Friday, July 9, 2010

Community Based Education Reform vs Structural Reform

There has been some recent discussions and posts related to how public schools should go about reforming themselves, for lack of a better word, in regards to educating children. The Federal government has offered money to states in a competitive grant process called Race To The Top. The two awarded states this year promised sweeping changes in terms of assessing students and monitoring their progress through statewide data systems. These types of proposals are very large and usually recommend systems that are meant to be implemented across the board in all schools and all school districts. Larry Cuban in a post describes these types of reform efforts as large structural reform (more about this later on with links to his post on the topic). Large reform projects are not new to public education, and have been deployed and implemented for many years. One such example, on a smaller scale, is the text book adoption process that occurs every 7-8 years. School districts around the country adopt a new text book/program and deploy that program in a manner that gets the most students through the most content by the end of the school year. If you have been in education for more than ten years, it's a safe bet you have gone through at least of few of the large structural reform projects yourself.

The flip side to large structural reform, is reform that is created locally. In this model, needs are determined by the community and school (as they relate to the students,) ideas are researched and generated to address those needs, and plans are created to put those ideas into action. Of the two types of approaches, the locally generated reform model is the most difficult to implement, and as you would have imagined, is also the most successful in terms of creating positive changes in improving instruction.

Why is this type of reform so much more difficult to implement than structural reform? The obvious answer is because it requires greater participation and a full understanding of what it takes to prepare our children for the 21st-century. Usually many of the members of a this type of group do not have a strong background in education pedagogy, they are not educators in the traditional sense and will only have familiarity with education based on what they remember from their schooling and/or their children. Another reason for why this type of reform is more difficult, is that it demands participation. Committee members must be able to speak and share their ideas without feeling like they have something to lose. Most people still are uncomfortable sharing their ideas with, essentially, strangers. There is an insecurity that comes with this type of committee, and due to the technology tools that are often used to help facilitate the discussions, this insecurity is amplified.

I am currently experiencing this first hand in the committee that I am co-chairing for our district. We are in the very early stages of developing this group, but already some of the challenges are apparent from the initial meeting and follow up online (or lack there of) discussions. We have our second meeting in August and the goal is to have shared some areas that we would classify as needs, electronically, prior to that meeting. Our second face-to-face meeting we will focus on those needs and begin the process of prioritizing those needs.

The following are pieces that have sparked my initial reflections I've written about above and on some ideas related to some of the work I've been involved with in my district:

Will Richardson's post titled, "A Summer Rant: What's Up With Parents?" expresses his frustration with attempting to engage parents in the education of their own children and the community in general with helping to motivate them in helping to improve our schools. To see the wide range of feelings on his ideas in this post, be sure to check out the comments.

Larry Cuban's Blog, School Reform and Classroom Practice, July 27, he writes a post titled, "Admitting Error is Very Hard To Do: Structures and Classroom Practice.

He begins his post describing how Alan Greenspan testified in Congress to the fact that he was wrong regarding the belief "that self-correcting market structures and federal regulations were enough to avert a major recession." He uses it as an example to demonstrate the difficult in admitting error. His introductory paragraph about Greenspan sets up his own admonition that for a great part of his educational career, he believed that structural reforms would lead to better classroom instruction. Now, after 15 years of teaching, and years of research on the topic, he feels this fundamental idea was incorrect. He goes on to describe that one of the champions of large structural reform projects are policymakers. It's a policymakers job to work in scale, designing solutions that get the "biggest bang" for their/our buck$. He goes on to describe that "changing one child at a time, changing one teacher at a time, changing one school at a time is incredibly inefficient use of limited resources." However, he has come to believe that to be successful in improving teaching practices, the "slow-motion Mom-and-Pop-store-one-school-at-time" is the correct process. We have all witnessed sweeping structural reforms come and go. His research and others have demonstrated that structural reforms do not lead to improvements and that working directly on individual and collective teacher norms, knowledge, and skills at the school and classroom levels have a far better chance of improving teaching practices.

Chris Lehmann is the principal and instructional leader for the Science Leadership Academy, in Philadelphia, PA. He runs a high school that has been doing a lot of innovative teaching and learning. As a result they have been getting a lot of good press and kudos for the work that they are doing and the accomplishments of their students. A lot of this attention on SLA has produced a great deal of discussion on how to grow or implement their practices in other schools. Mr. Lehmann has been spending some considerable amount of time reflecting on this ideas in his blog, Many of his posts about what happens at SLA contain a foundation that is based on school/local community collaboration. Whether that is projects that the student partake in, or determining the direction and needs of their school. Each year SLA sponsors a conference titled EduCon, it is primarily a tool for SLA to share the innovative practices they are implementing with other educators on a wider scale. Attendees get to see and discuss practices that are taking place at SLA and at the same time, SLA gets to pull ideas from the presenters and attendees that help them improve what they do. EduCon naturally inherits many of the same philosophies that are a part of SLA. In a recent post, Mr. Lehmann discusses what it would take to grow the EduCon experience beyond their little neck of the woods. In the process he describes both the core principles of EduCon and some of the core principles of SLA. All of which are his attempt at bringing the practices conceived at the local level into an arena that is more broader in the hope of gleaming nuggets of information that can be used not only by SLA, but by all participants.

1. photo courtesy of Max-B, CreativeCommons Licensed.