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

Slippery slopes of education reform

“Complex, difficult to implement well” is a description that fits many education reforms and innovations. Not only must practitioners accept new goals, to achieve them they often must learn new practices and figure out how to secure durable implementation. A reform that does not improve students’ opportunities to learn is unlikely to succeed. To improve student learning opportunities nearly always means teachers have to change how they teach as well as what they teach. Implementing changes in instruction is lot harder to figure out than many realize when they launch a reform.

As the first year of implementation unfolds, there is a slope on which many slip that might ultimately wreck a reform effort. Gradually, unwittingly the reformers and practitioners begin to adjust their goals. Instead of better learning opportunities and improved student achievement, focus shifts to implementing some feature of the reform. Success gets gradually re-defined as “how much of the reform are we doing every day” instead of how much more are the students learning. The means have become the ends. A means–ends reversal. One of the most common slips is to unwittingly replace the goal of improved learning and achievement with greater use of one of the reform elements

This is one of my favorite examples: Therese, a UCLA graduate student, and I visited a school which was implementing a form of cooperative learning. Everyday during reading instruction, teachers were asked to pair up students to work cooperatively on an assignment. The day we visited the cooperative learning activity involved text comprehension. Therese was an experienced elementary teacher, a warm, approachable personality who seamlessly roved through the classroom, sitting at tables, chatting with students. She asked students how they liked the cooperative learning segment, and got surprising answers reflected in the response of a 4th grade girl: “working together is ok, but it keeps us from getting our work done.” Therese and I thought the girl’s comment revealing since our observations of the cooperative learning segments suggested students carried out the activity in a mechanical and hurried fashion; they were working together but it hardly seemed like the descriptions of “cooperative learning” that the program operators were pursuing.

In a debriefing meeting after our observations, the program operators talked excitedly about how well the cooperative learning was working. At the launch of the reform, they had struggled to stand up the cooperative learning activity. But after much effort, they were pleased with the results. Their evidence focused on how reliably cooperative learning was being incorporated by teachers into lessons and the participation level of the students. When we probed for evidence of improved learning, they offered more anecdotes about participation. Our visit took place in late Spring, after the reform program had been in place for nearly a year. Had these well intended reformers slipped down the slope of a means–ends reversal? Were they forgetting that the original ends was better learning, not increased cooperative learning participation? Perhaps. But this can easily happen when education reformers underestimate how hard it is to fundamentally change teaching practices.

Another example. A truancy reduction program hired as director a young adult from the neighborhood. Kai was once a notorious truant who had turned his life around. Kai’s charismatic personality was attractive to the adolescent boys who were the main focus of the truancy program. A “club house” was created near the school, where the boys could gather. Kai offered counseling, diversion activities, exhortations to return to school, tutoring, and a place to do homework. Participation in the program increased quickly after Kai began work. There were less complaints about the truants in the neighborhood, less hanging around the schoolyard and making trouble. The program operators were pleased, and so was the funding agency. But a brief evaluation suggested that despite these improved participation and less behavioral complaints, the program seemed to have increased the truancy rate of the boys in the program, and also increased the number of truants over all. More boys than before were skipping classes to spend time at the club house. Kai’s personality and the attractions the program offered had certainly increased participation, but at the cost of the original truancy reduction goal. Slipping into a means-ends reversal can be deceptively easy to do.