Magic Bullets Equal Duds: Why Do Top-Down Educational Initiatives Rarely Succeed? Will ESSA Change the Face of Education?

I asked an astronomer friend whether the Juno spacecraft would find life under the frozen oceans of Ganymede, one of the moons of Jupiter, he answered,

The frozen ocean is essentially the surface, it’s thought that the watery mantle of Ganymede might be within the range tolerated by extremophiles, but again, a lot of speculation has been done. 

Much heat and little light, or, when Sagan was asked “yeah, but what are your gut feelings?” he replied “I don’t think with my gut.”

Science is a process of enforced intellectual rigor (enforced by peer review) which requires going from known data toward new understandings. We fill in the pages of a blank book with observations, measurements, and analysis, and then try to elucidate new models of how nature works. 

Going from the “already filled in book” to elicit behavior changes is the province of religion. 

Sadly, education policy-making is in the realm of faith, not science.

The reformers abjure “enforced intellectual rigor” and make sweeping decisions that impact millions of students based upon the absence of peer reviewed “observations, measurements and analysis.”

The current and former US Secretaries of Education support a portfolio system of schools – public and charter schools competing with each other for students – the competition, they argue, will raise student achievement in both public and charter schools. The belief is loosely based on the theories of Nobel Laureate economist Milton Freedman,

 In a famous 1955 essay, Friedman argued that there is no need for government to run schools. Instead, families could be provided with publicly financed vouchers for use at the K-12 educational institutions of their choice. Such a system, Friedman believed, would promote competition among schools vying to attract students, thus improving quality, driving down costs, and creating a more dynamic education system.

The current day reformers cannot point to any evidence and, in fact the current system of public and charter side-by-side schools has not “raised all boats,” they may actually diminish student achievement.

In New York City another example is the rekindling of the “Reading Wars,” Chancellor Farina is a close friend of Lucy Calkins and “balanced literacy, her approach to the teaching of reading. Most experts are sharply critical of the Calkins’ approach and support the use of phonics to teacher reading. Friendship rules: the chancellor supports her friend (Read a discussion of the “Reading Wars” here)

Will a teacher evaluation system based on student test scores sort the best and the worst teachers and lead to higher student achievement?  Once again, there is no evidence, and, in fact, scholars tell us that value-added measurement is highly inaccurate and inappropriate for measuring teacher competency.

To make the realm of policy creation and implementation even more depressing is  when schools and school districts attempt to use the “wisdom and knowledge of experts” the attempts fail.

Anthony S. Bryk, Louis M. Gomez, Alicia Grunow, and Paul G. LeMahie in Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better, argue,

… there is no universal mechanism in education for transforming the wisdom and knowledge experts accumulate as they work into a broader professional knowledge base … well-intentioned educational reforms across the ideological spectrum were unsuccessful because they were formed around a novel solution (such as the small schools movement, etc.,) rather than a practitioner-driven problem and were imposed from above without attention to the ways local conditions might require adaptation.

To address these two challenges, the authors argue that practitioners, policy makers, and researchers should collaborate across traditional organizational boundaries to engage in ongoing disciplined inquiry.

(Read a detailed description of the book here)

The authors lay out what they call “The Six Core Principles of Improvement”

  1. Make the work problem-specific and user-centered.

It starts with a single question: “What specifically is the problem we are trying to solve?” It enlivens a co-development orientation: engage key participants early and often.

 

  1. Variation in performance is the core problem to address.

The critical issue is not what works, but rather what works, for whom and under what set of conditions. Aim to advance efficacy reliably at scale.

 

  1. See the system that produces the current outcomes.

It is hard to improve what you do not fully understand. Go and see how local conditions shape work processes. Make your hypotheses for change public and clear.

 

  1. We cannot improve at scale what we cannot measure.

Embed measures of key outcomes and processes to track if change is an improvement. We intervene in complex organizations. Anticipate unintended consequences and measure these too.

 

  1. Anchor practice improvement in disciplined inquiry.

Engage rapid cycles of Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) to learn fast, fail fast, and improve quickly. That failures may occur is not the problem; that we fail to learn from them is.

 

  1. Accelerate improvements through networked communities.

Embrace the wisdom of crowds. We can accomplish more together than even the best of us can accomplish alone.

 In other words, there are no magic bullets. The “answer” is not the program; the answer is the competency and cooperation of the practitioners at the school, district and university level.

By competency I mean the ability to collaborate within and across schools, the ability to understand data and convert data into classroom practice, to become reflective practitioners. The New York City-based Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE) encourages schools to break free of perceived or real constraints, to craft research-based solutions at schools with the guidance and support off labor and management.

The International Network supports twenty schools, fifteen in New York City, that work with English language learner high school students who have been in the country four years of less. The six year graduation rates match all other schools, the schools share instructional practices.

How do we seed fertile soils?  How do we prepare teachers and school leaders to use peer reviewed research to drive actual practice?  And, vitally important, how we create district leadership that supports schools and not constantly chase the magic grail, that magic bullet that has never existed.

There are highly successful schools, succeeding, frequently under the radar while schools with similar populations struggle.  Unfortunately the most successful principals, and occasionally superintendents must resort to practicing creative resistance, smiling, nodding, and continuing to do what actually works in spite of “higher ups” that chase that elusive secret sauce.

The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) devolves power from the feds to the states; states have until the spring of 2017 to create plans to address struggling schools: will states simply replicate the failed federal programs or actually create creative approaches to school improvement?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s