Getting behind the brand names of school reform is hard work. Few of us try. KIPP, Green Dot, Teach for America, and One Laptop Per Child are all reform brands. Some are untarnished, well known and admired. Others, well, have become shabby. Of course, buying brand-names is what consumers do daily as a mental short-cut, a way of short-circuiting homework on less well known products. The thinking is: Brand-name product=quality
Reform brand-names, however, go in and out of style swiftly–how many remember the “open classroom” or “Malcolm Baldrige Awards for Excellence in Performance?” There is even a more serious problem with reform labels like “small high schools,” “charter schools,” and “pay-4-performance.” The reform label often masks what the designers assumed when they came up with the idea. Few policymakers, parents, practitioners, for example, ever ask: What are the assumptions behind this reform?
In asking that question, others quickly come to mind: what are the problems this reform is expected to solve? What are the reform’s goals? What are strategies are invoked to accomplish the reform? What are the expected outcomes?
Answers to these questions will determine if the policy is coherent, logically consistent, and has a chance of being put into practice in actual classrooms. In other words, these questions ask the champions of the policy to state clearly their assumptions about what goes on in schools and classrooms. I, for one, like my policymakers to be clothed in logic, evidence, and internally-consistent arguments that principals and teachers can implement when decision-makers say a particular reform is a “must have” for all children. In short, parsing the logic of the reform, its goals, assumptions, strategies, and outcomes, is essential to figuring out what to look for in classrooms to see if reform is working and whether it is practical for teachers and students.
I have used graphic designs of reforms and their policy logic as teaching tools for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, and graduate students. Variously named as “theories of action” or “policy logic,” I use these diagrams to plumb the innards of a policy to determine its logic and usefulness in the real world of schools. The diagrams I have crafted answer the above questions and reveal publicly the thinking that went into the design of the reform.
As one example, I offer the logic of reform-driven policies aimed at buying and deploying computers in school. Readers of this post need to click onto “causal theory of computers [v6)”
While details will clearly differ from one district to another, the “theory of action” behind getting electronic devices into classroom use should apply to the policy logic that dominates most districts. I will devote the rest of this entry to the goals and assumptions, the strategies used, and the outcomes sought from computers in schools.
Begin at the top of the “causal theory of computers” diagram where I list three goals. After reading most of the literature published by districts on why they have bought desktops, laptops, and an arsenal of business-designed applications and educational software, these three emerge as most important. Note how they are wired to underlying assumptions that policymakers make in pursuing these goals: increased access to machines leads to increased use which, in turn, leads to desired outcomes. Outcomes are listed at the bottom of the diagram. Note, again, how these outcomes mirror the goals at the top of the diagram. Then there are the assumptions driving the dominant teacher-based strategies: Supplying sufficient professional development and technical support will lead to increased classroom use. All of these assumptions about access=use=outcomes and what strategies to use drive current policies of buying and deploying school electronic hardware and software.
Some readers, however, may not like the simplicity (or simple-mindedness?) of how I analyzed the logic of the reform. It isa stark version of technological determinism. It fails to capture the complexity of policymaking. They may point out that while most policymakers talk at length about the importance of students using computers in classrooms and future success in the labor market, very few speak openly about their assumptions about teaching, learning, and what the work world will be like a decade from now.
So why do I make a big deal out of policymaker silence about their assumptions? Because these deterministic assumptions drive the adoption and implementation of the reform. These assumptions reveal the thinking that spells the difference between what might or might not happen in schools and classrooms.
And that is my point. Getting underneath brand-name reforms is hard work. I want my leaders to make explicit their assumptions about any reform they are branding as high quality, one that they say will improve schools, teaching, learning, and the lives of students now and in decades to come.