Building a Better Edsel

by Robert Pondiscio
May 20th, 2011

Update:  Kitchen Table Math picks up the thread here and here.  Likewise Diana Senechal, guest blogging at Joanne Jacobs, here.

If you’ve spent any time at all on this blog, you’ve been treated—OK, subjected—to occasional rants about mainstream education reform’s blind spot on curriculum and instruction.  Teaching is a management issue; something to be measured by standardized tests.  And curriculum?  Hey, in the hands of a great teacher, every curriculum is great.  Or something like that.  With charters to build, tests to administer and performances to judge reformers remain largely agnostic, incurious or just plain indifferent about what happens inside the classroom.  This myopia informs policy:  Race to the Top enshrined 19 different fixes for American schools.  Curriculum didn’t make the cut.  If you were in charge of fixing America’s schools, could you find 19 things for your To Do list before you get around to curriculum? Seriously?  

A fascinating email found its way into my inbox last week describing a visit to a high profile, “no excuses” charter school.  The email was written by someone who is solidly pro-reform and strongly pro-charter.   She spent the morning visiting Big Name Charter and pronounced herself aghast.  “The school is fantastically well run, and the kids are on task —- and it is all fuzzery all the time. The reading curriculum is Fountas and Pinnell; the math curriculum is so bad it has sparked parent uprisings across the country,” she writes.

“Teachers aren’t allowed to use direct instruction for longer than a few  minutes; then the students must repair to their pods and discover knowledge. After they discover knowledge, which means solving ONE problem, they return to the rug and explain their “strategies” to each other.  Although the school prides itself on efficient use of time, the students I saw were spending a lot of time doing nothing at all while they waited for the other kids to finish so the whole group could migrate back to the rug.  

“Everything was ordered and timed and assessed, yet the curriculum is crap,” the observer concludes.  

How can this happen, she wanted to know, in a school that prides itself on data-driven decision-making?  What kind of data, she asked, did they use when it came time to choose a curriculum?  Tellingly, she notes it was the one moment where her host “suddenly sounded like a regular denizen of public education.”

“Tests can’t tell you that much about whether a curriculum is good because some of the kids taking the tests might have been tired that day; the only way you can decide on curriculum is to go into the classroom and ask a child a question and get his response. That’s how you “know.”  

“This is a data-driven school, and they don’t use data to choose curriculum,” she fumed.  I wish I could say I’m surprised.  When it comes to curriculum and instruction, a field that can’t reach consensus about anything suddenly treats what children should learn and how they should learn it as settled.  If your primary concern is measuring teacher perfomance, you are assuming–are you not?–that what is to be taught and learned has been established.  All that’s left to do is separate good practitioners from bad ones.

If you had a time machine and put a team of leading ed reformers in charge of the Edsel at Ford Motor Company 50 years ago, they would set to work energetically measuring the productivity of assembly workers (because we know—we know—that great assembly workers are the most important contributor to success in manufacturing). They would put a bonus plan in place to reward them when sales improved.  And when that failed, they would shut down plants turning out Edsels that sold poorly and build brand new plants.  

To make more Edsels.  

Meanwhile, across town, critics point to wages and working conditions and ask how assembly workers can build better Edsels when they can’t feed their families or afford better health care?  You can’t possibly fix the Edsel unless you fix that first.

Back to Big Name Charter School.  By all available data, the school described above is doing very, very well. That said, the oldest students are still young, and the big challenges lie ahead: Will they avoid the 8th grade slump?  Will they keep their low-income, minority students in the fold through high school?  What then?  

The long view may be slowly, quietly emerging–as it should and must–as the question in education reform.  To their great credit, KIPP recently released a remarkable report on the college completion rates of its students.  It shows “only 33 percent of students who completed a KIPP middle school 10 or more years ago have graduated from a four-year college.”  Surprised?  You shouldn’t be.  It’s slightly better that the 30% college completion rate of Americans at large, and four times better than the average for the low-income minority population KIPP serves. That’s no mean feat. But the feel-good narrative driven by boosters of these schools — high graduation rates, first kids in their families to go to college, etc. – has tended to obscure how bewilderingly difficult it is to fulfill the mission that schools like Big Name Charter have set for themselves—to get kids not through the next standardized test, but on to college and the royal road to upward mobility and productive adult lives.  

How hard is that?  Bear in mind that based on the 2010 ACT test results, fewer than one in four U.S. high school graduates (24%) are prepared to do C-level work or better in all four tested areas.  That’s ALL college-bound students—not the hard-to-serve students typically served by KIPP and other “no excuses” charters, including the one visited by my correspondent.  Seen through this prism, even closing the achievement gap starts to seem like small beer.   It means nothing less (and nothing more) than bringing under-represented students up to the very same level of mediocrity that has persisted across the board for decades.  

The bottom line: There are undoubtedly process problems in American education.  But the biggest problem is the product.  And rather than face up to this, many of our most dynamic and energetic education leaders remain committed to the best possible delivery of the worst possible product.  Billions of dollars and countless energy expended in search of ways to build the best possible Edsel.  
I remain deeply impressed by the purposefulness, energy, positive school tone, etc. of the best of the “no excuses” schools.  But to answer the question “Are these schools effective?” will take many more years.  My best guess is that absent a much more rigorous course of study, an end to our obsession with skills-focused education, and getting over our long-standing aversion to a content-rich curriculum, you will over time see a fadeout.  Many of the kids in these schools will do well, and certainly far better than they would have otherwise.   Many more will regress to the mean.  And then we will conclude that the issue is poor teaching, lack of accountability, incentives, unions, the inevitable effects of poverty, lack of parental support and blah, blah, blah.

And no one will think to mention the curriculum.