Embracing the challenge of classroom-level reform

One of the few things that nearly all sides of the education policy debate can agree on is that student achievement in urban schools and districts across the nation is distressingly low.

But that is where the agreement ends.

There is a complicated, rolling debate about the problem itself: whether this low level of achievement should be described as a failure of schools or a consequence of poverty, whether things are actually getting better and how, and whether our expectations about what schools can do are too high.

But even when we can reach some consensus on the scope of the problem, there is an even more hotly contested discussion about its solutions. Interestingly, though, conversations about how to improve achievement and reduce gaps seem almost myopically focused on systems and governance—how schools or districts are organized, how to hold them accountable, who should hold them accountable, and on. At the same time, claims about the potential of system-level and governance changes seem to both overestimate the impact system-level changes can have on student achievement at scale and studiously avoid what happens every day in the classroom.

It’s as if we were trying to improve cancer treatment with debates about how insurance companies reimbursed hospitals or whether states should provide financial oversight over billing rates, but without talking about how to improve the detection and treatment of the disease itself.

And the reality is that while we undoubtedly have school-governance challenges that need to be overcome, we also have a serious gap between what we expect students to know and the content and rigor of the work we ask them to do in class every day. Research has shown that, over the past several decades, textbooks have gotten easier, math courses have often become watered down, and on. And there is little evidence that system-level reform without classroom-level change will solve these problems. The only way to achieve dramatic improvements in student achievement is to impact the daily work that students and teachers are doing within the four walls of the American classroom. 

Yet classroom change is difficult. It’s an intense and frequently technical debate that must be grounded in the realities of teaching and learning in the classroom, and with a real understanding of curriculum and instruction. As a result, policymakers and pundits too often focus their attention elsewhere, on things that fit more neatly with the comfort zone of the partisan debates of our time, which more often than not are systemic reform (“More money! More markets! More metrics! No federal intrusion!”).

Which brings me to my friend and colleague Andy Smarick’s latest post. He pens an impassioned plea to “End. The Broad Prize. Now.” On the one hand, Smarick is certainly right that the Broad Prize honorees have made scant progress in improving student achievement, and it is curious to celebrate districts where so few poor and minority students achieve basic reading proficiency. But I worry that he goes one too far when he suggests,

If we want to help disadvantaged urban kids, we must stop propping up the failed urban district. We must stop driving our most talented and dedicated professionals into this disastrous structure that has repulsed every effort to improve it for half a century.

The challenge is that focusing the conversation on the district, rather than the classroom, glosses over the question of what students should be learning, whether we’re teaching it, and whether, in particular, we’re teaching it well in the challenging context of urban classrooms.

Indeed, Andy’s vision for The Urban School System of the Future focuses entirely on system-level reform. His contention is that by dismantling the failed urban district, improving authorizing, and centralizing power and accountability in the hands of the state authorizers rather than district bureaucrats, we can find our way to excellent schools.

To be sure, the charter movement is worth celebrating, and charter laws have paved the way for the emergence of a number of exceptional schools that are worth trying to replicate. But it’s also clear after twenty years of experiments across forty states that these governance changes have not yet—and alone will not—dramatically improve student achievement at scale. That is something that even the most widely acclaimed charter-management organizations continue to struggle with day in and day out.

That doesn’t mean we should ignore governance or that we should prop up adult institutions if they are demonstrably failing to achieve any of the objectives we’ve set. But we are kidding ourselves if we believe that governance changes alone will usher in the classroom changes we need to drive achievement gains.

If we don't focus far more time and attention on changing the daily work of students in urban schools, what's being taught and how it's being taught, I worry that we'll continue to see decades of incremental improvements—and that years from now we'll be writing about how the latest system of oversight and governance just didn't get us far enough.

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