This isn’t to say that setting goals for reading and math achievement isn’t important, but to emphasize that too much focus on these goals can have a deleterious impact on student outcomes.
Education reformers (myself included) have an impatient desire for rapid change and improvement when we see public school system that fails to adequately serve students, particularly students of color, students with disabilities, and poor students. It’s a perfectly reasonable position - these children don’t have the luxury of time on their side. We are right to seek solutions now and not at some distant future date.
At the same time, we need to temper that relentless drive to improve the quality of public education for all children with the humility to understand two constraints:
- We don’t know what the perfect system looks like.
- Progress won’t always be measured by annual, linear changes in math and reading scores.
Many high-performing schools already understand this. Morgan Polikoff recently visited Success Academies in NYC and observed that the instruction and culture of the school was nothing like the caricature of a test-obsessed, drill-and-kill school solely focused on boosting reading and math scores. Instead, he found that their primary goals for students in English/Language Arts are: “for students to 1) love literature and want to read, and 2) be able to understand what they’re reading.”
Polikoff also identifies several important structural elements that contribute to SA’s success. This includes a strong emphasis on student-led dialogue, excellent classroom management procedures, and an instructional culture that embraces feedback/coaching. None of those structural elements, taken on their own, would allow a school to achieve math and reading results similar to SA, but developing these systems (or other approaches) is analogous to the walking robot flailing and oscillating its legs. Getting them right won’t directly lead to achieving success for students, but they’re foundational prerequisites to ultimately achieving that success.
ESSA will give states the flexibility to develop accountability systems that acknowledge this better than NCLB-era accountability systems. States and the reform advocates holding them accountable would be wise to consider the objective paradox and grapple with the challenge of striking a balance between the competing desires for rapid improvement and allowing room for schools to develop solid fundamental practices.
“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design” - F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit
The ink on the recently released Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is barely dry, but progressive ed reformers are already panning the proposed successor to the defunct No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Conor Williams argues that not only should Obama veto the NCLB rewrite, progressives should fear it. His case for progressive opposition to ESSA boils down to this:
“If this were a debate over clean water protections, voting rights protections, or most other policy issues, progressives would line up to yell about how states can’t be trusted to do the right thing without strong federal oversight.”
This begs the question: what is “the right thing” for states to do? Is there even one “right thing” that can apply to all states? Reading Williams’ argument, I kept hearing the Hayek quote above in my head. I’m not as confident that we know enough to design the accountability system he imagines.
Two weeks ago, Mike Petrilli wrote about the ed reform movement’s need for more humility:
“We know what works, we just need the political will to do it”: That’s the foundational creed of today’s reform movement. But what if the truth is closer to “We are just beginning to learn what works to help poor kids escape poverty, but we still don’t know how to do it at scale”?
I couldn’t agree more. As a movement, we’ve made some significant progress in figuring out “what works”, but what we have learned is dwarfed by what we need to know in order to provide all students with a quality education. This means that we not only need to invest more in research (see Jay Greene’s writing for more on that), but we should also encourage and evaluate new approaches. ESSA would give states a great opportunity to expand our understanding of “what works”.
Right now, it looks as if ESSA is likely to pass and that most of the education policy action will (rightfully) be at the state level. Instead of giving in to the “fatal conceit” Hayek describes, I hope that both progressive and conservative reformers embrace the opportunity to adopt accountability systems that will challenge and improve the status quo in ways that acknowledge the current limits of our policy tools.
This entire series of conversations with Fishman Prize winners is worth reading, but this passage stood out to me:
“In so many ways, these hierarchies we have put teachers at the bottom. But that almost entitles everyone who is above us, so to speak, to put tasks on our plate.”
It perfectly captures my feelings after reading The Allure of Order and Team of Teams: our highly bureaucratized school system is limiting the potential of our students and our educators. When we treat educators as implementers of top-down policies, we fail to benefit from their ground-level insights, making our education system too rigid to respond to the dynamic needs of students.
It’s time to consider a new approach.