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Thompson: "I am a Reflective Practioner"

Big-brother-poster-288x423 If there is one part of The Death and Life of the Great American School System that should be indispensable reading for Bill Gates, it is Diane Ravitch’s account of "Bersinitis" in the San Diego public school system during the reign of superintendent Alan Bersin.

The holy grail of "reformers" is curriculum alignment to assess accountability, but it can degenerate into thought control. "I am a reflective practitioner. I am a reflective practitioner" was the mantra.

"You will not believe this," Ravitch was told by Bersin’s director of curriculum describing the need for alignment, "we had fourth graders who didn’t know the difference between point of view and perspective."

For educators in such a system "survival became paramount," as they complied with the "minute by minute schedule" for instruction. "Muzzled" teachers developed code words and "a form of passive noncompliance" to resist the "totalitarian atmosphere."

During the Bersin years, Kaiser Permanente saw an outbreak of "stress-related illnesses," and "anxiety due to a hostile work environment." Bersinitis disappeared when the architect of this failed scheme was replaced.

If Gates were to order Ravitch’s book by Amazon, he could save on shipping by ordering Organizing Schools for Improvement by Anthony Bryk, John Q. Easton, et.al. These accomplished scholars from the Consortium of Chicago School Research explain how curriculum alignment should work. Among Chicago elementary schools "half to two-thirds of the schools substantially improved in reading when strong curriculum alignment occurred in the context of a supportive professional community where teachers shared a positive work orientation." (Emphasis theirs’)

"Curriculum alignment is a social activity as well as a technical act," concluded Byrk et al, "Its quality of implementation is contingent on teacher buy-in and cooperative problem solving."

By the way, Organizing Schools for Improvement confirms the judgments of teachers - judgments that are typically ridiculed by top down reformers - that schools must be safe and orderly before teachers can abandon worksheet-driven instruction that kills student engagement and worsens attendance, creating a negative feedback loop.

In other words, school reform requires a respectful trusting environment for all. As with baking a cake, a learning culture can not be created without all of the ingredients being in place. Leveraging shortcuts, like the silver bullet of top down curriculum alignment and pacing, is a fools' errand.

If Mr. Gates seeks to be a.reflective practitioner of the art of philanthropy, he should also contemplate Ravitch's discussion of "seeing like a state" versus "seeing like a historian."  Policymakers look "at schools and teachers and students from an altitude of 20,000 feet ... seeing them as objects to be moved about by big ideas and plans."  "Policymakers have a theory of action ... and they articulate, and they implement plans based on their theory of action, their guess of how the world works."

Reformers, however, should deeply consider the musings of historians who "are trained to recognize assumptions and theories and to spot their flaws." 

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Amen! I like how you brought in Organizing Schools for Improvement. Not only does the book remind us that staff need a positive working environment (which is hardly news), it reminds us that successful schools generally use many reform strategies in concert--and those strategies aren't terribly surprising. Reformers often get carried away with the enthusiasms of the moment and forget that improvement is unlikely without more comprehensive strategies.

Education is the key to have a better society in this 21th century

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