Research Cycle

 Vol 7|No4|June|2011
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Nuance, Subtlety and the Search for Truth

By Jamie McKenzie
About Author
© 2011, all rights reserved

Complex challenges — like improving schools — demand solutions that address all of the various inputs and factors that influence success. There is rarely a challenge involving people and organizations that can be handled by emphasizing a single factor or input.

It takes considerable skill to understand and address the many inputs that contribute to school success or failure. The decision-makers must have a taste for nuance and subtlety. They must be well trained in systems theory along the lines of Peter Senge's work.

© 2010, J. McKenzie

Unfortunately, many politicians and government leaders opt for the dramatic, the bold and the emotionally satisfying assault on the disappointing institution. Such assaults play well in the media and gain an appreciative audience from the general public. If all the players responsible for poor performance were identified and included in the assault, it would play less well, so politicians sometimes count noses and focus on those players who are most vulnerable.

Systems theory would suggest that leaders address all 20+ factors that might contribute to success and do what they can to support, encourage and empower those responsible for making the changes stick.

A full-on, well designed governmental approach to school reform would prove exhausting and overwhelming to politicians who lack the resolve to address or fund those aspects of the system that require attention.

What are the key factors that determine whether or not a student will do well in school?

Anyone who has worked in schools knows that the answer to that question is long and the interaction between these factors can be quite complicated. Any conscientious attempt to make changes in the system that contributes to school success must take all of these factors into account, but politicians today prefer to take a sledge hammer to the challenge, feeling evidently that a bludgeon is the right tool for the job. The diagram below gives a glimpse of that complexity, most of which is ignored by so-called reformers. Their simple-minded approaches are lacking in nuance and deaf to complexity. They are doomed to fail. In recent years, the "Race to the Top" is a prime example of wrong-minded, simplistic change.

For ten years now, the Bush and the Obama administrations have both placed a narrow focus on teachers and test scores as a method of improving schools. They have also played around with the idea that closing a school and changing the principal will lead to improvement, even though there is little evidence to support these strategies. What is comical in a tragic sense is the sudden discovery of the current Secretary of Ed that changing principals only works if there is a cohort of much better principals waiting to replace the weak ones.

U.S. Plan to Replace Principals Hits Snag: Who Will Step In?
NY Times, By Sam Dillon
Published: February 7, 2011

The aggressive $4 billion program begun by the Obama administration in 2009 to radically transform the country’s worst schools included, as its centerpiece, a plan to install new principals to overhaul most of the failing schools.

That policy decision, though, ran into a difficult reality: there simply were not enough qualified principals-in-waiting to take over.

To anyone who has worked in schools, this problem was entirely predictable. It deserves a loud and resounding "Duh!" It is difficult to believe we have suffered through three presidential terms with educational change efforts led by people who simply do not understand schools or how to make lasting change. These attempts are politically attractive because they make teachers and principals into whipping boys and girls, satisfying the public's need to blame someone other than themselves and the social conditions that are the soft underbelly of the problem.

Dodging the Real Challenges

There is a direct relationship between poverty, segregation and school failures, as has been substantiated by countless reports for several decades now, but most policy makers prefer to ignore these findings and plunge ahead with their "shock and awe" campaign to scare teachers and principals into better performance. In February this journal reviewed many of these wrong-minded change strategies in an article "Why Wait for Superman? or Consider Inconvenient Truths?"

What is being done about Poverty? According to "The U.S. Department of Education report released Thursday found that the percent of high poverty schools rose from 12 to 17 percent between the 1999-2000 and 2007-2008 school years, even before the current recession was fully felt."

The percentage of public schools where more than three quarters of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch — a key indicator of poverty — has increased in the past decade, and children at these schools are less likely to attend college or be taught by teachers with advanced degrees.

The findings come from a special report on high poverty schools included in the 2010 Condition of Education study, which reports on a broad range of academic indicators across K-12 and higher education.

Instead of addressing these issues in a serious manner, Congress is busy cutting budgets and dismantling social programs that might help families to survive and support their children's school success. The lack of thoughtful, nuanced attention to effective policy development is shameful on both sides of the aisle.

A Sensible Approach: Capacity Building and Social Justice

The best way to improve the performance of schools is to build capacity in those schools and in the families whose children attend them. This is a complex and complicated challenge, but it is not beyond the intellectual capacity of our nation's leaders. We could establish programs to enhance the skills of both teachers and principals through well-funded professional development programs. We could also invest in recruitment programs to add to the number of talented folks heading toward a career in school leadership. We could identify and fund successful programs from around the nation like the Comer School Development Program (SDP) in New Haven that enhance the role of families in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The current focus of school improvement efforts on test scores and accountability is simple minded and wrong.

Sadly, in these times of austerity budgets, instead of building capacity, programs like the National Writing Project which have been proven effective are being eliminated, class sizes are growing and many librarians have found their positions eliminated or have been assigned to cover several schools. This is hardly a race to the top.


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