Snowflake Schools: Why Reforms Fail

As we lurch from one public education reform to another, it becomes clearer to teachers that those imposing these supposed improvements have little understanding how classrooms across America work.  No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core (to name a few recent “can’t miss” plans) were all well-intended, lavishly financed, and theoretically decent programs that in practice have not worked out well.  (To be fair, it’s too early to relegate Common Core to the landfill of educational wonders, but there’s little doubt it hasn’t been much help so far.)  And unfortunately, whatever good might have come from these expensive programs rapidly fades to nothing when the next big thing comes along, repeating the pattern that began in 1983 when the “A Nation at Risk” report first got everyone upset with how our students were performing in comparison to the rest of the world and spawned the accountability (translated: blame teachers) trend that has lasted to this day. (You can read this infamous document in its entirety here.)

So what’s the problem?  What is it about public schools that makes it so hard for outside agencies to affect any meaningful change?  Why is it that so many well-intentioned, highly researched programs triumphantly march into our public schools only to wither and die, but only after consuming enormous chunks of cash and time?

One reason, I would argue, is that all these missteps make real reform that much more difficult since teachers become more and more skeptical of any ideas from consultants, state officials, or the national government the longer they teach.  Remember in 2004 when we all respected the health advice Dr. Oz gave as he started appearing on Oprah?  Now, after dozens of ridiculous claims and miracle diets, only the most naïve can accept much of the pseudo-science Oz so loudly hawks, which makes it unlikely we will recognize or trust the solid, helpful advice he still occasionally provides.  Any teacher with ten-years’ experience has been through a similarly cynicism-inducing progression with all the noise coming from those who claim to know best how to turn underachieving sophomores into Phi Beta Kappa laureates.

But the main answer, purely and simply, is ownership.  One of the most important skills new teachers have to learn is how to become adept at taking charge in their classrooms, and this leadership skill becomes ingrained in their gestalt.  Whether they want it or not, teachers have the responsibility to plan, execute, and assess what their students do for over seven hours every school day; that pressure to engage, enrich, and control roughly twenty-five 6-18-year olds per class period creates take-charge, independent individuals.  You could have given me all the programs and expertise you wanted outside of class and I would have politely listened, but once the bell rang, I was acutely aware of my personal obligation to make that period would go well regardless of what others had advocated I do.

So I learned in the cauldron of daily trial and error what worked for me and my students, and what didn’t.  And, after those challenging first few years of struggling to figure that out, if you had the nerve to tell me that you knew better than I did how to prepare material, organize activities, or discipline miscreants; your ideas had to sound really good to me for me to give them a try.  And you could be 100% certain those techniques would have been unceremoniously dumped if they didn’t improve things fast.  I, like all teachers, didn’t have the luxury of patience with things that didn’t show promise in a hurry—we had things to accomplish every day.  So no matter how many experts claimed to have the answers, I knew that when it came to making my course relevant, interesting, and lasting for my students, the buck definitely stopped at my desk.

And I can’t pretend that I didn’t go even further in undermining initiatives over which I had no say and with which I didn’t agree.  For example, the whole token/stamp-for-rewards program many schools felt compelled to start as part of the Response to Intervention component of No Child Left Behind a few years ago seemed incredibly juvenile and ill-conceived to me when it was introduced at a teacher institute as one recent school year began.  So, I ridiculed and then ignored it without even giving it a chance to work.  Might it have had a more positive impact had I (and the majority of my colleagues, by the way) not dismissed it before the initiative even started?  Probably, but its development came from a federal mandate legislated by No Child Left Behind, which was then imposed on Illinois schools by our representatives in Springfield, resulting in our superintendent’s telling my school it had to form a committee, causing the principal to require department chairs to supply members, ending up with all teachers being given a Hornet stamper and ordered to reinforce positive behaviors.  So I reluctantly stamped all my second period students’ planners on the first day of class as we were told to do, made snide remarks as I was doing so, and then dumped the stamper in a drawer where it stayed until everybody forgot about the whole thing.

Would I have acted differently if a truly representative group of teachers had created an identical program without any outside influence?  We’ll never know that for certain, but I believe most teachers would have taken the idea much more seriously had teachers been its source rather than nameless “experts” and non-teaching administrators.  Ownership is a key motivator in any action we humans take:  Force me to eat a fish and I will be sated for a day; let me come to the conclusion on my own that fish are delicious and I will have a healthier diet forever.  There’s no question that it is simpler, faster, and seems more efficient for those at the top to make decisions that can then be issued as edicts for those down the line to enact; but we’ve found over and over again that this progression doesn’t work.  Only when those in the classrooms recognize a problem, push for change, reach consensus on the means for affecting the improvement, and control the evaluation of any new methodology’s effectiveness does public education reform have any chance of success.

Until politicians and administrators in charge realize how little power to control any reform they have and that we can’t improve schools without teachers being the alpha and omega of those improvements, changing public education for the better will always be just one more expensive, impressive-sounding, expert-laden, wasteful new program away.

For ways to make teachers the driving force in school improvement, see where you will find samples from James Crandell’s e-book on educational reform, Snowflake Schools.


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