School Reform Is a Long Slog
Robert Slavin is one person in education whose work I have admired for years. His approach is child-centered, reasonable, and workable. As a practitioner for many years, I’ve always appreciated Slavin’s clear-minded ideas regarding what will actually work in schools as opposed to what’s politically exciting at the moment.
Years ago Slavin influenced mightily my view of remediation. Instead of slowing down and dumbing down the curriculum for less able students, Slavin recommended pre-teaching the information to students who typically might have difficulty the first time around. Instead of remediation, kids got a first crack at new information and skills. When the information was introduced to the whole class, for the pre-taught kids it was actually the second time around. Not only did they catch on quicker, they were able to participate in class discussion.
I introduced this idea to my faculty and, as expected, met with the usual resistance from some of them. Resource room teachers, however, saw possibilities in the idea, and sought cooperation from their students’ classroom teachers. Resource room teachers liked the idea of pre-teaching the lesson instead of remediating afterwards. It didn’t work every time, but kids liked the idea of actually learning something before their classmates did. It was a step in the right direction, and the right direction for me at the time was to eliminate the lowest track in my school that reminded kids daily that they couldn’t learn what they needed to. Like a lot of sound education ideas, this one didn’t cost anything; it was about changing the way teachers perceived their assignments. It didn’t take a national movement to improve instruction; it took inspiring a small group of teachers.
I often read Slavin’s thoughtful blog, and last week he talked about school reform, not where it is on the political spectrum, but how it could actually be accomplished. “…Teachers should have an opportunity to collectively learn about a variety of proven programs appropriate to their school and then vote to adopt one or more of them, or none at all,” he wrote. “This way … teachers would feel committed to whatever they had chosen and implement it with spirit and care.”
Not long ago I was invited to help design a school improvement model for a very large city school district – dozens of high schools and over a hundred elementary schools. We were allotted five days in the summer for staff development before school opened, and then as consultants we would work with the schools throughout the years. The money was good, as the school had Race to the Top funds. But I knew that the possibility of real systemic change for all those schools (and therefore any of them) was near zero. Reform isn’t something you do to people, and none of the rank and file had any choice in the matter.
Noting that in this country there are 100,000 schools and 40 million kids, Slavin asks, “Can we really reform it all one school at a time?” He believes we can. I believe it’s the only way. People have to believe in what they do. I’ve seen real change happen – real reform – when people want to improve and believe it’s possible.
I don’t think the school reform bubble has burst. I never thought of it as a bubble. People who spend their careers working in schools know that reform is a perpetual slog. The focus may change (this time it’s teachers and unions), but reform is an unending continuum, not an historic event. Improvement will be incremental rather than systemic.
I agree with Slavin: One school at a time. Strong leadership, committed teachers, manageable size.