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The Future of School Reform-#1

April 27, 2011

Networked Communities

Education Week is running a series of articles on The Future of School Reform (blog link), a collaboration with the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  There will be seven articles in the series.  Having read the first four, I thought I would provide a summary of what I learned from each article.

The first article, Schooling as a Knowledge Profession, was written by Jai D. Mehta, LouisM. Gomez, and Anthony Bryk.  Their thesis is:

Schools need to transition from the bureaucratic industrial-age structure in which they were created a hundred years ago into modern learning and improvement organizations that are suitable to the needs of today.

I like the two images they paint in this statement; (1) improvement organizations, and (2) responsive to today’s needs.  Making these images come to bear will require a “change in mindset.”

They write about the 20th Century model of education that relied on universities to inform and drive educational reform.  The classroom teacher was generally not involved in the reform movement.

University researchers in schools’ of education would identify best practices and policymakers would mandate them at scale, and teachers would be expected to implement them.

We can see that this model has significant flaws because reform movements of the past have tended to advance the status quo and keep teachers from being knowledge generators in their own profession.  Professors design and teachers implement.  Yet teachers are the practitioners that understand the classroom at its deepest level.  It has been misguided to keep them at a distance from actually doing the research the informs educational reform.  Teachers are capable of solving problems of practice once they have identified student learning problems.

the authors point out that

Ib professional organizations, across a variety of sectors, the emphasis is on front-line practitioners systematically learning in practice to improve the developing structures through which localized knowledge is continuously test and refined, accumulated over time, and spread across the field.

We have approached educational reform in this way.  In the medical field, front-line practitioners (doctors) are intimately involved in improving practice.  This has typically not been the case in teaching at the elementary or secondary levels.

The authors point out that in countries with high-performing educational systems, like Singapore and Finland, teachers are comprehensively trained and put into collaborative groups to work on solving problems of practice.  While most schools and school districts are ensnared in the bureaucratic model, the authors discuss the work being done in the New York City public schools with “inquiry teams.”  These teams are using student data to uncover why they are struggling and with what concepts and crafting interventions targeted at their problems.  DATA WISE improvement process, a methodology that came out of the Harvard Graduate School of Education in partnership with Boston Public Schools, is a similar research-based practice that gets teams of teachers to analyze data, identify student learning problems, translate them into problems of practice, and work on changing practice to improve student learning.  In these models, teachers are intimately involved in changing the practice and supporting local reform.

The table below shows the four questions the authors believe should inform all inquires as part of a networked improvement community (a group of teachers in a school, schools within a district, like-minded independent schools).

Networked Improvement Communities
How do we understand problems we seek to solve and the school system in which they are embedded?
What specifically are we trying to accomplish?
What changes might we introduce and rationale for each?
How will we know the changes we introduce are actually an improvement

Towards the end of the article, the authors share the project sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in which they assembled a networked improvement community involving colleges and commercial partners to solve the problem of a high failure rate of students in mathematics courses.  In elementary and secondary education, we do not typically create networked improvement communities collaborating to effect broad, systemic changes in student learning.

They point out at the end that

transforming schooling into a knowledge profession will not be easy.

The changes will require bold leadership at all levels of education, but most importantly with classroom teachers leading the way.  We will need to shift our focus from submission to rigid standards to building a system that supports schools collaborating to improve student learning.  We have to move from the model of teachers being isolated in their classrooms with four walls and schools being isolated from each other to a system that promotes learning from one another and sharing with one another.

I welcome your comments after you have read my post or read the article.

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