Solving the Educational Paradox

Successful high-poverty schools have solved something that I call The Education Paradox, which goes like this:

We know from both research and common sense that good teachers are crucially important for children's education. But common sense also tells us that it is impossible for any one individual teacher to possibly know all the content and pedagogy necessary to teach all things to all children. Thus no one teacher -- no matter how expert -- can do everything we need teachers to do.

How do successful schools solve that paradox?

They create careful, deliberate ways for teachers to work together and share expertise.

To do that they structure time for teachers to observe each other, work together, compare notes, talk through problems, map out instruction, develop and refine lesson plans, and go through data to see not only which children need additional help but to see patterns of instruction. That is, to see which teacher had great success with a lesson that other teachers struggled with and what made the difference. Data use drives deep professional conversations of the kind that can actually improve instruction and thus student learning.

So what would happen if there were a deliberate attempt to do this across schools?

Interesting research from England published a few months ago points to some possibilities.

The U.K. education ministry asked Mel Ainscow, a highly respected researcher, to lead a multi-million pound effort known as The Manchester Challenge to raise achievement and close gaps in the larger Manchester area, which was characterized by low overall achievement and huge achievement gaps.

Three years after the beginning of the challenge, Ainscow says:

Greater Manchester primary schools now outperform national averages on the tests taken by all English children. And, in the public examinations taken by all young people at 16, in 2010 secondary schools in Greater Manchester improved faster than schools nationally, with the schools serving the most disadvantaged communities making three times more improvement than schools across the country. During the same period, the proportion of outstanding schools (as determined by inspections) went from 17 to 22 percent in primary, and from 12 to 18 percent in secondary.

These are significant results. To what does Ainscow attribute these gains? Primarily to: "Increased collaboration within the education system, such that the best practices are made available to a wider range of children and young people."

The collaboration he is talking about had to do with structures he and his team set up after studying all the school data and local contexts. They placed schools in "families" and pairings that crossed jurisdictional lines and then carefully structured conversations around data and evidence to find successful practices and share expertise. Some of the conversations were more successful than others but overall, Ainscow says, "expertise that was previously trapped in particular contexts was made more widely available."

There is nothing flashy and exciting about this kind of slow accrual of knowledge and skills by practitioners across classrooms and schools.

But it might be just what our kids need.