The DeHavilland Blog

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Why reforms don’t scale

There have been countless reform initiatives over the years – and despite the efforts of so many, both inside and outside individual public schools and districts, there has been markedly little change in the goals, functions, and outcomes of the education system as a whole.

How can that be? Why wouldn’t successful reform efforts be replicated across the system? Why wouldn’t people in positions of authority seek out the islands of excellence that we all know exist, and improve their own outcomes by applying the principles of these isolated programs at a grander scale?

Paul T. Hill, writing in a February 2006 report titled “Put Learning First” for the Progressive Policy Institute, explains it in the following way:

The problem for reformers is that our current public school system is a lot like a building designed to withstand an earthquake. It has multiple, independent structural supports that flex and bend, dissipating outside jolts of energy. While this makes for a very stable educational system, it also diffuses pressures for positive change—most notably, efforts to reform schools to meet the shifting needs of students and society.

There’s great value in stability, of course – as Hill notes elsewhere, we all want the schoolbuses to arrive on time. However, when the outcomes the system was originally created to produce are no longer the outcomes we want, the system can’t catch up. The system’s objective is equilibrium and self-preservation; outcomes are secondary.

Rory, who blogs at Parentalcation, offers an excellent example of this in a post titled “Translation Services.” In it, he looks at the results of a pilot program in New Milford, CT in which they tested three math curricula: Everyday Math, Saxon, and Singapore Math.

According to the memo, students using Singapore Math rocketed ahead in terms of performance – in fact, some special education students actually began to perform ahead of their non-special education peers, in effect placing them out of special education altogether! Despite the clear instructional superiority of this program, however, the assistant superintendent recommended Saxon, even though parents and teachers felt that the pacing was so slow, and the materials so easy, that 30-50% of the students weren’t being challenged.

Why wouldn’t you use Singapore math based on this pilot, when it was shown to accelerate student learning so far ahead of other programs? The decision had nothing to do with student performance; rather, it was the fact that the education system couldn’t absorb this level of improvement in student performance.

Consider the systems that have to be altered as a result of this improved student achievement:

  • Special education students have to be re-categorized and removed from the special education track; this disrupts multiple systems, including scheduling, assessment, and teacher assignment, and disrupts a funding stream.
  • To quote the memo, “Adoption of such a program would change the ‘landscape’ that we know as math programming” – students would complete Algebra I, most of Algebra II and Geometry by the end of grade 8, whereas only 20-25% are tackling Algebra I in grade 8, and under 5% are tackling Geometry by then in a good year. This will cause a major disruption in course availability.
  • Implementation of Singapore Math will require additional teacher training and preparation time, and the current teachers may not have the depth of knowledge to handle the program – this would alter training and staffing systems.
  • This accelerated program would put us out ahead of the state standards, requiring changes to the standards. (This one, however, may be moot since the students would almost certainly perform extremely well on state tests.)

In addition to these known disruptions, there’s a lack of precedent here – New Milford would be on the cutting edge of math instruction, with few if any districts to model. This opens up the possibility of other unforeseen disruptions to the system.

So, again, we sacrifice academic achievement for district stability, allowing our children to wallow in subpar instruction and learning so that the administration has an easier time running the place.

This is an outstanding example of the primacy of stability over improvement in public education, and a wake-up call for would-be reformers, who must remember that for a reform initiative to be successful, it must be created in such a way as to be replicable. You can accommodate the system or you can force it to change (somehow), but you ignore its nature at your peril.


  • Hey thanks for the link neighbor. You hit the crux of the point. The education system as a whole is terribly resistant to change. Innovation really only has a chance at the local level, so it was extremely disappointing to see a school district so blatantly ignore their own findings.

    By Blogger TurbineGuy, at 10:42 PM  

  • Brett,

    Sorry for the double post, but I was exploring your blog and website, specifically your niche of improving communication between the business community and the "stakeholders".

    My observations are that employers (the end customers of the education system), aren't very effective at communicating their needs. I always hear about the need "critical thinking" and "communication" skills, but I wonder if those phrases have become to generic and open to interpretation (misinterpretation).

    Having lived in Europe for some time, I observed that countries like Germany have a much more integrated system. Through apprentice and targeted education, they ensure that they get a steady stream of highly qualified workers.

    I wonder if employers don't need to make a more concentrate effort at specifically laying out for the schools, what specific skills they need.

    It seems like our education system and our economy operate in two different spheres. The education system tries to turn out general purpose graduates, not really taught to do anything specific, while the business community tries to sort through all the graduates to find specific domain skills.

    Well thanks for letting me ramble.

    By Blogger TurbineGuy, at 11:02 PM  

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