How change can poison schools
We see a bad school. We pray that it will change. It is an understandable reaction. But an acidic research paper by two scholars in Oregon raises the possibility that sometimes change is the worst thing that can happen to hard-working teachers trying to get their school on its feet.
Their paper---apparently a first attempt at a wider study---is a useful addition to a debate going on in many cities, particularly the District of Columbia, where one formula for change has made headway but has inspired significant opposition from equally well-intentioned people who think a different formula would be better.
Researchers Jean Stockard, a sociologist at the University of Oregon and the National Institute for Direct Instruction, and Donna Dwiggens, who also works for the institute, describe what happened at Columbus Elementary School in Chester, Penn., when a benefactor brought Direct Instruction learning program to the school.
Direct Instruction, designed in the 1960s by University of Oregon researchers Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley C. Becker, is one of a few programs that have been proven effective in several independent studies and are being used in thousands of schools, but aren't mentioned much because policy makers quoted by people like me have moved on to more fashionable ideas. Similarly good but under-appreciated programs include Success For All, created by Johns Hopkins University researchers Robert E. Slavin and Nancy A. Madden, and the School Development program created by James P. Comer and his colleagues at Yale University, which I wrote about in December.
Stockard and Dwiggens, as partisans for Direct Instruction, or DI as it is often called, cannot be accepted as objective observers. Their paper, "The Ups and Downs of Whole School Reform: A Case Study of Success and Its Demise," is a fun read in part because it is so one-sided. The villains of their story---officials at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who allegedly interfered with the DI program, a collection of erratic Pennsylvania state officials and the Edison school reform company---are given no chance to defend themselves. I promise to try to get their views and present them in a future column.
The story Stockard and Dwiggens tell is in line with a hundreds other tales of promising school reforms soured by too many innovative chefs seasoning the broth. It happens all the time. The question is, in this messy but vigorous democracy, is there any thing we should or can do about that?
When DI arrived at Columbus Elementary in 1999 with the assistance of a $100,000 grant from a wealthy fan of the program, the prison-like building with 800 students was the lowest performing school in the lowest performing school district in the state. The money was used by the benefactor, not identified by the authors, to set up an institute devoted to DI at IUP. It got off on the wrong foot from the very beginning, the authors say.
"The University President desperately wanted the money (as do most university presidents) but he didn't want to take the time to walk through the various processes to get concensus or even, apparently, acceptance at the University level," they say. So he made the institute separate from the education department, and you can guess what happened next.
The benefactor knew the then-governor, Tom Ridge, who the authors say got state officials involved in DI at Columbus Elementary project mostly because he wanted to set himself up as a potential U.S. Secretary of Education when a new president was elected. (Bias alert: Ridge lives in my neighborhood in Bethesda, Md. We have had pleasant conversations in the line at the local pharmacy. We are also college classmates, but did not know each other then.)
The Pennsylvania Department of Education and the IUP persuaded the local school district---in no position to resist any advice from the state--to let DI start work at Columbus. They weren't happy about it, the authors say. One informant told the researchers the district, Chester Uplands, "did everything either by omission, commission, and/or deliberate sabotage" to make sure the project failed.
But the two DI people brought into the school, and paid by the university, made progress. They discovered the administrators at the school were just like them, conscientious educators desperate to help disadvantaged children. DI requires that teachers teach in the same way, and at the same pace. "Low performers and disadvantaged learners must be taught at a faster rate than typically occurs if they are to catch up to their higher performing peers," the DI Web site says. Teachers began to adjust, and school work improved.
That's when the local university education department struck back. A man described by the authors as a "wily professor," again unidentified, went to the university committee that investigated improper research methods and complained that it was wrong for the two DI staffers to be both university employees, with research responsibilities, and privy to the day-to-day data that was crucial to their decisions on how to proceed in the DI system. The university withdrew and the two DI staffers had to carry on as private consultants.
They and the school's teachers still made progress, but more change was lurking. The state legislature passed a new education program that replaced the Chester Uplands school board with a new three person board and a team of parents, community members and administrators to approve a new plan for Columbus and the other schools. They decided to ask private companies to come manage their schools, as was about to happen in nearby Philadelphia. The DI staffers made an alliance with one of the private companies,
Eventually, Edison, not the company the DI staffers were working with, was given Columbus to manage. Edison fired the school admininstrators and put in charge a first-time principal whose emphasis was different from theirs. One DI staffer left. The other hung on. She had a three year contract so could not be fired. But DI was done at Columbus. The DI staffer eventually moved to a local charter school with some of the Columbus students, their progress afterwards not revealed by the authors.
Stockard and Dwiggens end their story with a vivid illustration of the effects of too much change. When Edison took over, all the DI books were discarded at the end of the school year. But Edison---now known as EdisonLearning--- didn't get its new curricular materials into the classrooms until the next November, according to the authors.
I wasn't able to find a link to the paper, but I am still working on that and will blog it when I get it. The authors have a very negative view of many of the non-DI players. But that is always the way with change. All sides think they are right. And if they lose the battle, they will write their papers as if the winning side was nothing but clueless losers.
Is there anything that any rational person in Chester, Penn., could have done in the early 2000s to save the situation? If you have any answers, please tell me. I am having trouble seeing a solution to a problem that has ruined more school improvement efforts than any of us can count.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| May 7, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: Columbus Elementary School in Chester, Direct Instruction, Edison Schools, Penn., Tom Ridge, too much change for schools, well-intentioned reformers battle each other
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