In the fall, I will begin a doctoral program in educational policy. I’m hoping to spend the next few months clarifying my thoughts on schools and education reform, and I think the best way to do that is to read a diverse and influential series of articles and books that challenge and expand my assumptions and beliefs about the best ways to improve schools. Since writing is the best way to reflect, I will use this space to summarize the central arguments of each piece, and discuss how the work succeeds or fails in challenging or affirming my already held beliefs.
“Six Degrees of School Improvement” By Ted Purinton (Information Age Publishing, 2011)
I will start this process with a book I only found through a google scholar search of the thinkers I found most interesting in education. I spent about two months carefully reading, annotating, and thinking about Purinton’s ideas, and can honestly say that I haven’t been so intellectually impacted by a single work since I first read Chubb and Moe’s “Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools.”
Purinton sets out to utilize organization (founded Weick’s theory of schools as loosely coupled organizations) and network theory to diagnose many of the problems plaguing our educational system in a way that transcends the stale choice/markets/standards v professional divide. While his goal is to lay out an agenda for making teaching more of a “profession” in the way that medicine and law are, he believes that much of what the “professionalizers” in the debate have done has been counterproductive to this aim. He argues that because of the complex nature of their work job, teachers must be given the professional responsibility to make decisions regarding their students. They also must have access to a stream of research on best practices that is not diluted by consulting organizations, programs, or administrators. Finally, as professionals, all teachers need a theoretically grounded “knowledge base”, and cannot rely solely on the quick tips from various self-help organizations (i.e. Teach Like a Champion).
Though his aims are the same as professionalizers, he diverges from them for two main reasons. First, he thinks this can (but doesn’t have to) be accomplished in the current educational landscape (with some charters, common core standards, etc.).Second, he believes that teachers, and more importantly teaching organizations (unions, professional associations, schools of education, research universities, and certification entities) have the burden of proving that teachers as a whole are deserving of such professional discretion, by raising the bar of entry to the profession, improving teacher training, and allowing some forms of accountability for both ed schools and teachers. He sees the competition from (imperfect) rival programs (TFA, MATCH, Relay, KIPP, etc.) as useful stimuli for these teacher organizations to be more reflective about their practices and reform themselves to stay attractive to schools and future teachers. But he does not rest his hope with these more reform-oriented organizations; indeed, he makes clear that the complexity of maintaining a skilled teaching profession requires continual scholarly collaboration, not just market incentives.
What I loved about this book most, besides the vast array of literature it pointed me towards, was the way it influenced my thinking on what should be the unit of focus for school improvement should be. My (measly) two years of experience as a teacher at two popular but ineffective charter schools that were driving away their generally effective (at least compared to me) teachers led me to a very firm conclusion: Our schools won’t improve from reform unless we get a better understanding of how school organizations respond to various incentives (whether market based or government imposed). Schools need to either embrace their loosely coupled nature and give teachers more autonomy with minimally infringing but relevant performance accountability, or find ways of transitioning to the clan-like organizations that we see with KIPP, UNCOMMON, etc. Unfortunately, most schools attempt the latter and end up being overly punitive and restrictive, resulting in mass exodus, deprofessionalization, etc.
I suspect he would agree with a lot of this narrative, but perhaps not with the idea that we can rest our vision of school improvement on scaling clan-like organizations like KIPP that are able to make schools more tightly coupled. Instead, he convincingly elucidate how a better approach may be to focus on the teacher as the primary unit of attack, but in a way that enhances professional expertise and professional responsibility/autonomy concomitantly. This of course would require schools and school systems to reorganize, but I think in a more feasible and modest way that embraces their loosely coupled nature and allows teachers room to be professionals. I think when this vision is tied to his other ideas for building living, research-based, and highly accessible (bust not diluted) knowledge base, our bar for what an “effective” teacher might look like can be raised dramatically.
Here’s where I am less optimistic: Purinton do such a good job of explaining why graduate schools of education, research institutions, professional associations, etc. are incentivized and deeply rooted in the custom of being ineffective for teachers that I am unable to get excited about a plan that revolves around their widespread and much-needed self-induced reform. Since the idea of reorganizing education around more professional teachers requires first and foremost the reform of these institutions to give teachers a stronger knowledge base (and more importantly so that other educational actors will perceive them to be more professional), I am concerned about an approach that puts so much faith in them.
Then again, I believe the spread of teacher-training programs that are meant to circumnavigate traditional ed schools, such as Relay, Match, (I would barely include TFA here, since they are not really in the business of creating master teachers off the bat) are producing more esteemed graduates who certainly have a larger set of practical teaching knowledge that I believe is raising the floor of first year teachers pretty dramatically. I would love to see these institutions provide teachers to non-charters so that their model could compete more with traditional ed schools (since ideally, a strong teacher prep institution could find ways of raising that floor no matter where teachers are placed, since it’s easier to have a high floor at uncommon). However, as Purinton carefully argues, building up a profession requires creating a theoretically grounded, continually updated (based on careful research) knowledge base, and these institutions ignore university research and theory, and instead build teaching frameworks from the ground up, analyzing and spreading practices that work consistently. Their graduates may not be able to adapt to schools, standards, or lessons that challenge their very limited pedagogical foundations. Then again, perhaps universities could use this limitation to sell their approach, and use their research capabilities to place these various teaching practices in various theoretical and eventually empirically tested models.
Regardless of my tenuous optimism, Purinton more than anyone else has convinced me that schools of education need to be part of a respected, autonomous, teaching profession. I think many sympathetic to reform should read this book to be reminded of why.