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The Big Picture
The School Improvement Debate

by Bill Honig

In late 2015, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaces the Bush-sponsored No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, and other reform efforts. The new bill greatly diminishes the federal role in education and, for the most part, shifts the responsibility for devising policies that will improve educational performance to states and local districts. We find ourselves presented with two main options—a Test-and-Punish approach or a Build-and-Support approach.

The former, which until recently has been widely accepted as the conventional wisdom, is supported by those who believe in the power of radical structural change and incentives. These self-designated “reformers” advocate test-based evaluations of teachers and schools and onerous consequences tied to those test scores. Their policies are driven by a belief in market-based competition, in which low-performing public schools are systematically replaced through charter school expansion or vouchers. An integral part of their strategy is the elimination of teacher protections.

The latter, more positive Build-and-Support approach has been used by our most successful districts and states. It places instruction at the center of improvement efforts; aims to engage all educators, students, and parents; and builds support structures to create effective school teams and continuous improvement.

What Are the Tenets of Conventional School Reform?

Conventional “reformers” assume that schools will not improve by themselves and, therefore, will require external pressure in the form of high-stakes accountability based on standardized reading and mathematics test scores. Reform advocates assert that the best way to improve student performance is to fire the lowest-performing three–five percent of teachers; reward the superstars; encourage competition and disruption by expanding charter schools and choice; and close neighborhood schools with the lowest scores, replace their staffs, or convert them into charter schools. In fact, many reformers promote wholesale privatization of public education by replacing public schools with charters or with private schools funded by vouchers. For a decade since the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), these proposals have been put into practice on every level—nationally, in most states, and in many districts. Until the recent repeal of NCLB, they have been significantly expanded by the Obama administration.

Has Conventional School Reform Worked?

Even by reformers’ own standards of using reading and math tests as a measure of success, the Test-and-Punish or “choice, charters, and competition” policies have failed to produce results. National test scores have stalled since 2009, and our students continue to substantially underperform those in other countries. More troubling is the significant collateral damage of the reform agenda and the harm it has caused schools, teachers, and students: narrowing the curriculum, devoting inordinate time to testing and test preparation, encouraging superficial rather than deeper learning, gaming the system and cheating, discouraging cooperation among teachers, diminishing and diverting public school funding, and, finally, creating a disastrous drop in morale among teachers and the diminished appeal of teaching as a profession. Tragically, these misguided reforms have diverted attention from the Build-and-Support initiatives that actually do yield increases in performance.

Opposition to the Test-and-Punish agenda has intensified as more people have become aware of its defects, and this disapproval was the primary force supporting the repeal of the “reform” orientation of NCLB and the Obama administration’s embellishments.

In late 2015, President Obama himself warned of the dangers of over-testing and the diversion from deep learning caused by our national obsession with test scores and testing. Several states are finding it difficult to attract and keep good teachers and are facing a backlash from parents, teachers, and advocates. As a result, they are retreating from the harshest reform measures and most dubious practices, including the overreliance on test-based teacher evaluation. In addition, a substantial number of parents have joined the “opt-out movement” and are keeping their children from taking standardized tests.

Build-and-Support: A Better Way

Thankfully, support for an alternative and more positive strategy has begun to emerge—one that is aimed at engaging educators in improvement efforts. The Build-and-Support approach is informed by the best educational and management scholarship, irrefutable evidence, and the practices adopted by the most successful schools and districts in this country and abroad. In this country there are many examples of effective Build-and-Support models such as the state of Massachusetts, which has become a world-class performer, and the Long Beach Unified School District in California, which has been designated as one of the three best districts in the country and among the top 20 on the planet.

In these and other exemplary models, the main drivers of raising student performance are engaging teachers by appealing to their professionalism and improving instruction and teaching. In these jurisdictions, policies and practices center on implementing a rigorous and liberal arts instructional program as envisioned by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)—an instructional program aimed at not only job preparation, but also citizenship, and helping students reach their potential. Implementation efforts build on and improve current practice and endeavor to deepen learning for each child.

Crucially, successful states have given local schools and districts the leeway and resources to accomplish these improvement goals and in the past few years have substantially increased school funding. In implementing a Build-and-Support approach, they stress the importance of fostering the capacity of teachers, schools, and districts to improve school performance and student outcomes. They emphasize better working conditions, respect for teachers, the value of teacher engagement and school-site team building, and the use of just-in-time data about each student’s progress to continually improve school performance. They don’t just concentrate on low-performing schools or teachers but attempt to raise the performance of all. They encourage parent and community involvement and support the social services necessary to help students in need. Policies also encourage divorcing accountability from high-stakes testing measures. Instead, they use test scores to inform collaboration and continuous improvement efforts in mutually productive discussions. At the same time, these states and districts have avoided the more damaging initiatives proposed by conventional school reformers.

Build-and-Support initiatives challenge the validity and efficacy of the reigning “get tough on teachers and schools” dogma and the belief in the power of “market-based competition, choice, and incentives” that have been promulgated by the federal government and a multitude of states and school districts through ill-advised yet generously funded initiatives. Unfortunately, while there is a growing shift away from the conventional “reform” agenda, these increasingly discredited proposals continue to be supported by far too many political and opinion leaders, wealthy individuals, editorial boards, think tanks, and well-funded organizations. This must change.

Public education has always been central to the continued health of our democracy and our way of life. Conventional reformers have foisted a set of initiatives on our schools based on an outmoded management philosophy and a flawed analysis of what it takes to improve education. These policies ignore history, research, and experience, which is why our best schools and districts have studiously avoided them. Not only do misguided reform proposals thwart the measures actually needed to improve our schools but their initiatives threaten to put the whole enterprise of public education at risk. We need an immediate course correction to follow the lead of our most successful schools and districts in creating effective learning communities at each school and, finally, building the educational profession that this country deserves.

Reference Note

Bryant, J. (2016, Jan 11). We’re Onto the Phony Education Reformers.

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3 thoughts on “The Big Picture: The School Improvement Debate

  1. Jack hassard

    Dr. Honig

    I look forward to exploring your website. For the last 10 years I’ve blogged on Ed reform with an emphasis on science. The biggest issue here in Georgia is Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District, a plan to create a state wide district of failing school. The plan is based on the New Orleans district, which Mercedes Schnider and others have opposed. I think your work will help in our fight to defeat the amendment which is on the November ballot

    Regards, Jack

    1. BillHonig Post author

      Jack, Mercedes and others have made a persuasive case that a state-wide district is a bad idea. The evidence from other states has been consistently negative. As many commentators have argued–look to Massachusetts which followed a build and support strategy and is world-class not states where the top-down recovery districts have failed. Bill

  2. Roberta M. Crispino

    I have just recently learned of Dr. Honig’s ‘ Building Better Schools’ model. It has been said ‘Seek and you shall find’. Well, I’ve been searching for the past 40 years as a teacher (now retired) and now I’ve I’ve found what I’ve been searching for.
    To be brief and right to the point, the mission of the Waterbury, CT public schools is to become the leader in Connecticut in urban educational reform. Thee Board of Education has just yesterday appointed an interim superintendent while they hire a consutant to find a permanent one.
    Waterbury was once The Brass Center of The World and is now trying to reinvent itself by emphasizing education ( UCONN branch), entertainment, and the arts.
    To me, the time is ripe for a radical change.. If the school system and political administration professes to be open-minded, then they must try new things and listen to new ideas.
    I’ve looked at so many models of education from charter shools, to Montessori and the like, and alternative schools. The future of this country lies in democratic public schools.
    Thank you.


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