The Myth of School Improvement

A lot of hopes rest on the possibility of school improvement. I see it as mythology.

In my dissertation, The Myth of School Improvement: More than a decade of reform in one school and what it suggests about the American school improvement project, I share one part of a “reforming” school’s story (1992-2008) as it was built as a model of reform, deconstructed in the name of reform and labeled a school in need of improvement in 2011. The school’s story challenges taken-for-granted assumptions about just what we mean when we say “school improvement” including  why school improvement is more mythology than reality:

(1)  school improvement is an institutional rather than organizational problem, for which we have not yet reached consensus with respect to a solution. The existence of standards and standardized tests to match them does not reflect field or societal level agreement about the best content and pedagogical methods, or the importance and value of choice. Casting improvement as an organizational problem is especially ironic within the current era of accountability when much autonomy for school or classroom-level decisions about the technical core has been lifted from school-level decision-makers and moved to state-level policymakers, reformers outside or between the system and foundations.

(2) high levels of instability in the context of schools–especially teacher and principal turnover and fluctuating student demographics–are fundamentally incompatible with school effectiveness and school improvement; these levels of instability appear to be increasing in many school communities.

I do not mean to suggest that improvement is not possible. Rather, in using the word school as a shorthand for many different things, it is easy to lose track of what we are actually improving and when we are improving it– and in so doing we lose track of learning and the resources it takes to produce it. Moreover, it becomes easier to shift blame/responsibility from stakeholder to stakeholder, thereby perpetuating diffuse accountability for problems that have clear and specific roots in multiple facets of society, including but not limited to the ravages of poverty, the home environment, the classroom teacher, the availability of time, the quality of the materials and the histor(ies) of reform.

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