Why is education reform so difficult?
12.19.09 – John Jensen, Ph.D. – Would everyone please raise their hand who wants educational change the cheap, easy, effective way? Okay, a few. I see a hand over there, one over there, and a few up here. Thank you.
Why is education reform so difficult?
by John Jensen, Ph.D.
(Scene: A speaker stands before an audience of a thousand educators of all levels. Introductions are completed. Speaker begins):
Would everyone please raise their hand who wants educational change the cheap, easy, effective way? Okay, a few. I see a hand over there, one over there, and a few up here. Thank you.
Now would everyone raise their hand who wants it the hard, expensive, ineffective way? Ah! A thunderous response, practically everyone The latter wins hands down. No contest even.
I’m glad you all came today and can take a joke, because–let’s be honest–our conference is almost a complete waste of time, except for the fact that you’re getting pay and per diem to be here. It keeps your part of the educational system afloat so the day isn’t a total loss.
I hesitate even to open the subject that was advertised for this particular workshop because I don’t want to have any shoes thrown at me, or have you all leap to your feet and exit the room. The title advertised is “Why is educational reform so difficult?” and I need–cautiously–to explain to you why and how you are wasting your time. Summarized in a phrase, reform is difficult when what you do is not on target. When it’s not on target, you miss what you’re aiming at, and that shot which takes a minute, hour, day, or school year is wasted, creating a sense of frustration and misdirection. Maybe not all your energy is wasted, of course, but probably the overwhelming majority of your time every day is.
Go ahead and take umbrage for a few minutes if it helps. How dare anyone tell me I’m wasting my time!
If you’re calm enough to consider the issue rationally, if that were true, how could you tell? How could a person say that? What’s the criterion against which such a statement makes sense?
Let me suggest one that’s as accurate as a tape measuring your height. The aim of a school is to increase students’ knowledge through conscious, deliberate effort at learning. Students are going to increase their knowledge just by being alive and interacting with their surroundings as they would at a community center or church social group. But we expect that schools are going to identify knowledge worth retaining deliberately and help them do that. Our bottom line criterion is students’ deliberately learned knowledge.
Now look at us here. I’m at this lectern and you’re sitting in your chairs. Where are the students? None in the vicinity. Not today, tomorrow, or the next day will we generate any new learning in students. Everything we do here must go into your mind as a thought, but then you have to create a plan with the thought and figure out how to advance the plan against everything you already do and everything done in your district—many steps diluting the link between our time here and increased student learning. All of you who work at the state or federal level are even further removed. The value of every hour you spend–which we agreed is measured in students’ learning–must pass through countless hands before it’s put to work, and with each hand that touches it, it’s vulnerable to being co-opted or bled dry.
Let’s take one example, those of you here who are school board members. Would you raise your hands? Thank you. There’s a good representation present. Based on what I and others have observed, I have a question to ask you. How much of the time you spend as a board member results in better student learning? How many of you would say “Most of my time?“ …No hands in the air. How many on the other hand would say “Almost none of my time.“ Okay, a good number. How many would say even “None of my time”?
The bunch of you raising your hand make my point. If we want to reform education and we have this legally constituted and resourced agency that either cannot or does not increase student learning, that’s a target shot at and missed. And what do we call that? We call it a waste of time. And extending our question to the state and federal people here, we can ask it a little differently. Of the work you do, how many other policy-makers must it go through before it reaches an activity in the classroom that even could influence student learning? Count them up, and let’s raise hands. Two others? Three? Five? Unknown?
A principal might say there‘s one step intervening about a deed by him or her that goes directly to the teacher and thence to students, but how many of those deeds raise the level of learning? And how many other deeds must go up to the district level, stop at curriculum requirements, meet certain checkpoints, and pass through teachers‘ negotiating unit first? How many good things would you like to do that have already been closed to you? All of those boundaries remove your activity from the essential one of increasing student learning. And the further you’re removed, the more inevitable it is that a larger portion of your effort will be wasted.
As a stimulus to thinking about this question, a startling example occurred in New Zealand which has a population near the median of our states. They realized back in the 80s that they spent vast amounts in administration yet their schools were close to the worst among industrialized countries. On a single day, they eliminated the middleman. They divided up all the money they had for education and apportioned it directly to each of their 4,500 schools, and gave complete power over spending that money to the parents of the children attending each school. Now New Zealand‘s schools rank among the best of industrialized countries, far ahead of the US. Once you understand what increases learning, in other words, you apply the resources as close to that point as possible.
If it’s too unthinkably radical for bureaucracy to cede control over resources to those closest to their use, it should at least distinguish which of its remaining actions directly influence learning and which don’t, and do more of the former.
An example of what I mean that applies coast to coast, K12, is the “completing assignments“ method of instruction. It’s usually comprised of moving knowledge about, with an identifiable product at the end for the teacher to grade. How many teachers here use the “completing assignments” method? Okay, probably most. And I can grant you that it does produce learning, even though slowly and often superficially, to the extent that you can keep everyone cooperating.
What’s missing? Why does that method produce superficial learning even for the ones that comply with it?
To deepen that learning, students need first to talk about it and then to do that at spaced intervals. We know this, do we not? The amount of student talk about a subject correlates with the amount of learning? And depth learning requires returning to it at spaced intervals? If anyone disagrees with this, I’d like you to stand and tell us why. Anyone? … Okay. With no objections, I’ll assume that we’re on the same page about this.
We know that students learn most deeply as they can talk repeatedly about what they learn, but there‘s a catch that you well know. If you simply open up to student talk, what happens? Chaos! If you want constructive talk of a type that increases learning, you have to do something else, you have to teach them group behavior.
Fortunately this isn‘t hard once you understand how. My book has easy-to-follow directions to create this first just with pairs working together, which is your bedrock energy; and then with small groups, and then the whole class. Students approach any situation according to their expectations about it, and you have to supply the expectations that create effective student talk. Such a shift from writing assignments to talking about what they learn is one of a score of valuable shifts that are easy to understand and easy to make.
So from the policy-makers viewpoint, what’s the appropriate followup? One possibility is this: Let’s install a new level of oversight, a new administrative team in each school to encourage teachers to encourage students to talk. Sound good? No, no. Please don‘t agree with me. It’s another waste!
Instead, if you know what you want, just explain what you want, why it’s important, and ask the person to do it. If you can get a change simply by identifying the key activity by the key person that directly increases student learning, why go elsewhere? It makes no sense to form more bureaucracy and make national policies and pit people against each other around what that key person is going to do. Just ask them to do the thing that works.
So policy makers, if you want teachers to teach more effectively, first find out what directly increases learning and agree on that with them. Then ask them courteously to do it. Then let them do it. Then applaud them for doing it. Then reward them for doing it. And teachers, don’t blame administrators, legislators, parents, or the community for things you can simply ask students to do. Just ask them to do it, arrange for it to be successful, and celebrate their success.
This is education reform the easy, cheap, effective way. Grasp the actions that directly produce learning in students, do them, and your results will solve all arguments.
To answer the question we began with, education reform is difficult because you waste time on indirect, diffuse activities that do not increase student learning, and with the small remnant of effective action that remains, you barely maintain it. For education reform the easy, effective way, know what your target is, aim at it, and hit it.
Finally, thank you for your attention, and for not throwing shoes at me.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of The Silver Bullet Easy Learning System: How to Change Classrooms Fast and Energize Students for Success (Xlibris, 2008). He welcomes comments directly to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and will send an ebook copy of his book without charge to anyone requesting it.
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