For decades, under the influence of efficiency-minded policymakers the “wisdom” of reform has been as follows:
To solve serious school problems federal, state, and district policymakers take “good” ideas, find the right people to implement them faithfully on a small scale (e.g., pilots, “experimental” projects), and then, spread the results across a larger playing field to reach the largest number of students. Or scaling up, in policy-talk. That is how reform should be done.
That policy “wisdom”–so rational on its surface (often called a research and development strategy to jump-start innovation)–has dominated reform for the past half-century. The results, however, have been sometimes disappointing, and occasionally disastrous. Unanticipated issues arose. Faulty implementation occurred. Unexpected consequences popped up. Sufficient resources went unallocated. Educators lacked capacity. The list of reasons documenting the failure of scaling up innovations from pilots to entire districts or states gets longer as reforms entered the public school arena decade after decade.
How about some examples?
*NCLB and over-testing married to federally-imposed coercive accountability;
*Decentralizing authority to school sites where councils of teachers, parents, and principals make major decisions;
*Mandating that districts and school use new technologies in classrooms to improve instruction.
I could easily cite instances between the 1950s through the 1970s (e.g., math and science “new” curricula, performance contracting, the self-esteem movement, outcome-based schooling) but won’t elaborate. These failures to alter districts, schools, and classrooms in substantial ways have been well documented. This conventional R & D wisdom of starting small and then scaling up reforms to larger populations–has anyone tried to scale up Socrates’ success with students?– all to install supposed efficiencies and apparent successes continue as the dominant way of thinking about school reform in the face of disappointing evidence and outright failure.
There is, however, another way of looking at innovations and school reform historically. This way-of-seeing, anchored in the complexity of classrooms, schools, and districts, builds in high degrees of interaction between and among staff, parents, and community to cope with inexorable political changes that occur inside and outside the district and school. Such a way of conceptualizing reform recognizes that people who work in these complex, interactive community institutions don’t scale up reforms easily or quickly because contexts differ, resources dry up, determined people work hard and create success and, over time, get fatigued and leave. Even the very best results cannot be sustained without further changes in what worked initially. Thus, even the best-planned solutions, flawlessly implemented by educators with requisite expertise, solid political support, and sufficient resources at work in one or a few schools–may only last a short time (anywhere from five to ten years or longer) and eventually wither away. Occasionally, exceptions do occur and can last many years. Examples range from Individually Guided Education (for exception, see here), Coalition of Essential Schools (for exception, see here), Paedeia (for exception, see here)
I call these “happy but short-lived” reforms. Why?
Such efforts come in with a splash, do well for limited numbers of students and teachers for a few years and then, in time, for various reasons, falter and expire. The short time they were in full bloom were “happy” for those touched by the innovation; such reforms excited great hopes that they could be scaled up to benefit more students and teachers. But scaling up was then (and now) seen as a technical task that capable managers could easily replicate to do good elsewhere. Reproducing a complex innovation anchored in thousands of human interactions in a sea of uncertainty is neither technical or easily reproduced in a highly political and uncertain environment. Such in-vitro-fertilization is beyond the ken of current educational policymakers and scientists. So these “happy” reforms expired. They were “short-lived” but left a residue of hope that similar smart people coming together and working hard could again create a program, a culture of learning, that would help students and teachers. Thus, “happy but short-lived” innovations and reform are worthy and should be encouraged without high hopes of being scaled up. So this is another way of viewing the history of school reform.
And there is even a third perspective beyond traditional R &D and “happy but short-lived” innovations. There are scattered districts, charter management organizations, and schools that have learned how to retain focus on what they do daily while problem solving again and again to sustain a culture of improvement, stable leadership, and adherence to the founding principles. All of this done while adapting, sometimes smoothly, sometimes jerkily to the political, economic, and social changes that inevitably appear. Such districts, CMOs, and individual schools change over time as theystick to their founding principles. Hence, occasional “happy but short-lived” reforms slowly but determinedly morph into satisfying, long-term changes that benefit students, teachers, and communities.
For district examples, look at Union City, New Jersey as captured in David Kirp’s Improbable Scholars. Or Long Beach, California, (see here and here). For charter management organizations, look at Aspire (1999) with 35 schools in California and three in Tennessee and KIPP (1994) with 183 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. For individual schools, see the above exceptions I noted to “happy but short-lived” reforms and other long-term examples such as H-B Woodlawn School in Arlington, Virginia (1972) and the Urban Academy in New York City (1986).
Here, then, are three very different ways at examining school reforms over time in a highly complex, political, and uncertain environment that depends upon much social and individual interaction for success, however measured. Scaling up remains the dominant policy goal for innovations. “Happy but short-lived” is what commonly happens when scaling up doesn’t occur or is botched; there is, however, no shame in a reform lasting a short time. A third way of seeing school reform over time is constant problem solving, sticking to founding principles, and stable leadership. Although practiced by a tiny minority of schools and districts, it is an alternative, very difficult to sustain, to the patterns captured in the other two ways of trying to change schools.