You’ve heard it before. Traditional public schools in America once worked but don’t anymore. They are failing. It is imperative, some say, to “disrupt” the situation. That is what corporate school reformers have attempted to do — with efforts to expand school choice, elevate the importance of education technology, and use test scores to drive policy as well as the evaluation of students, schools and teachers. Anyone who questioned the notion of failing schools, or the need for disruption, was called a lover of the status quo, someone who didn’t really want to help kids.
After years of educational “disruption,” some of the results are ugly. In this important post, Pam Grossman, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and a specialist in teacher education and development, writes about the dangerous effects of this type of “disruption” in the public schools.
By Pam Grossman
“Disruption” — the philosophy that’s worked its way through so many industries — has become a buzzword among education reformers. Tear up the systems. Invent something new. Iterate through the failures until you find success.
But in education, disruption that ignores research about what works can disrupt children’s lives and opportunities. As we have seen in the cities where these experiment are being tried on the biggest scale — Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia — when disruption fails, the consequences for children are devastating.
In Detroit, the disruption came via a boom in charter schools that forced schools to compete for students and families to fill seats and make budgets work. Even the city’s best district schools and its best charters struggle to make progress in an environment where students routinely hop between schools and uncertainty is the only constant. Schools are forced to compete not only for students, but for teachers and leaders as well – the human resources that are most critical to educational success.
The real disruption in Detroit has been the severing of relationships between students, families, teachers, and leaders, which research tells us is the very foundation of high quality education. The trust that families place in schools takes time to develop, as high performing schools of all kinds — district, charter, parochial alike — understand. The kind of churn we see in Detroit undermines the opportunity for even the most committed educators to develop that trust. The result is that the best educators flee to more stable districts or leave the profession altogether.
Many education reformers touting disruption ignore the very things that research shows will make the greatest difference in student performance — hiring and retaining strong teachers and principals. Often the actual educators seem to be an afterthought in grander plans to change the structure or technology of schooling.
In its latest effort at reform, Michigan legislatures will now allow Detroit to hire un-certified teachers — another disruption supporters say will bring new teachers with expertise in their subjects but no pedagogical preparation into the classroom. This is not a new idea. But little evidence shows that un-certified teachers — those who have not completed the requirements of a teacher education program, whether traditional or alternative — will be more successful in helping students succeed.
Again, it’s the students who will suffer.
Let me be clear that I am not arguing for the status quo. There are certainly elements of American education that would benefit from disruption. Halting the flight of educators from the profession or reversing the declining number of teachers of color in our schools would be well worth the disruption. Re-investing in public education so that schools serving our most vulnerable children aren’t forced to compete over scarce resources would also be a welcome disruption. We should certainly disrupt the trend of providing less and less preparation for teachers entering the most challenging schools and districts.
But reformers should take research into account and focus on strategies that are proven to work. That starts with taking the recruitment, development, and retention of teachers and leaders much more seriously. It’s not as sexy as iPads for all, but it’s much more likely to succeed in the long haul.
What would that look like?
Let’s start with how we prepare teachers before they are ever in front of students. In medicine, another high stakes profession, doctors and nurses go through advanced simulations before they can touch a patient. Pilots in training spend hours in flight simulators.
We need more opportunities for prospective teachers to experience similar approximations of practice, where complex aspects of teaching can be broken down. We should build on new technologies that use virtual reality to build simulations so teachers in training can experience, for example, a scenario in teaching fractions or responding to student ideas that is removed from the complexities of an actual classroom.
We also need to think about how best to retain talented teachers in the schools that need them most. This might include creating a true career lattice in which teachers are encouraged to develop areas of expertise, whether in teaching coding or differentiating instruction for children with different needs, and then share that expertise with others. It would require thinking differently about the incentives we offer for those who choose to lead from the classroom.
Such reforms would put more qualified teachers in classrooms, help them improve their practice, and encourage them to stay in the classroom longer. Not surprisingly, these are the strategies that high-performing countries already have in place. That would be a truly meaningful disruption.