Why Don’t Schools Embrace Good Ideas?

By 04/23/2013

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If you asked me that question fifteen years ago, I would have given a pat answer: incentives, or the lack thereof. In our bureaucratic education system, described most accurately as a public monopoly, nobody faced strong incentives to look for ways to build a better mousetrap. And if that mousetrap was threatening to anyone (as mousetraps tend to be), forget about it; the status quo ruled.

Change the incentives and watch schools embrace change, I would have argued. Hold superintendents, principals, and teachers to account for raising test scores. Subject them to real competition. Then voila: They would spend night and day looking for promising innovations to improve achievement and better serve families.

Well, we know how that’s turned out. We’ve put a lot of those incentives in place, and schools (and educators) still don’t seem to embrace good ideas, even the non-controversial, inexpensive kind. Take, for instance, the following:

*Bring “departmentalization” to elementary schools by asking strong math teachers to teach math and strong reading teachers to teach reading. Don’t ask anybody to do both.

*Maintain a robust science and social studies program in elementary schools. E.D. Hirsch and others have demonstrated for decades that the best way to raise reading scores is to make sure students build a strong vocabulary and a strong knowledge base; elsewise, they won’t comprehend what they’re reading. Yet schools nationwide have pushed aside science and social studies to make room for mega-ELA blocks.

*Extend the “reach” of excellent teachers via larger class sizes (with greater pay), new roles for master teachers, or technology. (Public Impact is chock-full of revenue-neutral ideas on this front.)

To be fair, there has been some good news lately, most notably Tom Loveless’s recent finding that ability grouping, after being shunned in the 1980s and 90s, is back in vogue. Since this is a commonsense way to “differentiate instruction” and help all students get the classroom challenges that they need and that will do them the most good, I would count it as a win. (Loveless speculates that NCLB-style accountability might have prodded schools to use this approach, since it works. Incentives!)

Still, on the whole, the picture isn’t pretty. What gives? Surely some economists would argue that the incentives we’ve put in place to date aren’t strong enough. Even now, few educators lose their jobs if test scores don’t rise. Principals and teachers don’t generally stand to make much more money if they achieve breakthrough results (or attract gobs more customers). And competition, at least in most cities, is still quite limited.

All true. But there could be something simpler at work: Perhaps many educators have never even encountered these ideas. Principals and teachers are so busy with the day-to-day struggle of their jobs—and now with new demands brought on by Common Core, new evaluation systems, and more—that they just keep their heads down and try to survive. They don’t have the time—or take the time—to read journals or blogs, to look for new innovations, to talk to colleagues, or to wonder about better ways of doing things. In this view, we have an “innovation-dissemination” (or “research-to-practice”) challenge.

I’ll admit, that sounds like a bit of a cop-out, especially for principals. The leader of any organization knows that part of his or her job is to look for better ways to do things and to stay current on trends in the field. We should expect no less from our school leaders, and those without an innate curiosity and drive for continuous improvement should be screened out of the profession.

But these principals do face an avalanche of information and advocacy from the government, from think tanks, and especially from vendors. Sifting through it all and turning the best bits and pieces into a coherent approach is no easy task. (And this has been a problem forever.)

Could we make that task more manageable? Could we help principals and superintendents to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of the ideas that come across their desks on a given day? Stay tuned for my thoughts on that. In the meantime, I’d love to hear yours.

-Mike Petrilli

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Comment on this article
  • Mimi Stratton says:

    They do embrace good ideas, every day. The question is, why do you use headlines that state a false premise?

  • Clay Forsberg says:

    Excellent piece Michael … as usual. Schools are really no different from any other organization. “Good ideas alter the balance of power in relationships. That’s why good ideas are almost always resisted.” This has happened throughout history in almost every precursor to societal change.

    None of the existing powers to be want to be told their ideas and “ways of doing business” are inadequate … no matter the proof. There are many fixes (some of which you described above) to our education dilemma – and most involve little increase in monetary expenditures.

    As I indicated in my blog post: “Why do want our kids to fail?” http://bit.ly/OYlM2e – actions as simple as physical activity first thing in the morning, or providing a healthy breakfast or increasing class period length to two hours (to take advantage of learning momentum), all cost little but would have dramatic effect on learning.

    The current state of education reminds that of the current business philosophy of American Airlines. Their post bankruptcy goals are to do a better job at doing what they’ve always done. Wholesale change is not in the discussion. Metaphorically speaking, it’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

    With the standardized testing crazy in vogue presently, I have little hope for positive change. We as parents must come to realize that the future of our children should not be handed over to the schools, but rather directed us, and the community as a whole as the primary source of intellectual development.

  • Woodworth says:

    Another issue faced by principals is a lack of training when it comes to reading research. I earned my master’s degree in educational leadership from the program considered to be the most rigorous in my state. It wasn’t until I began work on my PhD that I realized how little I know about separating good research from bad. All those venders you referred to come in packing armloads of “research”. We need to train our principals how to sift through the research mud to find the gold nuggets in the mix.

  • Claire says:

    I wonder when parents will be held as accountable for their own child’s education as schools are. Most teachers and administrators I know seek out and welcome new ideas. Are parents and families being held to the same standard?

  • Grant Wiggins says:

    You miss 3 key unexamined premises:

    1. the principal often has no power contractually.
    2. too many are not strong instructional leaders, merely managers (and evaluated as such)
    3. few teachers are eager to stand out as teacher-leaders, given the culture of schools – i.e. there are few incentives for individual innovation.

  • Suzanne says:

    Principals embrace good ideas daily, but schools are not like other organizations in critical aspects. Principals are expected to keep parents happy, and many parents feel most comfortable with schools that act in traditional ways. Principals answer to Superintendent who are hired and fired by elected school boards whose members may have strong views. That said, the key is getting passionate and well-educated people into a profession that is rewarding beyond measure (if one can bear with the constant criticism).

  • Jeff Murray says:

    Having sat in the dream school for my kids last night for an open house (praying we would get in by lottery), I was struck immediately by the belligerent nature of the questions coming from many other parents.

    While I was overjoyed by descriptions of “mastery model” teaching, independent study projects, real-world skills, multi-disciplinary assignments, math sequences coordinated with the freshman curriculum at the affiliated college, and the integration of art and literature with science and social studies….other parents were dismayed over the lack of outdoor recess, the open plan building, the lack of a lunch program (OK, that was weird to me too but not enough to overshadow the all-out awesomeness on display), and the lack of daily foreign language classes for sixth graders.

    Not sure how any school that has to take all comers would ever deal with parent expectations that widely spaced. And that’s just the parents who actually care!

  • Rick Martinez says:

    Thanks, Michael, for making some strong and valid points insofar as Good Ideas. You’re absolutely correct. There’s a plethora of good ideas that should be implemented in schools and classrooms by both teachers and principals. And I believe there’s reason–not excuse–why they are not.

    Among teachers and principals today, there’s a resistance–a “we” versus “them” mentality. It’s much like what healthcare faced a few years back, when doctors, nurses and administrators were the “them” (the professionals), and all others were the “we” (the para-professionals and the ancillary personnel). The “them” would bark out orders, demands and mandates for more work–not better, more enhanced or enriched performance or contribution, just more work. In this scenario, the environment was always unhappy, hostile, unproductive, lacking in professionalism, and unfulfilling…personally and professionally. People would go to work shook-up, and go home shook-up…and neither patients or the healthcare facility were served well.

    Ironically, I say the one giant thing education is not teaching is the basics of “caring” for its teachers or its principals. We
    must forget–for the moment–cramming our teachers and principals with “how to better teach math, science, reading and writing,” and instead opt for an on-site “personal and professional FULFILLMENT program” that focuses on the “person” of our teachers and principals. It’s sort of like what Michelangelo did when he began to sculpt: “I saw the angel in the marble and I just chiseled until I set it free.

    When people feel good personally, they perform better professionally. They believe themselves to be professionals.
    They believe in what they teach, and in those they teach.
    They are more willing to become lifelong learners themselves.
    They like who they are and what they do. Ultimately, they join the age-old maxim: “When we want something done, ask a BUSY person to do it!”

  • Arthur says:

    Most schools, depending on the area, don’t reach on good ideas upon mutual ground. Some schools are just in a financial spiral from test scores being low to not forming the right ideas to help children better themselves. A good idea would be to place grants programs for the schools to help students with more supplies to learn and a after, during and inschool programs to further physical and educational knowledge.

  • Erin says:

    The best example of the ‘incentives’ model was the American Indian Public Charter High School in Oakland started and run by Ben Chavis. Fabulous results. Top 5 high school in California. It did do exactly everything that you would have predicted that charter schools would do.

    But now, the charter is being withdrawn and the school most likely closed because the Oakland School Board (not the principals) decided that Ben Chavis was not following their accounting rules (he hired his wife to do the accounting and leased to the school several buildings that he owned). There were no allegations of fraud. These were technicalities that had nothing to do with the achievement that the students were obtaining.

    During the board meeting on renewing the charter, several parents broke down weeping saying that this was the only school that would enable their children to get a decent education. (The other Oakland schools could be better described as being a war zone/prison rather than institutes of learning.)

    What made AIPCHS so effective was the leadership by Ben Chavis. There are no incentives in the system to encourage the difficult work that he did to improve the lives of many, many low income students.

    But the leadership style of Ben Chavis irked the School Board, the principals, the teachers, etc. of everyone outside of his school. No school in Oakland decided that his methods were beneficial and rushed to incorporate his ideas into their schools. Leadership matters and the entire crop of principals, board members, PTA and teachers groups are all invested in the status quo.

    Moving organizations away from the status quo is exceptionally difficult.

    Two main choices:

    1) Dismantle the entire system and replace with charter schools. You have been trying for that for years. I am not sure that the American public has the stomach for that. And the few pockets of excellence have been squashed by the status quo groups.

    2) Set up the ‘incentive’ portion to encourage the system to reform itself. (This is very, very difficult, as you well know.)

    The problem with schools is that there are no ‘systems’ in place to improve student learning. Our schools are a legacy system, in that we rely upon the embedded knowledge of individual teachers to convey to our students what should be learned. Embedded knowledge is an inherent quality of the teacher and American culture, and not something that is readily changable.

    (Thus, the very mistaken reform known as getting ‘better teachers’. ‘Better teachers’ may have better embedded knowledge but those teachers can not in themselves change the school system. And there are not enough ‘better teachers’ out there to really improve the learning of the great number of American students. Hanushek’s analysis not withstanding.)

    Other schools (internationally) have ‘systems’ in place to prospectively change/improve what students learn.

    Our schools will never improve unless the schools develop internal ‘systems’ to change/improve what and how students are learning. It is that quality (systems development) that needs to be incentivized.

    Every large business understands the concept of ‘change management’. Our schools and the American public do not.

    One possible way to incentivize the development of school systems that focus on improvements in student learning: Offer large monetary prizes for any and all school districts/coalitions with large groups of students (50K+) to meet specific student learning goals in both 4th and 8th grade (math as measured by TIMSS). The large number of students is needed to ensure the ‘system’ development and the external benchmark is needed to make the goal focused on student learning.

    For example, if school districts/coalitions were offered $10K per student to statistically match Japan/S. Korea/Singapore in 4th and 8th grade math or $15k per student to exceed those levels (on the TIMSS), this would incentivize school districts across the country to try and improve. These dollars would be significant for anyone. Not all schools would meet this bar, but putting the systems for ‘change management’ in place would allow them to learn from the few districts/coalitions that were successful.

    Educational reform that actually affects student learning has to mobilize teachers to change their thoughts about how they teach and what they teach. This is not easy and will never be accomplished by dictatorial methods (Just do what I told you to do!).

    Persuasion must be used to encourage teachers to re-examine their practices. Our teachers are for the most part, very nice and dedicated. But, they do not have the support systems to improve what they do in the classroom, and thus improve student learning.

  • Kt says:

    “Schools (and educators) still don’t seem to embrace good ideas, even the non-controversial, inexpensive kind. Take, for instance, the following:

    *Bring “departmentalization” to elementary schools by asking strong math teachers to teach math and strong reading teachers to teach reading. Don’t ask anybody to do both.”

    I would say this is an example of one “good idea” that is not as non-controversial as you think. It may be a good idea — I have mixed feelings about it myself — but it’s controversial because many parents want to see their young child in a traditional self-contained class with the kind of family feel and class rituals they grew up with. They feel (and in many cases rightly so) that their child is too young to make multiple transitions in the day and that a teacher of young children who sees 50-70 kids in a day is not going to be able to devote as much attention to each child as the parent would like.

    I taught 5th grade at a 5th – 8th grade charter school that, as a middle school, was completely departmentalized. We eventually moved to a self-contained 5th grade (just science had a different teacher) because we found that the benefits were huge in terms of being able to help our kids adjust to middle school academic and behavioral expectations and remediate gaps they came in with. (Incidentally, test scores in both math and literacy also improved).

    Perhaps the preponderance of the research does suggest that departmentalized 2nd grades leads to higher scores — but I don’t think that would be an easy sell in many schools or communities, so I think you’re underestimating how simple some of these “obvious” solutions may be.

  • SteveH says:

    What, exactly, are those good ideas? What, exactly, are the problems? The last time I checked, there was a vast difference of opinion over the answers to those questions. I could argue that the only solution can come from more charter schools and more parental choice.

    In K-6 math, there is a fundamental difference of opinion over how to teach math AND the level of expectation. PARCC defines their top PLD (“distinguished”) college readiness level as the ability for all to pass a college algebra course. They specifically avoid any mention of STEM preparation. ACT defines this level as equivalent to a 17 on their high school test. Unfortunately, these levels of expectation start in the earliest grades, not in high school. This means that parents have to teach the proper level of mastery if their kids will have any chance of making it into the 7th grade pre-algebra track that most schools offer. These kids have to deal with a very non-linear change coming from their low-expectation K-6 full-inclusion, “trust the spiral” learning experience. For those kids without help at home, failure to make that transition will imply that they just don’t have the brains for math, and worse, they will believe it themselves.

    Second, K-6 educators don’t seem to realize that the best math students get there with mastery help at home (in K-6), direct instruction, and a constant diet of individual homework sets. Somehow, these kids develop critical thinking and problem solving skills. Talk of critical thinking and problem solving by K-6 educators is just cover for low expectations and an excuse to use group learning with the teacher as the guide-on-the-side.

    Talking about things like math specialists in K-6 is such a trivial analysis of the problem. We don’t need specialists in Everyday Math or success in low expectations.

    Low expectation is an awful disease. It is based on statistics, not individuals. Nobody can look at El Sistema and not imagine all of the incredible lost human potential, not just in music. Many talk about IQ curves, but their absolute calibration is far below potential.

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