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.
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