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Education Reform: It’s an Evolutionary Process (2/1/14)

Curriculum is the essential fundamental component of the structure of PK – 12 schooling. It is the genesis for instruction and assessment. The curriculum embodies the answer to one key question “What’s worth knowing?” Because of this fact, PK – 12 education reform is inextricably linked to curriculum reform. Understanding this fact, education/curriculum reform must also be viewed as an evolutionary process. The curriculum constantly grows and changes based on society’s needs, answering the question “What’s worth knowing?” This changing, evolutionary nature, of education reform is sustained by the enduring purpose of PK – 12 schools to equip graduates with the knowledge and skills to enter the work force or continue their education in a post-secondary setting after high school. The knowledge and skills that are needed to achieve this goal continue to evolve, as technology and the production and sales needs and locales of major industries change.

In a 1/14/14 Education Week article titled Why Make Reform So Complicated, Mike Schmoker argues that complexity is what has neutralized school improvement/curriculum reform efforts in the United States. Schmoker sites several studies from business and industry that confirm the fact that complexity stifles organizational improvement efforts. Schmoker also refers to his experience working in “every kind of school and district” in which he reveals that “For every major initiative, a common theme emerges: There is simply too much to do, and most of it is maddeningly ambiguous and confusing.” Schmoker goes on to site state mandated strategic planning, the standards movement, and poorly designed teacher evaluation systems as the specific culprits responsible for stagnate reform.

Schmoker’s analysis of the problems that plague PK – 12 curriculum reform and school improvement is certainly provocative. It paints a picture of chronic ineptitude of ability, throughout our nation’s school systems. The ineptitude speaks to the ability to plan, implement, and monitor curriculum and instruction. As a former school district superintendent who has worked with a great number of educators inside and outside of the districts that I have worked in, I find Schmoker’s analysis interesting because it does not acknowledge the professionalism, the expertise, and the competency of educators in school districts throughout the United States as they effectively implement curriculum each day. Because of this, I will further explore each of the points made in Schmoker’s article.

First, Schmoker argues that strategic planning has been the enemy of organizational effectiveness in school systems throughout the United States. In summarizing the impact of strategic plans, Schmoker states “ . . . those book length, jargon-laced documents with their impossibly long bulleted lists of goals, tasks, and action plans—which turned out to have no substantive effect on teaching quality.” Speaking from experience in practice, I find Schmoker’s analysis lacking in depth of insight. Are strategic plans long? Of course they are, they address tremendous amounts of achievement and organizational effectiveness data. Also, it is typical for a thorough strategic improvement plan to have great volume. However, this is not volume or complexity simply for the sake of volume or complexity. The strategic plans identify data driven goals that are then translated at the school level into action plans that address gaps in practice and service. The key in making strategic plans meaningful is effective implementation at the school level. Even when faced with a litany of potential goals, it is imperative to select the half dozen or less that will significantly impact student achievement and then to design effective action plans to make gains.

Schmoker sites the standards movement as the second factor responsible for organizational ineffectiveness and stagnant reform in PK – 12 schools. In detailing the problems with curriculum standards, Schmoker points out that standards did not reduce the curriculum thereby making it more simple, but instead they lengthened it and made it more complex. Schmoker indicates that the worst feature of state standards is the “abstract, imprecise language, which made it hard to convert them into clear, coherent curriculum and lessons.” In analyzing the new common core curriculum, Schmoker gives some credit to efforts made to simplify the English Language Arts Curriculum but still determines that they are “overlong and abounding in indecipherable abstractions.”

I agree with Schmoker on the point that an effective curriculum is one that is demystified and comprehensible to teachers because this allows it to be converted into effective lessons. The keys to achieve this, no matter what curriculum is being implemented, are effective training/delivery of new curricula and fidelity in implementation. It is important when new curricula are introduced that district and school level personnel participate in adequate training to understand the scope, sequence, and conceptual design of the standards as well as relevant language that identifies the depth at which various areas of the content must be delivered. Once district and school personnel are trained, the curricula have to be implemented with fidelity, based on what is known about the intents and purposes of their design. While this is no magic bullet, especially in the initial implementation year of any curriculum, it ensures a smooth implementation and it helps to ensure that teaching and learning will be consistent with the aims of the curriculum. With a smooth implementation year in place, it is easier from the perspective of data that has been generated and staff buy-in to go back and make adjustments as the district plans forward.

Finally, Schmoker identifies poorly designed teacher evaluation systems as the third factor that leads to ineffective school reform. Schomoker states that “ . . . the most popular teacher-evaluation templates and rubrics bury or entirely ignore the most critical elements of good instruction.” In the current era of increased accountability in education, many teacher evaluation systems use standards to address teaching practice in the areas of curriculum implementation/professional knowledge, instruction, assessment, communication, and professionalism. These standards are often defined by rubrics with language that identify discrete levels of teacher performance. A number of these also include some component that accounts for student achievement in determining the teacher’s final rating.

Of the many teacher evaluation models, of the type described here, that I have reviewed, most evidence significant thought and understanding of practice in their design. The key in their effectiveness is the quality of their implementation. Here again, just like the training and consistency of practice that is needed for the implementation of a new curriculum, the same is true for new teacher evaluation models. To be truly effective these models must rightly recognize the strong practice that many educators demonstrate each day while providing points for reflection and the impetus for support of continued professional growth in areas where an individual teacher may not be as strong.

To close, school improvement is not complicated to the point of ineptitude. It is simply an evolutionary practice that necessarily grows and changes as the needs of our society grow and change. As a result, we must have teachers and school leaders who understand the landscape and are adaptable to its inherent change. Also, well designed systems for organizing and delivering content and assessing student and teacher performance must be implemented with fidelity. This work cannot cease, because the outcomes are critically important. Instead, educators of all philosophical bents must work together to clearly define “What is worth knowing” and how to package, deliver, and monitor its dissemination and implementation. I am confident, that exemplary educators throughout the United States are able to achieve this task.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO







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