The critical question, at least for me, is clear: How do we raise an entire state to be one of the highest performing school systems in the world? This question takes up nearly every moment of my being, to the point of near fixation. I consume volumes of books, journal articles, news stories, reports, editorials, opinions, conversations, charts, tables, and diagrams. I visit schools and talk to educators, looking and listening for parts of the answer to the question. I spend hours and days in airports and airplanes to attend meetings where educational strategies and tactics are espoused and debated, all in pursuit of bettering our schools.
I believe we can take it as granted that everyone (or at least most everyone) wants our schools to be better, much better, than they are now. Where we come unraveled is in getting agreement on the specific actions we will undertake, as a system, to improve. In looking to the lessons of the world’s highest performing education systems, getting to some level of agreement on the tactics we will collectively take clearly matters. It matters in that whatever approach we undertake we will need to sustain it through the swings of the political pendulum and we will need to adequately resource the effort to give it the chance to succeed. A fractured approach does not lead us to that end and is also unlikely to lead us toward having one of the world’s best education systems.
So what tactics and strategies should we undertake? Where should we place our efforts? In my studies on how one might raise an entire education system (not a few schools or districts, but the entire system), I am increasingly convinced that both a continuation of past reform efforts (lower class size, incremental annual spending increases, and accountability) or the relatively new breed of American reform strategies (elimination of job protections, individual level evaluations linked to test scores, and school choice) are unlikely to work if our goal really is building an American school system that stands alongside the world’s highest performers.
So we face some choices. One is to continue the (often) politically motivated infighting and factionalism that dominates the current debate and see who ultimately bludgeons the other side into (temporary) submission. Another is to do nothing; paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake. Perhaps the right path is to reject these two options and converge on a set of strategies that is most likely to deliver us at that goal of a world-class education system.
I’d like to propose four lenses to frame that debate. If the strategy or approach passes through all four lenses, then it fits in the discussion. If it doesn’t, then it’s out. Note that being “in” shouldn’t mean it’s in forever – just that the approach makes sense in the current context. Similarly, being “out” doesn’t mean it’s out forever – it just means that either the timing isn’t right or we need more testing and empirical validation of the approach before we take it to scale across the entire education system. So, “what are these four lenses that SHOULD frame our education reform agenda,” you ask?
1. Is it related to the instructional core? Harvard professor Richard Elmore rightly points out that if you aren’t doing things that have an impact on the relationship between the teacher and the student in the presence of content, you aren’t doing anything that’s going to positively change performance. Using this first question as a lens is incredibly constructive in helping us sort the wheat from the chaff in where we should place our efforts. The danger in using this lens in isolation is that there are lots of things that affect this relationship between teachers and students in the presence of content; especially if you allow yourself to birdwalk out on a few limbs. We can’t just rely on this lens alone.
2. Is it strongly supported by the evidence? This lens can be a bit tricky as one can find some evidence to support just about anything. But we stand a much better chance of being “right” with whatever approach we take if are aligned with evidence that reaches the caliber of being peer-reviewed, journal quality work. Further, we should pursue approaches that have a preponderance of evidence that supports it. This helps prevent us from chasing the latest thing or being led astray by a singular research finding that contradicts the larger body of evidence on any particular strategy. The danger of using this lens in isolation is being paralyzed by analysis, wanting more and more empirical validation before actually doing anything. Good implementation begins with using evidence to calibrate your shot, but ultimately taking action.
3. Is it scale-able? If our goal is really to get a whole education system to improve, we must reject efforts that do not scale as the primary drivers for improvement. Efforts that do not scale show up dressed in one of two outfits. One is in the form of small-scale pilots and projects, where we have a few schools or districts undertake some effort. Pilots and projects are incredibly important for experimentation and empirical validation but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking these are going to do anything that will make the whole system move; especially if, at the end of the pilot or program, we never do anything to grow the validated approach. The second form of efforts that do not scale comes in the guise of attempts at small scale excellence. Suspects here include many school choice efforts and alternative educator licensure pathways. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a fan of charter schools as a mechanism for innovation and a fan of approaches like Teach for America in their efforts to bring top talent into education. But we are badly fooling ourselves if we think either of these efforts has the capacity to raise the quality of our entire education system. Don’t believe me? Refer to question #2 above. The danger of using this lens in isolation is that there are lots of things we could take to scale. But if it’s not related to the instructional core or if it isn’t supported by evidence we run the risk of creating big, expensive, and ineffective distractions that don’t result in a world-class education system.
4. Is it supported by international benchmarking? A great place to start for information on how we might grow our education system into one of the world’s best is by asking questions of what the world’s best education systems actually do. A comparative analysis of these systems, looking for common approaches and strategies in their rise to greatness, is perhaps our best evidence of what’s going to work to raise our education system to top performing status. As a contrast, the discussions about pure local control, or the even more rabid version of this which advocates the complete elimination of state authority and state departments of education, is completely absent as a strategy of improvement in studies on the rise of the world’s best education systems. More directly, there are no examples of world-class education systems that have used this approach and achieved greatness. The key here is balance, a topic I’ve explored before. So, using the lens of international benchmarking, seeing what approaches the best performing school systems actually use, can be an incredibly constructive lens in helping us decide which approaches to take. The danger in using this lens in isolation is that you can fail to take into account that each school system has history, culture, and context – and all of these must strongly be taken into account in choosing a strategy that makes sense.
It’s never too late for us to change tracks and choose approaches and efforts that are much more likely to actually work in pursuit of a better education reform agenda. In fact, I’d argue it’s too late not to make this change. No one of these four lenses gets us there completely, but I’m arguing that using all four together gives us a powerful framework from which to make decisions about where we should put our efforts and which approaches to avoid.