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Living in Dialogue: Education Reformers Lost in the Woods Should Pause, Listen and Learn

When lost in the woods, the first rule is “hug a tree.”  In other words, slow down, confront your fears, regain your calm and think prudently about getting back on track.

When trapped in the urban crises of today, we should first hug each other, converse with each other, and then hug the tree of knowledge. In the case of the Baltimore tragedy and the challenge of improving urban schools, we should tap the wisdom the Johns Hopkins Everyone Graduates Center which, I believe, is one of the two greatest education policy research centers in the world.

Johns Hopkins’ Robert Balfanz testified before the U.S. Senate this winter that outcomes in high-challenge schools best improve when the judgments of educators and support staff are respected. Balfanz also said that those efforts require a push from external accountability pressures.   Balfanz called for the proper “interplay between accountability, innovation and support.” He cited the 10% increase in the nation’s graduation rate as an example of a success.

I wonder whether Balfanz was being politely understated and whether he would privately agree that NCLB-type targets for increasing student performance represent the other side of the coin; they inevitably result in policies that educators dismiss as doomed and divert energy and resources away from the evidence-based policies that the Everyone Graduates Center promotes.

Balfanz then described the types of challenges faced by Baltimore and other inner city systems. In schools where 1/4th to ½ of students are chronically absent, where there are more suspended students than there are graduates, and where the typical student has a “D” average, teachers alone can’t solve the problems of poverty from within the four walls of their classrooms. Those schools need aligned and coordinated student support services. For example, they may need 10 to 15 AmeriCorps mentors, each working with fifteen at-risk students.

Balfanz described Diplomas Now, and its collaborative public/private team efforts. Federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) have financially assisted those efforts in 40 secondary schools. But, most SIG schools adopted the opposite approach, based on the mass dismissal of teachers and principals and being forced to produce “dramatic” test score gains in just three years.  I wonder if Balfanz is quietly frustrated that such a small number of SIG schools felt free to adopt those humane, science-based methods.

Similarly, Mass Insight’s The Turnaround Challenge also called for comprehensive investments in capacity-building in high-challenge schools and warned against the mass dismissal of teachers. Recent research by Mass Insight and the Ounce of Prevention Fund explains how the normative SIG approach undermines capacity-building because “current metrics effectively eliminate the viability of early learning as a potential long-term improvement strategy.”

Balfanz was equally diplomatic when praising states for one of the Everyone Graduates Center’s best programs – Early Warning Systems that identify absenteeism before it metastasizes into chronic truancy.   He cited the other great education center, the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR), which shows that it is possible to predict the 30 to 50% of 6th graders who will drop out unless adults intervene.

As Balfanz explained, these warning systems must be a part of a “powerful continuous improvement ecosystem.” Improvement must be catalyzed by innovation, accountability, and support, in order to create learning environments where all students can become successful adults, productive workers and engaged citizens.

Balfanz did not use the words, “test scores” and he embraced the words “evidence-informed,” not “data-driven.” I wonder what he would think, however, about the sanctioning of principals if they do not reduce absenteeism rates according to the schedule once proscribed by the Baltimore Public Schools. I suspect Balfanz also agrees that his testimony strikes at the heart of the rationale for value-added evaluations that are biased against teachers in high-challenge secondary schools. Balfanz is not likely to say that the last twelve years of test, sort, and punish could have been avoided if accountability-driven reformers had they heeded his research and not sought simplistic shortcuts that placed the blame shared by all of society on inner city educators. But, I will. Had reformers grappled with Balfanz’s research, school reform would have taken a very different path.

Coincidently, Peter Cunningham, the former press secretary of USDOE Secretary Arne Duncan recently acknowledged to the blogger “Edushyster” that reformers were in too much of a hurry when they launched their campaign based on “higher standards, curriculum training, evaluation, accountability” and that he wishes “we’d thought that through more.”  Cunningham wishes “I’d really war gamed out that sequencing issue beforejust understood it. I didn’t because I’m not a policy person; this isn’t really my world. I trusted a lot of policy people who said ‘we can do this.’” But “we’d never really done anything like this in the history of America. … It was a pretty heady time and we were drinking from the firehose. I wish I’d thought that through more. I didn’t.”

In other words, reformers should have taken the time to study the research of the CCSR and the Everyone Graduates Center. Rather than using value-added teacher evaluations to beat educators into compliance, they should have listened to us. But, it is not too late.  I don’t even mind if reformers want to grab the credit for the successes of the few schools that adopted holistic evidence-based policies, instead of complying and putting all their eggs in the accountability, competition, and testing basket. Whether or not reformers are ready to hug either teachers or education researchers, they must become willing to embrace social science if they hope to contribute to the education component of tackling our urban problems.

What do you think? Reformers will claim to be the answer to crises like those in Baltimore. Will the public and the press buy their spin, or will we adopt evidence-based solutions?

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his n...