Thanks go to Forest Hinton at The Quick and the Ed for his Quick Hits today leading me to Heather Zavadsky’s report for the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, “Embracing Systemic Reform.” In the last few years, there have been many education advocates pushing for individual policies, such as performance pay and breaking up large schools into smaller ones. However, AEI argues that true reform can only happen when a web of changes is made. They point out a few reasons for this.
Most importantly, students are diverse, so not every student will respond to any one change. Smaller classrooms may be useful for students who need more attention, but it doesn’t help the student who is ready to move beyond the curriculum being taught. Individual policies will almost never affect the entire population. Next, policies affect each other. What is the point of giving teachers bonuses for helping students achieve higher test scores when they are stuck to a misaligned curriculum, or worse when the test scores themselves are meaningless because of poorly-written assessments? The idea of creating systemic change is what has inspired so many CMOs to establish their own schools and districts. It’s also the reason that last week, I said that Bill Gates should invest in an entire charter district. The only way to help all of the students in a district is to alter the way schools operate entirely – and all of the schools a child attends K-12 for that matter. Only an entire district has the ability to control all of the aspects of a student’s learning. The report focuses on five large school district who have managed to improve learning outcomes across the board for their students, in some cases significantly reducing the achievement gap between minority and white or low- and high-income students. Brookings has similar findings in the commonalities of these districts to a report I wrote for The Riordan Foundation. Who would have thought that using data, aligning your curriculum, building a skilled staff, and having strong goals would be the keys to strong schools?
On the flipside, just because you’re spending lots of money on bold reform doesn’t mean all of your changes are doing anything. The Brookings Institute has found that the services that the Harlem Children’s Zone has supported have had no educational effect. That doesn’t mean that the schools themselves have not been effective. It’s just that students receiving the additional social services, such as classes for parents, healthcare, and after-school programs, did not show any improvements over those who didn’t. Not all problems are strong factors in education. Perhaps Obama shouldn’t have been so hasty in endorsing $210 million for Promise Neighborhoods to replicate the HCZ.