Why Major Education Reform Will Always Fail

Crocs By Mark

We have some new leadership in my building that is making me very optimistic. One of the movements being promoted by our leadership is the concept of PLCs, or Professional Learning Communities. We've had these in our building for a while, but the current push involves analyzing student data to assess past practice and inform future endeavors.  Makes good sense, prompts a good deal of collaboration, and seems to be ready to push teachers toward improving practice. If it sticks, I see good things on the horizon.

Not too long ago I talked to a retired teacher whose building in a different state had attempted PLCs in her last few years of teaching. "We dumped that pretty quick," she explained. When I asked why, she explained that it didn't seem to be doing any good. When I asked her how she knew that, she couldn't really answer the question, but she knew that she and her colleagues didn't really like it. They said their principal called it "reforming" their school culture…they knew it was just another passing education fad.

This small is example is all you need in order to see why major education reform will always fail.

I've only been in the education industry for seven years, but it has become obvious that it is but a tiny sideways step to move from "reform" to "fad." Curriculum reforms, system reforms, the classrooms-without-walls or schools-within-a-school, the whole-language-approach or the new-new-math, the testing movement or the no-grades movement, are all based on some kind of sound logic and offer the promise of changing education. I'm sure in some pockets of the country, any education fad to ever be conceived is probably thriving.

And that's kind of my point: if you give certain "fads" enough time, they just might result in reform. Unfortunately, we're an impatient bunch as a society. We want our burgers hot and now and our schools "fixed" yesterday. We may say we understand that change takes time, and we may say that we are willing to allow time for that change (even the misguided NCLB has given a lengthy timeline before schools are to achieve the expected degrees of perfection), but when it all boils away, we want immediate results and start looking for something "better" if we don't get those results immediately. The obvious problem is this: we're talking about systemic change in a system containing 49.8 million students served by nearly 3.2 million teachers. Add to that the families, the taxpayers…everyone with an opinion on how schools are flawed and what needs to be done, and we are talking about a paradigm shift which must "move" a hundred million people in a generally similar direction.  You gotta bet that will take time…there is no immediate fix.

Speaking of time: that teacher whose building built and then abandoned PLCs? Her building had tried PLCs for one year before abandoning it…it had been a mandate from a principal who left a year after starting the program, and the staff was not invested enough to continue it a second year. Besides, she said, it hadn't resulted in the changes they wanted to see. After just one year. 

We need to realize that we can throw piles of money and the best of minds at "fixing" education, but it won't matter if we don't promote the patience it takes for real change to take root.

I wonder what fads have come and gone which actually might provide an answer to our problems in education–if we'd just have given them time to evolve and establish?

15 thoughts on “Why Major Education Reform Will Always Fail

  1. Kristin

    Mark, timely topic given our government’s struggles with reform. True reform seems to require revolution because it’s hard to get a critical mass willing to sacrifice something in order to effect change. In education, the sacrifices needed for reform are usually required of the teachers, and in my experience teachers resist both change and sacrifice – a hard group to reform.
    In my 13 years of teaching I’ve seen a lot of attempts at reform and efforts to try something new. You’re right, they don’t seem to last. The funding falls away, people are cynical, the enthusiastic leaders fizzle out or move on, or something new is imposed by the district or building administration.
    I’m wondering what would happen if a reform (or, dare I say, revolution?) came along that didn’t require money being spent on training sessions, or external guides, or extra meeting time. What about reform that starts where the teaching does, in the classroom? We talk about teaching practice a lot, but we continue to allow the ancient model of students listen / teacher talks. How about reform where the heart of the action is, in the classroom? What would that look like, and would it last?
    I wonder what students and parents would wish for, if they were allowed to change teaching practices. Few of them, I think, would wish for teachers to spend more time in meetings.

  2. Luann

    We actually have a system you described, Kristin, right here in Washington State. In fact, it’s our state model of professional development. It’s lesson study, professional learning community, and sharing of student learning all in one. It’s free if a district will only send someone to a free 3-day training. Why aren’t we using it?

  3. Eva

    In my opinion if any reform will succeed, it will be Professional Learning Communities. In my district we are at year 4 and we are finally starting to see some big results, especially at the elementary level. Teachers have to tear down all their psychological barriers, trust their teammates, and talk honestly with their teams about what is going on in their classrooms, with their students, and about their own teaching methods. Yes, that is a very scary thing to do, and with any change there is always some growing pains. You do have to work extra and longer hours even if your district makes time, but it’s worth it. When teachers actually get committed to the ideals of PLCs your students benefit big time.
    Through the process of common assessments administered multiple times throughout the school year with item analysis of those assessments you can custom tailor your instruction to meet the needs of all the students at your grade level through differentiated instruction, either by grouping in your own room or the team sharing different level groups and the kids exchanging rooms for a certain amount of time daily.
    Another benefit of PLCs forces you as the teacher to actually reflect on your practice, learn from your peers, and be more focused and intentional in your teaching (ummm, sounds like National Boards doesn’t it?) so that you really do impact student learning in measurable ways. The resulting data legitimizes what you already intuitively knew about your students, but now it’s data that can be shared with others and much more believable. It is amazing when you track growth over time you truly realize that you are making a difference by reforming your profession one person (student or teacher) at a time and isn’t that why we’re in this profession?

  4. Mark

    I agree that PLC holds potential, largely for what is stated in the replies above: change needs to happen “cost free” from within.
    It is a mindset/paradigm shift for many teachers, though. It has been a hard sell, I think, on our staff. In particular in the humanities department, where we rotate class sets of books and therefore aren’t all on the same sequence for content and skills development…it’s been a struggle because the idea of common assessment from which data can be analyzed is a sore point for some (including myself). I think the gathering of data to analyze student performance is great, but there are some problems in my context with uniformity since we simply cannot have a single uniform progression of content and skills, or even vocabulary (if that makes sense).
    Also, perhaps it is more in the nature of high school teachers to be independent and less intentionally collaborative (I’ve only been in three secondary schools, and while the overall “climate” was cooperative, the instruction going on was distinctly independent). That doesn’t excuse isolationism, of course, but I think it’s just one more force to wrestle against in this kind of reform.

  5. Bob Heiny

    I’m curious, Mark. Are you saying that student learning doesn’t increase because teachers decide not to use what we all know works to make that happen? We all know that PLCs, NCLB, and other what some call fads and fashions are all designed to overcome at least the appearance of that teacher resistence, sometimes called reticence.

  6. Mark

    I think its a combination of factors, and while teacher resistance is certainly a culprit, the failure to move forward on a major scale is due to the societal impatience I describe above. I’ve heard many stories about teachers whose districts were making progress under a “fad,” but who lost support or funding for that fad because policymakers or powers-that-be were not convinced that progress was being gained quickly enough… or, more often, they grew enamored by the next great fad with its glossary of buzzwords and ambitious promises. Teacher resistance is born from these very situations: it is understandable that teachers would resist if time and time again they see the “movement” sweep in with promises and plans, only to be replaced a cycle later by something “better.” This impatience, and perhaps impermanence of administration and legislation so with every cycle or new hire there is a new philosophy or new direction, has precipitated teacher resistance and skepticism. Add to all this unfunded mandated requirements, and masses have grown jaded and less and less receptive to accepting and buying into change. This is why, as Kristin pointed out, change needs to come from teachers, not to teachers.
    Further, since public schools are taxpayer funded, there’s a tremendous set of stakeholders whose opinions also impact the progress of schools. Though people argue about it, to me there is no doubt that providing professional development opportunities to teachers, more time for meaningful assessment and planning, and smaller class sizes in contexts where more teacher-student contact time ALL increase student learning and achievement…but they cost money for hiring more teachers or freeing up more time for quality assessment and feedback. Sometimes even when taxpayers approve measures to, for example in our state, reduce class sizes, the money is suspended from the budget or is rescinded before it can have an affect.
    I am curious, Bob: what is it that “we all know works to make [student learning] happen”? If there’s something out there that “we all know” works, is free (not contingent on the whims of taxpayers and legislators), and is as easy to adopt as your statement implies, please share!

  7. Bob Heiny

    Thanks for elaborating your thinking about why teachers resist increasing student learning. Respectfully, we all know how to increase student learning: tell students directly what to do, no hide-and-seek, … It’s intense, dense for both teacher and students. I’ve used it with preschool through faculty development including with people with IQ scores -2+sd. The largest experimental study conducted about learning demonstrated decades ago and millions of students worldwide have increased learning with it. It’s no mystery, not a magic bullet, takes more than one form, and requires teachers addrssing specific student learning, doesn’t cost anything beyond existing contracts to teachers or schools. We have all heard teachers give chapter and verse why we will not use it, but parents, businesses, missionaries, court directed schools, etc. use it as do legislators use it as a reference for identifying what’s possible to complement what students already learn. Some consider it a no-excuses approach to avoid teacher failures. Yes?

  8. Mark

    No. I wish it were so easy as “tell students what to do”!! If it were that easy, we’d all be out of jobs!
    I tell them “construct an argument following Toumlin’s rhetorical structure.” POOF. Done.
    I agree that students MUST know learning targets and objectives in order to be successful, but to imply that simply telling them what to do is all that is necessary is discounting the kind of creativity and instinct that good teaching demands. My first two periods of Sophomores are a great example. With each, I need to get them to the same endpoint in skill and content knowledge. My first period class has 31 kids and from the start just “got it.” They already had the study strategies and decoding skills to master the vocabulary and reading, they had the higher level thinking skills to probe our target text and quickly pick up on nuances of style and voice that the curriculum assumed would take six weeks. So, I push them further, faster. My second period, though hard workers in general, lacks the same skill and prior schema my first period somehow obtained. We’ve had to slow down tremendously and focus even on the basic congnitive processes of text interaction, word decoding, inference. They’re the same age, but by chance the mix is different. I have to be creative to meet each class’s needs and better serve those students. I cannot simply “tell them what to do.” Some arrived already able to do what I’d tell them, others may not get there for two more units.
    I could just stand at the front and tell them what to do, but that would underserve both populations.

  9. Tom

    Patience, man. Teacher-directed professional development is still relatively new, but it’s growing, and it’s not a fad. Growth doesn’t always look like a steady, uninterupted, upward slope. It looks more like one of those complicated, stock-market lines (last year’s collapse notwithstanding) in which there are peaks and valley, but overall growth. Your friend experienced a good idea that was poorly executed. But it was a good idea, and it’ll grow. Patience!

  10. Mark

    I have the patience… I hope the powers that be do as well. When I look at our present PLC, I see it as a four or more year process (in my department at least) because we need to lay the groundwork in curriculum alignment and resources before we can collect truly meaningful data…in other words, we’ve got some cleaning up to do first. I’m afraid, though, that in the typical impatience of powers that be, if we are not able to produce that data immediately, the project will be deemed a flop and the next wave of jargon will rush upon us. I think our immediate supervisors/administrators will be patient, but the PLC movement is taking time (which means money) and energy (which means money, less directly) so the lack of immediate data might be a problem. I guess if we think it is worthwhile we had better advocate our case.

  11. Elizabeth Schaefer

    I’d like to address teacher resistance to PLCs because I am one of those resisters. We have an inadequate ‘educational change leader’ who has not explained the how and why of PLCs, even though we have been in this failed process for over three years. Coupled with NCLB, PLCs become suspect to veteran teachers, NOT ONLY because it’s another fad, but ALSO because our experience has tempered our idealism about how successful some students can be in school -this spoken by a high school teacher of world history, with a state-mandated minimum competency exam. A new program, implemented by someone who doesn’t know ‘who we are’ or who are students are goes against successes we have had in the past. High school teachers ARE very independent, but I find the current authoritarian atmosphere (‘I’m the boss; I’m in charge’, ‘believe it or act as if you do’) is a discourages thoughtful, committed educators. Also, we need to address the problem of ‘data’ in education. High school teachers in my state have become very cynical as they watch exams being curved after they’ve been administered. What are we really measuring when we do this ‘benchmarking’ and does it improve students understanding, or performance?
    So, data-cynics, and veterans who find the ‘new’ not always better are resisting in some cases because they CARE about education and don’t feel the current regime is really about education.

  12. ann

    PLCs have been around informally forever. Teachers have always talked to each other and been self reflective as to why instruction didn’t work. My concern is the marketing that has gone with PLCs. We are certainly supporting the Dufours with something many of us have done and been doing for a long, long time.

  13. Mark Pennington

    Education is, by its very nature, experimental. We teachers are just as susceptible to snake-oil sales pitches, fads, and cultural pressures as any professionals. Check out http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/educational-fads-what-goes-around-comes-around/ for a list of 56 recent educational fads that will make you cringe, laugh, and add a bit of perspective. What goes around, comes around. Can’t believe I left out Professional Learning Communities…

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