How Do Schools Get Better? (Part 1)

jarmoluk / Pixabay
jarmoluk / Pixabay

**Doing the right thing…knowing the right thing to do. This is a question that we ask ourselves everyday as school leaders. Richard Elmore, professor of Educational Leadership at Harvard University, published a paper with this title through the NGA Center for Best Practices (can be found here). He offers suggestions and practical advice on how schools can get better. After reading Elmore’s article graduate students in the Dordt College School Leadership program blogged similar advice, written specifically for Christian school leaders. Our first guest blogger is Tymen Berger, Middle School Principal at Abbotsford Christian School.**

Simply put, we need to be bolder than what is implied in the terms “school improvement” or even “school reform.”  Perhaps we need to think about it as school transformation.  What I mean by this is that these terms assume that the basic framework of “school” will remain the same; we just need to tweak some of what happens in school.  I would suggest instead, that perhaps we need to completely re-imagine how to educate our children; we need to transform the very idea of “school.”  This is radical stuff!

In his essay, “Doing the right thing, knowing the right thing to do,” Richard Elmore lays out a road map for school improvement.  Elmore’s plan is sequenced to move from recognizing student performance, targeting a specific area of student performance for improvement, improving instruction in that specific area, and developing increased internal accountability for continued improvement.  Once there is a culture of internal accountability schools can then undertake “a more ambitious kind of instructional improvement.”

Elmore indicates that at this point a school typically needs external help to continue the process of improvement.  With help, a school can diagnose problems that prevent further growth.  With diagnosis comes planning for, and developing competencies and capacities for improvement.  If a school manages to reach this level of improvement, the final step is for the entire school community to “internalize the values of managing and monitoring their own learning.”  This is a valid means to school improvement, but is it really the best means to increased student achievement?

I agree with Elmore in that school improvement is a process and not an event, but if we remain anchored to the commonly held notion of what a school is, then we will constantly be bumping our heads against the ceiling of the very institutional model itself.  In her article “A new Essential Curriculum for a New Time,” that was published in the book Curriculum 21; Essential Education for a Changing World, Heidi Hayes Jacobs writes of a  “Need for New Versions of School- A dynamic look at what needs to be new and essential in curriculum necessitates a corresponding, bold reconsideration of ‘the place called school.’”

I agree with Jacobs that this is not just about curriculum, it is also about pedagogy and even the institutional structure of how we do education.  At their core, schools are supposed to be about student learning.  If we are truly about learning, and we know an awful lot about what learning is and how it happens, then we need to begin with that end in mind instead of being married to the factory-inspired model that we have inherited from that past 200-plus years of history.

In the book 12 Affirmations 2.0; Christian Schooling for a Changing World, author Steven Vryhof quotes Jeannie Oakes, in Keeping Track, in which she complains,

We seldom think very much about where practices came from originally and to what problems in schools they were first seen as solutions. We rarely question the view of the world on which practices were based— what humans are like, what society is like, or even what schools are for [emphasis mine]. We almost never reflect critically about the beliefs we hold about them or about the manifest or latent consequences that result from them. And I think this uncritical, unreflective attitude gets us into trouble. It permits us to act in ways contrary to our intentions. In short, it can lead us and, more important, our stu­dents down a disastrous road despite our best purposes.

Perhaps to get better, schools need to become something completely new; something completely different.

References: :

  1. Jacobs, H. (Ed.). (2010). Curriculum 21; Essential Education for a Changing World. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.
  2. Steven, V. (2011). 12 Affirmations 2.0; Christian Schooling for a Changing World. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Christian Schools International.

One comment

  1. Good challenge Tymen. I think many of us probably agree that we are stuck in structures that are possibly preventing us from really engaging students in learning. So much of school life is about managing large numbers of students and teachers within a shortish school day (although ours is an 8 hour student day) that we don’t have the time to really focus on what constitutes good learning.
    Look forward to some suggestions for alternatives.

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