Note to SIG Schools: Good Lists ≠ Good Outcomes

Everyone loves a good list of things to do to get desired outcomes. Go into any bookstore and you’ll see 10 habits, eight steps, 12 secrets, to accomplish all sorts of wonders. What’s nice about lists is that they are easy to understand and they appear finite: implement the “seven-step plan to weight loss” and you’re done.

In trying to improve struggling schools, government likes lists too, and so do educators. Comprehensive school reform in the 1990’s required schools to implement nine elements (e.g. curriculum, professional development, parent involvement). Reading First had its list of five elements of reading instruction. Today, the most ambitious school improvement effort ever undertaken, School Improvement Grants (SIG), is trying to turn around America’s most persistently difficult schools. Schools have to choose among four models, the least draconian of which (and therefore by far the most popular) is “transformation,” which usually involves changing the principal and implementing a set of whole-school reforms. The reforms constitute – you guessed it – a list of required elements. And many transformation schools are adopting as a central element of their approach – you guessed it again – even more detailed lists of practices, in this case those found by Robert Marzano and/or Charlotte Danielson, to characterize effective schools.

Each element of all of these lists is valid, well-supported by research, and sensible. Yet a list, no matter how well justified, is not in itself an effective program.

Appealing as they appear, there are several problems with lists as a route to genuine improvement. First, lists focus on processes rather than outcomes. If every teacher has a parent involvement program, for example, then we can check this off, right? Wrong. There are more and less effective ways to involve parents. Whatever a school is doing with parents, it should be resulting in outcomes such as better attendance, more children getting eyeglasses or health care, better home-school communication, and fewer home-school conflicts. If notes home to parents do not accomplish these or other goals, then they are not moving the school toward success.

Another problem with lists is that they present needed actions separately, when real school reform should be an integrated whole. A first-grade teacher might set aside a time for phonics (check!), another for fluency (check!), and a third for comprehension (check!). But effective reading instruction requires the integration of strategies to move toward the ultimate goals.

Effective whole-school change comes about when proven practices are introduced in all aspects of school functioning, with a clear vision of what each practice looks like when effectively implemented and an elaborated coaching process to help all teachers use proven practices. It requires constant assessment of the degree to which proven practices are being widely implemented and assessment of students’ progress toward key goals. Leadership and professional development structures need to be aligned around the goal of ensuring effective use of proven approaches throughout the school and maximizing communication and shared leadership among all school staff to get the best thinking and best efforts of all to focus on progressive improvements in implementations and outcomes.

Lists may be useful in ensuring implementation of all aspects of proven programs, but they do not themselves lead to improved practice or enhances outcomes. At the broadest level, here’s the list most likely to turn around schools struggling to meet standards:

1. Adopt whole-school approaches proven to improve student outcomes.
2. Implement the program with intelligence, energy, and fidelity, constantly improving the quality of implementation and outcomes.
3. Keep doing (2), well, forever.

For the latest on evidence-based education, follow me on twitter: @RobertSlavin

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Recipe for Reform: Take One Class. Stir. Repeat.

In America, there is no shortage of ideas for improving education at every level, pre-k to college. These ideas fall into two categories: Federal, state, and district policy, and school and classroom improvement. Proposals for reforming educational policies almost always focus on issues far from classroom practice: governance, standards, assessment, funding, accountability, certification, district organization. Everything in this list is important, but none of them really matters unless classroom instruction greatly improves. My belief is that instead of starting from large-scale issues and then hoping that solving big funding, governance, and accountability issues will somehow improve daily teaching, we should start thinking about how to create effective classrooms and then to create policies to support them. A recent Brookings report by Chingos and Whitehurst makes the same point. Unless teachers are exciting kids, teaching them effectively, making them feel capable and be capable, things will not change.

The recipe for school reform, then, is deceptively simple:
Take one class.
Stir.
Repeat.

So how do we stir one class? And even more importantly, how do we repeat? Everyone has seen great teaching, but how do we make this the norm for 3 million teachers and 50 million kids?

Obviously, we need better teachers and better generic professional development. But the way to bring about real change at a large scale is to improve classroom instructional models, then figure out how to support and sustain effective classroom models within schools, sustain and grow effective schools, and finally create district, state, and national policies to support the whole system. But the policy changes must start from the question of “how do we support effective classroom methods,” not be expected to solve the problems on their own.

What are effective classroom methods? They are ones that have been rigorously evaluated and found to be effective. They may be math or reading or science programs, or whole school designs. Our website called the Best Evidence Encyclopedia and the quarterly magazine Better: Evidence-Based Education highlight evidence-based policy and practice. Effective programs are very different from each other, but they all seek to motivate, engage, and organize student learning.

In earlier Sputnik blogs, I’ve described policies designed to identify, evaluate, and scale up proven programs, so I won’t go into the details here. What I wanted to communicate was the simplicity of the basic approach. Just begin with a well-founded model of what one class should be like. Then create a system designed to scale up these classes. That’s the recipe.

For the latest on evidence-based education, follow me on twitter: @RobertSlavin

Evidence-Based Reform and Test-Based Accountability Are Not the Same

Among the many objections I sometimes hear to the concept of evidence-based reform in education is a concern that buying into evidence entails buying into stodgy, boring, top-down instruction. I think these concerns carry over from concerns about instruction driven by standardized testing and accountability. But evidence-based education and test-driven education are very different.

Evidence (and evidence-based reform) are entirely neutral on the nature of teaching. Whatever works is what is valued. The distinction between teaching driven by accountability and teaching informed by evidence is crucial. Using test scores to evaluate teachers and schools, at least as defined by NCLB, runs the risk of focusing teachers on a narrow band of reading and math skills, and school and district leaders often try to improve performance by “alignment,” trying to get teachers to spend more time on the skills and knowledge likely to be assessed. In contrast, evidence-based policies have no such limitations. If instructional methods have been found to be effective in high-quality research on measures that are valued, then teachers may be encouraged to use these strategies. For example, even if writing, science, and social studies are not part of a given accountability scheme, teachers can be encouraged and assisted to use them anyway. This is particularly important to improve practices in areas or grade levels not assessed, but even in areas that are assessed, evidence shifts the focus of reform from curriculum alignment to professional development and adoption of proven strategies, including innovative materials, software, and strategies.

Given the likely dominance of accountability strategies in educational policies for a long time to come, evidence-based reform provides a crucial means of broadening favored strategies. If developers and researchers can identify methods of improving achievement beyond curriculum alignment, then this offers solid means of confronting the widespread belief that alignment is the best means of improving performance on accountability measures, a belief as central to the theory of action behind Common Core as to that behind NCLB.

In actual fact, proven programs in areas such as math and reading do not resemble boring, top-down, alignment-driven teaching. Instead, proven programs tend to emphasize engagement of students with content. Examples include cooperative learning, tutoring, and teaching of metacognitive strategies. None of these are boring teaching methods that put students in passive roles. The fact is, boring doesn’t work. Stodgy, teacher-directed teaching doesn’t work. Embracing evidence embraces a diversity of approaches and moves our field forward, building on the strengths of educators rather than micromanaging them, remaining open to anything that makes a difference on any valued measure.

How (and Why) to Visit Schools

Over the past 40 years, I’ve visited an awful lot of schools. Usually, I’m visiting high-poverty elementary or secondary schools that are doing well. I love visiting schools, I love the kids, the teachers, and the administrators, who are all doing their best to create a culture of success and caring that is often a haven in a depressed neighborhood.

Whenever I visit schools, I try to spend most of my time in classrooms, of course. I often pick out three kids at random, one near the front, one in the middle, and one at the back of the class. I pretend they are my own kids (I happen to have three). Are “my” three kids getting a good education?

In traditionally-organized classes, what I often see is both comforting and disturbing at the same time. On the surface, most classes are run pretty well. There are occasional exceptions, especially in inner-city high schools, but “urban jungle” scenarios are rare.

On the other hand, looking at “my” kids gives me a different perspective. In a really good class, in which it appears that the entire class is participating in a lesson, at least one of “my” kids is quiet and unengaged all period. In other, less exciting classes, it may be all three. We once did an experiment in which we took central administrators into their own schools to watch teaching in this way. Invariably, they were shocked. The reality is that traditional teaching, even when done very well, still leaves a lot of kids quiet and unengaged.

There are strategies, especially various forms of cooperative learning, that are designed to engage every child every period of every day. Although forms of cooperative learning are known and occasionally used by many teachers, the proven strategies are far from common practice. Perhaps if school administrators and researchers routinely visited schools and picked out three kids to watch in each class, they’d see why even a well-behaved class is not necessarily reaching all children, and then begin looking for more effective alternatives.

For the latest on evidence-based education, follow me on twitter: @RobertSlavin