Two of the foremost education thinkers have written about one of my favorite topics: the eagerness of policy-makers to jump into the frying pan without checking the temperature. The creation of a policy based upon a hope and a philosophical belief rather than evidence. The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) does require evidence-based approaches to defining accountability. Tom Kane at Harvard and Doug Harris at Tulane argue for evidence, research, at the local level; I couldn’t agree more.
From pharmaceuticals to retail sales, innovators test their ideas before scaling them up. In a new article for Education Next, Thomas Kane of the Harvard Graduate School of Education argues that, similarly, education research must make a fundamental shift toward small-scale, district-level intervention studies in order to support sustained improvement in student achievement.
States should adopt a simple goal: any major initiative involving more than 100 classrooms should be subject to a local pilot test before being rolled out.
Doug Harris expands and suggests that the research take place as close to schools as possible,
… build a new cadre of researchers employed by school districts, state agencies, and local nonprofits. This new army of researchers, with master’s degrees and certificates, would have many of the skills of Ph.D. researchers, especially the ability to design and carry out randomized trials and rigorous quasi-experiments.
* there would be far more of them
* the in-house researchers would be more connected to practice
* in-house researchers will be able to help education leaders interpret outside research and understand whether the results apply in their contexts.
* in-house researchers would generally be trained by Ph.D. researchers at universities
* by working within the education agencies that actually make decisions, the in-house researchers would also have the relationships to ensure that research is at the table—at strategy meetings with superintendents and school board meetings.
Kane and Harris argue for research at the state and district level; in addition, I argue for action research projects in schools,
[Action Research] is a disciplined process of inquiry conducted by and for those taking the action. The primary reason for engaging in action research is to assist the “actor” in improving and/or refining his or her actions …. action research is always relevant to the participants. Relevance is guaranteed because the focus of each research project is determined by the researchers, who are also the primary consumers of the findings.
For me the key to effective school leadership or effective classroom teaching is taking ownership of your practice. One of the key rules of personal and institutional change is participation reduces resistance. In New York City funds are driven directly to schools, principals, in theory, have wide discretion. Unfortunately it is commonplace for the leader at the top of the policy chain to select what the leader thinks is the best program, and, one size fits all does not always fit. The State maintains a checklist, and struggling schools are “rated” on their compliance to the checklist.
The State visited a middle school in a high poverty high crime neighborhood. The State evaluator asked, “Why don’t you have an after school tutorial program?” The principal explained his kids pick up younger siblings from a nearby elementary school, and wouldn’t stay for the program and kids feel safer walking through the gang turf together. He proudly explained the school had a “lunch and learn” alternative. The teachers tutored the kids, a 3:1 student teacher ratio, during lunch. The teachers were paid, and, the data was excellent, he had conducted an action research project. The State evaluator had no interest in the data – the alternative wasn’t on the checklist.
Occasionally schools carve out a space within the bureaucracy. Eric Nadelstern created a school for English language learners and working with the staff and the union received a portfolio waiver from the State. The alternative instructional methodology was successful and over the years, with support from external foundations grew into the International Network, fifteen schools in New York City and others beginning across the nation. A seed that grew, based upon research, into a movement.
My former school district was committed to school based decision-making and school-based budgeting. With the support of the district schools crafted a variety of instructional and organizational strategies. I sat in on a number of planning meetings. Some of the schools were totally engaged, they created schools within schools, creative uses of Title 1 dollars, a range of strategies. The only “requirement” from the superintendent was a method of evaluating the effectiveness of the school strategy. Watching teachers grapple with creating an assessment tool is the best kind of professional development.
I worked with a not-for-profit that provided training in school-based action research and a modest grant to pay teachers per session for planning time. The schools explored how to increase parent involvement, comparing “pull out” or “push-in” Title 1 teacher results, exploring whether using Title 1 dollars to extend the school day is more effective than traditional reading and math Title 1 teachers, etc. Collaboratively creating a research design model, collecting data, assessing, drawing conclusions, making changes in the original model based on their own research.
Guess what? The “powers that be,” the compliance monitors at Central nixed a number of the programs effectively stifling creativity.
The leaders of education in New York State support integrated special education classroom instead of self-contained classrooms and have been urging/demanding that school leaders move to integrated classrooms. What is the evidence? The State points to national data, principals point to data from within their schools. Why not teach schools/school districts how to design a research model?
Superintendents were superb principals and excellent teachers; however, what worked for the superintendent in their prior professional life may not work for the next generation of school leaders. The “teaching them to fish” allegory also fits into creating school models.
I worked with a superintendent who had conservative views (“order precedes learning”) and also recognized the power and creativity bubbling within school leaders and teachers. He both encouraged and supported school leaders, do what you think is best, my staff will work with you to implement whatever you and your staff design, we’ll figure out an assessment tool. If it’s a bomb, you do it my way!!!
At the April Regents Meeting the members will make significant changes in the teacher preparation regulations. Six years ago former Commissioner John King forced changes to the regulations, four exams, without any data as to the outcomes. Regents Cashin and Rosa asked whether it was possible to pilot the exams, nope, the exams became a reality. Now five years later, enrollment in teacher education programs is sharply down, colleges are beginning to shrink programs, with no evidence that the exams produced more productive teachers.
Here’s a thought: math scores are low, many high schools don’t even offer the intermediate algebra regents, should prospective elementary school teachers take more math courses? Do kids do better in classrooms when the teacher had more college math courses?
Why not identify the potentially impactful questions, create a pilot, and test out the options?
Sweet memories …