Again, Niche Reforms Are Not The Answer

Our guest author today is David K. Cohen, John Dewey Collegiate Professor of Education and professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, and a member of the Shanker Institute’s board of directors.

A recent response to my previous post on these pages helps to underscore one of my central points: If there is no clarity about what it will take to improve schools, it will be difficult to design a system that can do it.  In a recent essay in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Paul Tough wrote that education reformers who advocated "no excuses" schooling were now making excuses for reformed schools' weak performance.  He explained why: " Most likely for the same reason that urban educators from an earlier generation made excuses: successfully educating large numbers of low-income kids is very, very hard." 

 In his post criticizing my initial essay, "What does it mean to ‘fix the system’?," the Fordham Institute’s Chris Tessone told the story of how Newark Public Schools tried to meet the requirements of a federal school turnaround grant. The terms of the grant required that each of three failing high school replace at least half of their staff. The schools, he wrote, met this requirement largely by swapping a portion of their staffs with one another, a process which Tessone and school administrators refer to as the “dance of the lemons.”Would such replacement be likely to solve the problem?

Even if all of the replaced teachers had been weak (which we do not know), I doubt that such replacement could have done much to help.

One reason for my doubt is that we’ve been down the same road before (actually not so very long ago), when it was called it school “reconstitution." Jennifer O’Day, of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE), carefully studied this reform and its outcomes. In Complexity, Accountability, and School Improvementshe wrote:

The emphasis on negative incentives (stigma of probation, threat of reconstitution) tied to a single measure (ITBS) appears to have resulted in two tendencies that work against long-term improvement. First, attention in these schools became focused not so much on student learning per se, but on getting off or staying off probation. This goal essentially places adult desires (to remove the professional stigma and avoid administrative scrutiny) over the needs of students (Wei & Evans, 2001). Second, to achieve this goal, probation schools exhibited an emphasis on strategies to produce immediate increases in test scores, often to the neglect of longer-term success. The combination of these tendencies produced a number of dysfunctional practices.

 Most common was the emphasis on test preparation in the form of intensive drill and practice to raise student scores. Some schools even redesigned their curriculum not only to reflect the general skills on the ITBS but to align the proportion of time allotted in the curriculum to a given discrete skill with the proportion of test items measuring that skill. In such cases, the test specifications became the curriculum specifications as well. Another common practice was to triage assistance (mostly test preparation) to students scoring near grade-level cutoffs in the hope that, by raising these students’ scores slightly, the school could escape probation. These and similar practices suggest the allocation of resources to achieve adult ends (e.g., getting off probation), rather than to meet the greatest student needs.

Poor urban schools can be made to succeed, and efforts to evaluate and improve the practice of teaching are important to such success. But it is at least as important to change the context of teaching as to attend to who teaches in such schools.  Reformers should be asking whether teachers in these schools—whether veteran or replacement—have the tools and supports that they need to succeed.  Typically, they do not. 

The best way to provide those tools and materials is to build a coherent educational infrastructure: common student curriculum or curriculum frameworks, common exams that are tied to the curricula, common instructional practices that are grounded in the curricula, and teacher education and professional development that focus on how to teach that curricula to students. Such education would be an “organized means to turn teachers’ individual knowledge and skill into common know-how” that can be refined, adapted to the needs of specific groups of students, and passed along to novice teachers. 

These are not utopian measures. Most school systems in the world have at least several elements of an infrastructure.  The U.S. Advanced Placement Program has several elements, as do a few charter networks and some of the Comprehensive School Reform designs. Effective and sustainable school improvement will take more than piecemeal niche reforms. 

- David K. Cohen