School Turnaround the Wright Way

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Wright Brothers 1 27 12.jpgIn 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright changed the world in the most American of ways, by tinkering in their bicycle shop and then testing their flying machine in the dunes of Kitty Hawk. The basic design principles they followed were the same as those being followed by optimistic airplane designers all over the world. Others used similar airframes, engines, and controls. The Wright brothers did make numerous innovations, but to an observer, there was little that differentiated their model from many others, with one exception: their airplane actually flew.

Now space forward 109 years, and consider school reform. In turning around persistently low-achieving schools, report after report tells us that we need to emphasize strong leadership, high expectations, extensive professional development, effective use of time, and data-based management. All of these are emphasized in School Improvement Grants (SIG), for example, and all are certainly sensible. But is emphasizing such a list of “design principles” enough to turn around failing schools?

In a recent post I wrote about the importance of developing and disseminating well-structured, well-integrated programs that have been rigorously evaluated and found to be effective.Disseminating proven programs is very different from disseminating lists of variables associated with effective schools. For one thing, proven programs are known to work across a variety of circumstances, and are not limited to a particular set of circumstances unlikely to exist elsewhere. The Wright biplane would have just been another curiosity if it had not turned out to work anywhere with an airfield. Second, proven programs depend on many more, and more specific, innovations than those captured by the lists. Third, proven programs are provided by organizations that build expertise in supporting their effective use, and are essentially held accountable for the success of their approach. If the Wright brothers had not been able to improve upon and scale up their model, their inventiveness would not have mattered.

Anyone who has tried to turn around a failing school armed with a list of variables and general good advice will know that the chances of takeoff are uncertain. No program guarantees success, but replicating and adapting proven programs offers the best chance of making a difference. It’s better to do it the Wright way.

Image: John T. Daniels, 1903, available via public domain

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Teachers: “We Don’t Do Programs”

In the 1980s, Madeline Hunter was extremely popular for her speeches and writing focused on making basic principles of educational psychology practical for teachers. I saw her speak once in a huge auditorium packed to the rafters with enthusiastic teachers. At the end, the teachers were streaming out excitedly discussing the speech. On every side, the comment I heard was, “This confirms everything I’ve always believed!”

Everyone likes to have their beliefs confirmed by articulate speakers, but I wondered at the time whether the teachers had wasted their time. How could confirmation of what they’ve always believed change their teaching methods and improve children’s learning?

The reason I’m bringing up Madeline Hunter now is that I increasingly hear this refrain from educators at all levels: “We don’t do programs.” Many educators oppose the entire idea of adopting programs, particularly in professional development, preferring to learn about principles of good practice that they can then weave into daily teaching.

In principle, there’s nothing wrong with principles, and educators do need to know about all the variables and teaching that contribute to good outcomes for children. However, learning about basic principles is not the same as school reform. In the case of Madeline Hunter’s very sensible, well-founded principles, several studies that applied her principles found no effect on student learning (in comparison to control groups). Why? Because observations and interviews revealed that the control groups, teachers who did not receive Madeline Hunter training, were also using almost all of the principles on the Hunter list.

A great deal of research in all subjects and grade levels tells us that when success is achieved in providing professional development to teachers, the content of the PD is almost always structured, well-defined, and replicable programs, rather than sets of principles or smaller practices from which teachers pick and choose what they want to use. One reason for this is that effective teaching is a complex orchestration of many elements, and a well-designed program can deal with many of these elements and the interplay among them. Also, when teachers pick and choose they often pick the elements most like what they already do.

This is not to say that all programs are effective or that there is never a case when PD on a few powerful principles can produce better learning. Teachers and administrators should have a wide array of proven programs to choose from, and a belief in programs should not require a belief in prescription. The bottom line should always be “use what works,” not “use programs.” We need to be open to all sorts of solutions known to improve children’s learning. But, it is important to note that in the history of educational research, it’s most often well-designed, well-evaluated programs that end up making a difference.

A Finnish Model Worth Replicating

In recent posts I’ve argued that while we can and should learn a great deal from international comparisons of educational practices and outcomes, we should not simply adopt the practices of other countries, but should put them (and home-grown solutions) to the test in our country. Last week, as part of Education Week’s Quality Counts, there was an article by Pasi Sahlberg, of the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture. Finland, of course, has become the poster child for those who point abroad for inspiration, because of its top rankings on international tests, such as PISA and TIMSS.

Sahlberg explains that Finland’s success is no miracle, but is based on studying the policies and practices of other countries, trying them out in Finland, and keeping those that work. These include many innovations from the U.S.; in fact, he singles out cooperative learning as a positive example.

Finland and other countries whose students excel on international tests pay close attention to the U.S. and other countries’ research and innovations. In fact, I think countries other than the U.S. pay a great deal more attention to research and examples from beyond their borders than we do in the U.S. The willingness to find out what works, regardless of its source, and then try it out at home is exactly what I was arguing for. This is a Finnish policy I can absolutely endorse – use what works!

Put International Lessons to the Test in U.S. Schools

In a November 10 Sputnik I wrote some cautionary thoughts about what we can and cannot learn from international comparisons to improve educational policies. My old friend Marc Tucker, in his December 20 blog called Top Performers, took me to task, saying that by suggesting we try out ideas from abroad in our own schools before adopting them wholesale, I was “looking for my keys where the light was better” rather than where they might actually be.

In my blog I was completely agreeing with Marc that we can learn a lot from other countries. I work part-time in England and am very familiar with education there and elsewhere in Europe. There is indeed much we can learn in other countries. In fact, we already are: the hot off the press Quality Counts report from Education Week found that “Education officials in 29 states reported that their agency uses international education comparisons to inform their reform strategies or identify ‘best practices.'” Where I take issue with Marc is in his apparent belief that if we study what successful nations do, we can just plunk their policies down in our context and all will be well. Marc seems to think that international comparisons have proven that our main efforts need to be directed toward improving teacher quality. He might very well be right. I’d love to see teacher salaries doubled, teacher education dramatically improved, induction enhanced, and so on, and perhaps these policies would solve our problems by making teaching a more attractive profession, bringing higher-quality students into teaching, and providing excellent professional development and support to help existing and new teachers to be effective and to want to stay in the profession. Frankly, however, there isn’t a U.S. educator or policy maker who didn’t already know that these would be great ideas long before we ever heard of Finland.

But how do we cause all of these things to happen in our society, with our kids? Which of these policies are not only effective, but most cost-effective? Is it too much to ask that whatever ideas we glean from observing Finland or Singapore or Japan be tested in Minnesota or Massachusetts or Mississippi, so we can learn how they work here? And in the meantime, might we also increase use of programs and practices that have been proven to work in the U.S., and develop and evaluate more of them?

America’s strength in every field, from medicine to agriculture to satellites, lies in its extraordinary capacity in research and development. This is true in education as much as in other areas; the products of U.S. educational R & D are much sought after in other countries. While other countries can give us good ideas and benchmarks to evaluate our students’ performance, let’s also build on our strengths.

Why Not an Ounce of Prevention?

There’s an old story about a town that was planning to build a playground. In the town council, someone brought up the problem that the proposed site was at the edge of a cliff, so there was a danger that children might fall off. The council then got into a debate about whether to build a fence at the top of the cliff or station an ambulance at the bottom!

The point of the story, of course, is that it’s ridiculous to invest in remediation of problems that could have been prevented. Yet in education, that is what happens all the time. We spend billions on remediation and special education, not to mention damage caused by preventable delinquency and mental health problems, while investing relatively little in prevention, or research on which preventive approaches work.

There is plenty of evidence, for example, to the effect that early reading failure is catastrophic for students’ progress in school and in life. Further, there is plenty of evidence illustrating that most reading failure can be prevented using proven preschool, kindergarten, and primary-grades reading strategies using structured, phonetic one-to-one or small group tutoring, and whole-school reforms focusing on reading for all. Add to these the likely improvements in prevention that could result from ensuring that all children who need them have eyeglasses and other health services necessary to ensure that students are ready to learn every day.

There are good reasons to invest in proven educational programs at all levels and in all subjects, but when proven programs also reduce government expenditures within a few years, even the most bottom-line oriented administrator or legislator should see the need to invest in proven prevention. A fence is not only smarter and kinder than an ambulance – it’s also a lot cheaper.