10 Faulty Factors For Fixing Failing Schools

checkmarksBy Bill Henk – Not surprisingly, many of my posts deal with what works in making schools better.

Thought I’d take a different approach this time around, though.  How about I temper some commonly held beliefs about factors often touted as game changers?

My intent here is not to dismiss these factors.  No doubt that they can be impactful to varying extents in different circumstances.  The main problem resides in thinking that any factor alone represents THE answer.  It’s also problematic when the factor is taken to extreme or thought to work in every instance.  In fairness, each can conceivably contribute to positive learning outcomes, but only with proper qualification.  So here goes:

  1. Making standards more challenging:  Aiming higher is no guarantee of reaching greater heights.  For instance, anyone who thinks the Common Core State Standards, which raise the bar significantly for student achievement, are going to cause achievement to rise simply because they become adopted is sadly mistaken.    Don’t get me wrong.  I am a VERY strong supporter of these standards and lament that their formal adoption has seemingly been put on hold in Wisconsin.  We need higher and better standards.  But the standards alone won’t cause teachers to teach better or students to learn more.  A significant infrastructure of professional development needs to unfold before the standards truly drive achievement.  The investment will be well worth it, but we have a long way to go.
  2. Legislative mandates:  Politicians can demand higher achievement through governmental enactments if they want, but these unilateral dictates in and of themselves typically do nothing to accelerate teacher or student performance, particularly if they are unfunded.  In other words, despite popular belief, achievement cannot be legislated.
  3. Threats of Consequences:  This factor might work to some degree if districts, schools, administrators, and teachers weren’t already trying very hard.  Fear is rarely a beneficial motivator.  Most of the time its effect is paralytic.  Still, it’s fair to say that fear might cause some educators to try even harder and perform better.  Fear of school closings, funding withholding, and gainful employment might induce a modest number of principals and teachers to reach down even deeper.  In the long run, though, threats fall short in that they just don’t work across the board.
  4. competitionCompetition:  Very little data exists showing convincingly that the emergence of competition causes existing schools to do better.  Competition  may not hurt, apart from reducing resource availability, but it doesn’t help in any robust, consistent way.
  5. Intensifying accountability:  This factor has potential, but only when the accountability qualifies as reasonable.  When teachers are required to document how their efforts move students toward required academic goals, instruction tends to be more focused.  The issue, though, is that accountability often gets out of hand, and takes on a life of its own.  When this onslaught happens, the time devoted to accountability subtracts from other means by which teachers could otherwise fuel student achievement.
  6. High Stakes testing:  In my estimation there is clear value in standardized testing.  It’s one of the very few ways we have to compare students across disparate school environments.   The dilemma occurs when these tests take on the status of the only measures that matter.  Trust me, these measurements are imperfect in several important respects.  That’s a post for another day.  In the meantime, let me just say that treating  them as sacred, and worse yet, as another fear factor for schools serves no one.  On the contrary, if we keep these assessments in proper perspective, society will be better served. 
  7. Blaming schools, teachers, parents, or kids:  Devaluing others rarely has the effect of making them perform better.  Perhaps it is therapeutic for the blamer, or feeds one’s need for superiority, but it doesn’t usually inspire or compel a change in behavior.   Although  guilt might cause some of those on the receiving end of blame to take stock and try harder, as a general rule, it just serves to demoralize most targets of it.
  8. Ridding the teaching ranks of veterans:  Somewhere along the way, much of the American public came to associate teaching experience with lethargy, ineffectiveness, greed, apathy, and disenchantment with students.  By this way of thinking, teachers will invariably become jaded and uncaring as their years in the classroom mount. Using this logic, it follows that getting veterans to depart the profession, through whatever means necessary, would result in a better education for our students.  Well, be careful what you ask for.  As seasoned, talented, dedicated educators retire or turn to other endeavors, they take their precious experience with them, and students end up paying the price.
  9. Time on Task:  Merely extending the school day and school year is no assurance that the achievement needle will move.  What studies do show is that expanding the amount of QUALITY time on task is a legitimate difference maker.
  10. Giving the reins to amateurs:  Sorry, but there are too many would-be educational reformers, however well-intentioned, who know relatively little about the realities of schools and classroom.  They have no real experience or training, yet they think nothing of offering bold prescriptions and can be extremely influential in actualizing them.  Unfortunately, too many of these solutions are borne of arrogance or ignorance, as well as a profound failure to recognize that schools are highly complex social organizations.

By the way, it’s no coincidence that I saved amateurism for my last factor.   Why?  Because the naiveté that amateurs too often display is what has given rise in large measure to the other 9 faulty factors.

EVen more importantly, I invite you to look across all of the factors and think about how many can eventually evoke anxiety, distress, despair, and dread.   By my count, this potential for negativity exists for almost all of them.  Is it any wonder then that educators feel under siege?

Not exactly a constructive climate for fixing schools, is it?

2 Responses to “10 Faulty Factors For Fixing Failing Schools”

  1. 1 Mary Smith June 19, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    Excellent points in this post!


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