The Myth of “Failed” School Reform, Part 3

Practitioner time. If media time (see previous post) often looks like speeded-up Chaplinesque 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 early-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 rather than the media’s and policymakers’ faster tick-tock of  months and a few years. With the ubiquity of tablets and laptops, computer devices are in the hands of first graders and Advanced Placement physics students. With the hyped-up push for “personalized learning” and online instruction,  the media clock is ticking as is the policymaker clock when policies for rebuilding district computer infrastructures for school teacher andstudent access. Devices have become part of the unfolding of daily lessons across the nation’s classrooms. “Failure?”

Lag times 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 fast. It is a very slow-moving, difficult to read, and the numbers are out of order.

Because school-based learning cannot be separated from home-based learning (including high-tech devices), 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-teacher 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, and often over-looked.

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

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “The Myth of “Failed” School Reform, Part 3

  1. David F

    Hi Larry–If I can suggest one more clock, there’s also “Ed Tech Industry” time. Many start-ups have a running clock to push their product into an educational environment to either attract investors or prove to existing investors of their worthiness. For more established businesses, like Apple, the goal is to show profitability–the sooner the better. Furthermore, in areas where there is direct competition, the clock ticks very fast.

    Audrey Watters has a very good rundown on this at http://2016trends.hackeducation.com/business.html

    • larrycuban

      Again, David, thanks for adding a “clock.” It is a fair one and I would like to add it when I revise it in the future.

  2. I agree with David F — that whizbang clock wreaks havoc. F’rinstance, in an adult ed online community, people recently traded stories of getting grant funding — but they had to screen out pre-literate adults because these folks wouldn’t be likely to yield good data fast enough.
    I read about plans to speed up and eliminate college ‘remedial’ courses — because compressing things ‘could work for as many as half of the students.” The other half? Erm…

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