What’s next when reform fails?

What do you do when you’ve invested a lot of time and money in an educational reform, and it doesn’t work?

If you’re the Los Angeles school district, and you spent $1.3 billion on iPads and educational software that doesn’t transform student learning, you sue to recoup some of your money.

But what if your failed reform efforts can’t be blamed on specific outside targets?

Last week, for one of my graduate classes, I read about the Duval County (Florida) school system’s efforts to improve student performance with “standards-based reform.” This is old news to anyone in Florida — it happened in the early 2000s. But it was news to me. And depressing.

Between 1999 and 2001, Duval adopted the “America’s Choice” school reform model. District-wide standards were designed identifying what students should “know and be able to do,” and teachers K-12 were trained to understand and use standards, connect student work to standards, develop common expectations and so on. I couldn’t find a price tag, but with 100,000+ students, it must have cost millions to implement.

In the end, a massive evaluation of the program showed thorough implementation and almost no improvement. “Except for elementary reading, analyses of school-level average test performance show little evidence of sustained systemwide impacts on student learning.” Ouch.

If we’re interested in improving our schools, what lesson should we draw from this?

Schools keep looking for someone, some idea, something that will lift student performance. Here in Minnesota, both Minneapolis and St. Paul will have new superintendents this year, and the pressure will be on them to provide systemic reforms.

But maybe this large-scale, systemic reform isn’t really the way to go. Maybe instead we should focus on individual classrooms and what happens there.

According to Gates Foundation MET research, deep learning happens in about 20% of classrooms, no matter what school you study. Maybe we need to focus on what is happening in those classrooms — what those teachers are doing right — and figure out how to expand it to more classrooms.

Or perhaps we should start with the students. We know students flourish in some classrooms and wither in others. Let’s ask them why and use their input to develop better teaching strategies.

We need to stop expecting that some massive new top-down program is going to reduce the achievement gap and boost American public schools’ ranking on PISA exams. There is no magic bullet, but there are success stories in schools everywhere. We need to find them and build on them.