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Reforming 100,000 Schools, One at a Time

I was at a meeting in London recently, and got into a friendly argument with a colleague about strategies for scaling up proven programs. I was arguing that teachers should have an opportunity to collectively learn about a variety of proven programs appropriate to their school and then vote to adopt one or more of them, or none at all. This way, I argued, teachers would feel committed to whatever they had chosen and implement it with spirit and care.

My colleague was appalled. She thought my way was too slow and would abandon kids who happened to be in schools that voted "No" to terrible fates. She gave as a positive example England's National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies, implemented by Tony Blair's government starting in the late 1990s. The NLS/NNS was imposed across every one of England's 25,000 schools. Scores on a new set of tests went up for a few years, but then flattened out, as happens in every U.S. state that adopts a new test.

My colleague's impatience was understandable. How long must struggling schools and children wait? But the consequence of impatience is all too often the boom-and-bust pendulum cycle of education reform. This is what happened to the NLS/NNS; teachers hated it, because of its meddlesome intrusion into professionalism. And the new conservative government is abandoning it.

I think a more gradual approach might be more likely to stick. If Title I schools had encouragement and funding to adopt proven programs, I think most of them would do so, and then the choice would have been their own professional judgment, not something imposed from above. Further, a more gradual expansion of proven programs would enable schools to find out what really works, and what it takes to make proven programs work at scale. It would allow providers of proven programs to scale up their operations in a planful, progressive way, and for research and development to identify new strategies and improve existing ones. As schools that originally voted "No" see schools around them happily and successfully using proven programs, they are likely to rethink their decisions.

Beyond the certainty of even further alienating teachers, who have already had it just about up to here, sweeping, mandatory prescriptions can't demand anything very complex, both because such approaches would take a lot of PD all at once and because the teachers wouldn't stand for it. So sweeping reforms sweep in and then get swept out, while kids get no benefits and the system gets no smarter.

I do share my English colleague's impatience. In the U.S. there are 100,000 schools and 40 million kids. Can we really reform it all one school at a time?

I think we can. In five to ten years, for example, I'm certain that proven programs could be introduced in every one of the roughly 20,000 Title I schoolwide elementary schools. Getting these schools right would make a huge difference in reducing achievement gaps and getting disadvantaged kids off to a great start.

As the old riddle goes, "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." One bite at a time may not be fast, but no one wants that elephant stuffed down his throat.

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