Research and Complacency

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So a lot of recent conversation in the education blogosphere has been about research, specifically whether or not it used or used wisely (here and here).  These are timely and important conversations to have as I find a lot of truth to them.

An excellent example of the role of research in the education reform conversation can be seen in this blog. I don’t know the author of this blog, and it is certainly no better or no worse that many others, it is simply one that came across my social media feeds and caught my attention as a topic that I have read a lot of research on. So my apologies to the author in advance for being singled out.

The blog discusses the fact that improvement of schooling at the high school level has been particularly difficult. The author mentions a series of articles from EdWeek that are located behind a pay wall, so I am unable to determine what, if any, research or examples are cited in the material. The only other citation of “research” is from a policy paper from a philanthropic organization. The author concludes that the reason that it is so hard to reform high school is that most communities are complacent about the quality of their high school as simply “good enough” and that they reject the idea of changing the system as something that only those poor, inner city schools with “nothing to loose” do. The may very well be a valid conclusion, but the author cites no research or data or even personal experience to back it up.

A quick ERIC search of the key words “high school reform” returns almost 7,000 results. Out of thousands of possible pieces of research, the author could have taken a few minutes to locate some relevant information to determine if the conclusion that communities were resistant to high school reform due to complacency was supported elsewhere. It is also easy to find many other lists of research based recommendations culled from more authoritative and unbiased resources than a policy paper from a philanthropic group. Again, the larger concern is that discussions about education reform are not well grounded in research with policy voices from all directions cherry-picking and/or distorting only the research that fits a predetermined agenda. In this case, a narrative of “complacency,” “low standards,” and “mediocre or failing public schools” is a tried and true refrain of those within the education “reform movement.”

Inconveniently, a lot of research on high school reform demonstrates that some of the best practices for high school education are in direct opposition to some current education policies. As Davies points out, K-12 teachers, without a university affiliation, rarely have access to the body of educational research located behind expensive databases and journal subscriptions. So, unfortunately, I am limited to working from memory, abstracts, and a few freely accessible sources. Regardless, there are two other important themes that routinely surface when considering the body of high school reform research. Those are the need for interdisciplinary study in high school settings and the need for multiple authentic assessments such as portfolios and performance assessments. These are reforms that are extremely difficult in today’s policy climate of Common Core standards (that isolate, not integrate the disciplines), excessive testing pressures, and teacher “accountability” (that undermines interdisciplinary study since it complicates measuring teacher effectiveness by means of standardized test).

I have been part of a school redesign project for four years now, starting as part of the collaborative team that researched, planned, and designed an innovative secondary public magnet school. In our experience, the struggle for improving high school education is not one of complacency but of the opposite–the value communities place on tradition. Our experience over these years has aligned with findings in the bodies of research of both high school reform and the related area of change leadership in education. High school is a place where tradition is a fundamental force. Education reform efforts routinely gloss over the fact that public schools serve a multitude of functions in our society, and despite efforts from many directions to narrow and focus the work of schools, developing content knowledge is only one of these many purposes and functions.

Perhaps it relates to the unique developmental profile of adolescents. Perhaps some of the blame can be placed on Hollywood and its repeated unrealistic portrayals of the high school experience. Perhaps it is the longing of adults to right the wrongs of their high school experience. Perhaps is the role that high school plays in important rights of passage for young adults. Or perhaps “tradition” is just the exertion of privilege to maintain the existing structure of power (or sometimes challenge it, in the case of the deep traditions of historically black schools or the ever rebellious senior prank).

Regardless, communities of all types and parents from all demographics seem to view the high school experience is another form of the American dream. Schools that try to make even the smallest, research-based reforms often face backlash. Exhibit A is the recent decision by Wake County, NC schools to switch to a Latin Honors system instead of recognizing only the valedictorian and salutatorian. The community response has been passionate, to say the least. That is not a sign of indifference but of active engagement. Efforts to focus energy and resources on academics instead of extracurricular and social aspects of high school find multiple forms of resistance in all most all community settings regardless of race or socioeconomic status. That is not complacency, it is an attempt to actively shape the high school experience for students.

I agree that truly improving high school education is a daunting and complex challenge. However, we will get nowhere in the process if we start by misdiagnosing the problem and ignoring both research and experience.

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