Education Reform: It’s Actually Kinda Simple

26 11 2010

I remember the first year my school was undergoing reform. We had task groups who focused on various initiatives: school culture, the schedule, career pathways/project-based learning, and advisory. The groups were pretty high functioning, doing research, brainstorming ideas, even creating proposals and plans to take back to the staff. We operated this way for about six months and then finally realized that we really hadn’t accomplished a whole lot. There were a lot of great ideas, but we hadn’t spent time sharing them with each other or prioritizing their implementation.
In our effort to do everything, we hadn’t really done anything. In addition, we thought if we could change structures, then that would improve student learning. We were wrong.

I think education reform as a whole is probably in the same boat. Not only are there way too many camps advocating different (structural) changes, but there is also really no conversation in policymakers’ agendas about how to increase student learning (which, by the way, is different than student achievement). Of course, everyone talks about what to teach (the common core standards, national standards, state standards, district/local standards, etc.), what to assess, how hard teachers should be working, and how to use assessments to punish or reward schools and teachers. None of these conversations are going to do anything to change education in this country. Not yet, anyway.

To change education in this country, we really should prioritize two questions and two questions only: What does powerful instruction look like? And How do leaders in a system help coach and support teachers so that they can engage in more powerful instruction in their classrooms?

And guess what folks. These conversations are totally free. We don’t have to throw money at education to make it better. Don’t get me wrong. More money would help. But the reality is that more money isn’t. We are a nation involved in a trillion-dollar war, the economy is still in the tank, and states are still having to make deep cuts in order to make ends meet. And many tax-paying citizens aren’t willing to pay more in taxes in order to “fix” education.

So let’s talk about the instructional core, which is discussed in Richard Elmore’s work as the relationship between the course content, the teacher’s knowledge and skills, and the tasks that the students are asked to do. Elmore argues that if you change one, you have to change all three. For example, changing the curriculum won’t have any impact on student learning if you don’t also change the students’ and teacher’s interaction with that content.

In this country, we’ve talked about content ad nauseum, and while we don’t have a perfect version of content standards, they aren’t the problem. They do help focus the curriculum (even though there is too much breadth and not enough depth).

The problem lies with the tasks our students are being asked to do (in many cases, rote memorization in order to pass “the test”) and the instruction being delivered in the classroom (prescribed lessons and an overemphasis on test prep). In other words, the problem lies not with teachers but with teaching.

The other day, I listened to a podcast from the Stanford University School of Education. It was Tony Alvarado (former Chancellor of NYC schools and former Chancellor of Instruction for San Diego City Schools) speaking about educational leadership in schools. One of his major points was that if student learning isn’t changing in the system, you might want to look at the professional development. Only when professional development focuses on instruction do systems see results, which is why Alvarado also argues that exemplary teachers are the ones who make good administrators.

Because they are the ones who truly know how to support, talk about, assess, and scaffold adult learning.
So maybe we should lay off teachers for a while and talk about teaching. Maybe we should support student learning by supporting adult learning. Let’s focus our attention and get some results.

I think it’s actually that simple.

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