Tipping Point: From Feckless Reform to Substantive Instructional Improvement
Phi Delta Kappan - The Professional Journal for Education
THERE ARE simple, proven, affordable structures that exist right now and could have a dramatic, widespread impact on schools and achievement -- in virtually any school. An astonishing level of agreement has emerged on this point. Indeed, Milbrey McLaughlin speaks for a legion of esteemed educators and researchers when she asserts that "the most promising strategy for sustained, substantive school improvement is building the capacity of school personnel to function as a professional learning community" (emphasis added).
But here's the problem. Such "learning communities" -- rightly defined -- are still extremely rare. For years, they have been supplanted and obscured by hugely popular, but patently discredited, reform and improvement models. The record is clear that these failed, unnecessarily complex reforms have had only the most negligible impact on what should be our core concern: the quality of teaching students receive.
As Jim Collins has famously found, any organization attempting improvement must first "confront the brutal facts" about itself.2 In our case, the facts point to a fairly stark choice and an unprecedented opportunity for better schools. The place to begin is with a hard look at the evidence against conventional reform and improvement efforts -- and at the evidence that argues for the right kind of "learning communities."
The Rise (and Fall) of 'Strategic Planning'
In the years since "reform" first became a byword in education circles, "strategic planning" has had a pervasive influence on reform and improvement efforts. It was given a big boost by people like William Cook (some called it the "Bill Cook model"), an organizational theorist who eventually wrote a popular book on how to adapt strategic planning for schools.3 The terms and trappings of this process reach into virtually every school and district.
In the late 1980s, I began to work closely with schools to develop such strategic (sometimes "comprehensive" or "systemic") plans. Led by sharp, well-intentioned people, the work required days of dialogue involving large swaths of school and community stakeholders. There were procedures for conducting wide-ranging "needs assessments"; for writing lofty-sounding (but ultimately irrelevant) "mission," "vision," and "belief statements"; for "reaching consensus," setting "goals," and listing "action steps" and "objectives." We then designated "persons responsible," "resources needed," "evaluation," and "timelines" for the abundance of goals, action steps, and objectives we had set. All of this was then transferred into fat, published plans, replete with columns and boxes for each term and category.
Some of us began to notice that, once under way, the planning juggernaut was hard to control. Invariably, we wound up committing to far more activities and initiatives than anyone could possibly monitor, much less successfully implement. In selecting the professional or staff development activities that filled our plans, novelty and surface appeal overwhelmingly trumped evidence of school success -- or any direct connection to improvements in teaching.
Clarity and coherence suffered. These processes were conducted with no clear definitions of key terms. We worked for years before we learned that the right definition of "goals" was central to success: to have any impact on instruction, they had to be simple, measurable statements linked to student assessments -- not commitments to offer workshops or implement programs.4 It also took us a long time to learn that coherence required that the number of goals be severely limited.
We wound up setting an impossible number of "goals," even as the word was used almost interchangeably with "action steps" or "objectives." Even the "evaluation" or "results" columns were often indistinguishable from the "goals" and "action steps" -- as mere implementation or training was used as evidence of having met a goal.
Nonetheless, these annual plans, like the hundreds I've seen since then, were approved pro forma. There was real fear of criticizing their content and so alienating any of the numerous constituents who had spent their valuable time producing them.
Instructional quality -- and levels of achievement -- were typically unaffected by any of these processes.
Hidden assumptions. Looking back, it is clearer to me now that these plans -- for all their seemingly tight, logical connections between mission, belief, goals, actions, responsibilities, and evaluation -- were like beautiful but badly leaking boats. The thick, elegant documents we were so proud of were fraught with hidden but crippling assumptions about:
- the effectiveness of planning itself,
- the value of the workshops and staff development that populated our plans, and
- our ability to meaningfully monitor this huge number of initiatives.
We assumed that these largely indirect and unproven annual planning procedures were superior to the more straightforward but protean processes I'll examine below: the dumb (if unsexy) certainties of having teams of teachers implement, assess, and adjust instruction in short-term cycles of improvement -- not annually, but continuously.
The fall. Benjamin Bloom once exhorted educators "to be much clearer about what we do and do not know so that we don't continually confuse the two."6 We do know, now, about the traps inherent in strategic planning and its close cousins: comprehensive, systemic, whole-school reform and related accreditation schemes. However, Michael Fullan concludes, "we still do not know how to achieve comprehensive reform on a wide scale."7
Years ago, James Kouzes and Barry Posner found that "strategic planning doesn't work."8 Henry Mintzberg, in his in-depth study, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, came to the same conclusion; meta-analytic studies roundly confirmed the failure of this approach.9 And former Harvard Business School professor Gary Hamel recently told an audience that "you might as well dance naked round a campfire as go to one more semi-sacramental planning meeting."10 Brutal facts, indeed.
Why does strategic planning fail? Kouzes and Posner explain it simply: rather than promote smart, short-term cycles of action, assessment, and adjustment, strategic planning "separates thought from action."11 Cook himself concedes that "strategic planning is in fact typically undertaken without the benefit of either thinking or action."12
First, strategic planning promotes an often thoughtless, hasty commitment to a dizzying abundance of (so-called) goals, initiatives, and projects. This may explain the speculation that less than 10% of what gets planned actually gets implemented.13 The initiatives themselves are not thoughtfully vetted on the basis of their direct or proven impact on outcomes but are more often adopted for personal or political reasons.14 As Douglas Reeves observes, "Lots of group buy-in" can hide the fact that "some of the strategies are just plain bad."15
Worse still, the activities in this exhaustive schedule of brand-name initiatives, workshops, and "action steps" are often only "loosely coupled" to the core process of teaching and its improvement -- to thoughtfully and continuously examining, testing, and fine-tuning the details of practice on the basis of assessment results.16 Withal, strategic planning presumes that the most vital, high-leverage thinking is done primarily by "planners" before the school year begins, rather than by teaching practitioners throughout the school year.
This is a crippling confusion. In fact, the most productive thinking is continuous and simultaneous with action -- that is, with teaching -- as practitioners collaboratively implement, assess, and adjust instruction as it happens. The most productive combinations of thought and action occur in team-based, short-term experimental cycles. Even the implementation of truly "proven practice" remains highly dependent on emergent personal, social, and practical factors.17 Actual practice must adjust and respond to ground-level complexities that can't be precisely anticipated at the beginning of the year; it must adapt to the results of specific strategies that cannot be conceived in advance.18 That is, what do we do when our (presumably terrific) lesson or strategy doesn't work with most students? What went wrong? How can we adjust the presentation, sequence, or use of time and materials to ensure greater student success? The answers to these questions are not found in strategic plans.
This confusion between annual planning and the ongoing, messy work of improving teaching explains the failure of "reform" to raise levels of achievement. How could it? Historically, reform has had only the most negligible impact on "the central work of the school: instruction."19 To remedy this situation, we must replace complex, long-term plans with simpler plans that focus on actual teaching lessons and units created in true "learning communities" that promote team-based, short-term thought and action.
Short-term versus annual. A number of thinkers have weighed in on the importance of targeted, short-term cycles of improvement. The key is for teams of professionals to achieve and celebrate a continuous succession of small, quick victories in vital areas. Fullan cites John Kotter, who urges us to "generate short-term wins," and Gary Hamel, who exhorts us to "win small, win early, win often."20 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work speaks directly to the need for people to structure their efforts around clear goals and precise, short-term feedback.21
This is the stuff of commitment and collective "momentum." Kouzes and Posner write of the symbiosis between organizational "momentum and visible signs of success," while for Collins, the "magic of momentum" is a function of "simple plans" that produce a stream of "visible, tangible results."22
I've seen many examples of teams of teachers who, through short-term trial and error, have found more effective ways to teach certain math applications, reading comprehension skills, difficult physics concepts, or elements of persuasive writing. The cumulative effect of such small, ongoing "wins" is the surest route to annual achievement gains.23
The record is clear that this is how core processes -- in education or industry -- are improved. It is all about short-term team wins, followed by fairly systematic recognition and celebration of each tangible breakthrough (another well-kept secret). Such recognition is still rare in schools, especially at the team level, where it stands to have the most impact.24
This model represents a seismic shift -- from annual to short-term. Instead of trying to "reform" a school or system, we should be creating the conditions for teams of teachers to continuously achieve (and receive recognition for) short-term wins in specific instructional areas (e.g., where assessment data indicate that students are struggling). Our plans, our "systemic reform," should focus primarily on establishing and sustaining the structure for just such norms of continuous improvement.
But let's be honest. This emphasis on continuous, collective, short-term experimentation, judgment, and adjustment is seldom found in strategic plans, which tend instead to constrain the very flexibility and creativity -- the "collective autonomy" -- that is the heart of such work. This constraint even bucks strong, perhaps irreversible, cultural and workplace trends. Without meaning to, elaborate and explicit planning can quash essential (albeit circumscribed) creativity. In The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, Mintzberg points out that planningmeans being locked into set categories that generally discourage real creativity . . . employees have less freedom in the exercise of their judgment. The restriction on initiative tends to snuff out the creative spark that is so essential in successful enterprise.25
No surprise, then, that planning often has a bad effect on morale. Creativity and enthusiasm -- the fuel for improvement -- only "diminish under the weight of big, thick, leather binders."26 Hence Cook's concession that "the vast majority of strategic planning is worse than futile -- it is destructive."27
Close Cousins: Comprehensive, Systemic, and Whole-School Reform
Despite the growing consensus about the ineffectiveness of strategic planning, its influence is pervasive, having been integrated into the larger family of large-scale "systemic" models of reform: from home-grown plans and programs to popular accreditation schemes and name-brand "whole-school" or "comprehensive" reform designs.
All share certain core features with strategic planning. They are characteristically elaborate, prescriptive, and "systemic" (a good thing, rightly understood). Though many programs contain viable elements and practices, they tend, on the whole, to slight or supplant the collaborative structures necessary for instructional improvement. Much of this difficulty can be explained by the tendency of systemic planning toward "overload."
"Overload" and its impact. For some years now, Michael Fullan has written that "comprehensive," "systemic," and "elaborate implementation plans" are not the solution to better schools. "Designed to help, but actually adding insult to injury," he writes, "complex implementation plans themselves become another source of burden and confusion."28 They promote the scandal of "overload and fragmentation." Nothing is so frustrating as trying to follow a plan that outstrips teachers' time and capacity to implement it. When there is too much to do, improvement becomes "disjointed and incoherent."29
Teachers bear the brunt of this overload. David Tyack and Larry Cuban concur that reforms "have added complexity, . . . brought incoherence," and "made new demands of time and effort on heavily burdened teachers."30 For Daniel Levine and Robert Liebert, "comprehensive or semi-comprehensive planning requirements often have the unintended effect of overloading teachers and administrators" -- who then use this as an excuse (arguably, a good one) for failing to achieve results.31
Sheer size promotes overload. My experience with improvement plans certainly confirms Reeves' observation that "all the plans I have examined have one characteristic in common: they are very, very large." For Reeves, effective leadership focuses not on the "labyrinthine process frequently associated with strategic planning" but on the recurrent collaborative, data-driven processes already alluded to here, in which teachers regularly examine student work and assessment results for the purpose of revising their instructional strategies.32
Ironically, the aim of genuinely "systemic" thinking is to promote clarity, coherence, and economy -- not their opposites. Fullan recognizes this but nonetheless advocates that we "turn systemic thinking on its head," as in its most common and perverse forms it has not added "one iota of clarity to the confusion faced by the majority of teachers."33 Most planning and accreditation templates are overly complex and rife with confusing, imprecise language that thwarts clarity and coherence. (I am holding a popular accreditation guide that requires administrators, among other things, to build their plans around data they must collect for 108 items in 24 categories.)
Another unseen contributor to overload and fragmentation is the assumption that good planning requires the involvement of a wide, representative array of constituents. To the contrary, Fullan found that "there is no evidence that widespread involvement at the initiation stage is either feasible or effective."34
Thomas Hatch, who has written in these pages about the unintended consequences of comprehensive reform, agrees. He is convinced that "fragmentation and overload" are often a function of planning that "requires the involvement of parents and other community members," whose input can easily dilute and complicate the improvement effort. The resulting "system overload" may be the "biggest threat" to genuine improvement. I've seen the upshot of this at close range: principals who must spend precious time assembling and then responding to the needs of committees and "governance structures" -- even "when we can't teach our kids to read."35
These are the "brutal facts" about the inherent pitfalls of strategic, systemic, and comprehensive plans. An increasingly popular form of such plans is the "whole-school" variety, and it has grown despite the evidence that argues against its effectiveness.
Whole-school reform: insufficient evidence. The case for external, expensive whole-school reforms deserves a hard, unblinking look. The record for even those few programs deemed "most effective" has been both modest and uneven -- and dogged by controversy.36 Even advocates for these programs have been more sanguine about their potential than about their actual success.37
A RAND study, commissioned by some of the most prominent whole-school programs, found disappointing results, despite "a decade of whole-school reform."38 As in Hatch's study, participating school districts discovered that "planned educational change" is "much more complex" than they initially anticipated. The authors conclude, somewhat ominously, that, "by and large, schools are not fertile ground" for such programs.39
Yet another study of systemic and whole-school reforms in three school districts concluded similarly that program requirements exceeded the capacity of schools and districts to implement them successfully.40 This was a major reason that, in one large urban district, a panoply of "whole-school reforms" was "wholly eliminated."41
How hard-headed have we been here? Journalist Anne Lewis has wondered if we'd have been better off "if some expertise in judging the evidence of a program's success had been part of the legislative debate" that led to the generous funding and premature aura of legitimacy bestowed on these programs.42
Can we revise reform? Maybe. To be sure, enduring improvements on a broad scale will require structure -- but of a kind that is both simpler and less prescriptive. That is, we'll need structures that are less apt to prohibit collective, creative thought and adjustment by practitioners, for the engagement of practitioners in continuous research and experimentation is the hallmark of a profession.43 The idea of "research-based practices" is not irrelevant here, and there are some excellent published sources that describe such practices.44 We should certainly avail ourselves of these.
But, as Richard Allington has said, even the best educational research is "a slippery beast." Indeed, it must be interpreted and implemented in a context where teachers can collectively invent, adapt, and refine lessons and units in which "best practices" are embedded.45
Unfortunately, whole-school reform, warns Fullan, has worked the other way: it has suppressed teachers' confidence in their ability to invent or adapt effective lessons and strategies. This is especially true when it comes to teaching for deep understanding. Only "well-executed learning communities" can achieve this goal, while cultivating the ever-important "ownership" so essential to improvement. Effective teachers must see themselves not as passive, dependent implementers of someone else's script but as active members of research teams -- as "scientists who continuously develop their intellectual and investigative effectiveness." For these reasons, Fullan recommends that schools "not adopt external programs" because
whole-school reform models make the mistake of thinking that a comprehensive external reform model will solve the coherence problem. . . . It doesn't work because it feeds into the dependency of teachers and principals.46
Perhaps less prescriptive, less "overloaded" versions of these external programs could be piloted and refined to good effect before they are mass-marketed. But at this point, we have yet to reckon with the evidence that we don't know how to achieve comprehensive reform on a wide scale.
This same failure to confront the evidence can be seen in the area of staff development, perhaps the most prominent but chronically confused area of school improvement plans.
Staff development: toward an evidence-based culture. Here, indeed, the brutal facts wait to be confronted. Among education's most curious contradictions is the persistence of feckless staff development practices that nearly everyone recognizes but few step up to change.
In their study of systemic reform, Tom Corcoran, Susan Fuhrman, and Carol Belcher found that all three districts they studied featured highly elaborate systems for providing professional development. Each district offered a large but unfocused menu of workshops, courses, and "awareness sessions." Sadly, but oh so typically, the failure of this expensive and elaborate apparatus was all but guaranteed by the absence of "follow-up support" or of any meaningful attempts to monitor implementation.47 Ironically, the researchers found that the very staff members who led professional development -- and from whom one might expect a more empirical mindset -- "were not members of an evidence-based culture themselves." Instead of evidence, "whims, fads, opportunism, and ideology" prevailed. "Empirical research had little to do with the professional development offerings in all three districts." Rather than promote coherence and alignment between staff development and academic goals, training and workshops in fact "tended to focus on the hot topics of the day."
The explanation for this points directly to the terribly common practice of evaluating staff development on the basis of "high participation rates and high levels of teacher satisfaction . . . judged by whether [the workshops] could attract and please teachers." This practice was sanctioned at the highest levels as "district leaders seldom asked if participation . . . led to changes in practice or improvement in student performance."48
The critique of standard-issue staff development is quite damning, and it is not new. Dennis Sparks, the president of the National Staff Development Council, has been calling for serious changes for years, decrying the fact that "only a small portion of what is known about quality staff development is regularly used in schools." The key is to replace a belief in "'experts' who 'deliver' knowledge of good teaching in workshops" with communities of teachers who learn through "ongoing collaboration and practice."49
For just as long, Bruce Joyce and his colleagues have been telling us that typical staff development "probably will not generate the amount of change necessary to affect student achievement." Instead, they advocate -- along with Sparks, Fullan, and others -- the creation of the kind of "communities of teacher researchers" who engage in focused, recurring cycles of instruction, assessment, and adjustment of instruction.50
For staff development expert Thomas Guskey, the promise of professional development has gone "largely unfulfilled." The solution is staff development built around "collaborative exchange," in which "teachers work together, reflect on their practice, exchange ideas, and share strategies."51
Finally, Richard Stiggins writes that "assessment literacy," so integral to the ongoing improvement of instruction, can be acquired only in "learning teams." "Workshops," he concludes, "will not work." They "do not permit the application of and experimentation with new assessment ideas in real classrooms, and sharing that experience with other colleagues in a team effort."52
The Case for Learning Communities
We should celebrate such findings. They can turn our attention to what truly works and can liberate us from the unfocused excesses of what critic Peter Temes regards as "wasted effort on a stunning scale by the tens of thousands of people, professionals and parents, dedicating their time, their money, and their spirits to large-scale reform."53
We have invested heavily in such "reform" at the expense of the best-known means by which we might achieve truly historic, wide-scale improvements in teaching and learning -- that is, the structured, empirical work of "learning communities." Let's look more carefully now at the case for this powerful alternative to conventional improvement efforts.
A remarkable concurrence. There is broad, even remarkable, concurrence among members of the research community on the effects of carefully structured learning teams on the improvement of instruction. Add to this that such structures are probably the most practical, affordable, and professionally dignifying route to better instruction in our schools.
Consider the gravity with which Fullan refers to Judith Warren Little's research: "No words," he writes, "could sum up this discussion of school-level factors [that affect achievement] more accurately than those of Judith Little." He then quotes her as saying, "school improvement is most surely and thoroughly achieved when teachers engage in frequent, continuous and increasingly concrete and precise talk about teaching practice . . . adequate to the complexities of teaching, capable of distinguishing one practice and its virtue from another." In this simple but somewhat radical scheme, so different from the elaborate machinations of reform and improvement planning, "teachers and administrators teach each other the practice of teaching" (emphasis in original).54
Fullan continues to quote Little as she describes truly productive teams as those in which teachers rigorously "plan, design, research, evaluate, and prepare teaching materials together." Such simple effort -- teachers teaching one another the practice of teaching -- leads to what has to be one of the most salient lists of benefits in educational literature:
- higher-quality solutions to instructional problems,
- increased confidence among faculty,
- increased ability to support one another's strengths and to accommodate weaknesses,
- more systematic assistance to beginning teachers, and
- the ability to examine an expanded pool of ideas, methods, and materials.
In combination, these elements can't help but produce "remarkable gains in achievement."55
Carl Glickman no less confidently asks the question, "How do teaching and learning improve?" For him,
the answer is no mystery. It's as simple as this: I cannot improve my craft in isolation from others. To improve, I must have formats, structures, and plans for reflecting on, changing, and assessing my practice [which] . . . must be continually tested and upgraded with my colleagues.56
Linda Darling-Hammond is struck by how systemic reform promotes overload and incoherence, even as it requires professional teachers to "unthinkingly" implement changes in practice. After all, she argues, there is "no packaged program" that ensures success. But there are, she continues, common "structural features" that promote success in schools. Successful schools allow more professional autonomy, but they also provide accountability through "explicit goals for student learning." The core structure essential to reaching these goals is built around "teaching teams, time for teachers to collaborate and learn together . . . ongoing inquiry as a basis for continual improvement." Best of all, these structures can be established by any leader, and not just the rare individual with "charisma."57
There simply isn't space here to provide the names of all the esteemed educators and organizational experts who advocate explicitly for such collaborative structures and their singular effectiveness. Along with those I've already mentioned, though, a most incomplete list must also include Roland Barth, Louis Castenell, Jim Collins, Lisa Delpit, Karen Eastwood, Richard Elmore, Asa Hilliard, Stephanie Hirsh, Jacqueline Irvine Jordan, Anne Lieberman, Dan Lortie, Robert Marzano, Jay McTighe, Fred Newmann, Allan Odden, Susan Rosenholtz, Seymour Sarason, Tom Peters, Peter Senge, Gary Wehlage, James Stigler, and Grant Wiggins. There are, of course, an avalanche of others.
Thousands of schools and even entire districts can attest to the power of these structures for promoting first incremental and then cumulatively dramatic and enduring improvements in teaching and learning. A short list would include Central Park East in New York's Harlem; Bennet-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood, California; Warm Springs Elementary School on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon; Crossroads Elementary School in Norfolk, Virginia; Mather Elementary School in Boston; Kerman Unified Schools in rural, high-poverty California; Oak Park Schools near Detroit; Boones Mill School in rural Virginia; and many more. These schools and districts have made substantive, enduring gains in achievement, largely on the strength of well-structured, goal-oriented learning teams and communities.
For former superintendent Richard DuFour, whose already high-achieving high school district near Chicago made record gains over an extended period, such goal-oriented "collaborative teams" were "the primary engine of our school improvement efforts."58 In the nearby but less advantaged Chicago Public Schools, those with "strong professional learning communities were four times more likely to be improving academically than schools with weaker professional communities."59 We can no longer afford to be innocent of the fact that "collaboration" improves performance.
Tipping point. It is stunning that for all this evidence and consensus of expert opinion, such collaboration -- our most effective tool for improving instruction -- remains exceedingly, dismayingly rare. It continues to be crowded out by our persistent but unexamined addiction to complex, over-hyped planning and improvement models. Though such terms as "learning communities" and "lesson study" are heard more than ever, we hardly acknowledge their central importance in actual practice: it is a rare school that has established regular times for teachers to create, test, and refine their lessons and strategies together.
For this to happen, we have to reach a "tipping point," the moment when -- sometimes quite quickly -- people's actions and attitudes change dramatically, and the change spreads like a contagion. Such change typically happens through an energized word-of-mouth campaign.60 Such a tipping point -- from reform to true collaboration -- could represent the most productive shift in the history of educational practice.
And there are plenty of us to get the word out. We will know we have succeeded when the absence of a "strong professional learning community" in a school is an embarrassment and when educators everywhere have great stories to tell about specific, concrete successes that led, cumulatively, to truly systemic success.