Monday, March 28, 2011

Lowered Expectations: School Failure is the New Success

(Image by Tinou Bao)
In response to teacher concerns that school reform efforts were moving forward too quickly, without adequate discussion, analysis or teacher buy-in, an administrator suggested that it was okay to “fail forward.”

The most appalling implication of this statement is that failure is considered a reasonable goal. However, this statement is also a not so subtle way of saying “your concerns are not wanted, the decision has already been made. So live with it.” It also is also based on the disturbing premise that it is better to try something new, even if it is not likely to work, because any change is better than no change. After all, you can’t have progress without taking risks. And what the hell, if it turns out to be a mistake, you can always learn from it, fix it, and grow stronger as a result.

The problem is that you cannot fix all mistakes, especially in institutions like schools with deeply entrenched bureaucracies. In fact, administrators often deliberately push through policies quickly, precisely to avoid opposition, knowing that they will be difficult or impossible to reverse. Consider NCLB, which has been a total disaster, still going strong after nine years.  

Even ineffective site-based changes can become entrenched. However, when an administrator loses the trust and respect of his or her staff by ruling autocratically or ignoring their concerns and suggestions, it becomes much harder to implement any new reforms. When reforms are not supported by staff they are unlikely to result in improved learning outcomes because staff will not put much energy or passion into the changes and may even undermine them.

Lastly, though it should be obvious, this administrator needs reminding that change in of itself is not necessarily good. A cost-benefit analysis must always be done. If the costs are too high or the benefits too small the reform is a bad risk and not worth doing. Costs must necessarily include the labor and time to implement the change, while anticipated benefits should be based on accurately parsed data, not on hypotheses or assumptions. Just because a reform sounds like it should be good for students or seems to be a “no brainer,” doesn’t mean that it will actually improve learning outcomes or that the improvements will be significant enough to justify the investment and sacrifices.

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