School Reform: Why One Success Does Not Beget Another

Summary: Looks as though the difficulty of replicating the success of one school in another may come down to clever access or lack thereof to extra resources. The first school has been innovative in program, but often by leveraging additional funding in ways the less successful school has not.
It is perplexing. With frequency I read (and comment) about assorted initiatives of rich promise in schools of varied description across the country, some of which result directly in test score gains, such as the use of certain computer based skill drill programs, and others which seem to address critical variables in the upswing of skill development, such as simple attendance in school.
Few weeks go by, it seems, without some report or another that lends hope to beleaguered educators.
Yet our national standardized test scores inexplicably remain stagnant, which implies that innovations that bode well in bright spot locales simply are not translating to broad impact in rank and file schools nationwide. Why are we so stumped when it comes to moving viable innovations to scale?
Others make the same point, among them Joe Nocera, the New York Times and National Public Radio commentator, who in turn credits his awareness to Elizabeth Green (“Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone”) and Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education.
I remained stumped until I started walking back through the various success stories I had visited in the writing of this blog, whether in standard public schools, or charter, whether elementary or secondary. It began to dawn on me there was a common denominator to these widely varied success stories.
Most at once innovative and productive programs have tapped funds outside of normal school funding mechanisms, whether from foundation grants, federal programs, or the like in order to enhance basic classroom instruction in some creative way, and often but not exclusively to buy more adult time to focus in on specific problems posed by students and their learning.
Let’s take the use of “formative” testing, the micro-testing teachers use regularly to ascertain whether or not their teaching is making imprint on their students; the results of this testing then guides the course of subsequent instruction. A number of schools which have demonstrated success use one version or another of this technique. Though teachers can themselves manage all this structure, the use of Instructional Aides (IA’s) to manage and grade these quizzes release the teacher to higher order tasks for which they alone have been trained.
Instructional Aides are also used in successful programs for micro-instruction of students who need extra help on specific sequences of skills, sometimes in support of computer programs, sometimes on more of a one to one basis during the course of classroom instruction. Though IA’s are a long-time fixture in schools, particularly in special education programs, use of these folks, chosen for their ability to relate to at risk students, can be an efficient use of marginal extra funding.
Instructional leadership is another proven ingredient to current reform. Less experienced teachers need support, whether from administrators or veteran teachers, and more experienced teachers can continue to raise their students’ skills by on-going collaboration with their peers. Such collegial interaction raises workplace morale as well as student performance, but the dedication of time to these subtleties can require more staffing, and increased funding.

Parenthetically, one has to wonder how much the absence of such veteran mentors for new teachers contributes to the exit from the profession of 40% to 50% of new teachers within five years. In turn the same low income students who suppress our national test scores are chronically in the hands of inexperienced and therefore less able teachers. The system as we fund it perpetuates that which we try to correct, and which we may well be correcting, but only in relatively isolated instances.

Then there is the social service version of focused staffing, essentially to augment the traditional lure of a relationship with a teacher that has turned more than one young life around. Low income kids, sometimes tenuously tethered to the schoolhouse and either uncertain of their ability to meet expectations or of how education might brighten their path, can find their academic rhythm in an on-going relationship with mentors beyond that they find from their teachers. The use of Americorps young adults in versions of this role in the Seattle area is one example.
Even the widespread set of adventures with Teach for America high achievers as teachers is an apparent exception that proves the rule. While some gains have resulted through the intensity and commitment of these strong kids, if I read the reports correctly, burnout and attrition have plagued this infusion. In the difficult low income educational environment many of these kids tackle, the standard funding and the standard staffing are simply not enough to sustain them over the long haul.
The bottom line? Teach for America or no, teachers laboring to turn around low income schools need help to have the impact we need them to have – and those settings that have succeeded in doing so have in fact have benefited from targeted supplementary funding.
So we arrive, Jesuit like, at the solution to our query — whither school reforms to scale? I regret to report that money – the dearth thereof — is almost certainly a significant part of the answer. No surprise.
It takes little more than a passing knowledge of federal and state politics to recognize that the paralysis in these settings contributes mightily to the sluggish transfer of success in one school locale to greater scale in others. Foundations can do only so much; in the end in our public life we do not put political will to good intentions nor to pressing need.

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