Sunday, February 6, 2011

The P-12 challenge, Elmore's explanation, and the Gates strategies

As I read this interview with Richard Elmore, I find that the Gates Foundation literacy and mathematics strategies look like a perfect fit. With the Gates designs now slated for statewide scaling work in the next two years, that's worth explaining.  Building from Elmore's comments, I think we could sum up the last two decades as a story of theories, problematic results from trying the theory, and new theories.

Theory 1
If we assess schools and set consequences for results, schools will respond by raising performance dramatically.  Here, you can see the original KERA design from 1990.

Practical Result 1
It turns out that telling schools there will be consequences for bad scores does not enable them to produce better scores. To respond wisely to consequences, schools need to develop internal capacity to work together, analyze problems, and address them.  I've spent the last year arguing that "it happens in teams, or not at all," and I'm pretty sure Elmore is making a related argument.  Theory 1 is partly right, but incomplete.

Theory 2
If schools create strong internal teamwork--perhaps called professional learning communities-- they'll be able to respond effectively to consequences and raise performance dramatically.  If you look at KDE work like the Standards and Indicators for School Improvement (SISI, starting in 1999), you can see a major push toward that kind of collaboration.  If you look to Kentucky's high performance, high poverty schools, you also see major reason to support this theory.

Practical Result 2
Good teamwork results in some valuable improvement, but the growth seems to reach a plateau where improvement slows down.  We get some improvement, but not the dramatic change we were looking for.  Some of the educators I respect most have told me over the last few years that they're struggling to get the next big growth to happen.  Theory 2 is also partly right, but still incomplete.

Theory 3
School teams must focus on "the instructional core" of what happens between teachers, students, and content.  Accordingly, the right next step is to upgrade  the tasks students actually work on.  The idea that "task predicts performance" fits at this point and explains that students can't develop high-level skills if they are almost entirely limited to low-level learning activities.  The tasks must be rigorous, and they must also be organized and implemented in keeping with key formative assessment strategies, so that students enter the needed "virtuous cycle" of success after effort, confidence to make the next effort, and success again.

Implementing Theory 3
The Gates strategies are built on mathematics formative assessment lessons and the literacy tasks and modules.  Those approaches look to me like smart and substantial bids to implement that third theory.  That is, they help educators transform the instructional core, offer an escape from the common plateau in student learning, and and seem likely to start moving students to dramatically higher levels of performance. 

In short, the Gates approach looks to me like a powerful approach to the next steps Elmore recommends and the next steps Kentucky needs.

A note on sources: I've heard Literacy Design Collaborative leaders mention Elmore in discussions of their approach, and that's one reason I've been exploring his work. That said, the discussion above comes from my own comparison of the work underway in Kentucky districts to the Elmore interview and to the ideas published by Elmore and his colleagues in Instructional Rounds in Education.

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