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Thompson: Henry Ford's School Reform Lesson [Stability]

FordNPR’s Sarah Cwiek, in The Middle Class Took Off 100 Years Ago ... Thanks to Henry Ford?, noted the centennial of Henry Ford’s policy of paying his workers $5 a day.

The policy of paying a living wage sparked a positive feedback loop which helped create middle class prosperity. Ford was not being charitable. He wanted a stable workforce. 

Education research confirms the value of stable teaching forces. This is especially true of high-poverty schools where students face extreme instability in their neighborhoods. 

Even so, some school reformers claim to believe that “churn” or high levels of turnover is a virtue. 

Two recent studies have added to the evidence that high-dollar efforts to turnaround challenging schools have disappointed because they do not recognize the value of stability.

And a recent post from Andy Rotherham notes that class issues play a role in how reformers view stability differently than others.

Catalyst Chicago’s Rebecca Harris, in Turnaround Principal Turnover, explains that Chicago has launched 34 turnaround schools, mostly managed by the Academy for Urban School Leadership.

She reports that the RAND Corporation found that about 20 percent of principals in urban districts nationwide leave their schools within 1 to 2 years. “But among CPS turnarounds,” Harris reports, "that figure was nearly double -- 38 percent. What is more, there are other turnaround principals who have only been on the job for a short time and may quit before two years are up.” 

Similarly, the Shanker Institute’s Matt DiCarlo, in Teacher Turnover in DCPS, draws on the work of Steve Glazerman in reporting the same pattern in regard to teacher turnover. The D.C. school system has turnover rates of about 17% in low- and medium-poverty schools.  D.C, however, has a “somewhat stunning 38.4 percent in high-poverty schools.” DiCarlo adds that “ this means that this subset of schools must replace, on average, almost two out of five teachers every single year.” (emphasis is DiCarlo’s)

Andrew Rotherham, in a confusing Eduwonk post Risks and Stakes, seeks a balance between risk-taking and stability in school reform.  He starts wistfully, citing a poll where almost 40% of Silicon Valley workers say they would leave their jobs tomorrow if they were upset with the company, and wishing that educators had more of their daring. He closes by praising D.C.’s teacher quality experiment which, coincidently, results in an almost 40% annual turnover in high-challenge schools.

In between, Rotherham claims that a there are plenty of reformers who grew up in challenging circumstances. But, he speculates that reformers are more willing to accept instability because “for many people in the reform world risk is real but also buffered.”

He concludes, accurately, that churn looks different for educators trying to start a family. Reformers have been slow to recognize this because, “Be honest, there is an enormous difference between taking a risk when the cost of absolute failure is returning to your parents garage with your tail between your legs and taking a risk when the cost for you or your family could be economic catastrophe.”

I don’t believe that reformers intended to turn schools into a speeded-up version of the Model T assembly line.  But, much too often, that is the result of their risky gambles. Few reformers had enough experience to anticipate the predictable consequence of imposing creative destruction on vulnerable schools. 

When principals are told to do the impossible and create disruptive innovation in schools where children crave and need stability, those policies are likely to backfire. Had more reformers read more history before they started, they would have been slower to impose risky transformative change on complicated institutions. Neither would they have risked so much churning of the education workforce if they had more experience on the job, in general and in schools, in particular, before imposing their mandates.- JT(@drjohnthompson)Image via.  


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Totally agree. Finding a way to get truly inadequate teachers to exit the profession (not just switch schools, but exit the profession) would result in only a small fraction of the 38% turnover you cited. And, if the rate of turnover could be shrunk to even 15% or 20%, many of the remaining teachers would find it much easier to help their students learn well.

Some of these "disruptive" reformers have forgotten how it would have felt for them, as children, to have a revolving door or principals, to have none of the teachers their older siblings had had, to have longstanding school traditions mothballed or forgotten because of constant leadership changes.

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