Lack of Community and Teacher Involvement Leads to Abandoned Math Innovation (Part 2)

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.



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6 responses to “Lack of Community and Teacher Involvement Leads to Abandoned Math Innovation (Part 2)

  1. Well, yeah. Public schools are “political institutions” (So are families, corporations, and any other human collective.) And, yeah again. All human endeavors are imbued with “values.” But the abandonment of Teach to One was not due to “lack of community and teacher involvement.” It was because the instructional products/protocols that constitute Teach to One just didn’t work. The instruction wouldn’t have worked any better had the “top administrators” increased the community and teacher involvement to the nth power.

    It’s ironic that parents were the first to call attention to the “bugs,” but the :top administrators should get some points for pulling the plug on the expensive program early. (The fact that the replacement program is also “bug” infested is a whole nother story.)

    It’s even more ironic that the purveyors of the program get off scot-free. Only in EdLand would this happen.

    The circumstances in Mountain View Whisman with Teach to One are replicated throughout EdLand. See: “The Failure of the U.S. Education Research Establishment to Identify Effective Practices: Beware Effective Practices Policies”

    Attributing fault to administrators and teachers at the lowest level of the
    Ed-chain hasn’t been productive in the past and shows no sign of being productive in the future.

  2. Tom Burkard

    In England, we have a peculiar situation where schools enjoy quite a large measure of de jure freedoms, yet are severely constrained by local authorities and (primarily) central government. To give an example of how this works, all schools must have ‘child protection’ policies in place in order to specifiy how teachers should flag up any suspicions that children are being abused at home, and how the school should deal with it. Although they have to write their own policies, in practice they must conform to fairly rigid guidelines, so in effect this ‘freedom’ has been whittled away to nothing.

    However, top-down control is limited by the sheer ineptitude of the state, and we often end up with phenomena which brings to mind the old saying in the Soviet Union, “We pretend to work, and the state pretends to pay us”. Assessment for Learning was introduced with great fanfare (at least by professional educators–statutory consultations routinely ignore comments from parents and teachers who actually teach) in 1998. In 2013, Robert Coe, the Chair of the prestigious Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University, commented

    “It is now a rare thing, in my experience, to meet any teacher in any school in England who would not claim to be doing Assessment for Learning. And yet, the evidence presented above suggests that during the fifteen years of this intensive intervention to promote AfL, despite its near universal adoption and strong research evidence of substantial impact on attainment, there has been no (or at best limited) effect on learning outcomes nationally.”

    Of course, AfL has never really been implemented in our schools: personalised learning, no matter how it is packaged, is enormously wasteful of teachers’ time and energy. Of the ‘evidence’ Coe cites, only one involved any quantative measures, and even this study was poorly controlled. Although Coe is a good scholar and has exploded the myth that England’s schools have improved after 30 years of intensive (and expensive) top-down reforms, for some reason he ignored the Hawthorne Effect that inevitiably accompanies pilots of new initiatives dreamed up by professional educators.

    • larrycuban

      I found your comment informative and thank you for taking the time to write about the incomplete, top-down implementation of AfL. It is a familiar story in the U.S.

      • Tom Burkard

        On Monday, Parliament Street will be publishing our paper which presents our alternative to top-down reforms–I’ll post the link on this thread as soon as it’s up.

      • larrycuban

        Thank you, Tom. I look forward to reading it.

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