Obstacles to a Culture of Improvement

If this era is to become a Golden Age of Educational Practice, we need successful, evidence-based practices—to the extent that they actually exist—to spread far and wide. Many ideas for how to get educators to use such practices are inherently top-down or “supply side” approaches—build tools or products or school models on top of the evidence base, and then market them to schools. Focus a lot on the fidelity of implementation, which also implies engineering solutions that can be implemented in the real world, with real teachers, without making the instructor’s job even harder than today. I will explore all of that in future posts.

But there’s another take on the challenge, one that’s bottom-up and focused on the “demand side.” It’s intuitively appealing, as it builds teacher buy-in from the get-go: It’s about developing a “culture of improvement” in a school or school system.

The basic notion is simple, if tough to actuate: Rather than start with answers—like a new curriculum, or assessment system, or digital learning program—begin with questions. Develop systems and processes that encourage educators to ask: How can we get better at our craft? How can we solve a specific problem that we are seeing in our own classrooms? And how might we team up with similar schools or systems as we embark upon this quest?

This is the approach popularized by Tony Bryk and his colleagues at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. His notion of School Improvement Networks has been embraced by districts far and wide, and is now at the center of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s education strategy. It’s got real momentum.

I encourage you to read up on this approach and decide whether you think it holds promise. It seems clear to me that, in schools and systems with a drive to get better, the Bryk model offers a great structure and process for improvement. Because it has educator engagement at its core, it can overcome the buy-in challenge that is the death of so many other reform efforts. And it can lead to local solutions that make sense for a given school’s context, solutions that deal with the inherent nuance and complexity of instructional practices and the evidence that might inform them.

But can it succeed at helping our schools improve, at a national scale, and in a measurable way? I’d love to be proven wrong, but I have three specific concerns.

The first is perhaps easiest to solve: When educators go looking for solutions, sometimes they end up off track. The best example is around early reading. The Carnegie folks often point to the Literacy Collaborative as a fine model of a school improvement network. And yet, as Core Knowledge advocate Lisa Hansel pointed out in a book review several years ago, that Collaborative has embraced practices that early-reading researchers view with deep suspicion, like the use of “leveled texts.” As Hansel cautioned, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” At the least, we need to figure out how to better marry the “bottom up” zeal of “improvement science” with the top-down expertise of the larger research enterprise. Today there’s a disconnect.

The second and much tougher problem with the “culture of improvement” approach is that it assumes that there are lots of schools or systems out there with the drive to get better. We would all hope for that to be the case—that most superintendents and senior central office staff and principals and teachers wake up every day wondering if there’s something they could do to improve their practices, even a little but maybe a lot. But in my experience, that sort of drive is exceedingly rare, not because there’s something wrong with the people in our education system so much as because of the system itself. After 150 years, it’s big, bureaucratic, creaky, hopelessly fragmented, and risk-adverse. People who have spent time inside it have seen young whippersnappers come and go with all their new ideas for improvement and fresh solutions to old problems. Indeed many of those long-timers were once whippersnappers themselves! But they’ve seen The System, time and again, wear down the change agents, sap their energy, and snap their newfangled practices back to the tried and true.

This cycle breeds cynicism and defeatism, if not despair. It leads people to spend their time going through the motions and putting out fires. It does not provide hospitable ground for leaders willing to ask how their schools might get better at getting better.

Which brings us inexorably to the third problem: the political barriers to change within the system itself. Even with great leaders and administrators, even with a cadre of teachers fired up about finding answers to tough problems, even when better approaches can be identified, there remains the challenge of implementing change within a change-adverse system. Improvement networks can’t wish away collective bargaining agreements, or budget limitations, or the residue of district or state policies, or longstanding (and often cozy) relationships between certain vendors (of curriculum, technology, etc.) and district bureaucrats. Overcoming inertia is hard enough; slaying real vested interests is battle royal.

However, there one sizable sector of American K–12 education where I see promise in the “culture of improvement” approach: charter schools. Here we’ve watched a set of high-quality charter management organizations—like KIPP, Success Academy, Uncommon Schools, and IDEA—build a culture that is serious about continuous improvement. None of those networks has a school model today that is the same as it was ten years ago; they all continue to learn and tweak and evolve, even as they remain focused on their mission of helping students make the steep climb out of poverty and into the middle class. And we also have a crop of new charter schools, every year, with the opportunity and mandate to look around for best practices, to learn from the best of the best, to start with a fresh canvas and fill in the picture with answers to the questions that Bryk et al. (myself included) would like all schools to posit.

Charters have the operational autonomy to think fresh and implement new ideas, free from the usual constraints. And they have a strong incentive, thanks to real accountability, to get better results. They must perform or die.

Maybe I’m overly pessimistic about traditional districts; perhaps there are thousands out there that can use improvement networks to escape the gravitational forces that make change within their schools so difficult. By all means, readers, please tell me about more places that are already proving me wrong.

At the same time, however, I would urge the Tony Bryks and Melinda Gates’s and other boosters of “improvement science” to focus their efforts on the sector best positioned to take this bottom-up reform to scale: our nation’s charter schools, which continue to show a real commitment to getting better at getting better.

— Mike Petrilli

Mike Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared in Flypaper.

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