The old adage of “success has many fathers, failure is an orphan” rings true in the aftermath of a district in the heart of Silicon Valley abandoning a highly-regarded, “personalized learning” innovation called Teach To One (see Part 1).
Finger-pointing and blame dances among various actors in this all-too-familiar story of reform failure. Chances are that blame will finally come to rest on the superintendent and board for keeping the program under wraps and not fully planning with teachers and parents for the roll-out of the personalized math program for all sixth graders in the District’s two middle schools.
Full planning means describing and explaining the program to teachers and parents prior to launching the pilot for hundreds of students, taking small groups of teachers and parents to visit the sites where the innovation was operating, and involving teachers and parents from the very beginning of the program and asking for their suggestions.
But why go to these lengths to insert a highly touted innovation into one part of the school system?
Answer: The history of reform is littered with the debris of once glittering innovations that top district leaders unilaterally decided upon and delivered to schools. Such failures conspicuously lacked teacher and parent involvement.
Ignoring both is a recipe for failure. Why? Because schools are political institutions highly dependent upon these two groups to provide critical support and muscle for any instructional policy aimed at altering how teachers teach and students learn enter classrooms.
A primer on schools as political institution.
Tax-supported public schools were established to reach desired community goals including how to live and act in a democracy. School boards, administrators and teachers are agents hired to achieve those community-inspired goals. Consider that taxing property owners and levying sales taxes on everyone regardless of whether they have children or not to run public schools means that schools matter a great deal to the community. Moreover, compelling parents to send their children to school between the ages of 5-6 to 16-17 underscores how important schools are to the survival and growth of the community. When one looks carefully at those goals public schools have for children and youth, it is easy to see what community values are embedded in each and every goal from being literate to being fair. Schools are the political tools a community (and parents) have to enact its goals.
The fundamental truth is that schooling is a value-driven, political enterprise, one that inevitably creates and harbors conflict. Here is what I mean.
Making policy and putting policies into practice in schools and classrooms are value-driven:
Every goal in each and every district has a value buried in it. Take reducing the achievement gap for example. Raising test scores of minority students is highly valued by parents, administrators, and the general public. No progress in reducing the test score gap is seen as failure in achieving that prized value. In Mountain View Whisman District, top administrators embraced Teach To One as a way to reduce the gap in math test scores.
I cannot think of any formal goal for public schools, principals, and teachers that does NOT have a value in embedded in it.
Because policy-and-practice is value-driven, and values differ, conflict between groups and individuals is inevitable.
There are many values Americans agree on and teach their children such as respect for others, fairness, and loyalty to family and group. And there are many other values taught in families derived from religious beliefs, cultural practices, and traditions that differ from one family to another.
And consider further that when it comes to tax-supported public schools where parents are compelled to send their children, yet even another set of values enter the picture. School goals include cultivating patriotism, following rules, thinking for one’s self, engaging in democratic practices, preparing for the job market, and building character. Some taxpayers and parents, for example, want schools to reinforce parental authority and keep children in line while others want schools to build independence, cooperation, and individual decision-making in their children. And then there are those who want both in the same school. Sometimes school and family values converge and sometimes they diverge. Which is when conflicts arise.
Because of value differences, parents, teachers, and students inevitably disagree on practical items such as dress codes, the Common Core standards, raising school taxes, evaluating teachers on the basis of test scores, charter schools, and dozens of other issues.And in Mountain View Whisman, how best to teach math to sixth graders. Many parents, students, administrators, and teachers–largely uninformed of the District’s decision– disagreed with the way Teach To One de-emphasized teacher-directed, whole group instruction.
Conflicts are common over the values embedded in policies and actual practices. Sometimes these value conflicts rise to the surface in public meetings and sometimes they do not. But they are there, nonetheless, because tax-supported public schools are–yep, I am going to say it again–political institutions. Educators need to accept this inexorable fact. And act on it when introducing innovations into classrooms.