Working toward a consensus between reformers and those often opposed to them

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Bill Honig

Michael Petrilli recently wrote an essay titled “Where Education Reform Goes From Here,” which garnered responses from Sandy Kress and Peter Cunningham, among others. These pieces include much that’s worthy of support, emphasis, and further discussion, as well as a few areas of disagreement.

Based on their collective comments, I think there is a good chance for reconciliation and a working consensus between “reformers” and those of us who have had major problems with reform policies, implementation, and assumptions. There seems to be a common emphasis on the following approaches to improving student and school performance: 

  • The centrality of curriculum and instruction
  • High-quality materials
  • Building the processes schools and districts (or CMO’s) use for school improvement, such as improving the capacity at each school for continuous growth
  • Attracting higher caliber teachers, improved induction, career ladders, and leadership, and a continued attention to improving performance for all
  • Alternate pathways for high school graduation, including career and technical education
  • Increased funding
  • Striking a balance between school and local control and district and state expectations and support
  • Avoiding the harsher anti-public-school and anti-teacher rhetoric
  • Looking to both traditional public schools and charter schools for models of high performance

These ideas also drove our efforts in California—where I live and once headed up the state education agency—to improve performance.

Mike’s, Peter’s, and Sandy’s willingness to be honest about problems with the reform movement and their sincere attempt to find common ground is to be commended. Both charters and traditional public schools need to improve, and there is a growing agreement on what that takes.

Mike writes that preparing students for democracy should be one of the purposes driving any improvement effort. There is a growing interest in civics and civic engagement in the country, and excellent exemplars now exist among charters (Democracy Prep, for example) and traditional public schools.

My only caveat is to add one more important purpose of education: the classic goal of a liberal education to help enrich each student’s life so they can reach their individual potential and develop character and a high moral stance. Mike mentions in passing literature, history, and the humanities as helping to find out how the world works, and he makes a glancing reference to character development in the service of citizenship. Yet I think this goal of broadening individual perspectives to lead a more fulfilling life should be explicitly expressed. (For a discussion of this point, see my essay titled “The Big Picture: The Three Goals of Public Education.”)

Mike also deserves kudos for promoting rigorous career and technical education as a pathway for students not bound for a four-year college. For a school, district, or state, the preparation-for-work goal should be to maximize the number of students prepared for a four-year college (or a pathway on which they transfer to one from a two-year school), and to prepare all others for a specific vocation. Presently, the country is preparing about 40 percent for four-year colleges. Even if we increase that to 50 percent (a formidable goal), that still leaves a large number of students not served. Most current policy at state and district levels basically ignores these students and assumes almost all can and should be prepared for a four-year college.

I do agree with those who are wary of an early placement test because of the danger of a premature choice, as we should give some students the chance to change perspectives in later grades. As one alternative, schools in the San Diego Unified School District have a Linked Learning college program that’s combined with a career path in which students who follow the latter early on are able to shift to the four-year-college track at a later time.

Many of Mike’s comments on literacy are also spot-on, including the importance of early foundation skills, and then content and vocabulary, as the major drivers of improving comprehension, as opposed to an over-emphasis on “comprehension skills.” One of the major deficiencies of annual statewide literacy tests is the lack of connection to content and the resulting default to comprehension strategies. Louisiana, for example, is attempting to correct this situation.

From our perspective, too many reformers are still too wedded to a strict accountability model based on a faulty theory of change. The initial reform paradigm was a simple structural leverage approach: Define student performance standards (mainly for accountability purposes, not to inform instructional improvement), assess whether the standards were being met, publicize those outcomes, provide consequences for results (bad and good), get out of the way of individual schools, and let pressure from harsh consequences and competition, especially from charters and parents, force improvement.

This strategy proved to be flawed in several respects and thus didn’t produce the hoped-for results.

First, highly simplistic is the assumption that individual schools, if given freedom from district control and spurred by competition and consequences, would figure out how to improve on their own, and it proved false for most schools. Many reformers now realize that the missing ingredient in that paradigm was direct attention to and support for the nuts and bolts of school improvement: curriculum, instructional materials, professional development, team building, principal and teacher leadership, effective district (or CMO) assistance, and help with getting these elements to cohere, as well as proper funding for those efforts. (Peter Cunningham’s response to Mike’s essay therefore deserves praise for asserting the importance of funding if improvement is to occur.) By comparison, the indirect method of attempting to improve performance by standards, primarily test-based assessments, and consequential accountability turned out to be a much weaker way to influence school performance, and it produced considerable collateral damage.

Another erroneous assumption underlying this simple reform paradigm was that educators would not improve unless compelled or pressured by fear of consequences or competition. Actually, most educators want to improve, but many did not know how, did not receive proper support, or were subject to leaders who were motivated by a test-and-punish philosophy relying on fear instead of the more engaging build-and-support approach. Appealing to teachers as professionals and engaging them in the work of improvement produces results; pressuring them often backfires. Deming and Drucker still apply.

Yet many reformers want to retain or strengthen accountability with consequences and embed the more direct approach in high-stakes accountability. The two strategies conflict because they stem from two radically different theories of how to encourage professionals to improve. More often than not, pressure and competition detract from high performance. High-stakes testing encourages schools or districts to become too fixated on test results and test items, to the detriment of deep learning and learning progressions. Campbell’s law is relevant; consequential accountability encourages educators to game the system, outright cheat, or become detached from the commitment to deeper learning and long-term continuous improvement by concentrating on short-term test results. Some reformers retort that teaching to the test and test prep are fine if complex skills are tested. But the tests don’t meet that standard. Dan Koretz’s The Testing Charade and Jim Popham’s work exemplify the problems with focusing on standardized test results, which are not of a fine enough grain size to help instruction.

As an example, tests don’t reflect the emerging idea of the importance of learning progressions, such as the development of proportional thinking in mathematics. These should be driving curriculum, instruction, classroom student assessment, and personalization. (See the recently released and excellent “Illustrative Mathematics” for a free curriculum based on learning progressions that was developed by Bill McCallum—one of the authors of Common Core Math—and his team for math in grades six through eight, and which received a top rating from EdReports.) Many reformers have advocated for more personalized, adaptive instruction. One impediment was the U.S. Department of Education’s original refusal to allow the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium to develop an adaptive test on broader strands across grades so students could adjust to higher or lower positions on these broader learning progressions. They insisted that the tests be limited to the standards of a particular grade.

Annual test results are a useful warning light and offer useful information about subgroups, but a whole array of formative evaluations, the use of instructional tasks as assessments, and teacher and student judgments are necessary to focus on what is needed to improve student performance. All too often, annual assessments drive instruction in superficial and shallow ways, instead of being one tool in the service of deeper learning. Many charters and traditional public schools, which live and die by annual test results, have become test-prep machines, narrowing the curriculum and harming student’s future performance. Also problematic is the tendency for some charter schools to trumpet bogus results by such ploys as not backfilling open slots over time and creating a rarified cohort. Competition and fear of consequences have similarly infected many traditional public schools with the same disease, including outright cheating or fiddling with who takes the test.

Finally, radical decentralization did not produce the results as advertised. The theory was based in part on the idea that districts were a main part of the problem of low performance. Districts were consumed by politics, stakeholder resistance, and/or bureaucratic inefficiencies, and were thought to be ineffective because they were top-down compliance oriented, or incapable of or not interested in improving results, but rather in protecting turf. They couldn’t or wouldn’t change. Decentralizing to individual schools, preferably charters, however, did not solve the problem of district effectiveness or individual schools and teachers needing support. Districts (or the central support structure in CMO’s) turn out to be crucial players in improving schools. Instead of end-running them, efforts should be made to improve their performance, and should be modeled after what our best districts have done. Contrary to the argument that districts were incapable of change, there is a growing number of districts in this country that have significantly improved their ability to support school improvement

Districts in California—such as Long Beach (which only has a handful of charters), Garden Grove, Elk Grove, and Sanger—as well as comparable districts across the rest of the country, were able to engender school-site improvement by reorienting their management philosophy. They made the difficult shift from compliance orientation to support and engagement, but still insisted on high expectations—which, if not met, initiated discussions on how to improve. They placed solid curricula and effective classroom instruction at the center of improvement efforts and built supportive structures and processes to facilitate instructional improvement with impressive results. That strategy should guide improvement policies. Instead of giving up on districts, we should agree on and support approaches and polices geared to help the laggards improve. 

Bravo also to Mike’s suggestion that teacher quality and teaching are not the only determinants of high student performance. Curricula, good materials, support processes, money, and community efforts are all also crucial. While reformers are now stressing the importance of curriculum and instruction, they and many traditional school leaders have not thought deeply enough about the complex school processes necessary to improve classroom instruction. Mike alludes to “professional development,” but an effective improvement strategy is much more complex than that. Educators and policymakers need to concentrate on how to develop coherence among coaching, professional development, team building, use of instructional materials, a broad array of classroom formative assessment techniques, teacher and principal leadership, support for struggling students, and what districts must do to support those efforts.

It is also gratifying to see many pro-public-school reformers become sensitive to and willing to oppose privatization forces high-jacking their rhetoric to replace or drastically cut funding for public schools, or to squelch teacher unions, as has happened in many Republican-led states and at the national level. Most reformers now resist the canard that the choice is between reformers’ policies favoring students or the status quo favoring adult and union interests. Both pro-public-education reformers and the anti-reform camp want to improve the quality of our schools; the debate is over which policies or strategies will best accomplish that goal. 

Many of us also agree with reformers’ proposals to concentrate more on the front end of the teacher pipeline. Welcome are suggestions to increase the quality of new teachers by strengthening teacher preparation programs, in part via higher admissions standards, and by lengthening the initial time for granting tenure, with streamlined due process protections as part of career-ladder progressions.

For existing teachers, many reformers have criticized the almost exclusive reform emphasis on firing the worst teachers by test-based and intricate principal evaluations. The effort was ruined by the use of faulty assessments and processes, and the policy itself detracted from more positive efforts to raise the performance of all staff. Moreover, concentrating on the worst often neglected supporting the best through such approaches as embedding the most effective teachers in a learning community and expanding their influence

Rewarding excellent teachers with more cash has not worked and has caused collateral damage by lowering morale and jeopardizing team building. There is a simple way out of this: Pay the best teachers more, but also have them take on additional supportive roles. Career ladders and teacher-leadership positions need to become much more prevalent, as some reformers have argued. Convincing a top teacher to stay in the profession improves student and school performance much more than firing a laggard.

That’s not to say that the worst teachers should not be fired or counseled out. There are some excellent examples of effective teacher evaluation strategies, such as those in California’s San Jose and San Juan public school districts, where teachers have helped design and implement the programs. When there is teacher buy-in and evaluation is embedded in a comprehensive school improvement effort that includes the participation of teacher leaders at the school, the rates of dismissal or resignations of the weaker teachers is actually higher. Incompetent teachers can’t hide in group efforts; those who can improve do so, and the many who can’t just resign. Conversely, having principals spend an inordinate amount of time and paperwork conducting multiple classroom visits of every teacher for the purpose of formal evaluation severely hampers their more productive role of organizing their schools. Even the best teachers are willing to accept improvement advice as part of a collaborative improvement effort; but they tend to shut down, narrow their teaching, or resist when it is part of a formal evaluation process, especially from someone whom they don’t believe is more skilled than they are.

There are many more issues which could be discussed, but I hope that this commentary helps illuminate areas of agreement, areas needing further discussion, and areas that are still in dispute.

Bill Honig has been a practicing educator for more than forty-five years. He has taught in the inner-city schools of San Francisco, served as a local superintendent in Marin County, and was appointed to the State Board of Education by California governor Jerry Brown during his first term. In 1983, Honig was elected California state superintendent of public instruction, a position he held for ten years. In 1995, he founded the Consortium on Reaching Excellence. And he recently served as Vice-Chair of the California Instructional Quality Commission.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.