Let’s Get Tangled Up In Meaningful Reform

Sara Mead was a good sport and responded thoughtfully to my last blog post on how education reform should be messy.

Mark Anderson has some interesting thoughts here about the role of teacher voice in sustainable education reform. One of Mark’s comments is that people need to get more engaged in “messy issues” of education reform. And I don’t disagree with that; messy issues are messy in part because they have a lot of important stuff tangled up int hem. But you can’t engage a tangled, messy issue all at once, whether it’s at a policy level, at a school or classroom level, or something as personal and mundane as cleaning your house. You have to break it down into targets that you can change and leverage little victories on some of those targets into eventual bigger ones.
Mark’s also surely correct that ed reformers shouldn’t think we can “somehow sit from outside of schools and tweak external mechanisms and change the culture inside of schools.” But I’d challenge both the extent to which education reformers actually think that or some of the implications Mark draws from it. Policy types need to have real humility about what policy can and cannot do. To my mind, a big part of what policy reform needs to do is NOT try itself to change the culture inside of schools, but to eliminate obstacles and put in place conditions to enable effective teachers and leaders to do the real hard work Mark is talking about here (with accountability–and I mean that broadly, not in the specific terms it often takes in the current debate–as the natural and enabling counterpart to that). [Bold added]

I think there’s plenty I can agree with here (especially on the need for real humility–from all involved), but the devil is in the details. For example, when Mead states that you have to break up the messy issues into targets, the question that really matters here is “what targets?” The targets that policymakers have been mostly pursuing are not the targets that I believe will “put in place conditions to enable effective teachers and leaders” to do the real work of education reform. On the contrary, as Will and I have been saying, these targets have in fact traditionally been a hindrance to our work as educators. And a large part of the reason for that disconnect is that teachers have not been directly involved in the process of policymaking.

So there’s an obvious bridge that needs to be built here, and fortunately there seems to be a growing recognition that teacher voice needs to be meaningfully integrated into higher level decision-making processes. But progress along that front is slow, and meanwhile, educators and students are suffocating in the strictures of ill-considered, disassociated policies.

Will and I are forwarding the perspective of schools as ecosystems because we believe this model provides a focus on the targets that will have the greatest impact: the contexts and the content that schools create and deliver. But policymakers have been focusing on targets that will have little meaningful impact beyond political shell games, targets such as the accountability that Mead refers to above. Accountability is the natural offspring of professional environments and cultures, not the precursor. Instead of focusing on the hiring and firing of teachers, we should focus on curriculum. We should focus on scheduled and paid planning time. Focus on the pre-service and in-service training and support that principals and teachers receive. Focus on whether there is enough access to healthy spaces for students to play in and designated time for such. Focus on what students are being fed. Focus on the support and training parents have to raise their children. These are the things that will raise student achievement and enable equity.

Over the months that come, Will and I plan to demonstrate that our model is relevant and meaningful to both policymakers and educators. We hope that we can help policymakers and other stakeholders to see that it is the messy targets that are hardest to touch from a distance that are the most meaningful to pursue — and that the best way to pursue them is from the bottom up, not from the top down.

3 thoughts on “Let’s Get Tangled Up In Meaningful Reform

  1. Great post, Mark! Thanks also to Sara for her response. I think one of the big problems with breaking down a complex, messy process into discreet, isolated targets is that people begin confusing those targets with meaningful goals. This leads folks to falsify test data, improperly allocate resources, and do any number of destructive things so that they can achieve their “little victories.”

    Rather than thinking about “targets” and “issues,” I think more helpful language would be “symptoms” and “causes.” For too long, policy makers and reformers have been targeting the symptom, rather than the causes, of educational inequity. Perhaps using this type of language will help us set short- and long-term goals.


  2. Hear hear. I also agree with Will above that “targets” and “issues” is not the best language.
    I would also say that humility is exactly what the policy types do not have these days. This is a consequence of the assumption that our system is an abject failure. If that is the case, no one inside the system can be trusted. When trust inside the system is completely degraded, then it leads higher level policymakers away from humility and towards thinking they can solve this problem alone, just by finding the right “levers” to move those “targets.”
    Really enjoyed these last few pieces, but I have to say, I often find these type of pieces by policy wonks such as Mead disingenuous. They step back, urge humility for policymakers and caution with simplifying top down approaches … and then in the next breath endorse destructive innovation to break the higher ed “monopoly.”


  3. Will and Cedar, you both make some excellent points, thank you.

    Will, your point about focusing on causes, rather than symptoms, also makes me think about how we expend so much of our resources and energy on remediation in education, when we should be spending it on prevention.

    Cedar, your point reminded me of the theme that Will and I have been pursuing this week, which is the idea that public education has an intrinsic value. But if this inherent value is not upheld and cherished, then what we end up with is a deficit model, a model which is devastating to students already disadvantaged by skin, place of birth, or disability. You're insight really struck me on this point — the end result is a lack of trust, and without trust, it's difficult to create positive learning communities, to run effective businesses, and to govern a functioning democracy.

    Let's keep this discussion ongoing. I'm excited by these ideas and can't wait to turn our model into a methodology, a positive praxis to counter the current reign of the deficit model.


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