Thursday, November 16, 2006

"You can't improve what you don't measure...."

In one of the most thoughtful postings I've read lately, Brett Pawlowski from the DeHavilland blog asks, "If we can see the problem [in education], why can't we fix it?" (via this week's Carnival of Education, hosted by What It's Like on the Inside).

His focus is on US public schools, but Pawlowski's points are relevant for any school system that's trying to improve:

"We’ve known for some time that there are serious issues in education – NAEP scores for 17-year olds haven’t budged in decades (reading and math), there’s a large disparity in academic achievement between whites and non-Asian minorities, and the dropout rate is unacceptably high. Until NCLB, we were only able to see those problems in the aggregate – national statistics that allowed us to believe our own schools were fine, thankyouverymuch, and it’s the other guy’s school that’s the problem.

Thanks to local accountability provisions with disaggregated data, however, we can now see exactly what’s going on in our own schools, and it turns out that most of us see those national problems reflected in our hometown schools and districts.

By identifying the problems, the thinking goes, we’re supposed to be compelled to address them. But here’s the rub: the people who are running and teaching in all these schools are the same ones being charged with the mission of substantially improving them, and they’re left to their own devices to do so.

I’m not trying to impugn these administrators, principals, and teachers in any way. I believe that, as a rule, educators are passionate and committed people who earnestly want to hand the keys to the kingdom to their kids. They know education is the key to success, and they would like nothing better than to watch their kids leave school with the knowledge, skills, and motivation needed to succeed in life.

But the fact is, they were working really hard before we identified these problems, and there’s no reason to expect that they can materially change course now. Why? Because we’re not giving them the tools they need to succeed.

I’m not talking about new funding here: I’m talking about the knowledge and tools they need to improve instruction in substantive ways. Like proven and replicable models from both inside and outside education. Like real authority over budget, personnel, scheduling, discipline, and curriculum issues. Like access to research, free from agenda, that points to successful practices – and the authority to implement despite ideological opposition (consider the reading wars as an example). Like the intellectual freedom to explore new thinking and ideas that would allow them to question existing practices and try new things.

Instead, we box them in with rules and restrictions that deny them the opportunity to change (i.e., you have to use this curriculum, you can’t hire/fire according to needs, you can’t kick out the kids who don’t want to be there, you can’t pay people different amounts based on scarcity or capability, etc.), and we leave all conventional thinking in place. No models of success; no focus on research; faulty beliefs on effective teaching courtesy of education schools (see here and here); and confinement within the walls of the system, restricting access to new thinking.

So what we end up with is this: do what you’ve been doing, but work harder at it. And since the means and the opportunity to truly change are not available to them, here are the kinds of responses they’re left to choose from:

  • Kill the messenger – question the value or validity of the assessments
  • Cheat on the assessments
  • Lower the bar (usually done at the state level with easier assessments or lower standards)
  • Call for more resources – money, volunteers, etc.
  • Spend more time - double reading/math classes, start clubs, hold study sessions – using the same faulty materials
  • Reform around the edges, such as professional development that reinforces existing thinking
  • Hold pep rallies (yes, this really happens)

And when none of this works over the course of a few years, the state moves in – and, since the folks from the state don’t have the tools mentioned above either, they shift staff, make some cosmetic changes (like converting to a charter school with no attendant changes), and restart the AYP clock.

Want to change this cycle? It all comes down to a stunningly simple idea: If what you’re doing isn’t working, you need to change what you’re doing.

Eduwonk follows up with this:

Everyone likes to say that we know what works, money, class size, choice, private management, etc...but that's BS. "Turn-arounds" are complicated and hit or miss and that's not all that surprising, it's a human endeavor.

A lot of people do claim to have the answers, acting mostly on beliefs rather than data. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We do have some reliable data now on effective instruction, and in areas where we don’t, we can start to gather it by trying some truly different things and doing rigorous and objective evaluations to see what happens. But it’s going to take fresh thinking, the freedom to act in new ways, and new blood from outside the industry, and it doesn’t matter whether that work happens in public schools, charters, or private schools as long as it happens and can be shared across the industry.

It’s true that you can’t improve what you don’t measure, which is the thinking behind NCLB. But it’s also true that you can’t improve on what’s not working by doing more of the same. We need to give our schools new options, new models, and new voices at the table – and we need to do it now."

Nicely said.


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