How do you measure the success of an educational innnovation? In The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas, Frederick Hess wrote the following:
How would you respond if asked for a plan to transform America’s schools into a world-class, twenty-first-century system? Now imagine that there is one condition; you must retain the job descriptions, governance arrangements, management practices, compensation strategies, licensure requirements, and calendar of the existing system. Hopefully, you would flee just as fast as you possibly could and if so, you would be way ahead of the rest of us, who have spent decades slogging through that dismal scenario. p. 1
Somehow I overlooked this 2010 book until recently, but much of what I’ve written and said about education reform aligns with at least a few key ideas in this book. Of course, there are plenty of differences as well. I suspect that I will have other posts prompted by some of the ideas that Hess presents in the book, but for now, I’d like to focus on the quote above. I suspect that one of the reasons why there are so many limitations to our innovations is that we have created rules and measures that are directly tied to existing practices.
For two decades, I’ve been studying innovations, school models and learning contexts that break new ground in the education space. As I often tell people, when I decide whether to visit a school, I’m far less interested in visiting if the school has desks in rows, bells, or letter grades. I don’t mean that literally (although all three of those are often absent in the schools that visit). What I mean is that I am interested in learning from models of schooling that have moved away from the 19th and 20th-century molds. They are not just tweaks on the existing system or practices. They are genuine alternatives or sometimes completely new.
Yet, as Hess and many others point out, there is much that has changed since many of the common features in contemporary schools were initiated. Where high school graduates were a small fraction of people in the United States a century ago, it is the majority today. Expectations about what should be learned in school have changed. The diversity of people served has changed. The demands of life and work have changed. . .drastically in some instances.
Some argue that the longstanding and dominant schooling model can be adapted to meet these changing needs, but others, including myself, believe that the changes are significant enough that we are wise to explore a much broader and more diverse selection of learning contexts and approaches. Even if the current model is able to adapt enough to meet the changes and contemporary needs, it is certainly not the only (or best in any widespread and demonstrable way) option.
One point that Hess makes in his book, however, is that people championing for greater and broader educational options are sometimes labeled as enemies of public education. People mistakenly equate “public education” with specific roles, policies, practices, political structures, models, frameworks, approaches and balances of power. To argue for a new way of thinking about teacher professional development, teacher accountability, or new roles and job descriptions is too often labeled as an attack on public education. I’ve seen this happen in many instances where the people exploring these alternatives were genuinely seeking to improve and strengthen public education. The problem, as I see it, is that people are defining something like “public education” or more broadly “school” by a group or person’s preferred form and not by its purpose and mission. Itt could also be that they are just using “attack on public education” rhetoric to demonize people who hold positions different from them, to protect their personal interests (but I like to give people the benefit of the doubt).
One person argues that it is too extreme and potentially irresponsible to overhaul the entire system, to imagine something entirely new. The next argues that this is the only way, that we are on a sinking ship. You can do all the remodeling that you like to that ship but it is still sinking. It is maybe just a little more attractive or comfortable while it is sinking, but it is irresponsible to convince people that they should trust you and stay on the ship.
I’m not convinced by either of these positions, at least not in many contexts. Instead, I am confident that we are wise to resist censoring some possibilities because of personal agendas and political interest. Exploring the possibilities and creating a diverse ecosystem of educational models and learning contexts strikes me as the wisest and safest way to face the nature of life in a connected world. This is why I am a champion for mission-minded experimentation with rich feedback loops and constant adaptation.
The mission foundation is important because, without that, we don’t have a means of measuring our success. We just use the existing or dominant measures which were never designed for an innovation with a distinct mission or vision. The traditional measures were designed under certain assumptions about a system. When that system changes, the measures often need to be revised or changed as well. If not, they fail to measure what matters most or is most promising about the new effort.
Too often public voices of education critique one approach to schooling on some one-dimensional basis (or maybe a short list that serves a given group’s agenda). Then they write and talk about their assessments as if they should be the universal measure of quality schools. Starting with mission invites us to consider an alternative. We measure each school according to its distinct mission. There is certainly room for a small set of more broadly accepted measures, but we must force ourselves to be incredibly careful about what goes into such as list, as history shows us that it is often too tempting to adding ideas and wording in these more widely used measures that create unnecessary limitations and boundaries, that unintentionally (or sadly, in some cases, intentionally) create winners and losers among the students.
Using existing, sometimes reductionist, oftentimes biased (toward traditional efforts) measures will not give us adequate insight on a given innovation’s promise. If we want that, then we must differentiate our measures on the basis of the mission, vision, values and goals of that specific innovation. Those with the greatest power for core measures are well aware that the person who controls the tests has immense control of the system.
Oddly, I’ve even seen well-known critics and figures in contemporary education critique new innovations and models (even entire systems like the charter school system. . .despite the fact that “charter” has many different meanings depending upon the state and context, and that each charter has a distinct mission and vision) on the basis of measures established for more legacy schools and practices. And, of course, many of our governmental policies are written with narrow conceptions of education and schooling in mind, which intentionally (or I suspect more often, unintentionally) limit the extent or nature of innovation in education or at least sets them up for failure or reductionist analyses of their value and impact.
The widely used and well-known measures make it easier for people to compare, but they also too often disregard the distinctions. Remember that cartoon which critiques one-size-fits-all testing, assessing an elephant by how they can climb a tree? This same point applies to how we measure new education models and innovations. More often than not, we need differentiated measures for differentiated models. When we do opt for a set of universal standards and policies, it takes great care to design them in ways that do not unnecessarily limit promising future innovations.