Thursday, July 23, 2015

Approaches to Reform

Here's a rather long quote from Elmore in his book School Reform from the Inside Out (2007, p. 73),

Many well-intentioned reformers argue that large-scale improvement of schools can be accomplished by recruiting, rewarding, and retaining good people and releasing them from the bonds of bureaucracy to do what they know how to do.  Schools get better, in this view , by attracting and empowering good people.  It’s not hard to see why this view is so widely held among educators.  it accords well with the existing institutional structure….  To the minds of these reformers the job of the system is to stay out of the business of the gifted practitioners who work in it and to keep the outside world at bay….  We know that this proportion seldom grows larger than about one-quarter or one-third of the total population of classrooms, schools, or systems. What’s missing in this view is any recognition that improvement is more a function of learning to do the right things in the setting where you work than it is of what you know when you start to do the work.  Improvement at scale is largely a property of organizations, not of the preexisting traits of the individuals who work in them.  Organizations that improve do so because they create and nurture agreement on what is worth achieving, and they set in motion the internal processes by which people progressively learn how to do what they need to do in order to achieve what is worthwhile. Improvement occurs through organized social learning, not through the idiosyncratic experimentation and discovery of variously talented individuals.  Experimentation and discovery can be harnessed to social learning by connecting people with new ideas to each other in an environment in which the ideas are subjected to scrutiny, measured against the collective purposes of the organization, and tested by the history of what has already been learned and is known. The idea of learning to do the right thing-collectively, progressively, cumulatively over time-is at the core of the theory of standards-based reform.

The conundrum highlights two competing approaches to educational reform*: 

  1. organizational approaches which favour net (aggregate collective) improvement, and,
  2. institutional approaches which favour empowering conditions for localized improvements.

In a nutshell, this argument states that it is possible, indeed practically imperative, for institutions to learn to change massively in their surface structures while at the same time changing little at their core.  Institutions use their structures to buffer and assimilate the changing demands of a political and social order that is constantly in flux-they add new programs, they develop highly visible initiatives that respond to prevailing opinions in the community, they open new units in the organization to accommodate new clients, they mobilize and organize public opinion by creating new governance structures.  But the gap between these institutional structures and the core patterns of schooling is slippery and elusive: The core of schooling remains relatively stable in the face of often massive changes in the structure around it.
Organizational approaches face massive micro-political challenges.  Exceptionally talented individualistically-oriented teachers resist mediocritization (at fairly high rates).  The situation is fairly analogous to inter-group warfare between agrarian societies and hunter-gather societies.

Agrarian societies are more adaptive if their mediocre individual fighting talents are offset with the scale related benefits.  Hunter-gather societies may be able to field a number of exceptionally talented warriors, but, at some point, the various benefits of scale become trump, and they are out-competed by the mediocre horde.

This is quite clearly a case of multi-level selection in action.  Similarly it is hard not to see the tension between organizational and institutional approaches to educational change as an analogous expression of multi-level selection theory.  While similar social physics don't necessitate equivalence, they do suggest the parsimoniousness of the foundational theory.

*Obviously it should be noted that there are more than two basic theories of educational reform.  Nonetheless, this rough dichotomization seems apt to capture most of the major approaches.

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