Inspired by the music lessons my daughter and son were taking a few years back, I decided to pick up guitar.   In that first year I made steady progress under the tutelage of a guitar aficionado half my age.  I built greater finger strength and dexterity, developed a modest sense of music theory, learned my way around the fingerboard, and locked certain songs into muscle memory.  Unfortunately, my teacher then moved out of the state.

I still play guitar.  Daily, I pick up the six-string instrument and play.  Sometimes I teach myself a new riff or strum along to a song I learned previously.  It brings me great pleasure, and it relaxes my mind and body.

I desire to be able to glide up and down the fretboard in blues solos or effortlessly noodle along with jazz albums playing on a turntable.  I’ve tried to accelerate my skill.  I’ve purchased various books.  Instructional apps are downloaded to my phone, tablet and laptop.  I even have guitar instructional software on my son’s gaming console that allows me to plug in a guitar, play games, and learn specific songs.

Yet none of these products has truly advanced my skill.  I’m a wannabe who has experienced little improvement over the last several years.

Outside of my guitar strumming and my family, I spend most of my waking moments thinking about public education.  By many measures, we also haven’t improved much in American public education over the last several years.

Recent results from both The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reveal a troubling finding.  Generally speaking, the US’s performance in reading and math has been relatively stable.  This is all while we are coming out of an intense phase of education reform, chock full of ideas for how to transform the field

Presented with hyper-certainty and seemingly common-sense arguments, we were convinced that a range of reform levers would right the ship and put us on a national trajectory of stronger educational performance.  For example, we were told that stronger state-based accountability would introduce the right incentives for officials and educators and ensure that all children would experience more rigorous standards, therein raising achievement and shrinking gaps.  That doesn’t seem to have occurred.   We were also told that providing financial resources and mandating among four distinct options for school turnaround would eliminate persistently underperforming schools.  The occasional success story aside, that didn’t happen.   Then we were convinced that evaluating teachers using student outcome measures would improve the overall quality of our teacher corps and ultimately raise achievement.  On the whole, another miss.  I could go further, but you get the point.

There are very sound explanations for why these seemingly powerful ideas didn’t, generally speaking, translate into improved outcomes for students.  Below are just a few, and they are summarized in the broadest of terms.

Rick Hess explains in his classic Spinning Wheels how the politics of urban reform creates a vicious cycle of symbolic and superficial reform, just until the next superintendent takes the helm.

Richard Elmore describes in A New Structure for School Leadership how most reform efforts consistently fail to alter the fundamental relationship between teacher, student, and content.

Anthony Bryk and colleagues provide a compelling critique of modern school reform in their introduction to Learning to Improve, explaining how university research, a desire for immediate results, and superficial implementation collude to inhibit lasting change.  Their critique of the small high school movement is especially informative.

Prominent scholars such as Helen Ladd, Linda Darling-Hammond and Pedro Noguera have argued, among other things, that we have developed an unhealthy fascination with low-level, high-stakes tests while ignoring powerful forces beyond schoolhouse doors, such as growing poverty.  See also the Broader, Bolder Approach website.

Jonathan Sopovitz argues that high-stakes testing has an impact upon the motivation of educators, but that the “responses are often superficial.”  As a result, the last two decades did not produce radical shifts in organizational structures or instructional practice.  Instead, we systematically narrowed the curriculum to cover subjects privileged within the accountability system and spent valuable classroom time preparing students to take the tests.

The National Center for Teacher Quality, in its report, Running in Place, notes that while the strong push for teacher evaluations with measures of student achievement was a unique policy transformation, it “has not resulted in dramatic alterations in outcomes.”  A recent report from Rand suggests that in certain places, teacher evaluation reform was implemented too narrowly and without an understanding of the organizational resistance it would produce.

Moreover, Andrew Hargreaves and Michael Fullan explain that efforts to reform teacher evaluation, with an intense focus on the individual teacher, create perverse incentives while missing a more powerful reform driver—the power of collective professional capital in schools and districts.

Over the last twenty years we’ve spent vast energy and resources trying to find the answer to all our educational woes.  And, on the whole, it didn’t work.  While some measures have moved, many of the most important have not.  (For more on this, see Hess’s call for an honest reckoning of the evidence from the last wave of school reform).

Let me be clear.  There are numerous districts, schools and classrooms doing inspiring work.  Also, I have deep and abiding faith that schools can be improved.  This is not a lost cause.

I also think policy can matter, but I am beginning to lose faith that policy will be the catalyst for deep, powerful, and positive improvements in teaching and learning, especially when it lacks a fundamental understanding of the organization it seeks to change or is premised on the next silver bullet.

So, where do we go from here?  It is time to pick up the guitar and work deliberately on improvement.  It is not time to just strum along with the melody long memorized.  It is also not time to look for the next internet gimmick that is going to transform our performance.

My hunch suggests that success in both guitar and school improvement will require:

  • A clear vision of what good looks like.
  • A deep understanding of why past efforts failed.
  • An explicit theory of improvement targeting classroom teaching and learning with assumptions surfaced, vetted, and constantly questioned.
  • Sources of expertise and guidance who know how to do this work.
  • Investments in capacity building tied to what we know about how individuals and organizations learn.
  • Short cycles of deliberate action aligned with the theory of improvement.
  • Clear feedback mechanisms that tell us whether we are making progress and whether our underlying theory is valid.
  • Sustainable conditions that allow the improvement efforts to continue long enough to matter.
  • Intentional effort.

There are no miracles . . . not in learning the guitar . . . not in schools.

Time to put in the work.

Richard W. Lemons, EdD
Executive Director, CT Center for School Change