September 23, 2006

Friday blues for reading packagers

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education released a scathing audit of the Reading First grantmaking process.  I'm not sure why the department assumes that Friday releases of all the depressing news (for their initiatives) will depress discussion of it.  Not a chance. The New York Times's Sam Dillon has a piece today on the report and, as Scott Elliott blog entry puts it, it is a nasty little political fight, prompted to some extent by Bob Slavin, head of the Success for All project, one of the packages not favored by the DoE. Commentary and reports by Title I Monitor, Andy Rotherham, and Jim Horn.

I suppose the timing could be worse (three Fridays from now, October 13), but there is no good way to let the world know you FUBARed an expensive program. The structure of the Reading First grants essentially pushes districts into selecting from a limited list of reform "packages" that their more poorly-performing schools must use. If you're going to choose such a narrow approach, screwing up the approval process could be fatal to this menu-based approach to comprehensive school reform.

There are (at least) four central problems with this approach. One is that the evidence supporting a wide variety of packages is slim. The CSRQ Center Report on Elementary School CSR Models (November 2005) should be more sobering than encouraging about this approach. The report reviewed fewer than 3 dozen packages in an area (elementary education) where there should be the greatest evidence of which approaches succeed. My rough impression is that there are slim pickings. That doesn't mean that there are only a few approaches that would ever work. It does mean that we should be spending more time developing ideas than mandating them.

The second problem is that a package approach might discourage individualizing education for the weakest students (those in special education). Legally, schools must sit with parents and individualize plans. But if staff time is absorbed in the logistics of pick-your-package, I wonder how much time can go into individualization. I don't know if there's been any research on such effects, and I'd appreciate hearing from anyone who knows of any such research. I worry that there will be insufficient monitoring.

The third problem with a mandated package approach is that it treats the professional development problem of education akin to the problems of running a fast-food restaurant: standardize operations, and you have to worry much less about teacher quality. I'm skeptical for a whole host of reasons, one of which is the fact that teachers need a minimum of skills and knowledge to work effectively within any environment. It's too easy to see comprehensive school reform as a silver bullet, or at least a bronze one, have the vast majority of professional development time be sucked up into the model, and spend less energy on general professional development.

The fourth problem with a package approach is the overly scripted quality of many packages. There is a balance between anarchy and structural rigor mortis, and I'm not sure that the comprehensive school reform packages on the whole have that balance correct. In a mandated model system, there is always the danger that the staff has no idea what they're doing apart from the discrete tasks required by the system. We can test this with a scaled-up version of the snapshot criterion for determining whether a classroom environment is functional: Ask a random student in the class what they're doing, what the activity's purpose is, and how it fits into the last two weeks of activities in the subject. So in comprehensive school reform, ask a random teacher in the school what they're doing, what the purpose is, and how it fits into the year-long scope.  In both cases, shrugs and "I don't know, I'm just doing what I'm told" should raise alarms. A slim menu of mandated packages is likely to exaggerate this "just doing what I'm told" phenomenon.

I'm not saying that comprehensive school reform is a bankrupt approach to improving schools. Far from it: I've seen how a coherent focus for a school can make a real difference in what happens at the classroom level. On the other hand, an effective focus has certain requirements, and I'm skeptical you can manufacture an effective focus with a menu system.

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Posted in Education policy on September 23, 2006 2:51 PM |