Thursday, September 16, 2010

Doubling Student Performance Requires Collaboration, Persistence, and Humility

A couple weeks ago ago Thursday,I started writing on the concept of doubling student performance. The term doubling comes from a book by Allen Odden of the University of Wisconsin, titled Doubling Student Performance and finding the resources to do it." The concept of doubling, speaks to making a quantum leap in the performance of a sub-group of students who are not reaching proficiency. Odden's book reports the results of the University of Wisconsin's research into how school districts have taken these students--who are not performing at acceptable levels--and "doubled" their performance. Odden urges school districts to consider major strategic changes in the way that they deliver instruction, and he contends that the strategies requires are within our reach, but only if the teachers, administrators and board make a significant systemic commitment to the changes that are required. I want to take a minute in this post, however, to interpose a cautionary note.

Doubling focuses on raising the performance of students who are not realizing their full potential, and especially those students who are in the lower quartiles of performance. Its a huge undertaking, often aspired to, but often subject to failure. The entire charter movement in Minnesota was launched under the Perpich administration primarily to address this mission on the theory that competition in the marketplace would foster significantly better results for the students in the lower quartiles. In fact, while many charter schools do an exceptional job, independent State auditor reviews have shown that on the average charter schools have not done any better at this than traditional public schools.

My cautionary note is that we must undertake any gigantic effort like this with a heavy dose of humility--a humility that says, we don't know all the answers. We have to adjust what we do to what is working. We need to recognize that the history of education is littered with sudden changes in direction in which the entire education establishment suddenly concludes that what we have done before is fundamentally wrong, and that a new approach will deliver us to an educational promised land. The teaching of mathematics has swung wildly in the last several decades from basic arithmetic, to "new math," back to basic arithmetic, and then to an approach that sought to integrate mathematics with real life problem solving. For more than a decade, the middle school philosophy drove rigor out of some of our nations middle schools fueled by an educational ideology that virtually prevented the teaching of algebra until grade nine, banished foreign language from the middle grades, and focused heavily on emotional and social development. In the last five years, however, middle school education has swung so heavily in the other direction that across the country we are now virtually requiring that all students take algebra at least by 8th grade, even if they are not ready to do so. Anytime we undertake a mission, and doubling is a mission, we need to take care that missionary zeal does not lead us to do foolish things.

So as we undertake the doubling idea, we must be constantly humble--open to the possibility that we are succumbing to a new educational fad. I find the approaches described in the "Doubling" to be quite persuasive. In my next posts, I'm going to continue to list and discuss the ten doubling strategies identified by Odden that have been proven to work. Still, as we attempt to adopt these approaches here in St. Cloud, and in other school districts, I think we must exercise great care to make sure that the reforms we adopt make sense and that they are producing results. That involves listening to teachers, to parents, and constantly reviewing the testing results to make sure that our efforts are producing the progress we anticipate. It involves also communicating clearly the vision that we are undertaking, to bring the entire community on board. Making big change requires, well, ......big change.

My cautionary note was inspired also by an article in the August 31st's edition of Education Week which discusses the collapse of an early doubling initiative in the San Diego public schools initiated by then San Diego Superintendent Bersin and his academic Chancellor Anthony Alvarado (who had previously initiated major reforms in a New York City District). Faced with abysmal test scores, especially among San Diego's large non-English speaking student population, Bersin initiated a massive initiative called Blueprint for Student Success, which ran from 2000 until Bersin's 2005 Superintendent contract was not renewed. Bersin imposed a number of the strategies identified by Odden in his book on doubling. But the reforms lacked community support and were challenged as imposed through inflexible, dictatorial top-down measures. By 2005, the reforms were so controversial, and opposition to Bersin and Alvarado's methods so widespread, that the Blueprint for Student Success was terminated and Bersin's superintendency along with it. Another factor in the termination of the Bersin-Alvarado Blueprint for Student Success was the implementation of significant statewide cuts in financial support to education in California that forced termination of some of the most costly aspects of the Blueprint.

Now, a recent research report,Lessons in Reading Reform, Finding What Works published by the Public Policy Institute of California attempts to evaluate the successes and failures of the five year run of the Blueprint for Student Success. According to the report authors:

The reforms succeeded in boosting the reading achievement of students who had been identified as lagging behind at the elementary and middle school levels. The key element that seems to have driven this success was a significant amount of extra student time spent on reading, with a possible collateral factor being widespread professional development for district teachers. The combination was neither cheap to implement nor a magic bullet. But in elementary and middle schools it demonstrably worked. In high schools, with one exception, it did not.

The overriding impression from Lessons in Reading Reform--the report on the San Diego experience--should be that doubling efforts must be accompanied by a heavy dose of humility, as I have said. Anyone who claims to have discovered a magic bullet is mistaken. Anyone who claims that quantum leaps in achievement can result from the edict of a single visionary leader, or that it can be imposed by fiat from a school board, is deeply mistaken. I think that the lessons of the Blueprint's failure may be the following:

  • Any effort to implement major reforms must be accompanied by constant review to assess and report on results
  • Major reforms require clear communication with the community so that the community
  • Major reforms require resilience in the face of attempts to defend the status quo, but caution to assure that change is not made simply to be making change
  • Doubling efforts require time and here again, the support of the community, within the public system and in the community is critical to staying with those efforts.
  • Doubling efforts require collaboration within the education community to make sure that we are doing things that actually work

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