A lot of the work in education appears to be focused on small things that make little difference instead of big things that make a lot of difference. All of the fights are over the small stuff that doesn't much matter. These are distractions that keep us from taking the battle to the big stuff that really does matter.
Example 1: Seattle Public Schools is on the cusp of adopting a policy on waivers for instructional materials. The proposed policy includes a lot of safeguards that the district staff wrote in to make sure that the alternative materials work well and that the students make acceptable progress. The driving concern here is that we absolutely do not want 400 students using materials that don't work well.
That certainly makes sense, but you may be astonished to learn that our basic materials adoption policy has no such safeguards. So we have this elaborate feedback loop to make sure that 400 students don't use unhelpful materials, but we have no feedback loop to make sure that 20,000 students aren't using ineffective materials. That's messed up. The District demands proof of the effectiveness of Singapore math for 400 students. They will cancel the waiver if the results are not strong. But the District never measures the effectiveness of Everyday Math for 20,000 students and there is no chance, regardless of the outcomes, that its use will be reconsidered at any point in the (supposed) seven-year textbook adoption cycle. District administrators are not accountable.
Example 2: The State is seriously considering a charter school bill. This bill would allow charter schools. There is only one difference between the education students get in charter schools and the education they get in public schools - the charter schools don't have to conform to district rules. Let's just take a moment and consider what this bill - and our legislature - is saying about school district administration in Washington. They are saying that it impedes the education of our children. Grim. So if the district-level administration is holding kids back from achieving shouldn't we free ALL students from that regulation instead of just a few? The bill's supporters also claim that the charter schools will be subject to greater scrutiny and held to performance standards or they will be closed. If this is so wonderful then why don't we subject all public schools to that level of scrutiny and close them if they don't meet performance standards? If it is so wonderful, then why not do it for all schools instead of just ten a year?
Example 3: A lot of folks in the education reform business are totally focused on "teacher quality" and they are beside themselves with rage over the prospect that 25 children somewhere might have one of the few bad teachers. Supposedly everyone in the school knows who these bad teachers are. Which, I suppose, means that the principal knows who these bad teachers are. Doesn't it indicate that the principal is a bad principal if he or she allows a bad teacher to continue working in his or her school? Shouldn't we be at least as concerned about the impact of the bad principal on 400 students as we are about the bad teacher on 25 students? Yet I never hear any education reformers lay any responsibility for the continued presence of bad teachers on the principals, the people who have a duty to fire them. Instead, they focus their efforts on getting the state legislature to fire them. Managers are not accountable.
The education reform folks aren't just shaking with rage at the bad teachers, they are pretty upset over the concern that a lot of other teachers, while not actually bad, are just mediocre. I suppose it makes some incremental difference in students' lives if they have a great teacher or a good teacher or a mediocre teacher, but the impact of gradients in teacher quality - assuming that can even be measured - is tiny in comparison to the impact of the opportunity gap. Seriously, it's microscopic in comparison. Yet the focus on education reform is on this incremental difference that generally means incremental differences in student outcomes instead of this huge qualitative difference that generally means huge qualitative differences in student outcomes. They are focused on whether the student goes to UW or Western instead of whether the student goes to college or prison. The system is not accountable.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't evaluate the effectiveness of alternative materials, of course we should. But shouldn't we also evaluate the effectiveness of the board-adopted materials. I'm not saying that we shouldn't allow schools freedom from counter-productive district mandates or subject them to scrutiny, but if it is good for some schools why isn't it good for all schools? And of course we should have meaningful evaluations of teachers, but shouldn't we also have analogous evaluations of principals and district administrators all the way up to the superintendent? And if the state legislature is establishing a system of education for our children and that system isn't working for large number of them, then shouldn't there be some means of changing the system?
Instead of making the real changes in the system that will result in real changes in outcomes for our children, we focus instead on blaming or praising the front line workers who have almost no control over any element of their work or their results. Teachers at Eckstein are good and should get merit pay because the students in their classes pass the state tests. Teachers at Aki Kurose are bad and should be fired because the students in their classes fail the state tests. Except that the factors that cause these students to either pass or fail the test have almost nothing to do with the teachers.
Dan Dempsey writes frequently about W. Edwards Deming and his work. I don't know how many of you have actually read Demings; I have. It applies directly. Here's a central theme: while conventional management blames the worker for defects, Demings says that the system is the source of defects. If you do nothing else, take the time to learn about Demings' Red Bead Experiment. Read any Demings at all and you will very quickly realize the complete absurdity of the "teacher quality" effort as it is being conducted.
So what are the solutions? How does the system need to change? Some of the rhetoric can stay the same, but the actions and decisions need to match. We should set and maintain high expectations for all students. But we need to give students the support they need to meet those expectations. Different students need different amounts of support. Equity isn't equality. Some students will have to be in classes of 15, and some other students will have to be in classes of 35. Can you handle that? If not, then the system is more precious than the students.
The system is predicated on the industrial model of twenty-five to thirty students sitting in a classroom all getting the same instruction at the same time in the same way. That industrial model doesn't work. It worked tolerably well forty years ago because we had less diverse classrooms, failure didn't have tragic consequences, and we had some amazingly talented women stuck in the pink collar ghetto. Today we have students in the classroom who weren't there forty years ago - minority students, immigrants, disabled students, and students from low-income homes, so the classroom is more diverse. The one-size lesson might have suited the largely homogeneous class of 1970, but no more. The manufacturing jobs that were available without a high school diploma - let alone a college degree - in 1970 aren't around anymore, so the stakes are higher. And school districts need to compete for talent in an open market. Many of the women who were great teachers forty years ago would follow better-paying careers today.
Accountability needs to start at the top. The leadership needs to take responsibility for the design of the system and the impact of the system on the outcomes. There needs to be a re-definition of quality from "Did the student pass the test?" to "Did the student get the support needed to make appropriate progress?". We need to ask the teachers what impedes their ability to deliver support for each student or if it is even possible for them to adequately support some students. We need to break away from the industrial model for education. Everybody knows that. Everybody agrees. But where is the leadership at the state and district level to shift to a post-industrial model? I don't see it. I'll I see is people blaming the students and the teachers for the failure created by the system. I don't see anyone putting the responsibility for the failure where it belongs: on the people at the top who perpetuate and enforce a failed system.
It can start small. It can start with a district design for early and effective interventions. Let's see that. Let's make that the primary objective for the new superintendent. Is there a higher priority?