Thursday, March 25, 2010

Five ways to get Education Reform right

In his book Small is the New Big, Seth Godin offers five reasons why companies make mistakes and then do nothing to remedy them:

1.The people who make the policies don't actually work in the field.

2. The people in the field aren't given the ability to influence management without appearing to be troublemakers.

3. Customers aren't encouraged to speak up, and their suggestions are ignored.

4. It's easier to make a policy than to undo it.

5. Business is complicated and unless you come up with a clever way to measure the impact of a decision, it's often difficult to tell if it's a good idea or not.

Are you a teacher? If you are, I am willing to bet the farm that you were like me and read this while thinking "Holy Shit! He's talking about me!"

Godin goes on to talk about how most decisions that are being made by those in charge are made based on superstition. In education, there are key superstitions driving current day educational reform and they match up with Godin's five rules freakishly well:

  • test scores are a reflection of either good or bad teachers
  • we can test our way to better learning
  • larger rewards (merit pay) or harsher punishments (mass firings) will induce teachers to be better
  • higher standards will save us
  • teachers can't be trusted to advocate for anything but themselves
  • firing teachers will better our education system
No educational reform will ever succeed until those who are in charge are those who are actually working in the field. This would fix reason number one.

No educational reform will ever succeed until those who are in charge actually listen to, trust and empower teachers to work collaboratively with those in charge. As long as teachers are treated with such disdain and are the target of test and blame accountability schemes, there should be no surprise that our best and brightest either quit teaching or don't even consider becoming a teacher. If we could attract and retain good teachers, this would fix reason number two.

No educational reform will ever succeed until we listen to students' input. Astronomical dropout rates are the kids way of voting with their feet. They are telling us something is wrong. Some students choose to leave, but sadly most are simply treated as drop-outs-in-waiting until we can force them out. Then we have the gall to blame them. Want to know what is wrong with our schools? Ask the kids! This would fix reason number three.

No educational reform will ever succeed until we are prepared to radically rethink education. Simply doubling the dose of Test and Punish, high-stakes accountability will do nothing but waste more money while creating more reluctant learners. It's easier to tweak No Child Left Behind than it is to abandon it outright. Some have labelled Obama's No Child Left Behind 2.0 as simply rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic. If those in charge could admit they were wrong, this would fix reason number four.

No educational reform will ever succeed until we realize that standardized test scores should never be used to judge the quality of a school or teacher. Research has shown that 50% to 90% of the variation in student learning is not attributable to school factors but to student, family and community characteristics. Test scores are less of an indictment of good or bad teaching and more of an indictment of things like poverty and opportunity. Education is complicated, and until we figure out that the ways we have conventionally measured learning is inaccurate, unreliable, invalid and far too narrow, current day educational reform will continue to get reason number five wrong.

Education reform is a complicated beast, and I don't profess to have all the answers, but I am pretty convinced that some of what I have above would contribute towards making school a better place to learn.


  1. nice post..
    thank you.

    i love reading what i feel inside.

  2. It does make a difference when a current teacher talks about teaching instead of someone from the outside attempting to make change based on false premises.

  3. You have said what I've been thinking and saying with much more clarity than I have managed. Unfortunately, this post, as clear and articulate as it is, is likely to fall victim to #s 2 and 3 above.

  4. Well done, Joe. The more I read of business blogs, management, etc., the more I find that it's applicable to education. That shocks me because whenever critics of education want us to be more like business, they say it's about getting tough and kicking out the bad teachers, holding people accountable, etc. Meanwhile, I keep finding management and human resources writers who talk about communication, empowerment, independence, trust, team-building, etc. My current favorite is Bob Sutton, if anyone's interested.

  5. Maybe when I retire I'll get around to writing an editorial "If we ran businesses like schools." In such a business, every person coming to the door would have to be given a job. If they couldn't do it, their job would have to be changed to one they could do...

    Good post.

  6. Sadly, everything you wrote here is true. Great post!

  7. You don't have to get Education Reform right.
    Right Education Reform is already here.
    I invite you to see this school.

  8. I entirely agree; the Sudbury School attacks the system entirely. The problem I've found as a non-conformist teacher is that changing my classroom just doesn't work in the system, as my students simply trudge off to class when the bell goes, and when I'm forced to give national assessments.

    A school in Brisbane, Australia (Booroobin), based on the Sudbury Valley model, was sadly closed down by the government due to "not having a curriculum, therefore cannot be classified as being a school". It brought me to tears.

  9. The questions that come up for me are;

    Why is content learning even relevant in the 21st century? We'd be better off teaching them how to use google and wikipedia for 12 years!