What actually happens is ever-tighter control of conventional school. No wonder learning improves only slowly
What now passes for “school reform” is the effort to drive change into an inert system — rather than to change what makes K-12 an inert system. States, and increasingly the national government, are telling schools and teachers what to teach and how. Districts replicating “best practices” are centralizing and standardizing. In classrooms, despite the differences in student attainment, curriculum and pedagogy are prescribed and uniform — “focused instruction” in Minneapolis; “managed instruction” in St. Paul. Districts defend uniformity as ensuring that all students will learn.
Many teachers hate being scripted; many see teaching becoming less attractive as a career. Believing (not unreasonably) that it is unfair to hold them accountable for student success — when boards and central offices control what matters for student success — good teachers exercise their option to quit, further weakening a system that anyway loses half its new teachers within five years.
Minnesota, like the nation, could be getting far more than it is from its students and its teachers. But we do not currently have a school system that can do this or a successful process for getting one. We need a better How.
The obvious possibility is to create what the war historian called a “climate of innovation,” a system that encourages schools and their teachers to try things. That would at last arrange for education to change the way successful systems change.
We do have successful systems, self-improving systems. Over time these change dramatically as “outsiders” come up with new services and products, or with new ways of organizing and operating.
Usually the new, at first, is not high-quality (think about the “first” anything). So at first most people stay with the traditional. But often the different improves; sometimes rapidly. Landline phones are giving way to cellphones. Most cars are still gasoline-powered, but hybrid/electric is growing.
For education, think of it as a “split-screen” strategy. No more debating The Way Everything Should Be. Go on working to improve traditional school. But in parallel run a sector truly open to innovation.
“Truly innovative” means not asking teachers what is their innovation: What they try will be up to them. Don’t insist their ideas be “research-based.” Research can’t evaluate what has not been tried. Trust them taking a risk. Innovation will be a choice for both teachers and students; scale will be small; failures can be quickly corrected.
We will likely see teachers departing from:
• Whole-class-instruction. We will see teachers personalizing learning by using the potential of digital electronics to ensure each student gets what he or she needs. Children differ, so whole-class instruction breeds failure. “Any successful effort to improve learning,” a wise educator advised, “will begin by improving student motivation.” Motivation is individual. The teacher’s job is to adapt to student differences. A Minnesota teacher of the year thought it was obvious: “Only individualized instruction can leave no child behind.”
• Age-grading. With learning personalized, and with students moving at different paces, the old grouping-by-age (for the convenience of administration) can shift to “continuous progress.” Learning should improve for all students as those who need more time get more time, and as those who can go faster do go faster.
• The one-dimensional definition of achievement. Arguably this ensures an “achievement gap.” Try to think of an area of life in which success or quality is one-dimensional. Quality is multidimensional, and judgments are made on balance.
• The boss/worker model of school. In their professional groups, lawyers, doctors, architects and engineers handle questions of quality and accountability. A department of a high school, a whole school, or a district program could work like that — teachers as professionals accepting accountability in return for being able to “call the shots” about learning. A surprising number are interested in that arrangement, as surveys done in 2003 for Public Agenda and in 2013 for Education|Evolving make clear.
Innovation might be easiest in the chartered sector, which is now less about “different” than it once was. Around 2004 new national leadership of the charter school movement turned it toward doing conventional school better; showing it could out-do districts in creating elementary schools where inner-city students get high test scores and in closing schools where they do not. Some charter advocates talk down innovation. Still, the sector can innovate. In Minnesota the authorizer Innovative Quality Schools requests proposals outside the givens.
Innovation schools can appear in the district sector as well, where schools get a real delegation of authority. Some progressive Minnesota superintendents now do that. Prospects for personalization turn on teachers getting that authority. In school, only teachers know students as individuals.
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Again, this is not a proposal for The Way Everything Should Be. That’s the old notion of top-down “comprehensive” change. This is a proposal for a radically different How — for freeing those closest to the students to create more effective ways of learning.
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