At what point does an effort to scale an effective education practice turn into a mandate?
This question, I believe, strikes at the heart of education reform and suggests the cause of disappointing results for promising federal initiatives such as Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants.
The driving force behind every education reform initiative, from the national level to the local level, is ultimately to improve outcomes for students. It is a goal passionately shared by educators, administrators, and policymakers alike as they seek to identify effective education practices and implement them broadly. Yet, time and again, I have seen local efforts to bring effective practice to scale falter when an initiative is mandated rather than developed with the involvement of educators. In places as diverse as rural Kansas and Washington, DC, I have witnessed waning interest in promising education reform practices once a practice became a district, state, or federal requirement.
For example, in one urban district with which I work, principals were required for the first time this year to conduct regular, non-evaluative classroom observations and either provide “coaching notes” to the teacher or meet with the teacher to discuss what they saw and how instruction could be improved. At that time, these observations were not performed for the purpose of evaluating the teacher, and some principals in the district had already been successfully conducting observations and coaching teachers to improve instructional practice in years past.
A needs assessment of the district, conducted by my organization, determined that teachers’ use of effective instructional practices was sporadic at best and was likely contributing to unacceptably low student achievement. In an effort to improve instruction, the district began requiring principals—with training and the support of their supervisors (a newly created position)—to use a common observation template and process, observe at least 20 classrooms per month, and participate in a quarterly meeting in which results were reviewed and discussed.
The shift from sporadically used practice to required process certainly increased implementation, but it created another problem: According to a review that I recently conducted, principals and teachers alike view the district-mandated classroom observations merely as a compliance exercise and not as an opportunity to improve instructional practice. And while the observation and follow-up coaching processes certainly have room for improvement, I believe that the main reason for educators’ dissatisfaction is that the observations and coaching—unquestionably a great idea when done well—are now viewed as something they must do rather than as a practice that will improve teachers’ performance and ultimately increase student achievement.
Agency has been lost as boxes must be checked: Educators’ motivation has shifted from the internal (how can we improve instructional practice) to external (how do I meet the requirement that the district has imposed upon me).
None of this should come as a surprise anyone. Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the great tide of education implementation research, Milbrey McLaughlin and others found that “policymakers can’t mandate what matters.” Much more recently (February 2015), David Berliner and Gene Glass noted that “school reforms that work in some places don’t work in others” and concluded that it is “no wonder we can’t find a silver bullet for school programs.”
So what’s the answer? First, we cannot mandate behaviors and expect that they are going to be followed in the way we intend or with the outcomes we desire. Second, general guidelines or principles—especially when emanating from the federal and even state levels—are much preferred to specific policies or rules. For the federal and state levels, setting goals, disseminating information, providing high-quality support, and requiring protection of civil rights and improvement of student learning are helpful; requiring fidelity to a set of specific practices (even if they were found to be effective in other schools or districts) is not.
I firmly believe that the vast majority of educators and administrators are trying hard to improve outcomes for students, even when motivated by complying with policies from “above.” But I also believe that these same educators and administrators will move mountains when they are motivated by their understanding of practices that work and have the ability to shape those practices in a way that makes sense for them. It’s a tough balance to strike, but it’s the only one that matters.