Do you want simple or complicated? Part 1 of 2

Is improving schools simple or complicated? According to an LA Times article, it’s complicated. Here is the headline: “In reforming schools, quality of teaching often overlooked.” Here is the link:,0,4340403.story?page=1

The article illustrates how the social science paradigm complicates educational improvement. It says turning around a failing school requires, among other things, hiring the right principal and teachers with the right value-added scores. Is it really that complicated? Let’s look at the article’s description of Edwin Markham Middle School (EMMS).

Social Science Crap

The first point is that EMMS had nine principals in 20 years:

There was Kimbell, Miller, Norris and Borges. Then came Mir-Rivera, Miyahara, Stroud, Sullivan. This year, Hernandez arrived — the ninth in 20 years.

Why nine principals? I know why.

For the past thirty years research findings on effective schools and effective principals have been interpreted to mean that, “The key to a good school is an effective principal.” This belief has been expressed over and over in my field of educational administration.

Is it always true? Is it sometimes true? Is it ever true? (I will deal with these questions in a different blog.) For now it is enough to see that, in the case of EMMS, the key to a good school was not an effective principal. None of the nine were able to turn around the school.

The second point is that many other improvement initiatives were tried. What did those look like? One principal said it looked like this: “Let’s try whatever, and if two of the 10 programs worked, fine.”

The result was:

None of it had much effect on the school’s test scores.

But that was not all. The third point is about additional resources poured into EMMS:

The state steered thousands of dollars to develop an 11-point “research-based” plan for change, including teacher training and community involvement. The effort was scrapped several years later after it was deemed to have made little difference.

A second program in 1999 directed more money to the school, and doubled the number of reforms —including data analysis — but also was ultimately judged to be ineffective.

And so it went year after year: New state and federal programs with can-do names often brought more money and more ideas to the campus, but little actual improvement.

They had all this extra money, “research-based” strategies, and data analysis; but saw no improvement? How could that be? According to the social science paradigm, schools improve through the application of educational research findings. And teachers and leaders who use “research-based” strategies are more effective than those who don’t. Could this be wrong?

Of course it’s wrong–just as it’s wrong to believe an effective principal is the key to a good school.  Certainly, in the case of EMMS, both beliefs were wrong.

The article concluded with the story of the past two years at EMMS:

Sullivan and his largely new team of teachers tried many of the reforms that had been attempted before at Markham: reopening the parents’ center, breaking the school into smaller learning groups and continuing intensive teacher training.

This time, the results were different: Markham had the fastest rate of student progress among district middle schools last year, The Times’ analysis found.

Apparently, the layoffs had an upside. Many of the replacement teachers Sullivan picked from the district’s hiring pool proved more effective than their predecessors.

Twenty-one teachers who were laid off in 2009 ranked, on average, in the bottom fifth among district teachers in raising students’ English scores and in the bottom third in boosting math scores. They were replaced by teachers whose effectiveness was close to average in both subjects.

In addition, many of the low-performing teachers who survived the layoffs got significantly better, jumping to near average effectiveness compared to their peers districtwide.

Markham had not been “turned around.” Its students still were significantly behind their peers statewide. But if they could repeat last year’s gains for several years running, they had a chance of catching up.

Last summer, however, layoffs came again. Sullivan had had enough, and left to join a charter organization.

Cut the Social Science Crap

It’s not that complicated. If 20 years ago the EMMS faculty had adopted the six-virtue definition of the educated person, it would be turned around by now. It would have gone from modeling and teaching three virtues (understanding, strong character and generosity) and three vices (intellectual incompetence, fear of truth, and pride) to teaching all six virtues.

Just think of all the ways teachers could have improved their modeling and teaching of the virtues with the resources that were given to failed, research-based efforts. Think of all the modeling and teaching of imagination, courage, and humility that could have been added to the teaching of understanding, strong character and generosity. Think of the resources that could have been used to ask teachers to look inside themselves for what they want to create in their classrooms, instead of attending in-service sessions with trainers who had never been in their classrooms. Think of all the resources that could have been used to create beautiful experiences for EMMS students and teachers.

It’s just that simple. Improving a school starts with adopting the six-virtue definition of the educated person. The second step is modeling the six virtues. The third step is teaching them.

Do you want simple or complicated? The choice is yours.


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