In the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, the Grimm brothers’ version had the children taken into the forest by their step-mother during a famine to rid the starving family of two mouths to feed. Attracted to a sweet-smelling gingerbread cottage, Hansel and Gretel find a hungry evil Witch who puts the two in cages to fatten them up for a meal. But the quick-witted boy and girl get out of the cages and toss the witch into a boiling pot of water, take the gold that she had collected from other travelers and escape. They follow a trail of bread crumbs they had strewn in the forest earlier to find their way home. They discover that their step-mother had died and the family, now wealthy, is re-united and live happily ever after.
OK, Larry, I get the fairy tale but what’s the connection to school reform? The bread crumbs. Yes, it is a stretch but stick with me.
The bread crumbs were markers guiding the lost boy and girl out of the forest. There are large historical markers along the often trod trail of school improvement that the current generation of wannabe reformers, should they be as wise as Hansel and Gretel, might heed and avoid repeating the errors of earlier generations. Except this time instead of minute bread crumbs, let’s talk about large croutons that even myopic reformers could see on the zig-zag path to improving teaching, learning, and student performance in tax-supported public schools.
Crouton markers for changing how teachers teach daily lessons
Time and again, policymakers, civic and business leaders have glommed onto a better way for teachers to teach reading, math, history, science, and foreign language. From phonics to integrated math to new science standards, instructionally-driven reformers have mandated teachers (if not ordered to teach new curricula then strongly urged) to alter traditional ways of teaching these subjects and adopt the innovative (and better) way. In most cases, teachers adapted the innovation to fit the familiar ways they had taught to the students they had in front of them.
The repeated mistake these reformers made was to conceptualize, adopt, and require changes without involving teachers in the decision. Rather than directly involving teachers in the decisions to adopt curricular and instructional innovations (beyond a token representation)—think the New Math, interactive whiteboards, “personalized learning”– they made top-down decisions. In the name of speed and efficiency, they said.
Slower and more efficient over time would have been directly involving teachers in the decision process and increasing their expertise and building capacities to teach in different ways. State and local school decision-makers think (and thought) that public schools are (and were) command-and-control organizations. Adopt policies that tell teachers what to do and they will do it. Didn’t happen. The more top-down decision-making for teacher lessons, the more variation.
Crouton markers for changing school organization
The historic lure of altering how schools are organized in order to improve how teachers teach and what students learn has driven policymakers, administrators, and political leaders to adopt such reforms as the elementary school comprised of eight grades in the mid-19th century to the junior high school and comprehensive high school in the 1920s and 1930s to the middle school in the 1960s and small high schools in the 1990s. Looking across the nation’s 13,000-plus school districts, periodic efforts to reorganize schools from K-5 to K-8 elementary school from grades 7-9 junior high schools to 6th to 8th grade middle schools and four year high schools to six year secondary schools occurred time and again. The idea that reorganizing the grades of the age-graded high school would lead to better teacher and student performance has been a fool’s errand that reformers have pursued over and over (see here and here)
Crouton markers for governing tax-supported public schools
Past and present reformers among educators, civic, and business leaders have argued again and again if only schools were governed differently, teachers would teach well and students would learn more, faster, and better. So there have been continual struggles over whether local school boards–those 13,000-plus districts–should be elected or appointed (or done away with completely). Super-heated rhetoric about improved school board governance (or abolition thereof) leading to leaner, more efficient ways of schooling children and youth has no basis in factual evidence yet persists in 2019 (see here and here).
Getting rid of school boards, mostly in cities, and replacing them with mayoral control has grabbed policymakers’ attention since the 1990s. Big cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Chicago made their public schools another department of the mayor’s cabinet. Since adoption, increased efficiencies in teaching, learning, and improved student performance has continued to dance just beyond reformers’ outstretched hands (see here; one study , however, does show positive effects but a review of the study questions its findings).
For Hansel and Gretel, there was a happy ending to the fairy tale. The children were reunited with their father–the stepmother had departed. But school reform is not a fairy tale. There are real consequences for children, teachers, parents and communities when reformers chase the next new curriculum, instructional innovation, reorganization, and nifty governance scheme. There are large historical markers, not bread crumbs, but croutons, that can guide reformers along a path that is slower but truer should they be wise enough to heed.