Learning from Successful Schools Doesn’t Always Fly (Jack Schneider)

Jack Schneider is the author of Excellence For All: How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America’s Public Schools.  After completing a fellowship at Carleton College, he will be joining the faculty at Holy Cross.

It is an accepted truism that successful schools offer lessons about “what works” and that those lessons can, in turn, be taken to scale.  It’s a nice, simple idea, and particularly attractive for those put off by the tentative nature of educational research.

And there’s only one problem: it doesn’t work.

The move to identify effective practices and take them to scale is a unique product of the “excellence for all” era—an age in which the traditionally separate concerns of excellence and equity have been fused together.  Prior to that, concerns with “excellence” usually manifested in efforts like tracking, designed to better serve the so-called best and brightest.  “Equity,” on the other hand, was associated with efforts like busing; rather than raising the height of the nation’s educational pyramid, the aim was to level the playing field.

In the mid-1980s, however, these two separate approaches to school reform were bound together as a new corps of politically pragmatic reformers began talking about “excellence for all.”  Equity, they suggested, need not come at the expense of the privileged.  Instead, high flying schools could serve as models for their lower achieving peers.  Identify what makes good schools special, these reformers argued, and reproduce it.

Like reformers of previous eras, those in the “excellence for all” era were drawn disproportionately from backgrounds of educational privilege.  But whereas in earlier eras such lofty educational experiences had been viewed as irrelevant for the work of improving urban public schooling, they became more significant as reformers sought to erase the gap between privileged schools and their urban public counterparts.  As such, reformers increasingly perceived themselves as well-situated to comment on the character of effective schools, relying on personal experience, common sense, and intuition to inform their positions on educational change.

Viewed in this light, the thrust behind efforts like the small schools movement makes perfect sense.  One can almost picture Bill Gates—graduate of a small private school that “made a huge difference” in his life—touring a large urban high school and noting how much bigger it was than his alma mater.  Goaded on by Tom Vander Ark, another private school graduate who frequently cited his own personal experience as an influence, Gates poured $2 billion into small schools efforts, believing that they had found “what works” and could replicate it.

But the small schools movement was not an isolated case of reliance on common sense and personal experience as a means of identifying “what works.”  Consider the popularity of an organization like Teach For America, which won support in government and among major philanthropies by playing up the fact that fixing schools is, in Wendy Kopp’s words, “not rocket science.”  Urban and rural schools, the theory goes, would be better off if their teachers had degrees from places like Harvard—the kinds of diplomas possessed by those teaching at schools like Andover.  It’s a classic overgeneralization error—that a salient factor from one setting would continue to be so in another.  But errant or not, the allure of learning from personal experience and using common sense to draw out lessons is incredibly powerful.  Never mind the fact that most urban high schools look nothing like Andover.

Or take a third example: the effort to expand the Advanced Placement Program.  For the first 40 years of its history, AP was the exclusive domain of tony private schools and wealthy suburban districts.  Consequently, when entrepreneurial reformers began seeking scalable solutions, they saw AP as an obvious example of “what works.”  After all, lots of successful schools used it.  So they began pushing to get AP everywhere, confident it would make a difference.

The results of this approach, not surprisingly, have been less than inspiring.  The small schools movement failed to substantially increase student achievement.  TFA corps members, for all the good work they do, are hardly the kind of life-long expert teachers found at top-flight independent schools, and most studies find them roughly equivalent to other novices.  And the AP Program, having expanded into low-income urban and rural schools, is now being dumped by elite schools and branded as outdated.

Yet despite these mixed results, “excellence for all”-minded reformers are no more skeptical of their work than fish are of the water they swim in.  This generation of “educational entrepreneurs,” after all, came of age believing that successful schools offer particular lessons, and that those lessons can be replicated in entirely new environments.  It is an article of faith.  But like other articles of faith, it sometimes conflicts with reality.



Filed under school reform policies

12 responses to “Learning from Successful Schools Doesn’t Always Fly (Jack Schneider)

  1. Could the root of the problem be scale? Is it possible that K12 education does not scale well? “Doing School” by Denise Pope does a great job describing what it’s like in highly scaled high schools.

    • larrycuban

      Solutions for problems in K-12 often do not “scale up” well because policymakers, by the nature of their position in making decisions for large numbers of people and organizations, have to ignore context. If they took context–big/small schools, rural/suburban/urban, poor/wealthy families, experienced/inexperienced teachers, etc. etc.–into serious consideration they would not be able to scale up.

  2. Sandy

    I would appreciate a source for this comment as I’ve not heard this said anywhere before: “And the AP Program, having expanded into low-income urban and rural schools, is now being dumped by elite schools and branded as outdated.”

    One of the problems with the Effective Schools movement was in everyone’s rush to apply as a writ the traits of Effective Schools without indeed looking at the context. Yet the researchers of the Effective Schools said themselves that the conclusions could not be broadly applied to all schools in all settings. Policy makers listen selectively when they feel pressured to make reforms. This isn’t just true about education.

  3. I’m guessing that unless a best practice targets a very precise issue, its efficacy will translate to another school with difficulty. I cannot say anything further than that schools are very complex organizations. As such, the broader the issue, the more circumstances that deter or encourage the efficacy of a best practice.

  4. Jack & Larry,
    Having been a tutor for the UK equivalent of Teach for America, I can only say from personal experience of mentoring some 27 graduates, in 11 challenging schools, which involved my sitting in on more than 150 lessons across the entire curriculum…they have my support every time. The quality of the work I saw those recent graduates deliver, in extraordinarily difficult classrooms, after five weeks being taught my people like me in a summer school, was remarkable. In every respect noticeably different in quality from the majority of their peers in the same schools, some with years of experience.

    The more I look into this question, the more convinced I am that subject expertise and knowledge, is a hugely neglected factor contributing to success in the secondary school classroom. The Teach First recruits were all extremely well qualified, subject specialists to start with.

  5. Joe,
    I think Larry and I would both agree with you, that subject expertise matters for teachers. Much of the research on this is convincing. Of course, other things matter, too — like how long someone stays in the classroom. In order to convince Harvard math majors to go teach in low-income schools (rather than take jobs in other sectors), Teach For America asks only that they commit two years to the effort. Certainly, many stay for longer than that. But many don’t. Many leave the profession just as they are starting to become truly effective.

    There is a larger issue, of course, and that is with the theory of action behind programs like TFA. According to founder Wendy Kopp, TFA can “ensure that children in the poorest communities in America have the same average achievement rates as more privileged children.” That’s a big sell, and the premise of it is that there are particular “levers” that can be pulled to produce the same results across contexts. The evidence there is much shakier, especially given the fact that the practice being “replicated” isn’t being reproduced in a particularly faithful manner (yes, teachers at top schools often have content expertise; but they also tend to teach for decades rather than just a few years).

    Are alternative routes into the teaching profession a bad thing? I don’t think so. I do think it’s a problem, though, when they are billed as solutions to the nation’s schooling woes.

  6. Jack, understood and appreciated, fully. I have to say, I was highly sceptical when Teach First’s CEO told me he was aiming to retain around 60% of their recruits. Although Teach First modelled itself on Teach for America, they modified things quite a lot and certainly in their first year (when I worked for them) they were as busy creating business and networking opportunities for their recruits, as they were dealing with teaching. Surprisingly, they do retain over 50% and many who don’t stay as teachers, retain a very active connection with education. Some of my ex tutees are doing quite astonishing things. e.g. John Rendel

  7. Hi Jack & Larry,

    Is the problem that excellence for all is a strategy that doesn’t work or that it runs into problems when non-educators try to implement it? You mention TFA and Bill Gates. We can add KIPP and all the charter schools into this, but what of the University led projects, such as by James Comer at Yale, Howard Gardner’s Zero Schools, Slavin’s program, the Accelerated Schools Project that Hank Levin started at Stanford? I worked with Levin while at the School of Ed, studying Child & Adolescent Development with Martin Ford and others. We were implementing a learner-centered model, with understandings about how the brain creates skills (constructivism), intrinsic motivation, flow, etc. I think not enough attention or support was given to these programs. The attention went straight to the charter schools and big projects such as Gates set up, but little attention to the learner-centered innovations that are still out there, but receive very little support or credit, for what they’ve been doing.

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