Seeing complexity in U.S. public education
By Donald J. Peurach
Education reform is among the great American pastimes. This is activity that plays out continuously in public discourse everywhere from corner bars to capitol buildings, as well as in the day-to-day work of government agencies, university-based project teams, and private organizations. Current wrangling over the reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Act will surely throw fuel on the fire.
However, despite decades of education reform, many schools continue to struggle to support high levels of student achievement — especially schools serving large populations of poor and disadvantaged students. This decades-long struggle for deep, lasting, large-scale education reform stands as evidence of the complex problems to be solved and of the complex work of solving them. Yet seeing and confronting that complexity is, itself, no simple matter.
Rather than having a single, root cause, chronically low student achievement is often the product of systems of compounding problems in schools: for example, low expectations for student performance, weak instructional and leadership practice, centuries-old tensions between teachers and school leaders, weak coordination among instructional and non-instructional services for students, and many more.
These systems of interdependent problems require systems of interdependent solutions, implemented over time and improved with experience: simultaneous, coordinated improvements in roles, structures, cultures, technologies, and practices. Indeed, over the past twenty years, some of the most remarkable instances of large-scale school improvement in the U.S. have come from reformers pursing exactly that strategy: for example, Success for All and America’s Choice, two non-governmental organizations that have demonstrated success establishing state-sized networks of schools that use school-wide designs to improve practice and achievement.
The problem, then, is that many in the U.S. are unable to see education reform as complicated. This is, in part, because sorting out and making sense of complexity is very hard, and something that very few people have much preparation or experience in doing.
But it is also because Americans have very little patience with complexity. Our is a black-and-white, red-and-blue, PowerPoint-and-sound bite world in which politicians, the media, and even reformers advance silver bullet solutions to public education’s most complex problems — both because they believe in such solutions and because so many in the general population are open to them. These silver bullet solutions run the gamut: improved curricula, new instructional models, smaller schools and classes, professional learning communities, teacher leadership, value-added teacher evaluations, and many more.
Yet when silver bullet solutions are overwhelmed by systemic dysfunction, many are much quicker to deride the system of U.S. public education for not conforming to their methods of solving its problems than they are to adapt their problem solving methods to its complexity.
We have seen instances of reformers bucking this trend. For example, in current debates over the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, the U.S. senate is considering “whole school reform” and the “restart” strategies for the nation’s lowest performing schools. In contrast to targeted interventions, both would support partnerships between schools, districts, and external providers with a record of success either re-engineering existing schools or creating new schools. However, political support for such initiatives has often been short lived, in part because policy expectations for rapid success are at odds with the time needed for such partnerships to emerge and mature.
Until more people are willing and able to see and confront complexity in public education, then we will continue to struggle to do the work of large-scale education reform any better than we have in the past — which is to say, not very well at all.
And, if that’s the case, then the presenting problem driving U.S. education reform will continue to be large number of schools that desperately need to improve. Yet the deeper problem undermining U.S. education reform will continue to lie in populist and professional reformers, themselves, and in the mismatch between their straightforward solutions and education’s complex problems.
Donald J. Peurach is an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at the University of Michigan. He is also author of Seeing Complexity in Public Education: Problems, Possibility, and Success for All.