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Limits of Change?

Read this today and would like some feedback. Anyone?


The Limits of ?Change?

Supporting real instructional improvement requires more than fiddling
with organizational structures

By Richard F. Elmore

For the last 15 years, I have been studying the geological
accumulation of education reforms in U.S. schools?the sedimentation
of the last two or three geological eras. In a book I wrote with
Penelope Peterson and Sarah McCarthey on the structure and
restructuring of schools, the main finding we report is that changing
structure does not change practice. In fact, the schools that seem to
do the best are those that have a clear idea of what kind of
instructional practice they want to produce, and then design a
structure to go with it.

My favorite story, which is now increasingly confirmed by the
aggregate analysis of block scheduling?the current structural reform
du jour of secondary education?involves a high school social studies
teacher I interviewed recently. I asked him, ?So what do you think of
block scheduling?? He said, ?It?s the best thing that?s ever happened
in my teaching career.? I asked, ?Why?? And he said, ?Now we can show
the whole movie.?

That captures my take on structural reform. We put an enormous amount
of energy into changing structures and usually leave instructional
practice untouched. Certainly that message has been confirmed by Fred
Newmann?s work at the Center on Organization and Restructuring of
Schools, and other research. We?re just now getting the first
generation of aggregate studies on block scheduling, which,
shockingly, show no relationship between its adoption and any outcome
that you can measure on student performance. Of course, this is
exactly what one could have predicted, given the previous research on
structural reforms.

The reasons for this are pretty straightforward. Notice that I didn?t
say structural changes don?t matter. They often matter a lot,
especially when you?re talking about U.S. high schools, which are
probably either a close third or tied for second as the most
pathological social institutions in our society after public health
hospitals and prisons. There are problems in high schools that cannot
be solved without making dramatic changes in structure, but in the
vast number of cases there is no instrumental relationship between
any change in structure, any change in practice, and any change in
student performance. That is the big problem with the usual
approaches to school improvement. We are viscerally and instinctively
inclined to move the boxes around on the organizational chart, to
fiddle with the schedule. We are attracted and drawn to these things
largely because they?re visible and, believe it or not, easier to do
than to make the hard changes, which are in instructional practice.

The pathology of American schools is that they know how to change.
They know how to change promiscuously and at the drop of a hat. What
schools do not know how to do is to improve, to engage in sustained
and continuous progress toward a performance goal over time. So the
task is to develop practice around the notion of improvement.

Weak Theories

We can talk about what?s wrong with the state accountability systems
that are springing up everywhere. But the fact is that school
improvement strategies are being driven by performance-based
accountability systems. These systems involve setting standards about
what constitutes good practice, a solid curriculum, and acceptable
student performance. They entail various kinds of stakes for students
and for schools?and virtually none for teachers and administrators.
(Interestingly, the stakes tend to fall most heavily on the kids, who
have the least representation in state legislatures.)

The problem, however, is that the organizations we work in aren?t
built to respond to this kind of performance pressure. We may know
what to do theoretically, but I have serious doubts that we know what
to do at the level of practice. For example, I?ve been in enough high
school math classes over the last five years to know that there is no
developmental theory of how students learn algebra. The kids who
don?t make it and don?t respond to the kind of instruction they?re
receiving are simply not included in the instructional model. And
teachers in the classrooms I?ve observed take no responsibility for
the lowest-performing students. That?s because the prevailing a
theory of learning suggests that teaching mathematics is not a
developmental problem but a problem of aptitude. Some people get it,
some don?t. (In this regard, literacy is perhaps an exception.)

People do not believe that these problems can be solved by inquiry,
by evidence, and by science. They do not believe that it is necessary
to have a developmental theory of how students learn the content and
how the pedagogy relates to the development of knowledge and content.
Nor are most teachers interested in addressing the intellectual
challenge that some students learn the content and some don?t. As a
result, we are asking schools to make improvements in the presence of
an extremely weak technical core.

Also, schools are not organized to support problem-solving based on
cooperation or collaboration. The ethic of atomized teaching?teachers
practicing as individuals with individual styles?is very strong in
schools. We subscribe to an extremely peculiar view of
professionalism: that professionalism equals autonomy in practice. So
when I come to your classroom and say, ?Why are you teaching in this
way?? it is viewed as a violation of your autonomy and

Consider what would happen if you were on an airplane and the pilot
came on the intercom as you were starting your descent and said,
?I?ve always wanted to try this without the flaps.? Or if your
surgeon said to you in your pre-surgical conference, ?You know, I?d
really like to do this the way I originally learned how to do it in
1978.? Would you be a willing participant in this?

People get sued for doing that in the ?real? professions, where the
absence of a strong technical core of knowledge and discourse about
what effective practice is carries a very high price.
Instructionally, we know what works in many content areas. But the
distribution of knowledge is uneven, and we resist the idea of
calibrating our practice to external benchmarks.

School systems are also characterized by weak internal
accountability. When I use that term, I mean the intersection between
the individual?s sense of responsibility, the organization?s
expectations about what constitutes quality instruction and good
student performance, and the systemic means or processes by which we
actually account for what we do. How frequently do we observe
teachers? How do we analyze performance data? How do we think about
teachers? performance? The schools in which these things are aligned
have very powerful approaches to the improvement of instruction. When
they are not aligned?and in most cases they are not?schools have
extreme difficulty responding to external pressure for improved

Meanwhile, the usual remediation strategies we employ when kids fail
to meet the statewide testing requirements are to give them the same
unbelievably bad instruction they got in the first place, only in
much larger quantities with much greater intensity. This is what we
call the louder and slower approach.

Better Benchmarks

This brings me back to the notion of improvement versus the notion of
change. Improvement is a discipline. It requires picking a target
that has something to do with demonstrated student learning, one
that?s ambitious enough to put schools in ?improvement mode.? If
you?re a school leader whose students are scoring consistently in the
95th percentile, you need another performance measure because that
one is doing you no good? except to help your marketing. For
improvement purposes, you need a new ceiling, a goal to push for
that?s quite a distance from where you are. You also need some kind
of external benchmarks.

If the only benchmarks you have come from your own
connoisseurship?your particular opinions and ideas about what good
practice is?then you?re in trouble. Real improvement comes when you
visit a classroom where somebody is doing the same thing you are?only
much better. That?s when the real conversation, the tough
conversation about improvement takes place. Whether you?re a novice
or an expert, the important thing is to focus on the next stage of
improvement and to determine where that increment of knowledge and
skill is going to come from.

The norms and values that go with ambitious conceptions of learning
and improvement grow out of practice, not vice versa. School
improvement doesn?t happen by getting everyone to come to the
auditorium and testify to their belief that all children can
learn?not if it means sending everyone back to the classroom to do
what they?ve always done. Only a change in practice produces a
genuine change in norms and values. Or, to put it more crudely, grab
people by their practice and their hearts and minds will follow.

Finally, instructional leaders need to know and model the knowledge
and skills needed to do this work. This includes knowledge about
performance, knowledge about development in content areas, knowledge
about the improvement of instruction. Leaders need to create
structures for how they learn in schools. If you can?t model the
norms and values you expect others to adopt, it?s unlikely that any
real improvement will take place.

Richard F. Elmore is Anrig Professor of Educational Leadership at the
Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Faculty Editor of the
Harvard Education Letter.

For Further Information

R.F. Elmore. ?Building a New Structure for School Leadership.?
Washington, DC: Albert Shanker Institute, 2000.

R.F. Elmore. ?Professional Development and the Practice of
Large-Scale Improvement in Education.? Paper forthcoming from the
Albert Shanker Institute, Washington, DC.

R.F. Elmore, P.L. Peterson, and S.J. McCarthey. Restructuring in the
Classroom: Teaching, Learning, and School Organization. San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.

F. Newmann. ?Linking Restructuring to Authentic Student Achievement.?
Phi Delta Kappan 72, no. 6 (February 1991): 458?463.

This essay was drawn from an address given by Professor Elmore at a
recent institute on leadership and policy hosted by The Principals?
Center at Harvard University. It has been edited for this issue.

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