The objective paradox

This entire article on creativity is worth a read, but one passage in particular caught my attention:

In one experiment a bipedal robot programmed to walk farther and farther actually ended up walking less far than one that simply was programmed to do something novel again and again, Stanley writes. Falling on the ground and flailing your legs doesn’t look much like walking, but it’s a good way to learn to oscillate, and oscillation is the most effective motion for walking. If you lock your objectives strictly on walking, you won’t hit that oscillation stepping stone. Stanley calls this the “objective paradox” — as soon as you create an objective, you ruin your ability to reach it.

The objective paradox explains why NCLB’s approach to accountability failed. It asked our schools to “walk farther” without a full appreciation for the complexity of what it would take to accomplish the task. Some schools were able to respond to this challenge and many students benefited as a result.

However, far too many schools were not equipped to meet the goals set by NCLB. Instead of allowing schools to “flail and oscillate,” NCLB drove them to focus on getting one step further down the path. As many have acknowledged, this had the unintended consequence of forcing schools to divert too much focus too reading and math instruction at the expense of other subjects and priorities that may have actually contributed to better reading and math comprehension.

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 Fatal Conceit & ESSA

“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.1 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.2 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.

  1. Williams also argues that conservatives should oppose ESSA because it replaces relatively simple and clear federal accountability measures with more latitude for states to design their own systems. For conservatives, that is a feature, not a bug, for conservatives. 

  2. If you’re at all interested in Hayek, I hope you’ve seen one of my favorite YouTube videos, the Keynes v. Hayek rap battle

How would great teachers spend a time bonus?

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.

The Real Obama Education Legacy

Rick Hess summarizes the frustrations of center-right ed reformers with the Obama administration’s approach to education policy (myself included):

“Although some of Obama’s education moves have been inopportune, his agenda has also included a number of notions with real promise. But his administration’s excessive faith in federal regulation, lack of time for the niceties of federalism, and contempt for critics helped undermine these ideas and support for reform more broadly. Perhaps above all, Obama’s education legacy shows that good ideas executed poorly can prove not to be such good ideas after all.”

I hope that my left-leaning ed reform friends take this criticism to heart. It also extends beyond the federal level: just like Presidents, governors and state superintendents don’t stay in office forever. If we’re going to succeed over the long term, thoughtful implementation matters just as much as having smart policy solutions.

Beyond Taylorism, Part III

If you’re like me, you’ve read articles, essays, and books that attempt to explain the root cause of the problems facing the teaching profession. In The Allure of Order, Jal Mehta only needs one paragraph to break it down:

“In the longer term, the success of the reformers in the Progressive Era resulted in a shift from one-room schoolhouses to urban school systems, in which schools were expected to follow the directives of a central manager in a district office. This effectively institutionalized teaching, not as a profession under the control of its frontline practitioners, but as an activity performed within a bureaucratically controlled hierarchy. (emphasis added) Teachers and schools, at the bottom of an implementation chain, were responsible primarily for implementing the ideas of central office managers.

This resonates with me. To be sure, there are examples of leaders and teachers that find a way to thrive in the system as it exists today, but they are by far the exception and not the rule. Teachers – particularly in urban school systems – feel constrained by the system within which they operate.

This actually reminds me of an moment from The Wire when McNulty reacts to a fellow officer issuing tickets for picayune offenses in order to comply with a directive from downtown to boost arrests:

Baker, Let me let you in on a little secret, The patrolling officer on his beat is the one true dictatorship in America, we can lock a guy up on the humble, lock him up for real, or say fuck it and drink ourselves to death under the expressway and our side partners will cover us, No one - I mean no one - tells us how to waste our shift!”

James McNulty, The Wire

To some degree, teachers in many school systems share this mindset. After years and years of reform after reform, many educators (rightfully, I might add) react to new directives from district leadership by thinking “this too shall pass.” The one time most teachers feel their agency is most powerful is when the classroom door closes and their implementation of district/state/federal policies is unsupervised. This is not to say that most teachers shirk these responsibilities, merely that it is when they have the most power to control what they do and how they do it.

The real issue raised by this scene in The Wire and what we see in many school systems today is that the on-the-ground knowledge of those implementing policy don’t have any effective avenues to influence a change in policy if something isn’t working. Treating teachers as implementors without a voice in crafting or evolving policy limits the responsiveness and efficacy of education policy.

As much as this bureaucratic structure constrains educators, attempting to fundamentally transform this system is extraordinarily difficult, with educators often playing a prominent role in resisting such change. Neerav Kingsland thinks this is due to the “ Allure of Safety”:

“…educators seem unable to let go of the institutions and values that protect but ultimately limit them (thousand page collective bargaining agreements and district bureaucracies).

Neerav also looked at how we might move beyond this arrangement, but only one of the four strategies he presents would keep public schools under the control of local school boards. He calls this strategy the “Fight for Finland” – it would involve keeping the current governance structure and focusing efforts on improving the quality of teacher recruitment/development in exchange for loosening accountability. I agree with his assessment that this approach would take decades and and may not even be likely to succeed.

The other strategies he proposes involve relinquishment of public schools to non-profit and potentially some for-profit operators. While I share his optimism with regards to the potential of these strategies to succeed in helping provide better options for students and families, I’m growing more skeptical of the political and social feasibility of these approaches. Americans generally like their schools run by their school board, not their state government, and especially not the federal government. There isn’t much evidence to suggest that communities are ready to dissolve the power of their school board.

Is there a way to maintain local governance of schools without accepting the deeply flawed status quo of a bureaucratized teaching profession? I think so, but it would require adopting the following practices from Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s book, Team of Teams:

  • District/state administrators moving towards an “eyes on – hands off” approach: Central offices and state departments of education would need to hand off a significant amount of policy authority to principals. McChrystal’s metaphor: act more like gardeners instead of a chess master. Instead of trying to plot every move, seek to empower others with the opportunities, tools, and relationships they need to succeed.
  • More trust and freedom granted to teachers: In addition to providing principals with more power, even more freedom should be granted to educators to make decisions and develop new methods to educate students and collaborate with their peers.

McChrystal doesn’t write much about accountability within a “team of teams” environment, but I’d bet that he’d want to hold teams accountable for outcomes, not processes. To that end, I’d prefer that schools be required to report student outcomes on a variety of metrics (including standardized test results for all students) and that families were empowered to vote with their feet and move their children to a different school if they aren’t satisfied.

This sounds awfully close to the system envisioned in A Democratic Constitution for Public Education, but I’d prefer to maintain school boards instead of developing the “Civic Education Council” that Hill & Jochim describe. I would maintain a governance role for local school boards and an administrative role for the a central district office, but in a very different capacity. School boards would hire superintendents and audit/approve district and school budgets. Superintendents and central office staff within a district would focus on:

  • Collecting and sharing data (academic, financial, etc.) from schools transparently to help all staff understand what’s happening around the district at any given time.
  • Providing principals with the support they need to hire and develop staff,
  • Coordinating logistics (IT, food service, physical plant, etc.) and specialized services for students with IEP’s.

All other aspects of running a school – including hiring staff and educational operations – would be the responsibility of principals and the teachers in each school building. This would involve a complete re-thinking of collective bargaining in non right-to-work states, but it’s a compelling arrangement for all parties involved:

  • School boards would focus on high-level governance and fiscal stewardship instead of academic policy – a much more appropriate role for elected community members that often lack a background in education.
  • District staff would focus on supporting the educational process in schools more from a logistical than an academic perspective.
  • School staff would focus on what they do best: educating children.

It would be a significant shift in governance, but it would maintain important oversight by a locally-elected board. More importantly, it would free educators to operate as true professionals instead of implementors within a bureaucratic machine. I believe that compared to the alternatives, this system has the best chance of scaling to many communities while also creating the best conditions possible to allow educators to thrive and serve students well.