With so many quick-fixes proposed to raise student achievement, it’s hard to tell who school reform is really for. Is it for superintendents trying to appease their school board? Is it for politicians who need to make themselves look re-electable? Or—a radical thought—could it be in support of teachers, those who have the closest contact with the students whom schools are meant to be serving?
A new AEI report by Mike Goldstein examines the barriers to successful reform caused by ill-fitting, top-down policies meant to improve instruction and outcomes, and finds that they often lead to improper implementation, misuse of teachers’ time, and the likelihood that more quick-fix policies will be adopted as the ones before them fail.
When schools make purchases—be it programs, curricula, or materials—on behalf of teachers, they rarely take into account the “large teacher time costs” or “implementation costs” of new reforms, and rarely give them the support or training necessary for success. When these new reforms inevitably fail to produce their intended effects—and without the necessary supports for proper implementation, they always will—schools and politicians turn to the next quick-fix, like smaller class sizes and the hiring of additional specialists. As one educator described it, “[teachers] have tried new ideas so many times in the past, only to be asked to change again.” As so many reforms come and go, teachers become wary of their effectiveness, leading them to become more entrenched in the particular practices they prefer. Yet they usually can’t outright say “no” to new policies, so they resort to what the report calls “half-baked implementation,” incorporating some elements of the reforms into their pedagogy and practice, and rejecting or ignoring other parts.
Goldstein suggests that, instead of wasting so much time and so many resources on things teachers won’t use anyway, leaders should adopt “teacher-controlled funds.” Teachers would receive a sum of money at the beginning of the school year to use at their discretion for a range of purchases, including materials, trainings, or field trips. This, he says, will reduce the likelihood of half-baked implementation because teachers are better positioned to know the specific needs of their classrooms—and more invested in their success. To be sure, however, schools shouldn’t be completely hands-off. They ought to continue providing teacher coaches, curriculum training, and the like to ensure their teachers are making informed decisions instead of, for example, relying on mediocre supplemental materials.
The report contends that teacher-controlled funds would increase teacher retention by making teachers feel more valued and respected. Lack of autonomy is one of the most cited reasons for teacher attrition, so it’s possible that this may be true. It’s also possible that this policy could overburden teachers—especially new teachers—with the responsibility of creating a unique curriculum and supplying it. This may be just as demanding on teachers’ time as trying to learn about new school-wide initiatives. It’s also unclear what effect it may have on standards and accountability, especially if teachers are unable to access decent materials or assess the quality of them. Under this policy, it would be difficult to ensure consistent quality within a single district, let alone in the 13,000+ districts across the country.
“What keeps this stupid system propped up?” the report asks. “The illusion by top-down deciders that this time, this time, they’ll get it right.” But it’s hard to say if any top-down reform will “get it right.” Yes, it’s important to ensure that 13,000+ districts are held to certain standards, but it’s naïve to think that new materials, curriculums, or programs alone can raise student achievement. No policy will work if teachers aren’t prepared and motivated to implement it. Getting teachers to that point may require giving them the deference and autonomy to make their own decisions for their classrooms. Maybe teacher-controlled funds are a good way to do that.
SOURCE: Mike Goldstein, “If Education Procurement is Broken, Is Teacher Choice the Answer?” AEI (February 2020).