The Path of Least Resistance?

Lesli Maxwell has a story over at EdWeek about the prevalence of districts – shockingly! – electing the “transformation” option when competing for School Improvement Grant (SIG) dollars.  Read the whole thing, but she explains the crux of the problem thusly:

“As state education departments award the grants to eligible schools, the school improvement model known as transformation—which, in most cases, requires the assignment of new principals, though not new instructional staff members—is the one that many educators view as the most feasible and politically palatable.”

I would put emphasis on “politically palatable.”  I think Lesli’s analysis is spot-on, but this kind of analysis is enabled only when policy makers and administrators focus on inputs and not outputs.  One of the potentially valid criticisms of SIG is that it is too dependent on prescriptive input measures.  School improvement doesn’t end when a district checks a box that says “transformation” … that’s only the starting point.  The end point, hopefully, is dramatically increasing student outcomes.  However, as soon as the media and the public brand something as “light touch,” those leaders looking to do the bare minimum breathe a sigh of relief.  I make this point in the article:

“The message may be out there that [the transformation option] is the path of least resistance … but you actually have to do something. To dismiss this is as the ‘lighter touch’ is letting the districts off the hook for implementation.”

Do I think that the elements in the “transformation” model are enough to dramatically change a school?  It’s admittedly my least favorite option.  But anyone paying close enough attention to the model can see that it’s nothing like the much maligned “other” option under NCLB “restructuring.”  Let’s compare.  The “transformation” option requires the adoption of a new teacher evaluation system that incorporates student growth as a measure, increased learning time, and the replacement of the principal.  Fairly substantial changes that are hard to execute.  The “other” option required literally nothing.

Now, I think it’s debatable whether federal policy should be more or less prescriptive on this score, and that’s a debate I hope we have during ESEA reauthorization.  My overwhelming belief is that we must make the SIG program grants contingent on student outcomes, and we can start by raising expectations for districts that elect to use these funds.  The fact that so much SIG coverage has focused on the models themselves is symptomatic of the chasm between policy makers and practitioners in education.  The policy makers act like checking the compliance box is the hard part.  The practitioners know that changing behavior and practice is the real hard part.  Continuing to poke holes in the “transformation” model just lets all of these districts shirk responsibility, because expectations have been duly lowered.  Whatever you believe about the power to dramatically change outcomes for children, that’s a lot of federal money to ignore.

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2 Responses to The Path of Least Resistance?

  1. I have a birds-eye view of the implementation of this taking place and working to influence the execution of the “transformation” model. First, it is a misnomer to refer to this as the path of least resistance. It is more accurate to refer to the Transformation model as the path of least personal and direct pain and accountability. I just led a two-day offsite with the leadership team, including the Superintendent for a high poverty school district. There should be a requirement for intensive organizational behavior and redesign work BEFORE implementing school reforms. Since this is not the case, we have to make applesauce out of bad apples.

    In urban centers, the mechanics of change is something the majority of school leaders simply does not have the mettle to implement. What I have seen firsthand dating back to 2003 when I did my first real school turnaround to now, is an acute dysfunction with how people behave that is simply not in the best interest of any kind of educational mission. Rather, what you see is a deeply ingrained psychosis that is the result of unfettered influence and corruption by Boards and often disenfranchised neighborhoods littered with more ignorance than caring people en masse.

    To help address this, we framed the two days around Patrick Lencioni’s The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive. The first is Develop a Cohesive Leadership Team; second, Create Organizational Clarity; third, Over-communicate Organizational Clarity; and fourth, Develop Human Systems. The focus was almost solely on the first two disciplines, but the real anxiety of people stems from the inability to hire higher quality talent and release slackers. What I also witnessed this past week is an inability to fully undress and be vulnerable regarding the causal factors of problems that exist. The District has a high school that will receive the state improvement grant (SIG) that totals up to $6 million dollar over three years. Yet, there is a weak understanding of the types of competencies that are needed to obtain the return on academic investment (ROAI) as I call it. The same approaches to hiring people and an incongruent approach to measuring performance for expenditures remains in place.

    The reform models of least resistance are sure to be shown as a failure of the current administration in November, and this is unfortunate. Because US schools have been in a steady decline for 40 plus years, and the idea of turning around schools at scale starts via the Transformation model is frankly going to yield minimal to no results. It takes too long and the human capital necessary does not have the skills and competencies to lead the implementation of dramatic change that is sustainable. I wish I had better news from the front lines of reform.

  2. john thompson says:

    As usual you make a lot of good points, but I’m still puzzled by the internal contradictions in your posts. We all have internal contradictions in our positions, but I can make no sense of the following,

    “this kind of analysis is enabled only when policy makers and administrators focus on inputs and not outputs.”

    How in the world could focusing on school outputs be helpful in choosing options other than the path of least resistance? The social science is clear that accountabality systems driven by outputs of others will only reinforce the checking of the compliance box. Its guaranteed to create a culture of yes men, of Major Majors, who just claim they’ve done transformation, but who are free to do so because an administrative monoculture has been created.

    As your previous post noted, successful central offices concentrate on “blocking and tackling.” How could output accountability be other than a distraction to that goal?

    Given the primitive nature of data-driven accountability, its hard to understand the faith in output accountability, but that is especially true when people are being held accountable for systems beyond their control. We know a lot about input and output accountability systems that are good enough for central offices. So why not show some humility and realism and take the logs out of central offices’ eyes before demanding that they take the motes out of the eyes of others?

    Central offices can’t run their own business, and yet you want them to run schools?

    I’m not surprised by the above comment, although I’d probably attribute the blame in a more generalized way, blaming the Human Comedy rather than the specifics cited – but I’ve never been there.

    The opposite of unfettered incompetence and avoiding pain is not tougher accountability. The opposite is a system that builds on strength. I acknowledge that my vaguer preferences are tougher to achieve. But I see no potential for drawing upon the magic asterisk of “accountability,” especially the hypothesis that out-put driven accountability for schools can drive transformation.

    I have been hearing the word “accountability” for four decades, and if it was more than just a slogan it would have yielded results. Back when I was in school in the 60s, the word accountability was simply a part of attacking bleeding heart liberals. Now progressives have adopted it to sound tough.

    I wish people like Diane Ravitch or I had concise bumper sticker prescriptions, but I know that this rush to turnaround is doomed. Because our district was mandated to do more in the last half year than we could adjust too, we have teachers who have already been forced to report to schools who have already been made to transfer, but who are sitting at the turnaround and transformationed schools twiddling their thumbs. Is that a recipe for honest last minute planning or for breeding more fatalism and making sure the patient doesn’t die on your table?

    Which gets us back to the rate of change. If we haven’t had time to plan for transformations, why would you be pushing for tougher turnarounds? Its almost like you know that this round of “reforms” is already on the path to failure so your already blaming others for not being tough enough.

    The sad thing is we are saying many of the same things. Its like the Country and Western song, our beds were burning when we laid down in them.. If you don’t want to deal with the effects of generational poverty and dysfunctional central offices, don’t go in to poor schools. But if you don’t want to deal with interest groups, why become a turnaround specialist. The more you indict central offices, the more you make our case. You want to give them the power to fire us based on outputs? Any way you cut it, you have to get around that paradox if you want turnarounds.

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