The Xerox effect: Why replication in education falls short

Perhaps the most seductive trap in all of education reform is the idea of replication. A charter school is high achieving? Turn it into a CMO! A curriculum is achieving big results? Bring it to every classroom in its district! An instructional strategy is clicking with teachers? Take it nationwide! In theory, this makes sense. We should, after all, learn from the best, and if something is working, why not replicate it?

copier
Copying success doesn't always lead to success.
Photo by Andre W.

Too often, though, replication falls short of these high expectations. It ends up more like an old-fashioned Xerox, where each new copy is a little worse than the one that came before.

In education, the Xerox effect often stems from a shift in focus. In the high achieving schools and classrooms so many seek to copy, teachers and leaders work together with their eyes firmly focused on the goal of improving student achievement. In replication schools, however, that focus is too often diverted from student outcomes to the faithful implementation of “proven” programs, systems and tools.

What’s more, feedback in replication schools too often becomes unidirectional and is aimed at how well the program is being implemented, rather than on whether—faithful to the program or not—teachers are driving outstanding achievement. Unfortunately, when fidelity to a program becomes the goal, the program itself becomes a distraction, rather than a catalyst for great instruction.

Understanding the limitations of simple replication is one of the many things that sets Doug Lemov’s book, Teach Like a Champion, apart from so many others. He makes it clear that his book:

…starts with and is justified by the results it helps teachers achieve, not by its fealty to some ideological principle. The result to aim for is not the loyal adoption of these techniques for their own sake but their application in service of increased student achievement. Too many ideas, even good ones, go bad when they become an end and not a means.

The strategies in Teach Like a Champion are suggested only inasmuch as they serve the goal of improving student achievement. Indeed, what Lemov outlines are tactics aimed at improving the skills and technique of teaching. They are not meant to provide a “step-by-step guide” to great instruction. That’s because, as so many educators know all too well, getting results in schools is about much more than implementing a program, it is about the knowledge, skill, and commitment of those doing the implementing. In other words: In schools, the chef is at least as important as the recipe.

That is why data-driven instruction is difficult to do well, but why it can be so powerful in the hands of a skilled teacher. Effectively implemented, data-driven instruction centers on setting clear outcomes for student learning, frequently assessing student progress towards mastery of the knowledge and skills they need, and thoughtfully planning and tweaking short- and long-term plans in response to the needs of the students. It relies on the skill of the teacher as much as the curriculum, analysis tools, or instructional program.

In schools, the chef is at least as important as the recipe.

This is something that Paul Bambrick-Santoyo understands intimately. Paul is managing director of the North Star network of Uncommon Schools in Newark, New Jersey, author of Driven By Data, and an educator for whom I have a deep and abiding respect. In his new book, Leverage Leadership: A Practical Guide to Building Exceptional Schools, of the seven core areas—or “levers”—he lists as the most important drivers of school-wide student achievement, “data driven instruction” is highlighted as the most important.

Yet, despite his deep understanding of the importance of setting goals and using programs and processes only in service of achieving them, much of this new book falls into the “replication trap.” In Leverage Leadership, Bambrick-Santoyo seeks to pen a “step-by-step method for creating exceptional schools.” Unfortunately, by doing so, he focuses more attention on the systems and processes that effective principals use than on the importance of setting clear instructional, planning, and PD goals, and on honing the skills that will help leaders help their teachers achieve excellence.

This focus on processes first and substance second is perhaps most evident in the chapter on “observation and feedback.” Here, Bambrick-Santoyo rightly notes that “effective observation and feedback…[is] about coaching,” and he recommends that principals spend far more time observing and giving feedback to teachers than is typical. 

Bambrick-Santoyo is, of course, absolutely right. The traditional teacher evaluation model—where teachers are observed barely once a year and given very little in the way of actionable feedback—is deeply flawed. And spending more time in classrooms and having one-on-one feedback conversations with teachers will go a long way towards helping teachers improve their craft.

Yet what Bambrick-Santoyo all but glosses over is how important the quality of that feedback is to a teacher’s development. Yet this is an area where the principal he profiles is truly exceptional. Yes, Jackson does make more time for teacher observations and for direct, one-on-one feedback. And yes, she does create systems that ensure that feedback translates to action. (Two of the four “keys to observation and feedback” Bambrick-Santoyo outlines.) But effectively identifying the “one or two most important areas for growth” is where Jackson likely rises far above her peers. And that is the “step” that will be most difficult for inexperienced or struggling school leaders to replicate.

In fact, in order to better prepare her to give the kind of focused, targeted feedback teachers need to develop, Jackson has gone above and beyond. She has developed her own rubric of the “Top 10 Areas for Action Steps,” where she clearly and concisely articulates the vision of instructional excellence towards which she and her team are driving. And she uses these indicators to inform her observations, to map teachers’ professional development plans, and to frame her feedback conversations. Given the sizable investment of time and learning she has put into this work, it would be near-impossible for another leader in a distant network to merely replicate what she’s done and achieve the same results. And most attempts to do so would lead inevitably to the Xerox effect.

In the end, there is no “step-by-step” guide to creating exceptional schools and there is no way we will replicate our way to outstanding student achievement results. Bambrick-Santoyo’s book is full of tips and advice that are as important and they are pragmatic. But the only way to take excellence to scale is to keep our eyes firmly focused on the outcomes towards which we’re driving.

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