My recent commentary in Education Week (“Who will improve the school improvement industry?”) and a longer version (“How can “outside” help support work inside schools?”) suggest some strategies that might help increase the collective impact of external support in schools. Those suggestions build on the recognition that schools in the US need much more support to improve learning for all students and that external support providers can offer access to resources, expertise, and services that many school districts cannot develop on their own. As “intermediaries” these organizations also facilitate sharing of information and coordination among schools and those working in different parts of the education system.
However, it is worth highlighting that the need for this kind of external support is exacerbated by the highly-decentralized nature of the US system. This reliance on external support in the US education system seems unimaginable in countries as diverse as Singapore and Finland that have invested in making sure all schools have access to adequate facilities, resources, and expertise. In addition, in Singapore, the education system reflects a “centralized-decentralized” approach that both constrains and supports all educational enterprises including those engaged in fostering students’ learning and development outside of schools. In Finland, education stakeholders at the national, local and school level engage in a coherence-building curriculum renewal process roughly every ten years that guides the work of all those involved in education.
Further, although we have learned a lot in recent years about the challenges and possibilities for using external support effectively, many policies seem to ignore that evidence. In particular, national initiatives and federal policies in the US continues to assume that there is a steady supply of effective programs. For example, in 1983, A Nation At Risk declared, “It is our conviction that the essential raw materials needed to reform our educational system are waiting to be mobilized through effective leadership.” Since that time a series of federal in initiatives have built on the idea that there is an established knowledge-base and effective support providers and, in turn, have increased the pressure on states and schools to use those external resources.
- The New American Schools Development Corporation’s break the mold design competition (1991), the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program(CSRD) (1998) grants to individual schools, and the i3 (2009) grant fund have all provided support for the development and scale-up of a variety of models for school improvement.
- CSRD, No Child Left Behind, and the School Improvement Grants program have all required low-performing schools and districts to make improvements and encouraged them to draw on external support or approaches “that have proven results”in doing so.
These policies have contributed to the development of a small number of school models that have demonstrated effectiveness (for example Success for All, Expeditionary Learning, and Diplomas Now). Nonetheless, overall results have been mixed at best. For example, in 2002, RAND’s evaluation overview concluded NASDC’s“initial hypothesis–that a school could improve its performance by adopting a whole-school design–was largely unsupported.” (Full disclosure, I worked on the NASDC-funded ATLAS Project and chronicled the challenges in design, knowledge-use, and scale-up.) The 2008 CSRD evaluation reported only one-third of the schools awarded funds chose reform approaches with “recognized scientific research bases.” Most recently a summary of 67 different evaluations conducted on programs supported by the i3 grants found that only nine evaluations (13%) found evidence of both adequate fidelity and positive impacts on student academic outcomes. A recent Carnegie Corporation report pointed out the continuing challenge that schools are often overwhelmed by multiple support providers who work in an uncoordinated fashion that may hinder rather than help improvement efforts; a finding consistent with my own work from twenty years ago (“When improvement programs collide”) echoed in another Rand report (“Challenges of conflicting school reforms”) on the implementation of New American Schools’ designs in one district).
We can keep these challenges of using external support in mind and learn from previous efforts. In the end, all of us who are involved in education are responsible for taking best advantage of the real contributions external providers can make and for taking seriously the problems and issues that we know make it difficult to use that support effectively.
- Thomas Hatch