TC's Hatch Targets Flawed Assumptions in School Reform | Teachers College Columbia University

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TC's Hatch Targets Flawed Assumptions in School Reform

TC faculty member Thomas Hatch argues in Education Week that many of the new school reform initiatives being promoted by the U.S. Department of Education rest on old and flawed assumptions of past efforts.

Facing the flawed assumptions of educational reform

Thomas Hatch

Teachers College, Columbia University

The good news: Despite the economic downturn, the department of education is helping to stoke the development of a multitude of initiatives that might help to improve schools.  The bad news: Many of those initiatives still focus on the same flawed assumptions that have undermined educational reform efforts for years.  Those assumptions reflect a simplistic view of what it takes to improve schools and contribute to the repeated failure to address the basic conditions needed to sustain long-lasting improvements in schooling.

Assumption #1: We have the capacity to significantly improve the performance of all students; we just need to put in place the goals and incentives that will encourage teachers and schools to do it. 

The reality:  Schools do not have all the knowledge, expertise, and resources needed to address many of the basic challenges of teaching and learning across multiple subjects on a large scale.  This flawed assumption was reflected in some of the initial efforts to implement systemic reform in the 1990’s and in many current calls for “national standards” that imply that creating common goals and aligning policies, incentives, and supports can unleash some previously hidden capacity that will dramatically improve educational performance. The same belief underlies many of the recent initiatives that suggest that producing smaller schools and smaller classes or establishing rewards and penalties based on student test scores will suddenly equip struggling teachers – in every subject and at all levels – with the knowledge and skills necessary to enable all their students to be successful in college and beyond. The hope that a few successful “turnaround” efforts, model schools, or charter schools can quickly spawn a legion of more effective schools embrace this assumption as well when they fail to recognize that improving many schools at once takes a vastly different set of skills, structures, and resources than transforming one school at a time.  Ultimately, improving schools depends on working harder, increasing efficiency and building capacity for more powerful instruction.

Assumption #2: If a school makes some improvements and hits some performance targets at one time, the school has the capacity to continue to make meaningful improvements in instruction over time.

The reality: There are many different ways to reach short-term goals and outcomes, and some of them can actually undermine the ability of an organization to sustain performance and to reach long-term performance goals. Sports teams demonstrate the tensions between focusing on short- and long-term goals when they load up on established stars in order to win a championship, but then suffer in subsequent years because they failed to invest in a strong system for developing younger players. The simple fact that a team reached the championship in one year does not mean they have the capacity to sustain such a high level of performance consistently in the future.  Similarly, even if schools do meet some performance targets – making “average yearly progress” in reading and math or even reducing the achievement gap a bit – those accomplishments do not necessarily mean that a school is on the way to meeting the needs of all learners or reaching “world-class” standards in any subject. High-stakes short-term pressures focused on narrow outcomes may make it particularly difficult for low-performing schools to make the investments in the basic organizational practices of managing staff, establishing a productive work environment, and developing common expectations that they need to meet meaningful goals and sustain high performance over time.

Assumption #3: Competition for students will lead to innovation and improved performance in many schools.

The reality: Regardless of whether or not students and parents have a choice of schools, limited resources, difficult external conditions, and public perceptions of what counts as “real” school constrain abilities to provide innovative classroom practices. The real competition is for scarce resources like effective teachers, strong leaders, high-quality professional development, capable external assistance, adequate facilities, political influence, and public support.  Unfortunately, successful schools – regular public schools as well as charter schools and other alternative schools – often capture these scarce resources and gain a competitive advantage over others. That advantage reinforces a system in which a small number of schools can excel but does little to build the capacity for large scale improvements for all.

Assumption #4: The way to improve the system as a whole is to “scale up” the successes of individual programs and schools around the country.

The Reality:  The ability to “scale-up” a successful school or educational program depends more on finding the right conditions than it does on developing the right practices, curriculum model or other innovation.  In the business world, start-ups need to find customers, suppliers, facilities, equipment, and employees in order to spread across the country.  Put the “right” business in the wrong place and it will founder regardless of how good the basic idea might be.  In education, even the most successful school networks and model programs only work in some places, under some circumstances.  Any attempt to scale up successful schools and programs has to be accompanied by a concerted effort to create more favorable economic, organizational, social, and political conditions that will give all schools a better chance to make significant improvements.

What can be done?  First, instead of infusing the system with funds when times are good and demanding cuts when times are bad, put in place stable funding streams.  Second, make sure those funds address basic needs that have direct benefits for students and parents – renovating inadequate facilities, building new schools where necessary, putting in place effective child care and afterschool programs where they are needed, and strengthening the day-to-day support for more powerful learning.   Third, provide useful feedback on how schools, districts, and states are doing in providing equal opportunities for all students and for meeting meaningful learning goals, but reward schools for making improvements over the long-haul without imposing short-term penalties on particular individuals.  Fourth, give parents and the wider public opportunities to see what goes on in classrooms and to develop their understanding of what “good” student work – in the US and around the world – can look like.  These efforts have to go far beyond the usual initiatives to publicize data on school performance, sway public opinion on education or put in place another set of standards.  If the wider public does not demand the kinds of instruction that truly supports high levels of learning for all students, describing most teaching as “high quality” and labeling low levels of performance as “proficient” or “adequate” will continue to suffice. 

Especially in this age of accountability, policymakers, funders and education leaders need the vision and the courage to make the basic investments that will improve the conditions for all schools even though the real results may be hard to see for some time.

Thomas Hatch is an Associate Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and Co-Director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST). His most recent book is Managing to Change: How Schools Can Survive (and Sometimes Thrive) in Turbulent Times

Published Monday, Dec. 7, 2009