Thursday, January 12, 2006

Teachers needed to improve schools

Bring teachers to the table
By S. Paul Reville | January 3, 2006

WHEN MASSACHUSETTS adopted the Education Reform Act of 1993, the state committed to creating a rigorous system of standards, assessments, and accountability. The accountability function was intended to identify performance problems, provide assistance, and ultimately sanction poor performance if it could be remedied with help. The state is now considering what the ''help" should be. Which approaches to turning around school performance are most successful? Which are practical and affordable?

As the volume of schools identified as ''in need of improvement" ratchets upward under the idealistic assumptions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the urgency for the state to act intensifies. It is morally and educationally unsound for authorities publicly to label poor performance without a plan and the capacity to intervene.

Intervention planning is challenging work. There is little evidence of dramatically successful ''turnaround" strategies anywhere in the country. Policy makers in virtually every state are grappling with the question of what to do with their failing schools. Research evidence is limited. State takeovers have not been successful, except on financial matters. Most state departments of education, as is the case in Massachusetts, have limited capacity, personnel, and expertise to address the complex issues of school performance.

Naturally, the policy discussion migrates away from state bureaucracies. In Massachusetts, conversations on interventions and poor performance have focused on management prerogatives, turnaround partners, and chartering or privatizing failed schools. These strategies, like many others, have little or no research evidence to support their effectiveness.

Conspicuously absent in the debate on intervention has been the role and voices of teachers and teacher unions, arguably the front line troops in any ''turnaround" strategy. There seems to be a belief in some policy circles that school improvement can be accomplished in spite of teachers rather than with them.

Some of the assumptions embedded in the prominent strategies, management prerogatives, turnaround partners, chartering, and privatization imply that teachers are the problem rather than part of the solution, that the source of expertise on fixing school problems is external rather than internal or that current leadership is highly competent. Although each of these assumptions is sometimes true, none is always or typically correct.

Teachers and, certainly, unions don't have all the answers either. They are also sometimes the source of problems, but it is folly to shape school intervention and turnaround plans without extensively consulting teachers on policies and practices.

A common flaw of educational policies is that they take a ''one size fits all" approach to solving problems or meeting challenges. Not all failing schools fail for the same reasons. Therefore, not all successful school interventions will look alike. Our intervention policies will need to take into account the substantial variation in context: communities, leadership, curriculum and teaching, resources, students, demographics, mobility and a host of other factors. Our intervention policies will need to be strong but flexible and responsive to local circumstances. Above all, we will need policies and practices that those charged with implementing see as worthwhile and likely to succeed.

However, it's not just some policy makers' neglect or management bias that keeps unions from the intervention policy table. Union leaders are sometimes ambivalent about participating in solving the problems of the accountability system for fear of being seen as collaborators with a system of assessment and accountability which some of their members still actively reject. However, enlightened leaders across the country increasingly see that, however flawed, the system of accountability is here to stay and teachers have a vital role to play in improving that system. These leaders know that unions need to be at the table.

In addition to including teachers in policy formulation, we would do well to craft state intervention policies that increase the capacity of the state Department of Education to provide real assistance and tools, like formative assessment data, leadership training, extra time, and professional development, to our most challenged schools and districts. We should also view our policy efforts as experimental. We don't have much evidence to support any of the most prominently mentioned strategies, but this doesn't absolve the state of the obligation to get involved in helping educators improve teaching and learning in the Commonwealth's most challenged schools.

S. Paul Reville is president of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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