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Theories Must Be Put to the Test

Note: This week, Joshua Starr, chief executive officer of PDK International and veteran superintendent, will be guest-blogging. 

Back in the early 2000s, I worked for Joel Klein in New York City schools for two years, one of which was as director of School Performance and Accountability in the Chancellor's Office. It was a heady time, the early days of the Children First era, marked by a dramatic overhaul of the school system and its governance, the introduction of a new reading curriculum, rapid expansion of school choice and many other reforms. Both in the office and on the basketball court after work, I was drawn into constant, intense, and freewheeling debates about whether it was realistic and/or advisable to try reorganizing our vast school system around the market-based theories of accountability that pervaded Tweed Courthouse.

I left to become the school superintendent in Stamford, CT, and I was glad to get out of NYC when I did, shortly before the launch of a new accountability system that I didn't feel was aligned with the research around school improvement. But whatever my reservations about Children First, I came away from the experience knowing that it is in fact possible, if guided by a clear theory of action, to overhaul even the most rigid and complex of school systems. When sufficient numbers of likeminded people come together around a well-articulated agenda, they can make meaningful change happen in public education.

It's important to keep that in mind, now that so much of the authority to make educational policy decisions is moving from the federal government to the states and districts. Now is the time for local leaders to create and gather support for new theories of action, test them out, analyze the data, and revise them to see if they can lead to improved outcomes for children.

I suggest that a new theory of action should be something like this:

If the school system . . .

1) collects and shares a wealth of performance data among schools and community-based organizations, both public and private,
2) ensures support and accountability for excellence in teaching practice,
3) confronts institutional racism and the root causes of other deep-seated inequities, and
4) fully engages parents and the community in the life of the schools,

. . . then many more children will receive the services and instruction they need to succeed in school and graduate college and career ready.

Here's why I'd put these four priorities at the top of my agenda for district change:

1) The collection of student and teacher performance data has become an extraordinarily divisive issue in public education. On one hand, many educators decry high-stakes standardized testing as an affront to their professionalism, and many parents object to the kind and amount of tests that their kids have been required to take. On the other hand, many school leaders and policy advocates swear by the power of good data—including data from achievement tests—to inform and improve instruction. I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in the middle: an obsession with data can lead policymakers to ignore the human element in education, but a judicious use of data is absolutely critical to school improvement, making it possible for system leaders to identify needs and respond to problems.

2) Excellence in practice is a non-negotiable priority—no matter how effective the social service programs or how flexible the options for school choice, our most vulnerable students will not succeed unless they are taught by great educators. But if school leaders are serious about building an excellent teaching force, then they will have to get real about the kinds of support that teachers require and the kinds of accountability that will help them improve. I often remark that we don't have a student learning problem in this country so much as we have a shortage of adult learning in schools. Compared to their counterparts around the world, our teachers spend high percentages of their time providing instruction, and they spend very little time analyzing their practice and learning from each other. The preparation of new teachers surely needs to be improved, too, but concerns about pre-service teacher education shouldn't distract us from the more pressing problem of in-service teacher development. We face an urgent need to boost the knowledge and skills of the 3.5 million teachers already working in our schools. Moreover, after more than 15 years of high stakes testing, we ought to admit that teachers cannot be shamed or punished into improving. Accountability must be reciprocal, putting school leaders on the hook to provide teachers with meaningful opportunities to learn (through, for example, participation in Professional Learning Communities, comprehensive mentoring, opportunities for leadership, and so on).

3) Institutional racism is alive and well in our schools, and, thankfully, more and more leaders are becoming wiling to say so publicly. But how should they approach this thorny issue? Perhaps the best option is simply to assess their own institutions, taking an honest look at the ways in which race factors into their employee demographics and turnover rates, student course assignments, suspension records, achievement patterns, indicators of school climate, and curriculum planning. And once they have identified specific practices that put students of color at a disadvantage, they also need to identify specific remedies. For example, that might include purchasing culturally relevant classroom materials, expanding access to AP and honors classes, shifting from traditional disciplinary practices to a focus on restorative justice, revising the district budget to account for differing levels of student need, and taking concrete steps to engage and support teachers of color (who tend to have a higher turnover rate than white teachers).

4) Community engagement is often treated as ancillary to the work that goes on inside the school, where most teaching and learning happens. But the fact is that schools belong to their communities, communities always outlive superintendents, and superintendents cannot create lasting changes without the community's support. To cultivate the necessary relationships, though, educational leaders must reach out to more than just the usual suspects (such as PTAs, school improvement teams, and parent volunteers). Particularly in districts that are racially and/or socioeconomically diverse, leaders must also reach out to families who seem disconnected from the system, or who have trouble navigating its complexities. Without their buy-in, it may be possible to achieve some small structural improvements in school practices and policies. But in order to accomplish real, durable, system-wide changes, superintendents have no choice but to connect with all parts of the community, including those who have not been engaged in the past.

Theories of action are just that—ideas about how organizations should be transformed. The theories of the last sixteen years have borne occasional fruit, offering some powerful examples of ways in which test scores and other data can be used to improve instruction or innovate at the school level. However, now that the Every Student Succeeds Act has taken hold, it is time for local education leaders to develop and act upon new and very different theories than the ones that prevailed during the years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

I believe that school system leaders can bring about major improvements in teaching and learning if they focus on using data effectively, ensuring that educators have meaningful opportunities for professional development, identifying and responding to inequities, and building strong relationships across the community. But in the end, it's not the specifics of our theories of action that matter so much as our willingness to put those theories to the test, digging into our performance data and taking an honest look at the results. Our students deserve no less.

—Joshua Starr

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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