Myth of Failed School Reform, Part 2

Practitioner time. If media time (see previous post) often looks like speeded-up frames from 1920s films, then think of practitioner time as slow motion. One example should suffice.

As computers spilled into schools during the 1980s, news media carried stories of an imminent revolution in teaching and learning. Districts bought machines like popcorn, placing them in classrooms and labs.

In schools saturated with computers, some teachers were using machines for lessons a few hours a week. Even after media predictions of an impending revolution in teaching and learning, however, most teachers remained casual or non-users.

By the mid-1990s,  in characteristic hastiness, media had already pronounced the “computer revolution” dead on arrival. That judgment was premature. Over decades, a slow growth in teacher use of computers has registered on the practitioner clock (see: 2008 tech survey) rather than the media’s and policymakers’ faster tick-tock of weeks and months. Lag time between different clocks is also evident when student learning is considered.

Student learning time. Reformers want students to learn more, better, and faster. But this student-learning clock doesn’t tick faster. Because school-based learning cannot be separated from home-based learning (including high-tech devices), the clock is hard to read. Moreover, learning may show up years after formal schooling ended since children learn at different rates. Finally, school-based learning contains both intended and unintended effects. Most students, for example, learn to read, calculate, and write sufficiently to pass tests and leave school with credentials. But students learn much that goes untested: taking turns; handling anger in public situations; dealing with schoolyard bullies; not snitching; the rudiments of sex beyond formal lessons; and scores of other useful social knowledge and skills beyond the classroom curriculum. With all of these caveats about the student time zone, how can this clock be read at all?

Think of two hands on this clock. The big hand marks teacher grades and the annual standardized paper-and-pencil tests taken periodically during the school year. As standardized tests have become primary means of estimating student academic performance over the last four decades, the big hand is noted most often by media and policymaker clock-watchers. When a new program is launched in a flurry of publicity, test scores are inspected swiftly to determine effectiveness.

The second hand on this clock is much slower because of all the complications noted above. With the lag time of learning stretched over a student’s school career and the difficulty of sorting out intended from unintended effects, the second hand creeps across the face of the clock at a snail’s pace and often goes unnoticed.

Reading different clocks may help travelers, but it is unclear how reformers knowing that there are separate ones for media, policymakers, administrators, practitioners, and student learning is practical. I offer two reasons why anyone interested in improving classrooms and schools across the U.S. should consider the metaphor of different clocks to get at the truth, not the myth of failed school reform.

(1.) Paying more attention to slower-paced clocks could shift public debate to substantial matters of classroom teaching and learning. The point of the tsunami of policy talk and attention given to charter schools, pay-for-performance, and new technologies in recent years was to improve what happens between teachers and students. Yet somehow that purpose got lost in the media and policymaker time zones. Because public attention was riveted on those fast-paced clocks, impatience with the slowness of bureaucratic, practitioner, and student-learning time led to premature and inaccurate judgments of reform failure.

(2.) Those seeking school reform need to expect that important changes occur in slow motion.

The media clock, for example, is watched more closely by policymakers who respond to electoral cycles. The media clock not only identifies what policymakers ought to consider but also certifies that what is reported is legitimate and worthy of policy attention. Moreover, because fast-moving media clocks register more failures than successes–after all, a publicly funded flop will attract readers and viewers–reforms that get adapted and prove successful over time as recorded by the bureaucratic, practitioner, and student-learning clocks are less eye-catching, less newsworthy.

As a consequence, concentrating on media time strengthens the belief that most school reforms fail. Policymakers come to assume that belief without fully questioning it. Public and practitioner faith in improving schools flags. Teachers and activist parents ask: What’s the use of trying anything different? Such a belief destroys professional and lay-reformer self-confidence and, worse, is inaccurate.

Slower clocks have become seriously devalued by policymakers. But such slow-motion time counts far more for students and their teachers than the faster-paced, high-profile media time or election-driven policymaker time. Reformers need to heed this fact–“The time-line of reform is longer than the shelf life of reformers.”*–and make it clear to those outside of classrooms and schools.

For these two reasons, those committed to school improvement need to ignore the myth of failed reforms and pay attention to other clocks that record the long journey of school improvement.


*Louise Waters, CEO of Leadership Public Schools, February 1, 2011


Filed under Reforming schools

4 responses to “Myth of Failed School Reform, Part 2

  1. Policy-makers want quick reform, and the easiest path many times seems to involve tossing money toward schools. Technology is a point in fact. We spend thousands (or millions, depending on the size of the school district) on computers, SmartBoards, LCD projectors, and any other new technology we find. It must be a good thing, because it costs a ton of money and it’s the most up-to-date stuff around.
    But does it change instruction? Do kids learn differently? As a consultant with a major accreditation organiztion, I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve lead a team into a school or district where we hear all about the exciting technology they’ve purchased. Then when we go into classrooms, we witness computers being used as practice sheets, SmartBoards acting as whiteboards, and LCD projectors are glorified overhead projectors. Technology was purchased without corresponding professional development helping teachers learn how to change their instructional practices.
    True reform takes place at the basic level with an adult establishing an appropriate relationship with a child and implementing instructional practices that balance traditional teaching with methods that allow students to explore in an enriched, higher-order environment. When we we learn to get out of good teachers’ way and give them the tools to do their jobs?

  2. Bryan Watson

    This 2-part post is very insightful and, as another commented, an excellent analogy. Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

    I have no background in public education — I am one of hundreds of millions of folks who have watched education over several decades. But I am an observer of politicians and pundits in my spare time, and an organizer of business efforts in my paid time.

    My observation is this: those who profess to be change agents and reformers always have a vision of what “success” looks like. That vision is usually unstated, which leads to confusion, resentment and (eventually) “failure”, followed by a new reform based on a different, unstated vision of “success”.

    Your description of the different “clocks” aligns with this confusion. Not only is each clock ticking at a different rate, but everyone is looking at their clock only — and no one can tell us either what time it is now or when we need to be done.

    I believe that reformers would do well to set down their tools — tools which change “how” teachers teach — and concentrate on their goals — goals which define “why” we (as a society) want students to learn. Once that goal is understood, then metrics can be put in place to measure how successful we are in achieving that goal. The tools aren’t nearly as important — nor as homogeneous — as the outcomes the students achieve.

  3. taurinaenamorada

    I think that teachers must be opened to changes because alll ways to do it are accepted nowadays.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s