Why Changing the Carpets Will Not Improve Schools

We all want (even) better schools.  But anyone close to the challenge of improving schools knows that often part of the problem is not too little inspiration but too much.  Attempts to improve bring a flood of well-intentioned ideas.

“We should have a later start to the school day”

“We have to teach 21st century skills”

“We need more creativity in our classrooms”

… And so on.  Some, or all, might be valuable.  None might be.  But more important than the question “would any given idea work?” is “would this idea work better than any other possibility?”

In other words, to use the phrase of John Hattie, which change has the best impact?

Elizabeth Green recounts one experience from Doug Lemov, a prime mover in US Charter Schools.  Lemov took a group of highly motivated teachers to…

one of the crown jewels of the no-excuses world: KIPP Academy in New York City. Created by David Levin and Mike Feinberg, two early Teach For America corps members, KIPP was a perfect model of both the zero-tolerance discipline approach and the sermonizing school-as-pep-talk culture.

 

Yet when Doug asked the Syracuse teachers about the trip, he found that the visit had not proved instructive.  The teachers had seen plenty of things – the arrangement of the reading rugs, the colours of the uniforms.  But… they had not seen the things that they needed to learn.  “I just remember thinking, ‘Holy shit.  That’s what you took away?’  The things they took away were so random, and if you ranked the most important things about a high-performing school from 1 to 100, they had seen number 63, number 84, and number 47.  As opposed to numbers 1, 2 and 3.” (Green, Building a Better Teacher, p. 172)

I think teaching is where medicine was several generations ago: our dreariest days are behind us.  Our best systematic research efforts are underway.  The better districts and systems are using the best evidence, and are thriving on the best international measures of student success.  And at the level of the classroom, the mindset of the practitioner is (hopefully) no longer that mere enthusiasm for children is sufficient to be a good or great teacher.  These are all welcome improvements over previous eras.

But for profound changes, we need to stop thinking at the level of changing the colours of the carpet when making the thousands of day-to-day decisions that impact our schools.  We need to be sure we waste no time implementing changes that actually work, and politely ignore those that have a smaller effect size.  We have only so much time.

I’m Curious:

How many meetings have you been in where number 63 on the Most Important Initiative list wins out over numbers 1, 2, and 3?  

Do we have the capacity in our schools to know what are the most important factors to drive improvement? How would we tell the difference between numbers 84 and 1? 

And how do you build a culture of insisting that changes are improvements, not just changing the carpets?