“The Little House” and School Improvement

There’s a book from the 1940s called “The Little House” by Virginia Lee.  It’s a good metaphor for the problem with our zeitgeist thinking about school improvement

A quick synopsis: The book opens with a little pink house sitting on a grassy green meadow covered with flowers- it is well cared for and happy. But each turn of the page brings change for the little house, spread over many seasons and decades: an asphalt road, passers-by, more houses. At first the house doesn’t mind too much, but as the countryside gives way to a bustling urban center, smog belching industry, and subways, the house begins to worry, thinking “oh here I am, surrounded by progress,” and—eventually when the house is squished between skyscrapers—falls into ruin and despair. One day, when it seems like all hope is lost, a descendent of the man who built the little house comes to claim ownership. She prefers the country to the city and so has the house lifted from its footings and returned to a wide open hillside, where it gets a fresh coat of paint and finds happiness once more.

Just as this children’s book gives this little house a personality, a will and a perception, so it is with how we view schools. We anthropomorphize them, often seeing them as afraid of progress, unable to keep pace with modernity. In our language and taken-for-granted beliefs we treat schools as actors that should be aware of and responsive to changes in the environment.

Perhaps it is stating the obvious to say that schools cannot think, talk or act, but policy missed the obvious. Federal school improvement policy works on the assumption that a school building attached to a legal name is the problem that needs changing. It assumes that whatever is happening inside the school is somehow becoming built into the school itself.

But inside schools there are many different people, all of whom are acting on policies, materials and conversations that were created and started outside the school. In many school communities these things change all the time. And these days, people working on the inside of schools do not have much say about the policies or materials that cross their doorstep. When the policies, people, materials and conversations aren’t working to produce gains in student achievement, we say the building needs to be closed.

The Little House is saved when it is picked up and moved back to the country. This kind of physical change won’t save or improve schools. Real change is not a matter of pretending to make a fresh start by opening or closing a building, or giving it a different name. Nor can we avoid the demands of change by harking back to a bygone era. Real change is a problem of dealing with the institutional regularities of school. Like the little pink house’s studs, joints and frames, the structural and institutional regularities of school remain both untouched by and unresponsive to the demands of progress. Low wages for teachers,  time schedules, gross funding disparities between states, disagreement about the value and purpose of schooling, Carnegie Units, grades– these things have remained mostly untouched for more than 100 years. This is as true now as it was when Seymour Sarason wrote The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change in 1971.

Reform/improvement will happen when we look at and change the actual things that matter for teaching and learning. It would help if we stopped writing/thinking/talking about schools as if they were people.

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Twice the awesome

This is an example of improving a school’s leadership in a way that improves the level of respectful and caring conversations occurring within the school. More awesome twin principals, please! (It’s not apparent how these principals’ positions are funded, though it seems to be a job sharing arrangement).  Like most “school” turnaround stories this one is exceptional for one reason or another, but it it offers a glimpse at how innovative ways of being and acting can foster happiness in schools!

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.