Eric Kalenze, Director of Education Solutions at the Search Institute, is guest-blogging at Rick Hess's EdWeek spot this week. His interest leans towards questions of research and best practices and how any of those things ever hope to line up with actual classrooms. Today he's asking one particularly interesting question--
Will ESSA's Evidence Requirements Spur Actual Best Practices? comes with its own answer included-- no. Kalenze wants to jump ahead to the answer.
His premise itself is a bit faulty-- he concludes that best practices are not in use in classrooms because of this:
If the practices and ideals that feel right and we continually work to execute are indeed 'best', how can we continue to show weakly in international comparisons, leave scores of the same populations behind, and not see progress jump more steeply over time on internal measurements?
He's missing the more obvious answer. If everything I know tells me that my Big Stick is three feet long, and I pull out a tape measure and that tape measure tells me it's not three feet long at all, I should be looking at the tape measure. Kalenze is starting with the premise that things like PISA and Big Standardized Tests scores are an accurate and complete measure of student achievement and educational attainment. There is no reason to believe that they are such a measure, and in fact the discontinuity that Kalenze brings up is one more reason to suspect that they are NOT a good measure at all. He also moves from there to the issue of examining whether or not our best practices really are best, and that is always a worthwhile question. You can't hurt anything. If a best practice really is a beat practice, then examining it will only confirm its bestness.
But mostly Kalenze has noticed that schools don't really do much in the way of implementing Best Practices, and while he thinks it's swell that the newest version of education law (ESSA) calls for schools to implement evidence-based improvement strategies, he has no confidence that it's actually going to happen. And he sees three reasons why:
1) Limits of Cataloging Interventions. You can't implement what you can't find information about, and beyond the Institute of Education Science's What Works Clearinghouse (a wholly-owned subsidiary of the USED), there's not much to be found (and let me add that WWC is not a particularly impressive resource.
And this would be a good time to remind you that "evidence-based" is an extraordinarily loose framework that includes "somebody has expressed a convincing rationale even if they have no evidence." Yet there's still not much out there for teachers to choose from.
2) Ed Decision-Makers Are Key-- And They Need Better Research Literacy. In other words, if your principal or superintendent is neither up on the research or a very good student of same (not that I'm in any way suggesting that administrators are poor students, but, you know, "those who can't teach..."). Also, a lot of crappy research is packed in giant slabs of baloney, which means whoever reads through research in your district needs to have a nice sharp baloney slicer.
3) Flexibility With Responsibility Won't Move Needles on Leaders' Research Literacy. This may sound like jargon, but his point is dead on-- all that ESSA has really added is one more piece of paperwork for administrators to fill out, and other than jumping through that "wordsmithing hoop," they will be free to continue exactly as they have in the past.
I largely agree with Kalenze, as far as he goes. But the big problem here is that, despite the widespread wonkery on the subject, this is not a policy issue.
There is one single way that best practices are effectively spread-- from teacher to teacher. Mrs. Teachowicz says to her teacher colleague Mrs. McPedagog or her teacher friend Mrs. O'Teachlots, "Hey, here's this thing I've been using with my students to teach cheese straightening, and it really works well for me."
You can pitch research at me all day, and I will certainly scan it for possible ideas. But at the end of the day, there is only one measure for Best Practices and that is this: when I do it in my classroom, are my students engaged and learning? Because even if Mrs. Teachenheimer has great success with an approach, it may not work for me or with my students, because we are human beings in a classroom and not toasters on an assembly line.
Behind the Search for Best Practices is the ongoing belief that if we could just identify some fool-proof, awesome teaching techniques, we could just pack those in a box and and any sentient life-form that unpacked the box and used those Best Practices would be an awesome teacher. This is a profound misunderstanding of what teaching is an how it works.
Are there practices more likely to be useful than others? Sure. If we're giving general marriage advice, there are some mostly-universal truisms that can be widely applied (Don't be abusive to your spouse every day. Occasionally speak to each other.) but the more specific the advice, the more limited its use (Every morning at 6:05, say "I love you, Brenda.")
So is it useful to have someone offering Best Practices out there? Probably, as long as we understand that what's Best is one classroom may be much less Best in another. Is it useful to have the federal government trying to push these practices? No, not at all. Given the choice between looking for teaching ideas on WWC or on any of the major teacher sharing websites, I will pick the latter every time. And as Kalenze correctly observes, the ESSA requirement is a nothing-burger, a demand for more paperwork so that federal bureaucrats can pat themselves on the back and say, "Look how we made education better! The proof is right here in all these forms! Yay us!" As always, any policy based on the assumption that the federal government has a better idea of what is happening in my classroom than I do is a dopey policy.
Kalenze's concern-- that some of the policies passed around virally by administrators like, say, implementing a whole bunch of unproven tech because computers-- is a valid one. He doesn't address one of the main sources of bad practices-- corporate sales. The people in the education field who are working hardest to push particular practices are the people making money from those practices. Some of the worst abuses have happened when government decides to endorse a particular company's product as The Way To Go. In that perfect storm we get the company's desire to grab money laced with their own company-sponsored bad research and bolstered by friendly government officials picking winners by strongly suggesting particular programs. This process has gotten us everything from Accelerated Reader to the modern charter school movement.And I don't have to time here to rehearse the whole sad history of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core, each symptomatic in its own sad way of the transformation of government into a corporate marketing department.
If we really want to talk about how best practices are being blocked out of the classroom by other baloney, we should talk about corporate marketing and its role in education. The danger in ESSA is not that it fails to properly push or enforce the choice of Best Practices-- the real danger is that someone in government will try to "clarify" or "strengthen" that aspect by offering specific "recommendations" of which practices the feds judge to be best.