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Monday, October 5, 2009

5 Reasons Why Education Reforms Fail

Veteran teachers have been there, done that, seen multiple attempts at educational reform turn out to be just another failed fad. Worse, superintendents and principals sometimes order teachers around as if teachers were incapable of independent analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. These administrators even have the nerve to order highly successful teachers to replace a Best Practice with something else. Any teacher with the temerity to disobey orders and continue doing what works risks termination, or at least a bad performance evaluation for insubordination.

All that happened to a first-grade teacher I knew in California. She refused an order to cease teaching phonics and start teaching whole language exclusively. She never stopped teaching phonics, and each year every child went from her class to the second grade a capable reader. She could not be fired, but the superintendent rated her “unsatisfactory performance due to insubordination” several years running. When reading tests placed California first graders 49th in the nation, shocked administrators ordered teachers to resume teaching phonics. Her superintendent did the same.

But did her superintendent revise her evaluations? No, because, (so the logic went), she had been insubordinate at that time. So much for the value of critical thinking in our schools.

Whole language, properly implemented in conjunction with phonics, is actually quite effective. How did this promising reform turn into yet another failed fad?

To begin with, hardly any teachers got accurate professional development training in whole language. Here is a typical professional development sequence using whole language as the example: (1) First, at the very beginning, just a few teachers either read the original research or learn about it from the original researchers in a seminar where we could ask clarifying questions. I was a member of the second group.

(2)Then, education writers (like me) start writing about whole language. (3)Other education writers (citing me and others) continue writing about whole language. (4)The process goes on for a while, gradually “simplifying,” that is to say, diluting the concept with each iteration. (5)At some point, school districts begin commissioning professional development for their teachers. In other words, school districts hire outsiders to come into the district and teach the teachers how to do a diluted version of whole language.

These school districts often contact universities. I was part of a university professional development provider team. The school district would call my director and place an order. “I'd like five workshop presenters delivered in two weeks. And make it fun and interactive.” No, seriously. My director would call five of us and say, “Go online, look up whole language, and prepare a 90-minute presentation.” We five would carpool to wherever, deliver our presentations at five different schools in the same 90-minute period. We would take questions as if we really knew anything. After our respective presentations, we would meet up for lunch somewhere. If teachers did their own on-line research it would not count, while our expensive second-hand version was worth PD credit.

To be fair, my director tried to match expertise somewhat. My areas were literacy, math, science and foreign language instruction. She never asked me to deliver, for example, a social studies or special education workshop. (But the chair of the department of education once asked me to teach the social studies methods course. I demurred, “I've never even taught social studies.” “That's okay. Just read up on it at the library.” I refused the course, a dangerous thing for an adjunct professor to do).

What happened to whole language in California was that there was a professional development blitz, presenting a diluted version by people who may or may not know what they are talking about. No wonder whole language was poorly implemented.

1. The first reason (classroom-based) education reform efforts fail is that those tasked with implementing the reform are often implementing something else under the reform's name. After that, Jeanne Century's comments come into play.

I have told the story of a failed reform effort. Ms. Century is talking about successful efforts that fail anyway.

Unfortunately for education, the interest in getting improvements to spread has been accompanied by a failure to give warranted attention to a second question: How do we get improvements to last? The phrase “scale up and sustain” is also part of our vernacular, but the “sustain” part often gets short shrift. While it is important to understand spread, it is endurance that separates the tipping of fads from meaningful change. Unless the investments we make in innovations have lasting impact, in the end, we have wasted our time and resources and, most importantly, squandered students’ opportunities to learn.


Her reasons for fad failure:

2.False view of sustainability.

Our research suggests that individuals think about sustainability in one of two ways—as establishing practices and programs that last and stay the same, or as establishing practices and programs that last and change. While it is a seeming contradiction, the second perspective should frame our efforts if we want to bring about improvements that endure. In order to last, innovations must themselves adapt and evolve. Thus, in addition to identifying strategies that work now, we need to invest in mechanisms for improving and adapting those strategies so that they will work in the future.


3.False view of fidelity.

Reformers often choose interventions because they have been proved to be effective, which is good. But then they make two false assumptions. First, they assume that because reforms have been shown to work, people will actually use them; and second, they believe that when people do use them, maintaining fidelity to the original idea is of the utmost importance. The literature suggests otherwise.

While fidelity of implementation has its place and time, many make the case that adaptation doesn’t reduce effectiveness, but rather increases it...Effectiveness is important, but adaptability is key.


4.False view of future usability.

Just as market conditions always shift, so do the circumstances surrounding educational change. This assures that a program put in place today will not likely meet our students’ needs 10 years from now.


5.False view of tolerability of change.

The challenge, then, is finding the “sweet spot” of change, where the new practice or program doesn’t challenge risk tolerance too much, yet is sufficiently different from current practice to move the change trajectory in a positive direction.


It might be fun for the teachers (or even nonteachers) among us to analyze past educational fads in terms of the extent to which each fad possessed the characteristics of accurate training, fidelity, sustainability, future usability and tolerability. We need to raise the bar of expectations for classroom reforms.

Then we will leave the educators of the future with more than a collection of “best practices”; we will also leave them with the knowledge of how to make those practices work for the students of the future.

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