Tuesday, January 11, 2011

In teams and with tasks: Richard Elmore

Okay, so my favorite educators have been telling me to learn from Richard Elmore for years, and I finally got a start last week, starting with an excellent interview available here.  Professor Elmore is based at Harvard, working on leadership and culture issues that change student performance or keep it from changing, and in this piece, he offers "two big, bold-letter findings."

The first big finding emphasizes the need for people inside a school to pull together.  Until they do, Dr. Elmore argues, they cannot mount any effective response to outside accountability.  He argues:
You can get an organization’s attention through testing and feeding back test scores against standards. You can even reinforce that with various kinds of sanctions and support. You can categorize schools, you can penalize schools and you can provide extra resources and so on. But none of that is going to work unless the school has developed its internal capacity to hold the adults and the kids accountable to each other.
That overlaps nicely with PrichBlog's obsessive concern with professional learning communities and collaboration to build teaching quality.

The second big finding is that even excellent organization work is not enough.  Dr. Elmore sets up the problem by pointing out that:
You can have the internal capacity. You can have strong, well-informed leadership, teachers working in teams, external support and professional development, coherent curriculum, a school improvement plan – everything the literature tells us we should have – and yet not be getting the expected growth. Or, what many schools experience is that you get initial growth, but then the line goes flat.
His argument is that what's happening is that students are still being given tasks that don't allow them to develop the higher performance levels we need.  Educators chose to keep the work simple, predictable, easy to control and guide and grade–and the result is that students do not grow nearly as much as they could with greater challenges.

An Elmore catch phrase is that "task predicts performance."  I think I understand that.  If you ask me to peel vegetables, that's only going to give me a small step toward becoming a competent cook.  If you assign me to walk around the block daily, that will never get me into shape for a marathon.   And if you give me worksheets and drills and lists of facts to remember, that isn't going to equip me to analyze demanding texts, build strong arguments from credible evidence, or tackle serious math and science challenges effectively.

In short, the team effort is necessary but insufficient: the team will not produce major achievement gains until it focuses on the "instructional core" and the changes needed to put students to work at much higher levels.

I've got more reading to do, including a book that arrived in Saturday's mail, but I heartily recommend the interview, titled "Leading the Instructional Core," and published by the Ontario Ministry of Education

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