From Policy to Practice: Chains or Pasta

Metaphors are shortcuts for understanding complicated concepts: Time is money. The mind is a computer. Each metaphor powerfully illuminates and enriches an idea. Which metaphors come to mind when districts try to put reforms into classroom practice to increase student learning? The common (and inaccurate) metaphor is a chain with many links. A more apt one would be spaghetti.

In the U.S. Army’s command-and-control structures, generals believe that their decisions can steer what infantry platoons do in the field. Yet the metaphor of the “fog of war” and a history of misunderstanding orders at the company and platoon levels during battles suggest that even in command-and-control structures,decisions moving down the chain of authority may turn out far differently than intended. Novels and memoirs from War and Peace to Jarhead, films from The Longest Day to Platoon, and officer and enlisted men reports make that point.

School district organizational charts resemble military organizations with structures showing authority flowing downward from the board of education to teachers. Here also, the belief that policymakers can frame problems, adopt solutions, and steer classroom practice prevails. Yet school districts are hardly command-and-control operations since new policies get interpreted and re-interpreted by different actors at each link of the supposed chain of authority as they proceed downward into classrooms.

Consider former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, He got the state legislature to eliminate the elected school board and give him control of the schools in 2002. He appointed lawyer Joel Klein Chancellor and through that school official commanded the school district. The Mayor said: “there is a direct link from the teacher’s desk in the classroom, right to the mayor’s desk in City Hall.” For political rhetoric, it is a great one-liner but , truth be told, school decision-making in New York City, Fargo, North Dakota, and Los Altos, California doesn’t work that way.

The supposed command-and-control chain of authority from a mayor or a school board to classroom have many links (mayor=superintendent=district office=principals=teachers=students), but influence doesn’t always flow downward from the top. Sometimes it flows from the bottom up. Sometimes, teachers get rid of principals; sometimes principals do the opposite of what district administrators seek; sometimes students don’t do homework. Moreover, other important factors such as incidence of family poverty, race and ethnicity of enrollments, size of district, and history of reform in the city gum up the chain metaphor. Finally, in far too many instances, policymakers’ assumptions about the desired reform are simply mistaken.

And it is in classrooms where teachers make decisions about what the policy is and which parts, if any, get implemented. What was intended by policymakers may well turn out to be something quite different. The metaphor of a linked chain for putting educational policies into practice is inapt. A better image than links in a chain is policy-to-practice pasta. Consider the following two examples.

Mrs. O., a veteran California second grade teacher in the late-1980s had embraced a new math curriculum aimed at replacing students’ rote memorization with mathematical understanding. A researcher observed Mrs. O teach and interviewed her many times. She saw herself as a success story, a teacher who had revolutionized her mathematics teaching. But classroom observations revealed that her practices were really old wine in new bottles. Yes, Mrs. O was now dividing students into groups–an innovation–but the groups memorized rules taken from the new text. In short, Mrs. O’s blended traditional and innovative practices to create lessons that transformed the state policy directive into something quite different from what policymakers had intended.

Interactive whiteboards. Replacing traditional classroom chalkboards, TV monitors, and DVDs, these wall-mounted electronic devices connect a desktop computer and projector to a whiteboard where teachers can click keys to show videos, visit websites immediately, and call upon other sources of information. A stylus permits teachers and students to write on the whiteboard to do math problems, point out aspects of lava flows from erupting volcanoes, and allow teachers to record their lessons as digital video files for students to review at a later time.

Promoters have hailed interactive white boards as a technology that will transform teaching and learning.

A reporter described Spanish teacher Crystal Corn’s high school class in Cumming, Georgia:

“[Corn’s students] … use a stylus at the whiteboard to match pictures and vocabulary words, they use it to visit Web sites that feature news from Spanish-speaking countries, and they even made a music video and played it in class on the whiteboard. This school year, Corn plans to use the interactive whiteboard to hold videoconferences with classes in other countries.”

Sounds terrific. But over the past three years, I have observed nearly 20 classrooms using whiteboards in four different districts. I saw versions of Mrs. O again and again. Consider the half-dozen high school math teachers that I observed using whiteboards daily. Nearly every one began the lesson with a “brain teaser,” reviewed homework problems, had students use the stylus on the whiteboard to show how they solved particularly difficult ones, introduced new material, asked if students had any questions, then assigned new problems for homework. In short, these math teachers in different cities used traditional math lessons with an innovative high-tech device. Yet those teachers spoke rapturously about how whiteboards had enhanced their teaching. Hello, Mrs. O.

So what if the policy-to-practice continuum is best captured by the image of spaghetti than iron-welded links in a chain? The answer is again found in the four questions I have asked many times about whether the policy was fully implemented and whether teaching practices had changed. The catch is, of course, that I do not know if Mrs. O and the whiteboard examples capture typical teaching practices when it comes to implementing curricular and high-tech policy decisions. We won’t know until more systematic classroom observations occur. School policymakers facing their own “fog of war” can only guess how teachers teach daily.

Yet teachers make daily policy decisions in their classrooms. When teachers work collaboratively within schools and districts, when policymakers work closely with teachers to make decisions that touch classrooms, when teachers run their own schools as in Minnesota, links-in-a-chain and pasta metaphors are inappropriate.

More apt may be metaphors of organizational collaboration such as a team white-water rafting or a relay team running hurdles. But those metaphors are seldom used to capture the policy-to-practice road into classrooms. Pity.

 

10 Comments

Filed under leadership, school reform policies

10 responses to “From Policy to Practice: Chains or Pasta

  1. JoeN

    Here’s metaphor I’ve used a number of times speaking at conferences which seems particularly apt. When I started as a teacher over 30 years ago, any end of course exam was a particularly forbidding hurdle you carefully and gradually introduced to the children you taught. Step-by-step, you encouraged them to believe they would soon get over it, and you taught them the knowledge and techniques required, rehearsed them again and again, and then one day…you told them they were ready, pointed them in the right direction and said, “Go!”

    By the time I ended my career in the classroom 20 years later, I was jogging to the hurdle with them, holding their hand. Today, teachers are jumping it for them.

  2. Reblogged this on Cynthia Ambrose and commented:
    Always a Larry Cuban fan, and thought this piece was especially timely!

  3. Seems to me that tweaking the metaphor to “a chain with occasional spaghetti links” is more apt. Herb Simon termed organizational systems like schooling “loosely coupled,” and that provides a technical foundation for the tweaked metaphor.
    Your “Four Questions” are very pertinent. The thing is, on the basis of replicated research, the answer to all four questions is predictably “No.” Policy makers (like all of us, current company excepted) are “resistant to change,” ignore the evidence, and continue in their dysfunctional ways. The chain being what it is, policy makers blame those at the bottom of the chain—teachers, students, and parents. The policy makers escape accountability, and life goes on.

  4. haileynt1023

    Such an interesting metaphor! Chains can’t work for schools, I completely agree. Policy must differ in schools that cater to different people in different places. Even if there could be an overarching policy that would be implemented the same way with the same resources everywhere, the individual student also may not fit this mold. I really enjoyed your post and putting the concept into such a graspable metaphor.

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