Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Missing Piece in the School Improvement Puzzle

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Missing Piece in the School Improvement Puzzle

Article excerpt

Only by providing schools and parents with a choice of valid, well-supported models of schooling can we both make the change process manageable for school personnel and satisfy the conflicting demands of the public, Mr. Doss argues.

Pick up any popular education journal, and you are almost guaranteed to find several articles on the very difficult task of schoolwide reform. Typically, the articles describe the efforts of a small number of schools, note the difficulties involved, and give advice to others who are attempting the same daunting task. Often the articles report how difficult the process is. But why is it so hard? Schoolwide reform is hard because we are missing an important piece of the school improvement puzzle. With that piece, the task would be greatly simplified and would have a much better chance of producing substantial benefits for students, teachers, and administrators.

Before I identify the missing piece, however, I want to use the puzzle analogy to provide a brief review of recent history. Think of a school as a picture puzzle. The teachers and administrators put the puzzle together and keep it together as well as possible. It is a shared responsibility, but individuals are primarily responsible just for single parts of the puzzle, the parts represented by their work.

Years ago, when we baby boomers were in elementary school, the principal and teachers were given the puzzle pretty much intact, and each puzzle displayed much the same picture (i.e., the schools had the same basic purposes and taught much the same curriculum with similar methodologies). Some puzzles were bigger than others, some were made of better-quality materials, and the pieces of others were easier to put in place. But they appeared similar in the main. While some educators were better than others at keeping their parts of the puzzle assembled and keeping the picture clear, there was no particular emphasis on improvement.

From year to year, a few new pieces might be added and some old, worn-out pieces replaced with better ones, but mostly the pace of change was slow. People were generally satisfied with the puzzle's picture, and nobody looked at it too closely anyway.

After the mid-Fifties, things began to change. With Sputnik, the civil rights movement, school desegregation, the turmoil of the Sixties and early Seventies, the decline of SAT scores after the mid-Sixties, and the reform legislation in the Eighties, other people wanted a say about how teachers and administrators put the puzzle together. These new players brought their own pieces to the table and wanted them to be included.

Concurrently, educational research blossomed, and increasing emphasis was placed on practice that was based on research findings. Unfortunately, the research seemed more effective at adding pieces to the puzzle than at providing improved understanding or clear guidance for action. Often, district administrators who were excited by research findings and were responding to emerging needs in the system brought new pieces to the school puzzles and demanded that they be inserted as well. Rarely did administrators who brought in the new pieces attempt to determine where the pieces would fit within the overall image, and often they were surprised to find that the pieces didn't fit very well. However, being good managers, they told the school personnel to make them fit. Thus accountability entered the scene.

The accommodating teachers and administrators worked hard to find places for all the pieces, but it was increasingly difficult because the puzzle frame could not be expanded. Nor were they to remove any pieces, ever. Thus they forced them into place, overlapping pieces as necessary. As a result, any attempt to step back and get a good view of the whole puzzle revealed an increasingly unclear picture, both in the overall image and in the details.

Many of the more experienced teachers and administrators simply sat quietly in meetings where the new pieces were issued, gave them a quick inspection when they got them home, and then put them in the closet. …

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