Just Say No To Fads

Whatever it’s called, school district consolidation can try superintendents’ souls and test the limits of rural community pride. by Craig Howley, Aimee Howley And Larry Burgess

Traditional rural pathways to success often bypass what some view as ‘best practice.’

On the one hand, to judge from the continuing criticism of public schools, it’s an open question. Few people seem to know. If it weren’t still an open question, then surely by now superintendents, principals and teachers would be fretting much less about it than they actually are.

On the other hand, some educational reformers say “we already know what to do,” and we just have to start doing more of it (or doing it more often). This outlook tells school administrators that what’s needed is more use of “best practice.” In other words, there’s a right way to proceed, and administrators simply need to get on with it.

Disappointing Outcomes
If this seems like a simplistic account of what’s expected, it has a lot in common with the re-authorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which uses the word “research” almost 275 times in its 607 pages, and the phrase “scientifically based research” nearly 70 times, pressing home the requirements for best practice. Best practice, according to the authors of No Child Left Behind, is validated by science, a bipartisan consensus and, of course, dollars. It’s a strong argument.

Nevertheless, it might still be wrong. Certainly lots of schools are following the directions and not getting the promised (or predicted) results. Other schools — those that do not follow the directions — may be getting results or perhaps not, but few researchers and education reporters investigate these cases. The upshot of the inevitable complexity of schools’ responses to reform legislation is that there are lots of disappointed governors, legislators, chief state school officers, superintendents, principals and teachers.

Will we never get it right? The exact formulation of best practice — the one-best-way — varies from expert to expert, but during each era a consensus seems to emerge. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was strong instructional leadership and direct instruction. Now it seems to be distributed leadership (that is, democratic, participatory, shared leadership) and constructivist curriculum and pedagogy (that is, standards-based, authentic, hands-on instruction).

A Harsh Assessment
We’ve been educators for a combined total of about 100 years, and researchers for about half that accumulated time. Perhaps it’s our aggregate senility, but we’re coming to the conclusion that best practice is a jejune idea. Jejune means ill-formed, half-baked and non-nutritive.

That’s a harsh assessment of a seemingly noble idea. We personally favor some sharing of leadership and the variety of approaches to teaching and learning that put meaning foremost. So it isn’t personal preference for authoritarianism and behaviorism that informs our skepticism.

Nor does our insight about best practice come from hostility to research. We’re professionally committed to the idea of evidence. In fact, it’s our experience in several research projects in rural schools and districts that causes us to question the idea of best practice so sharply.

These schools and districts serve impoverished communities, and they are doing really well using approaches that are anything but best practice as currently conceived. What do the educators in these rural places think is important, if not best practice?

Alternative Values
Although these schools don’t seem to value best practice in ways that researchers and policymakers might recognize, neither do they set out to repudiate the wisdom of the field. Instead they seem to operate from a set of local norms that are hard to dislodge (even by best practice) primarily because these norms construct a meaningful local version of schooling.

Coming partly from rural culture and partly from educators’ commitments, these norms fit leadership and pedagogy to the expectations of their local communities. The resulting practices are anything but fads. Indeed, in rural school districts we heard in the comments of educators and citizens a strong measure of skepticism of educational fads.

For a lot of those with whom we spoke, fads seem like best practice run amok. The result, perhaps, is suspicion of best practice as an idea. Educators and citizens don’t want to know whether a practice has been shown to work, but if it will work here. The proper test is the local trial. It doesn’t matter whether something ought to work in the eyes of authorities. It matters that it fits and therefore has a chance of working in a particular local school or district.

You hear the word “tradition” used in this discussion. It’s a difficult word in America, where innovation wins far more accolades in the national imagination. Even with television and the Internet, however, aversion to risk remains a value in rural places. Indeed, those prone to take risks are always those with comparatively less to lose.

In rural places, much already has been lost. And these school districts stand as examples of the loss — loss of population, the economic decline of farming and plant closings, for instance. In fact, one of the major possible losses confronting rural areas is the school itself.

Many of these communities are deeply religious, and educators and citizens view learning and teaching in the ways it has been viewed for centuries. They believe, as do lay people across the globe, that knowledge is certain rather than contingent or contested, that teaching is properly authoritative rather than facilitative and that learning is a process of acquisition. This is not the shape of best practice as currently, and perhaps temporarily, understood. We need to point out, by the way, that a lot of successful teaching and learning goes on along these traditional lines everywhere, both inside and outside of schools — and has done so across all the centuries and places that have produced the great minds and great works that make up high culture.

So what do these places look like? We present three quite different schools, as we saw them in the past year. In truth, we might not want to send our own children and grandchildren to some of the schools we studied, but we recognize that these schools are doing well with students who are poor, based exclusively on their test scores. In each case, it’s not our standard of doing well, but it’s the judgment of a state education agency in the Midwest.

(Pseudonyms are used in place of the schools’ real identities because we promised not to disclose them as part of our research protocol. A few facts were altered slightly to ensure this confidentiality.)

Woods High School
At this 7-12 school, which serves approximately 550 students, traditional authority relationships permeate the practices used by educators. School leadership, classroom instruction and discipline all follow a top-down model. And the teachers at Woods believe this approach has contributed to the academic gains they’ve made over the past six years. In fact, interviews with 31 members of the school and the community — teachers, students, administrators, parents and non-parent citizens — stress the connection between the school’s success and its authoritarianism.

Strong, top-down leadership starts with the superintendent who strives to centralize authority at the district level. Worried about the historical problem of everyone being on the same page, the superintendent brings together educators from the district’s schools to work on curriculum, identify and arrange professional development activities and establish discipline policies.

Even though he is clearly in charge, the superintendent values the opinions of educators in the district. His approach, according to several interviewees, differs from that of previous superintendents, who made top-down decisions without consulting anyone — not teachers, not principals, not community members. Although a few interviewees think the current superintendent’s approach is still too dictatorial, most appreciate the direction he provides as well as the interest he shows in their points of view.

At the school, a dynamic principal was responsible for a major turnaround. According to one teacher: “A lot of it [school improvement] goes back to leadership. We didn’t have a huge staff turnover when we gained Mr. R. as principal. The same people were here. The students’ characteristics didn’t change. He really was the change factor when he came in. I think that making a match with the right kind of administrator — one who is actively involved, one who sets expectations and goals and one who provides strict discipline — makes a world of difference.”

As this teacher’s comment reveals, one of the principal’s strategies was to work to improve discipline. He used traditional methods — a stringent discipline policy, rigorous surveillance and consistent application of sanctions — in order to establish control. Then the climate of the school began to change. As one teacher put it, “Once we had the discipline, I think the kids knew we were serious.” The current principal continues the practice of enforcing a strict code of conduct so that behavior problems never get out of hand. A teacher explains, “It [is] not military a school … yet kids know their limits and what is expected of them.”

Clear expectations also characterize teaching at Woods High School. Not only do teachers adhere closely to the state’s content standard, they also use these standards to show students what’s expected of them. As one teacher reports, “I actually post them in my room so the kids know what is expected and what they need to be able to do.”

With specific standards in view, teachers design lessons that incorporate traditional instructional methods: lecture, recitation, in-class practice, homework and corrective feedback. Although a few teachers are beginning to experiment with small group work, most teach to the whole class. In general their method of teaching resembles the approach that came to be called direct instruction in the late 1960s, a traditional form of pedagogy that actually has been used for generations.

Bannersfield Elementary
Another rural school, Bannersfield Elementary, uses quite different practices to achieve success. This public school, located in a predominately agricultural area, serves 200 students, about half of whom are Amish. Reflecting the strong sense of community that Amish culture engenders, educational practices at Bannersfield are highly democratic. Leadership strategies and instructional methods, in fact, do fit rather well with what’s being recommended in contemporary reform literature.

Interviews conducted with teachers, parents, community members and students attribute the school’s success to a new principal, who assumed leadership five years ago. Her collaborative approach to school administration resonates with community expectations, and she has encouraged extensive participation by parents and teachers in school decision making.

Under the principal’s leadership, members of the school community adopted a new mission: “United effort, united responsibility, united success.” As a reminder of these core values, the principal repeats the mission statement each morning as she greets the students.

This mission is put into practice in classrooms, where students often are observed helping one another with school work. Teachers in most classrooms organize students into cooperative learning groups, and they are implementing a new “reform” or “standards-based” math curriculum that emphasizes teamwork and problem solving. Moreover, incentive structures reflect the strong sense of community to which the mission statement speaks. In each classroom, for example, teachers and students establish learning goals that link the success of the class as a whole to the progress of every student in the class.

Community spirit also colors professional relationships among teachers. In the halls and classrooms, teachers share ideas and provide help to one another. More formal teachers’ meetings give them opportunities to discuss curriculum and instruction, particularly in light of relevant data. When such data reveal a problem, the whole faculty considers what might be going on and generates suggestions for improvement.

Teachers also collaborate to establish uniform procedures for organizing their classrooms and for encouraging good behavior among students. Across classrooms at all grade levels, behavior expectations are presented in five simple phrases known as “The Five B’s.” These phrases define the connection between responsible behavior and community well-being: “Be safe; be cooperative, be kind; be respectful; be responsible.”

Because all of the teachers employ the same procedures, students know what is expected of them in every class. This consistent approach to behavior management helps students develop self-control. In fact, few incidents of misbehavior arise at the school, and teachers spend hardly any time reminding students about the proper ways to behave.

Even though adults clearly exercise authority at Bannersfield Elementary, the school climate is student-centered. The hallways exhibit student work, and the educators routinely give recognition to students and classrooms for their accomplishments. Teachers also create a risk-free environment, allowing students to learn from their mistakes. And when a particular instructional strategy doesn’t work for a student, the teachers change gears and try something else. As one parent reported, the teachers “take a special interest in each of the children and not just [those in their own classrooms]. They’re trying to see the individual need.”

Concordia High School
At Concordia, a school in one of Ohio’s smallest and poorest districts, eclecticism characterizes educational practice. Leadership is both traditional and participatory, discipline is both strict and individualized, and teachers combine direct instruction with place-based pedagogy.

Determinations about which practices to use depend on educators’ assessment of “what works for us.” Moreover, teachers and administrators in the school district are remarkably resourceful — purchasing what they know they’ll need, making effective use of scrounged materials and taking excellent care of the facilities, equipment and supplies that are available to them.

The principal, who worked as a teacher at the school, is decisive yet receptive to teachers’ ideas. As one teacher explained, “She taught here before she became principal so she knows how things have been here, and she wants to keep them that way.” While this comment makes it seem as if the principal is resistant to change, that isn’t the case. When the teachers convince her a change will be beneficial, the principal supports it wholeheartedly.

Several years ago teachers told her the school needed to give students access to computers. As a result, the principal lobbied for and received computer work stations to furnish a lab. But she’s still not satisfied with the adequacy of the school’s computer equipment, so she’s writing grants and working with the board to improve upon the existing technology.

Another seemingly traditional feature of school leadership at Concordia is its strict discipline. As one teacher put it: “The principal is a disciplinarian and makes them walk the line. That I like. If kids get in trouble and go to the office, they don’t talk their way out of it.” At the same time, the principal responds flexibly to students’ individual circumstances. When a student announces plans to drop out, the principal counsels him or her, seeking some way to keep the student in school.

Even though the approaches selected for this intervention are nontraditional — part-time schooling, home-schooling, evening GED preparation and early college admission — they have been remarkably successful. Whereas graduation rates in the schools in the state with similar demographics hover around 85 percent, they have been above 95 percent at Concordia for the past four years.

Like leadership at Concordia, instructional practice is also eclectic. Teachers work together to forge an effective combination of traditional and place-based types of instruction. As the principal says, “Even though there’s no time for collaboration, they collaborate.” And despite their frequent use of direct methods such as lecture, demonstration and classroom discussion, they incorporate quite a few field trips, community-based projects and participatory learning activities.

One explanation for the school’s successful combination of traditional and constructivist practices is its small size (fewer than 200 students). According to interviewees, every educator at the school knows and cares about every student. Their aim is to find the methods, academic or behavioral, that enable each student to succeed. Describing how the principal worked with her daughter, one parent explained, “[She] called her in and gave her some incentives so she could bring her grades up, and the teacher [was there] as well. And this year, she’s just doing great.”

Skeptical and Willing
Let’s be clear that best practice is not a set of right things to do that everyone can and should be able to do. It’s often treated like that, but that’s not what it is.

Best practice is a judgment. And the advice to use best practice, more often than not, is advice to people in schools to disregard their own judgment, their own explanations and very often their own cultures.

Sometimes the advice may be warranted, but even then it’s not helpful. Much of the time, however, we suspect that resistance is the expression of good judgment and is therefore warranted. Resistance to reforms is a genuine and authentic reality, and it’s little understood or appreciated.

In all of the schools we studied, not just the three showcased here, we found active judgment and good judgment, operating on behalf of schools and communities. But it was operating under the influence of differing local norms, and it was making a separate peace with professional ideas about reform. Levels of thoughtfulness and skepticism were high, even though decisions and school cultures were remarkably different from successful school to successful school.

What are the lessons? We derive four. These aren’t best practice, of course.

  • Doubt the idea of best practice. Worry more about decent practice and what’s appropriate to your school and community.
  • Education is about thoughtfulness, at least in part, so keep thinking. Don’t substitute expert opinion for your own judgment. Listen to the evidence, but don’t be bullied by it.
  • What happens in school is related to what’s happening in the community. Bring the community somehow into decisions about school improvement and listen to what’s said.
  • Community values are often conservative. Current versions of best practice are wildly liberal. To foster a workable negotiation, a superintendent needs to do a lot of listening and only a little talking.

Decent practice is a negotiation, in our view, but ultimately educational work — leadership as well as pedagogy — is a matter of judgment. Good judgment, however, requires options, and the very idea of best practice restricts options. Thinking about better practice might be a way to generate options, particularly when teachers, parents and community members become dissatisfied with what the schools already are doing. Such thinking might properly lead to discussions about what the schools ought to be doing. Good test scores are nice. But, after all, they’re not everything, not even enough.

Craig Howley is co-director of the ACCLAIM research initiative and adjunct associate professor of educational studies at Ohio University, McCracken Hall, Athens, OH 45701. E-mail: howleyc@ohio.edu. Aimee Howley is a professor and coordinator of the educational administration program at Ohio University. Larry Burgess, previously superintendent in Lancaster, Ohio, is now an assistant professor of educational administration at Ohio University.