Ronald GallimoreEveryone's a teacher to someone (John Wooden)

Targetting Settings in Interventions Instead of Individuals

Robert Granger is retiring September, 2011 from his post as President of the William T. Grant Foundation. On his departure he posted a parting essay which continues an idea worth trumpeting. I’ll quote from his essay, because he makes a better case than I can for why interventions ought to target settings of individual behavior instead of focusing solely on individual behavior.

For a PDF of Bob’s essay, click here

Here are some key paragraph’s from the essay:

One of the first changes the Foundation made after I became president was to shift the focus of our research program from the strengths and abilities of young people to the settings that—in theory— produce those strengths and abilities. I came to the Foundation following 11 years as a senior vice president at MDRC, a social policy research firm. There, I developed a great appreciation for the importance of consistent, positive findings as a lever for change. The prime example was MDRC’s studies on welfare reforms in the 1980s, which consistently showed that relatively low-cost changes in practice, such as job clubs or job search assistance, could help low-income mothers move from public assistance to employment. When you find such robust and repeated success, especially for low-cost interventions, few care why they work. It is, however, very unusual to identify approaches that produce consistent improvements across a broad range of situations. As a case in point, the MDRC work I led on education and youth interventions produced fewer winning strategies—in most cases, attempts at reform did no better than current services in the community.

At the Foundation, our thought was that interventions focused on individuals might be too weak or transitory to withstand the other influences in their lives. Hence, we shifted to settings. While our primary motivation was a desire to produce better results, we were also being strategic. This shift was designed to leverage federal funding for research and evaluation on youth policies and programs. Much of that funding remains focused on individual outcomes (e.g., student achievement, at-risk behaviors) and on the individual differences in skills, attitudes, and biology that influence those outcomes. Our thinking was that while improved individual outcomes were (and remain) our goal, an important path to those outcomes is through the social settings in which young people spend their days—classrooms, households, youth programs, and neighborhoods. If the federal evaluations showed mixed results, we wanted to create a body of work to help explain why so that we all could do better.

While I remain convinced that it is intellectually and practically powerful to focus on these daily environments, I and my colleagues have found it surprisingly hard to communicate our interest in settings clearly. At first, I saw this as a routine product of change. When a funder shifts its focus, applicants push the boundaries to see if there is a match between their interests and what the funder will support. That is a normal aspect of the philanthropy “market,” and we anticipated our shift in priorities would cause some confusion. But, that confusion endured long enough to warrant a closer examination. Part of the cause is that the focus on settings is atypical in certain disciplines. Many applied developmental scientists are experts at theorizing and studying individual-level phenomena: how motivation or self-concept affects subsequent performance, how individuals respond to differential incentives, how intervention programs affect individual outcomes. They are, however, much less comfortable thinking about how organizations and systems help shape those outcomes. In addition, measurement and quantitative analysis techniques are much further advanced at the level of individuals than at the level of settings or groups of individuals. Part of the problem may be how we view the world. Clinical psychologists have learned that one of the “fundamental attribution errors” humans make is to assume that the behavior of other people is largely determined by their individual tastes and capacities, even though we believe that our own behavior is affected by our current circumstances.

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Some Examples of the Problems Districts Face When They Try PLCs

In my last post on July 30th, 2013, I mentioned an article that Brad Ermeling and I did based on visits he made to 40 districts trying to operate PLCs –– professional learning communities. He was invited to visit because they had run into a problem. He discovered two types of PLCs, each of which had some challenge.

“Compliance-driven” was one variety of practice Brad observed. These districts described as PLCs meetings in which teachers were expected to work on mandated districts initiatives, such as training on new curricula and materials, analysis of district assessments, accreditation preparation, etc. Of course this variety of PLC might well be effective, so it would be a mistake to discount their value even if they don’t meet consensus PLC criteria.

A second variety was “workshop-inspired.” About 25 of the 40 districts had sent a teachers and administrators to a local or national workshop, typically led by well known speakers. The workshops provided inspirational case examples of districts and schools that had used PLCS to transform teaching and improve achievement. According to the experts, transformation was achieved by a focus on student learning, embracing high expectations for all, and becoming a community of teacher learners. Returning to their districts, the workshop attendees faced a daunting reality. Workshops had inspired but not provided an implementation model. While there were vivid illustrations of what a PLC looked like once it was up and running, there was almost no guidance for where to start, and how to sustain what for most districts was a radical departure from existing culture.

What Brad discovered in both compliance-oriented and workshop-inspired districts was a little time spent studying and improving instruction. In some districts there was confusion, for example, one educator told Brad “we’ve always been told this [PLC] os mot about teaching; it’s about student learning.” As a result, in many districts he visited the prevailing take-away from the PLC workshop was the need to focus on analyzing student assessments. A group of teacher leaders at a charter school said “we never have an opportunity to work on instruction related to our daily classroom teaching.”

It will be a shame if PLCs get labelled as another reform that came up short because the field did not develop implementation models. It’s an old story documented many times. A great idea is launched, but too little attention to paid to that vast gap between intention and outcome ––implementing intentions so they have a chance to produce outcomes. One of the saddest stories in American education is how often we repeat this cycle of enthusiastic beginnings and tawdry endings. For an insightful, if depressing example, read Seymour Sarason’s classic (1971) account of the fate of the New Math Reform of the 1960s. Sarason’s The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change is as relevant today as it was 40+ years ago. It’s documents why perhaps the dirtiest word in education is implementation.
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