Some Thoughts on The Hard Work of Education

As I approach my 15-year anniversary at the National Center on Time & Learning (and before 2007, Massachusetts 2020), I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on five core ideas that have motivated me over the course of my career in education research and, more pointedly, in prodding practitioners, policymakers and thought leaders to develop the kind of schools and school systems that our young people need and deserve. There are, of course, many more concepts and research implications than the ones described below that inform my work daily, but, if I have to pick five—and the “have to” is a self-imposed limit only so I don’t write on forever—these are the ones. Even so, this blog entry is considerably longer than usual, so I ask for your indulgence. Without further ado, let’s get started.

I begin with the idea that I’ve articulated many times over these years in this blog space and elsewhere that the aim of creating excellent schools, particularly for those that serve mainly at-risk populations, is no pipe dream. Such schools already exist and thrive in many corners of this country. And this is not just me wishing it so. As I note in my research summary paper, The Case for Improving and Expanding Time in School, a report by McKinsey that explored the economic drag of the achievement gap concludes the same. In McKinsey’s hopeful (albeit wonky) words: “the wide variation in performance among schools and school systems serving similar students suggests that the opportunity and output gaps related to today’s achievement gap can be substantially closed.” To which I added: “In other words, if some schools can successfully educate at-risk students, there’s no reason many more schools cannot do the same.”

Which leads to the second animating idea, and it is really a quote that has rattled around in my head for years.  In a project for which I was writing about some expanded-time schools in Pittsburgh, I had the opportunity to speak with the superintendent at the time, Mark Roosevelt, who had earlier in his career as a legislator in Massachusetts served as one of the chief architects of the state’s ambitious (and hugely influential) Education Reform Act of 1993. In the course of my interview with him, he commented wisely, but with some degree of regret in his voice: “When it comes to educating poor kids, the margin for error is so incredibly small.” And he’s right. So much of what poor children experience daily conspires against consistent and robust learning—from poor nutrition to unstable home lives to under-resourced schools to a dearth of opportunities outside of school. Consequently, the education system has to seemingly get everything else right to make sure that these children’s schools will have the impact on learning they are supposed to. That means that poor students must have it all to have a chance: highly-effective teachers, the most dynamic principals, the most rigorous curricula, ready access to effective social and health support systems, and on and on.  If any one of those myriad components is not high-functioning, the negative effects on disadvantaged kids can be devastating.

Of course, rare is the school where all these elements line up in a way that they sufficiently support student learning and growth—especially over the long haul, where so often any shift within the system can lead to backsliding. Yet, as the first point above elucidates, rare is not the same as non-existent. If provided the human, financial, and organizational resources—resources that typically must be significantly greater than those provided to schools serving more advantaged students—schools can break the vicious cycle of poverty that too often robs young people of the opportunity to grow into productive citizens.

The third idea is a tangent or a key consideration of the second, and this idea comes from one of the preeminent scholars of building effective education systems, Michael Fullan.  In one of his many papers, he notes the following:

In our own work and in our review of other cases, we have been interested in how long it takes to turn around a poor performing school or district to one which evidences good performance. The short answer is 3-6-8 years; that is, it takes about three years to turn around an elementary school, six years for a high school and eight years for a district. By turn around I mean a significant increase in student achievement.

In any common sense understanding of how schools and districts work—of how teachers and leaders and students and parents must together navigate through uncertain waters to generate consistently positive outcomes—this elongated time frame makes sense. We simply shouldn’t expect any complex institution like schools to change quickly; it takes time to build the trust and the perspective and the habits that serve as the foundation to good practice for effective teaching and learning.

Yet, such a time frame is a complete mismatch to the world of policy and politics, where, for both good and ill, much of what happens in schools gets decided. Among elected and appointed leaders—and, in some cases within the philanthropic community—the thorny, unpredictable work of school reform does not align to their “results now” orientation. And, so, for those like us who try to partner with policymakers and funders to drive lasting change in schools, it can be frustrating when the practitioners’ reform schedule does not meet these expectations. I have no ready way to resolve these conflicting outlooks, other than to reiterate the simple adage that we repeat often to educators themselves, “You have to walk before you can run.”  Slow progress at first is not always anathema to significant future growth; indeed, it is often necessary.

The fourth notion, which also stands as a corollary idea to the sometimes erratic pace of change at the school (and district) level, is something I read in an article about the trend to privatize education, especially as it relates to for-profit companies managing charter schools. This author—and I must admit I cannot recall where or when I read this—shared a simple piece of advice that has really stuck with me. He wrote: “The purpose of business is to get out more than you put in, while the purpose of schools is to put in more than you get out.” Again, this snippet of wisdom makes all the sense in the world. Schools are set up no less than to nurture the next generation. How can we possibly even hope to measure or understand their impact over the long haul?

And yet, school systems are organized around a simple formula where fixed inputs are supposed to generate certain outcomes, insofar as these can be accounted for. Ultimately, though, perhaps the nagging phenomenon of unmet expectations—a very common occurrence among schools serving disadvantaged students—is not actually one of failure on the school’s part to leverage resources to achieve a set level of impact, but rather, on our part, to misjudge what the impact should be. Of course, there are too many schools that squander opportunities to generate real learning, but we also should keep in mind that sometimes schools might be effective, even if we can’t see the effects immediately.

All of which raises the question that lies at the heart of everything we do in education: what is the purpose of schooling?  For this basic, yet profound, question I turn often to the Irish poet William Butler Yeats who famously wrote: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” I readily admit that this fifth and final notion is nothing terribly original, but I cannot tell you how many classrooms I’ve seen where this simple idea seems to get lost in the day-to-day affairs that constitute our modern schools. I don’t blame today’s educators for feeling the pressure to have students meet standards, to have them know certain things and to demonstrate proficiency with certain skills, etc., etc. These demands are serious and, to be sure, necessary. We cannot expect the next generation only to be enthusiastic about learning without actually knowing anything. And yet, I must confess to being saddened by witnessing places where children’s natural curiosities have been dampened by school, rather than elevated by it, and where the most important thing seems to be proving ability, rather than simply relishing the opportunity to learn.

Ultimately, this idea is what drives me more than any other, I suppose, for to see that spark of excitement in a child’s eyes is to gain faith that this child has that potential to succeed in whatever he or she desires. After all, isn’t that what we’re all in this for?

And, if you’ll indulge me one more paragraph—and if you’ve gotten this far, then why not—I want to thank my colleagues at NCTL for allowing me to witness every day these five ideas take shape in real time and with genuine consequence. From where I sit, I have seen that every person who works (or has worked) at NCTL believes fundamentally that creating great schools is possible, but that doing so demands the incredible coordination of complex set of conditions and practices and much time take root. Moreover, they engage in this work because they know that schools have deep intrinsic value, for what takes place inside their walls can and should change children’s lives for the better.

Today is my last day at NCTL, but the honor of working with people who bring passion and commitment and wisdom to make real what most consider just fantasy or a lost cause has been nothing less than thrilling, and oh so rewarding.