Why Don't Schools Embrace Good Ideas?

The leader of any organization knows that part of his or her job is to look for better ways to do things and to stay current on trends in the field. We should expect no less from our school leaders.
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If you asked me that question fifteen years ago, I would have given a pat answer: incentives, or the lack thereof. In our bureaucratic education system, described most accurately as a public monopoly, nobody faced strong incentives to look for ways to build a better mousetrap. And if that mousetrap was threatening to anyone (as mousetraps tend to be), forget about it; the status quo ruled.

Change the incentives and watch schools embrace change, I would have argued. Hold superintendents, principals, and teachers to account for raising test scores. Subject them to real competition. Then voila: They would spend night and day looking for promising innovations to improve achievement and better serve families.

Well, we know how that’s turned out. We’ve put a lot of those incentives in place, and schools (and educators) still don’t seem to embrace good ideas, even the non-controversial, inexpensive kind. Take, for instance, the following:

  • Bring “departmentalization” to elementary schools by asking strong math teachers to teach math and strong reading teachers to teach reading. Don’t ask anybody to do both.
  • Maintain a robust science and social studies program in elementary schools. E.D. Hirsch and others have demonstrated for decades that the best way to raise reading scores is to make sure students build a strong vocabulary and a strong knowledge base; elsewise, they won’t comprehend what they’re reading. Yet schools nationwide have pushed aside science and social studies to make room for mega-ELA blocks.
  • Extend the “reach” of excellent teachers via larger class sizes (with greater pay), new roles for master teachers, or technology. (Public Impact is chock-full of revenue-neutral ideas on this front.)

To be fair, there has been some good news lately, most notably Tom Loveless’s recent finding that ability grouping, after being shunned in the 1980s and 90s, is back in vogue. Since this is a commonsense way to “differentiate instruction” and help all students get the classroom challenges that they need and that will do them the most good, I would count it as a win. (Loveless speculates that NCLB-style accountability might have prodded schools to use this approach, since it works. Incentives!)

Still, on the whole, the picture isn’t pretty. What gives? Surely some economists would argue that the incentives we’ve put in place to date aren’t strong enough. Even now, few educators lose their jobs if test scores don’t rise. Principals and teachers don’t generally stand to make much more money if they achieve breakthrough results (or attract gobs more customers). And competition, at least in most cities, is still quite limited.

All true. But there could be something simpler at work: Perhaps many educators have never even encountered these ideas. Principals and teachers are so busy with the day-to-day struggle of their jobs—and now with new demands brought on by Common Core, new evaluation systems, and more—that they just keep their heads down and try to survive. They don’t have the time—or take the time—to read journals or blogs, to look for new innovations, to talk to colleagues, or to wonder about better ways of doing things. In this view, we have an “innovation-dissemination” (or “research-to-practice”) challenge.

I’ll admit, that sounds like a bit of a cop-out, especially for principals. The leader of any organization knows that part of his or her job is to look for better ways to do things and to stay current on trends in the field. We should expect no less from our school leaders, and those without an innate curiosity and drive for continuous improvement should be screened out of the profession.

But these principals do face an avalanche of information and advocacy from the government, from think tanks, and especially from vendors. Sifting through it all and turning the best bits and pieces into a coherent approach is no easy task. (And this has been a problem forever.)

Could we make that task more manageable? Could we help principals and superintendents to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of the ideas that come across their desks on a given day? Stay tuned for my thoughts on that. In the meantime, I’d love to hear yours.

Originally published on the Fordham Institute's Flypaper blog.

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