College of

The Challenge of School Reform

Monday, October 14, 2013 - 1:30pm

Written By Eric Metcalf | Illustrations By Henrik Drescher

The educators lean forward in their chairs and tilt their heads to ponder the situation from a new perspective. They furrow their brows, contemplating how they will answer the question hanging over the room.

The question that the teachers, principals, and administrators woke up early on a fall Saturday morning to answer is this: What is the message this student is conveying?

Jon Drescher has organized today’s event, the Lehigh/Center for Developing Urban Educational Leaders (CDUEL) Socratic Rounds. Now in its third year, the monthly gathering typically draws about four dozen educators from the Lehigh Valley, Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York, and sometimes further afield. 

The main purpose is to discuss crucial questions facing schools. But a central element in each workshop is the “collaborative assessment protocol.”

“Somebody brings in one piece of student work, and people look at it and talk about what they see. The teacher who produced the lesson is sitting there, and it’s non-judgmental and no one’s critiquing the lesson,” says Drescher, a professor of practice at Lehigh University and director of its Urban Principals Academy.

“I’ve been doing this for years, and I’ve never in all these years experienced a teacher who didn’t say, ‘Wow, I never would have thought of these things. I never saw those things myself.’ The more you expose people to the ability to observe and share their perspective, the stronger the communication is going to be in a school, and the stronger the teaching is going to become.”

Now, picture a similar, but hypothetical, scenario taking place in a much larger room. Taking the place of the student’s assignment in the center of the room is the United States educational system. Gathered around is a crowd that is less apt to work collaboratively: the nation’s policymakers, politicians, education leaders, and other stakeholders in the education system.

Given the range of perspectives, the dedication to agendas, and the high volume of voices in the room, is it possible to find any agreement on the question of how to reform the nation’s schools? What areas of common ground could they find that might provide some footing to help them push education toward true change?

Lehigh College of Education faculty and other educational leaders shared ideas—and perhaps a few modest proposals—on where we might find some research-supported points of consensus amid the long-running clamor over school reform.

Point #1: Collaborate creatively

Alexander Wiseman, associate professor of comparative and international education at Lehigh, sees benefit in breaking down the walls between classes—figuratively speaking, of course.

“We’re great at separating and siloing. We teach kids that life consists of different areas of knowledge, and that you can specialize in one without really having to know anything about another. But life is full of both. You don’t have the choice of being good at math or being good at English. You’re going to have to use both of those in some capacity. If you are bad at one and good at the other, they’re both going to suffer.”

Beyond the Socratic Rounds, Drescher also has a long history of coaxing teachers to interrupt their weekend plans for the greater good. In 2003, when he was running Prospect Hill Academy, a three-campus charter school in Cambridge and Somerville, Mass., word came down that the school would have to finish the year with a 12-percent budget cut. 

“I called the entire staff together on a Friday afternoon and said, ‘Who wants to work with us?’ About 10 teachers gave up their entire weekend and we worked on how we were going to cut this budget and not impact instruction. And that’s why they trusted us. They knew that no matter what was going on, we were going to be transparent. They were going to have input into it, they were going to know what was going on all the time, and they knew what our goals were,” he recalls.

More collaboration up and down the line can invigorate school staff, foster the spread of effective practices, and help students join together disparate skills so they can better wield them in the real world.

“There’s a tendency in American schools for people to close their classrooms and just do their own thing. That doesn’t help the overall effort, though it might be nice for the individual teacher,” says Kim Marshall, creator of the Marshall Memo, a weekly distillation of new and notable educational research. He points to professional learning communities (PLCs) as a new iteration of a method of getting teachers to collaborate.

“The pure version of a PLC is, let’s say there are four third-grade teachers in a school, all of them teaching the major subjects. Every seven weeks or so, they give a common math test or assign the same essay to the kids. Within a couple of days, they sit down to look together at how the kids did and compare what was working and what was not working. ‘Your kids did better on this than mine did. What method did you use?’ And the team is constantly analyzing that and constantly improving their performance.”

Of course, collaboration doesn’t just happen on its own. As Stoll and colleagues observed in a 2006 Journal of Educational Change article: “It is difficult to see how a PLC could develop in a school without the active support of leadership at all levels. Leadership is therefore an important resource for PLCs, in terms of head teacher/principal commitment and shared leadership.”

Point #2: Cultivate effective leadership

A wealth of research over the past decade or so shows that the most important factor in student achievement is the teacher in the classroom, says Tony Flach, national practice director at the Leadership and Learning Center, an international organization dedicated to improving student achievement and educational equity.

And the second largest variable is the school’s leadership. When describing the qualities of effective leaders, he refers to Leaders Make It Happen! by McNulty and Besser (Advanced Learning Press, 2011). “They describe several actions of principals that I see time and time again in site work and visits: These principals set goals and clearly articulate expectations for student performance; they’re creating a vision of student success; and they’re making it clear to their staff members that failure not only is not an option, it’s just flat not acceptable.”

Good leaders also have an enthusiasm for data, says Flach, a former math teacher, and before that, a businessman. “One of the most successful practices we see in school right now is frequent teacher collaboration around data. That takes time, coaching, and support to ensure success. So that’s very much a leadership action,” he says. This collaboration requires teachers to understand their common curriculum map, pacing guide, and standards for which they’re responsible.

“Teachers work together to design or select common formative assessments that they administer during those units of instruction. Then it’s a regular collaboration, and we literally see a relationship between how often they meet around data from those formative assessments and the kind of gains they see from their kids,” he says.

“If we’re really going to shift what’s going on in the classrooms, then the teachers are going to have to know the data, know the rationale for any desired change in practice, and have some say in what would be necessary to result in change in practice.” 

In many ways, failing to use data to inform instructional decisions is analogous to the nurse who fails to measure a patient’s vitals. It is malpractice.

Good leaders support collaboration and encourage teachers to take part in building-level decisions, as discussed in Point #1. Flach points to Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning by Seashore Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstrom, and Anderson as confirmation of factors that the Leadership and Learning Center has found to be important in recent decades. In that study’s conclusions, the authors note that “reform in the U.S educational system is both lively and messy but, as educators grapple with emerging demands, we found that leadership matters at all levels.”

The report also found that “… while principals and district leaders continue to exercise more influence than others in all schools, they do not lose influence as others gain it. Influence does not come in fixed quantities. Influential leaders wishing to retain their influence may share leadership confidently.”

Drescher sees two other qualities as crucial for effective leaders: They stand up for their vision and are willing to take any hits that come their way for it. And they protect the people below them from unnecessary pressures and demands.

“The superintendents should be buffering their principals. The principals should be buffering their teachers. You know that’s a great person—that’s why you hired them,” he says. “Now do whatever you have to do so they have freedom to do their job!”

Point #3: Make room for reform from the bottom up 

The public tends to regard the educational system as if they were looking at it through a smudged pair of bifocals. Up close, the view looks pretty good. But the big picture at a distance is a less pleasing sight.

Wiseman points to the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the public’s attitudes toward public schools to highlight this disparity. In the 2013 poll, 53 percent of respondents gave the public schools in their community an A or B, compared to just 15 percent who gave the schools a D or Fail.

But for the nation’s public schools as a whole, just 18 percent gave an A or B rating, while 25 percent gave a D or Fail. These proportions were similar in the 1993 survey.

“Really the only thing we see in the news about the nation’s education system is how bad we are. Even if we were to make huge advances in the next two years, I still think people would say, ‘Eh, overall we’re not doing so well.’ But the closer they get to the schools—they’ve been in them, they know some of the teachers—they see the context that they’re working in, and they tend to be more positive,” Wiseman says. “With the system we’re in, making reforms at the school level first, or having them driven by the school context, that’s probably a much better way to go,” than a top-down approach to reform.

Drescher supports a bottom-up approach to reform, as well.

 “I think all of the change that needs to happen in education needs to happen on a school-by-school basis. We try to do it on too large of a stage,” he says. His vision of reform at the school level requires keeping the people in those schools front and center, not just the statistics they generate. That means giving teachers the time to show that they’re turning their classes around. It means making room for definitions of improvement that aren’t as easily quantified as testing. It means better engagement with the students filling those schools.

“Something I teach as a leader, as a teacher, as someone responsible for children is: Take two empty chairs. Think about two students in your school. And when you’re going to do something, if it’s not right for those two children, you shouldn’t be doing it,” Drescher says. “When you’re improving the culture of your school, and people are happier and enjoy working, and students are much more engaged and enjoy being in school and know that their teachers care about them, those scores are going to go up. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen the research about it. I think that’s the common ground we need to keep talking about. How do we get that to happen?”

Point #4: Pay heed to the world around the schools

The character of each nation seeps into the doors of its schools. Wiseman has studied Saudi Arabia’s educational system (“one of the lowest-performing in the world”). Factors affecting its system include overlaps between religion, politics, and society; total gender segregation in schools; and a struggle  over how to serve both its native residents and the children of workers imported from other countries. South Africa, meanwhile, faces lingering racial and economic divisions after apartheid, with unequal access to quality schools for poor blacks versus well-to-do whites. In both cases, Wiseman says, the context of education is the foundation for everything that does (or does not) happen in schools. 

Then there’s the much-hyped educational system in Finland. While the nation may have worthwhile approaches to share in terms of creating effective schools, it also has a much smaller—and more homogenous—student population to steer compared to the United States. It also has a much smaller proportion of children living in poverty. Wiseman emphasized that research repeatedly shows that schooling can only be as great as the community context allows.

As a result, school reform must address the burdens that many students carry into class along with their backpacks: absent parenting and lack of encouragement at home; stress from living in unsafe neighborhoods; hunger; and the various pressures to drop out of school.

“Of course a kid who comes in from a violent home, a violent neighborhood, or a single-parent family where the mother is working all the time has disadvantages. The best schools—and this is the exciting research I’ve been following for years now—the best schools do manage to overcome that,” Marshall says.

According to Karin Chenowith and Christina Theokas in the fall 2012 issue of American Educator, principals who can coax high achievement from disadvantaged students tend to:

  • Create a vision that all students will be successful
  • Create an environment of respect
  • Apply their time toward instruction—this includes making collaborative relationships “the core of the way their schools work” and allocating the highest-performing teachers to the students most in need
  • Keep from losing themselves in the details of running the school building and place a premium on not wasting their staff’s time
  • Constantly assess that their schools are progressing toward their goals and using their resources properly

Marshall has his eye on the ongoing Harlem Children’s Zone project, which now provides comprehensive services to youths across 97 blocks of Manhattan. The project guides parents in raising toddlers, confronts health and social concerns, and aims to send Harlem’s kids on a trajectory through college into the job market. It doesn’t come cheaply. In 2010, its cost worked out to $5,000 per child.

Will improving schools in America’s neediest areas help lift them out of poverty? Or does our society need to address its economic disparities in order to fix the schools? Or both?

“Where I come down on that one is that poverty is deeply embedded and it’s going to be generations before we really get rid of it, and in some ways it’s gotten worse during the recession. In the meantime, there’s lots schools can do. And it comes down to good leadership, good curriculum, good teaching, good supervision, and all that stuff.”