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By Dr. Harry Tennant

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Improving schools as simply as possible

Dan S. Martin's blog post yesterday, Education Ride 365: Darwin, Protection---Public, Private---Agendas, Goals,  got me thinking once again about improving education.

A quote often attributed to Albert Einstein applies in the case of education reform:

Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.

The problem with NCLB is that it has attempted to make education reform simpler than is possible.


In order to improve something, it needs to to evaluated and that typically means that it needs to be measured. That's the only way to know if A is better than B. What to measure?

  • Student learning of the prescribed curriculum is clearly a primary goal.
  • Just as important is student enthusiasm for learning. Student learning will not be completed in school but must be continued throughout her life. She needs to learn how to learn and she needs to be enthusiastic about learning while in school and beyond.
  • Other practical considerations are also very important such as cost, efficiency, safety, convenience and so on.

NCLB has oversimplified the measured goal by setting absolute performance levels that all students must attain by a specified date. But students vary by ability and different schools have different starting levels. What are the options?

  • Measure absolute performance levels that must be met by all students (the NCLB approach...too simple because it doesn't take differences into account)
  • Measure improvement (every process can be improved but some are more amenable to easy improvements than others...we cannot fairly compare absolute levels of improvement)
  • Measure relative performance (grade on a curve, rewarding the high end and punishing the low end...this approach assumes that there will necessarily be some failures, precluding the notion that all can succeed)
  • Adopt new education paradigms (this is where education reform has gone off track in the past...constructivism, program learning, video lectures...we need to get beyond putting faith in unproven magic bullets and focus instead on acheiving important measured results)

Choosing any one of these makes things simpler than possible. Goals must be differentiated by ability. Every school can be improved, whether the school is exemplary or unacceptable. But don't expect strides as large in the exemplary school as in the unacceptable school. Schools must be compared to uncover which processes are working well and which are not working well enough. Yet, there's no reason to assume that the bottom X% has flunked.


The primary motivation of NCLB is threat: the threat of teachers and administrators being fired and entire schools closing if test results don't match the goals. The motivation is nice and simple but again, simpler than possible.

The flip side of threat is reward for performance. Pay the best teachers more. Again, nice and simple but simpler than possible. Student performance at high socio-economic status schools is consistently higher than at low SES school. Because the teachers are better? That would be quite a coincidence. The culture, education and expections of the parents has a lot to do with student performance. While I don't oppose reward for performance, I also don't expect it to be an automatic path for improving education.

Another motivation is the professionalism of the staff. This assumes that they care about what they're doing and they want to do it better. This is the motivation that I believe in.

  • There are few professions where you'll find people as dedicated to what they're doing as you find among teachers.
  • But along with their professional motivation, they need the tools for improvement. The most fundamental tool is measurement. Measure student performance, measure student enthusiasm. Measure cost, efficiency, safety, convenience and the others and make these measurements available to the staff so opportunities and needs for improvement are made obvious. Make them obvious to people who care and they will be improved.
  • They also need to see relative performance. Who is doing better and how are they accomplishing it?
  • What about threats of firing and rewards of higher pay? Sure, but don't assume that educators are in it for the bucks and don't assume that the source of better educators is a staff in constant fear of being fired. Educating is a meaningful activity...that makes it highly rewarding. Educating well and seeing student progress provides tremendous satisfaction...that is highly rewarding. Managing a classroom artfully and seeing students enjoying the experience of learning is pleasurable...that is highly rewarding.

We need to improve education just as we need to improve everything. And we need to make improvement methods as simple as possible...but not simpler! 

Posted at 10:17 AM Keywords: continuous improvement , NCLB 2 Comments

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