The Center for Public School Renewal

Note: Published in slightly different form as "Let Teachers Improve Schools" by The Detroit News, 7/6/2000.

Original Title:
School Improvement: Whose Job Is It?
by Barry McGhan

The state department of education called a meeting this spring to talk about improving its school improvement program. Why should we care about this? Because it reveals the obstacles that lie in the path of school reform.

School improvement efforts have been going on almost as long as we've had public schools–from the 1893 "Committee of Ten" specifications for high schools, to today's push for standards and testing. Just like GM tries to make better cars, educators try to improve their schools.

Just like GM, they've got a ways to go.

Michigan's current idea of school improvement became law in 1990. However, not much improvement seems to result from it. "No wonder." I hear you say, "If the state requires it, it can't be any good." But Michigan's version of school improvement is not a bad idea.

Schools must make a plan to improve achievement, carry it out, and report on the results. Things like test scores, number of parent-teacher conferences, and other pieces of information are put into the report. Knowledge of the plan's results–the successes and failures–supposedly will create conditions leading to improvements.

Administrators and teachers dutifully write the plan and fill out the report forms. They report to parents, usually at a PTO meeting, typically attended by only some of the parents–especially those already satisfied with their children's school. A report goes to the state (along with thousands of others) where someone may eventually look at it. Back at the school, the report goes on a shelf until they do it again next year. So, something that seems perfectly reasonable on the surface–making a plan and checking to see if it was successful or not–turns into just another pile of largely unread paperwork.

What's the state supposed to do? Fire people? Take over schools? Threaten districts with more charter schools and vouchers? Before recommending such draconian measures, let's look at why the situation is this way.

Planning, collecting data, and doing reports is not the problem. Educators do these kinds of things all the time. Part of the problem is that school improvement is viewed as something educators have to do "for the state," not for themselves. School personnel don't feel much ownership of the process. They see it as imposed from outside and not relevant to their needs and interests.

Also, they have concerns about the specifics of the improvement mandate. For example, plans are made and then some authority at the state or local level comes along with a new item that just has to be included. How would you feel if someone kept changing your plans to do something?

The data collection, based largely on MEAP testing, is rife with methodological problems as a means of assessing plan progress. In addition, MEAP tests are not well-respected by many teachers, who see them as a waste of time and money, as well as unfair to themselves, and to many students. The underlying standards on which the tests are based also create problems. That's because even though those standards may be "world-class"--in someone's judgment--they are still new, untried and therefore not universally accepted. To expect well-educated, independent-minded adults to show obeisance to such a set of standards across an entire state is expecting a lot.

It is a time-honored axiom of teachers that you rarely see the parents you need to see–the ones whose kids are struggling in school. In fact, lack of parental support is one of teachers' biggest complaints. A school improvement report delivered at a PTO meeting doesn't rank high on their list of ways to make progress.

Still, the idea of making a plan, gathering data to assess it, and reporting on that progress to stakeholders, is a sound idea. How to make this planning, assessing, and reporting a useful part of a school's culture is the challenge. In order for that to happen, school improvement will have to overcome what Stanford professor Larry Cuban calls the "durable core of teacher practices." These practices "fit snugly the unique contours of schooling aimed at all children" and have outlasted vigorous efforts at reform.

In their book Tinkering Toward Utopia, Cuban and co-author David Tyack say they know what is needed. Their studies of decades of failed education reform and improvement efforts leads them to the conclusion that in order for any reform to work, teachers have to be at its center.

They say that a well-meaning chorus of experts and authorities standing outside of schools shouting "Improve! Do this .... Do that ...." is not going to work. If the school improvement folks at the state department can figure out how to put teachers at the center of school improvement they will have done a great service for Michigan's children.

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