How can “outside” help support work inside schools?

This post provides an expanded version of the commentary “Who should improve the school improvement industry” published last week in Education Week. The commentary is by Thomas Hatch, IEN Founder and Professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and Co-Director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST).  The commentary and post report on a study of “The Role of External Support Providers in Improving K-3 Reading Outcomes in New York” funded by the Brooke Astor Fund for New York City Education in The New York Community Trust. Hatch also discussed the study in a podcast for CPRE’s Research Minutes.

Schools and districts depend on a host of “outsiders” to help them create powerful learning experiences for all their students.  This loose collection of curriculum providers, tutoring programs, staff developers, management consultants, and school designers forms what Brian Rowan calls the “school improvement industry.” Almost thirty years of federal policies and philanthropic initiatives have fueled both the demand for these kinds of organizations and the supply (see CSRD, NCLB, and SIG, the Annenberg Challenge and the Gates Foundation’s small schools initiative among others). Illustrating that growth, this year, a survey of 13 state websites identified 151 of these organizations, but in 2001, I only found 63 listed in the Catalog of School Reform Models, with only 15 in existence before 1980.

The development of this “industry” builds on two key ideas:

  • On their own, many schools do not have the capacity they need to make sufficient improvements in students’ learning
  • There are “external support providers” that do have the capacity – the resources, expertise, and connections – that can help large numbers of schools make those improvements

A lack of adequate progress towards many educational outcomes supports the first proposition, but even with evidence that some providers such as Success for All and Expeditionary Learning can be effective, the limited number of “proven” providers casts doubt on the second. Reviews that demonstrate effectiveness of some improvement programs, curricula and professional development services also show how rare it is to find those approaches employed in practice on a widespread scale. Illustrating the problems when outside experts try to influence what happens inside schools, only a handful of the largest districts in the US consistently use highly-rated curricula. Many curricula and textbooks that claim to be aligned to the Common Core actually are not; and a recent study on the research behind apps for 3-5 year olds spawned the headline “few preschool apps are developmentally appropriate.”

Why is it so difficult to produce and use “proven” programs and practices?

Numerous factors contribute to this state of affairs including the difficulty of carrying out complex evaluations, the limitations of conventional methods and outcome measures, and the need to adapt to different contexts.  All of which stoke debates about what counts as “proven” (as illustrated by the controversy over American Public Radio’s claim that many educators don’t know the science related to how children read). But with thousands of schools that need to make improvements, why is it a surprise they turn to thousands of materials, practices, and programs that are not “proven” and may not even be aligned with standards or what’s considered appropriate practice?

When we periodically stop to recognize this reality, too often, the response is to blame someone:  Blame the researchers for not doing the “right” kind of research; blame the schools and educators for choosing the “wrong” programs; blame the policymakers and funders for aiding and abetting the whole endeavor. But the growth of the “school improvement industry” and the difficulties in using external assistance and “research-tested” programs are not accidents. These issues are produced by a decentralized education system and a society that relies on the creativity of individuals and not-for-profit and for-profit enterprises to address many social, economic, and educational issues.

An illustration: External support for improving reading in New York City

As one example of the possibilities and challenges for taking advantage of the work of external support providers, my colleagues and I explored the nature and variety of external assistance available in just one subject (reading) at one level (elementary schools) in one large school district (New York City). Our report and research brief from that study shows over 100 programs working directly with students or teachers to improve reading outcomes in New York City public elementary schools. A review of a representative sample of programs revealed that those programs focus on a wide range of different goals – some on more specific skills like comprehension, while others focused on the standards of the Common Core or on “grade level reading.” The programs drew from a range of approaches, including tutoring for students and instructional coaching for teachers that have some evidence of effectiveness, but only 19% of the sample programs had publicly available evaluations reporting on their outcomes.

The sample programs demonstrated substantial reach, however, suggesting they could serve as a valuable lever for system-wide improvement. In fact, just 26 programs reported working with 161 different schools comprising 16% of all elementary schools in NYC (including 28% of the elementary schools in the Bronx and 26% of the elementary schools in Manhattan). We also found some basis for collective impact as just over half of the sample programs reported working in partnership or collaboration with at least one other sample program. At the same time, the sample programs get support and information from a wide range of sources of funding and expertise that are themselves likely to be only loosely related. The sample programs reported receiving grants from 57 different funders and identified 75 different sources for literacy expertise with little overlap. The sources of expertise encompassed individual consultants, the conferences of the National Council of Teachers of English, and the Huffington Post.

What would it take to increase the collective impact of external support?

Moving forward requires both long-term and short-term strategies. Long-term strategies can build on efforts at the national level to develop “evidence-proven” programs, to support research use, and to foster networked improvement communities focused on reading.

At the same time, local and regional efforts can launch short-term strategies to promote greater coordination, coherence and collective impact right now:

  • Share information and build awareness by regularly “mapping” which programs are providing support in key aspects of schooling – Carried out systematically every five years in areas like reading, math and school improvement (or on an as needed basis as priorities and initiatives develop in other areas), this scan of the educational environment could make visible the extent and nature of the outside support available; reveal areas of overlap; and expose underserved areas where more support might be needed.
  • Support coordination, common understanding, and coherence – Local hub organizations can bring together stakeholders from inside and outside schools to jointly reflect on the information from these periodic scans and other research. These hubs could then identify common needs, discuss relevant research and effective practices, and develop agreements on standards and expectations.
  • Build broader coalitions for collective impact – Strategic alliances and collaborations could bring together strategic partners to take on emerging needs in local neighborhoods (as in East New York Reads) or broader regions (like the Early Literacy Task Force in Michigan).

Strategies like these begin with the recognition that investments need to be made in building the capacity of both external support providers and schools; but they also establish a middle way between adding more bureaucratic requirements and letting “1000 flowers bloom.”                                                                                   

 

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