The Worst Thing We Do in Education

December 7, 2015 at 4:14 pm Leave a comment

We can argue about the details of any new program or initiative that someone decides to implement in a school or school system or state. While a few programs may be inappropriate for the problem they’re supposed to solve or the purpose they’re alleged to address, the reality is that the majority of efforts to improve education tend to be grounded in research or backed up by evidence of success somewhere. Most programs make it possible for schools to see positive results under the right conditions. Those conditions usually involve adequate planning, communication with parents and the community, necessary materials and resources, appropriate and ongoing professional learning for teachers, and perhaps other elements particular to the program.

Too often, however, the most important element for putting a new program in place is missing—the commitment to give it a chance to work. The most recent example occurred when Massachusetts recently backed down from participating in the PARCC assessments and provided yet another example of the worst thing we do in education—undermine progress by abandoning a program before it has a chance to succeed.

The all too familiar scenario we see played out in district after district and state after state can best be characterized as Yo-Yo Decision Making. A decision is made to do something new. There’s a flurry of activity to put the program in place, often on a short timeline, targeting teachers with new demands, requirements, training, and the stress of changing what they’ve been doing. Significant, maybe even huge, amounts of money are spent to put the program in place. In the best-case scenario, teachers rally around The New Thing and do their best to do what’s demanded of them. They attend meetings, engage in professional development workshops, change out the materials in their classrooms, modify the way they plan lessons, and try to use new strategies for orchestrating their instructional approach or the way they evaluate student learning. They may get a year, or even two years, into the work of transforming their classrooms. It takes at least that long to even start to be comfortable with a new way of operating, but as time goes on, and with the right kind of support, they move in the right direction. Students may even start to show increases in learning.

Then, Something Happens. . .
. . . A new superintendent or principal arrives.
. . . A small group of unhappy parents (or teachers) finds the ear of a school board member.
. . . Somebody gets worried about being re-elected and needs to find a hot issue.
. . . An election results in a change in state government.
. . . A policy maker gets nervous about becoming unpopular.
Yo-Yo Decision Making inevitably makes an appearance.

The truth is that almost any well-conceived program probably has a chance of yielding some level of improvement if teachers work together and have the right kind of ongoing support. The wave of energy generated by people excited about what they’re doing and working together toward a common vision in support of the children they want to serve can be infectious—that energy alone can make a positive difference. But in the same way, negative energy can also be infectious. Teachers and students can be hurt by the harmful energy generated when they are suddenly told that all the work they’ve been doing for the last year, two years, or longer is no longer valued. Suddenly they’re expected to throw aside everything they’ve done and take on Yet Another New Thing. Teachers become discouraged, students become confused about what’s expected of them, and even more money goes down the drain. It’s no wonder that some teachers resist what they’re asked to do. Many think, “I’ve seen programs come and programs go. I’ve outlasted them before and I’ll outlast this one.” Unfortunately, they’re often right.

Problems will arise in the course of operating any program. When inevitable bumps in the road appear, there are alternatives to throwing a program out altogether and starting over. Why not identify what’s working and what could use improvement, and then fix what needs to be fixed? Every situation is unique, and what works well in one school or community may need to be adjusted to succeed in another school or community. Making periodic modifications as needed is the professional and responsible way to demonstrate commitment, support teachers and students, and see continued improvements in student learning.

If decision makers want to make a real difference, they can take the education of our children and young people off the table as a bargaining chip. Either choose another issue that’s not as critical to the future of society, or be responsible about decisions that affect the lives of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of students. Take the time up front to be as certain as possible that any new educational program is sound, grounded in research or supported by evidence indicating that it has a chance of succeeding. Then back up the decision with a real commitment to support it over time, refine it as necessary, and, most of all, stay the course. Isn’t it time to really improve education? Isn’t it time to let teachers work together to improve what they do? Isn’t it time to invest carefully and wisely in our most precious resource—our children? Isn’t it time to put an end to Yo-Yo Decision Making?

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Math Scores, Pendulum Swings, and Yo-Yo Decision Making

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