NAEP results are yet again indicating that strict reforms, as current high school seniors have experienced a near-lifetime of initiatives that count as education “reform,” from NCLB to RTTT, have failed.
Mountains of evidence are collecting, but education reform programs, like scripted curricula in all subjects, persist for two reasons, in my estimation.
One, educational change is slow. Systems are clumsy. The winds may be shifting in favor of less reformist perspectives, the dropping of “no excuses” and entirely test-based accountability, for instance, but it could take years for the weight of reform to be lifted. Legions of new principals and administrators and leaders have been indoctrinated. They simply can’t imagine alternatives. And when confronted with very complicated problems, everything looks like a nail.
Two, there is this very persistent and stubborn belief that reformist programs, like highly scripted programs, can work, and will work, even when they don’t or haven’t worked in the past. The problem is with program “fidelity”; that is, we the practitioners have not been faithful enough to the program. This is not to say that obstacles to fidelity are in fact part of the program itself. If practitioners find it difficult, despite millions of dollars in professional development and materials, to reach fidelity, then it might indicate that the program is in fact a failure for that reason alone.
True fidelity is elusive, and likely impossible to reach. Fidelity is subjective and may be so in some cases, but not others. You will likely know when a leader or district is unwilling to let go of a failed program when they persist with fidelity despite repeated failures in reaching it.
Teachers will see a list of, say, ten aspects of program fidelity, with the promise that a program will work if they only perform those ten things. When those ten things are performed, and programs still don’t work, you’d think that’s it, right?
There will likely follow another list of ten things that also need to be done. Failure, and now we can try something else?
Another list will follow, and another, before you realize that a program will be done regardless of success or failure. And if a program is so desirable, fidelity will be forced by fiat, checked and re-checked. If you can’t provide this elusive and rare condition, someone else will be found who will and the cycle will continue.
Ultimately, however, students may not actually improve their outcomes as a result. But that never really was the goal.
If I’m trying to fix something and I have a toolbox, I don’t force the tool to fit the problem. I don’t blame my hand for not wielding the correct size of wrench to loose the nut. I drop the damn tool and find another. In the case of educating children, imagine loosening bolts of various sizes, that change size on a whim, and may in fact not be bolts at all, but nails and zip ties and staples and glue. It’s messy, you might not need a tool box at all, but in fact could solve your problem with a butter knife in your kitchen drawer.
Yeah, it’s like that.