teacher collaboration, a model that falls on deaf ears among the ideologically driven policy wonk. (see u-tube here).

The secret according to highly effective principals is “creative
non-compliance,” nodding to the “generals’” demands, working with
other principals, creating a “learning community” and doing what is
best for the kids in your school.

Charlotte Danielson in Talking About Teaching! Leading Professional Conversations (2009), tells us,

Professional conversations are a critical vehicle for promoting professional
learning. But, educators are not born with the skill to conduct professional
conversations, particularly when the dynamics of power the relationship between teachers and administrators are factored into the equation.

Conducting productive conversations requires a positive culture.
But, it also requires skill, particularly on the part of the school leader.
These skills include setting the tone, inviting thinking, and the employment of
linguistic skills that enable teachers to explore their practice.(
p. 72)

Unfortunately the plutocrats in the seats of power suffer from an old Italian aphorism, Il pesce puzza dalla esta , we will only build change in the 3 million classrooms, when teachers and school leaders create “solutions,” classroom by classroom, grade by grade, school by school as school district leaders provide the necessary leadership and support.

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