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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Lessons Learned about Troubled Schools from Failing States

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger

Yes, you read correctly. Those involved in trying to turnaround schools have a lot to learn from those who have studied efforts to turnaround failing states. I think this would be a useful contrast from the usual corporate and business models invoked to "turnaround" schools, which succeed far too rarely.

The parallels of troubled schools and failing states are striking. Writing in Foreign Affairs (vol. 93, No. 1, "The Rise and Fall of the Failed State Paradigm," pp. 113-121), Michael J. Mazarr notes:

"In trying to force change on recalcitrant governments and societies, moreover, outside interventions undermine internal motives for reform by transferring responsibility for a better future from local leaders to external actors" (p. 117).

It is not hard to substitute terms relating to schools for terms relating to nations and get the message:

"The outside power needs cooperation from its local clients more than they need its sponsorship. The result is a dependency paradox that impedes reform. As success stories from South Korea to Chile show, the path from state weakness to strength has to be traveled by the states themselves, gradually and fitfully, most often under the influence of strong, decisive leadership from visionary architects of governance. It is an organic, grass-roots process that must respect the unique social, cultural, political, and religious contexts of each country. And although it can be encouraged and even modestly shaped by outside contributions and pressure, it cannot be imposed" (p. 117-118, italics added).

A reflection on many turnaround processes, as well as the overall Race to the Top model and the pressures to adopt the Common Core, shows how disempowering and overly prescriptive they tend to be. The urge to "civilize" and do "nation building" may be a good one but as Mazarr points out, "There are simply no proven methods for generating major social, political, economic, or cultural change relatively quickly" (p. 117).

And it's important to view changing schools as an act of social, political, economic, culture, and climate change. To believe that new academic routines can be installed and instruction made more rigorous and standards imposed and new tests given, without understanding the context into which these complex innovations must enter and into which they must be assimilated, is to invite frustration and failure.

How Do Failing States Succeed?

As alluded to earlier, states have turned around, and so have schools. When this has happened, they have shared four features.

Feature #1: As noted above, there must be "visionary architects" of leadership accompanied by many who understand the blueprints and are dedicated to construction and empowered to make modifications in light of realities not in the architectural plans.

Feature # 2: "A resilient mindset, one that treats perturbations as inevitable rather than calamitous and resists the urge to overreact" (p. 120). Annual assessment is anathema to a resilient mindset. The trends we need to look at take longer than can be judged on an annual basis and doing so creates mindset that become overly reactive to what are the inevitable bumps and sidetracks of "fitful progress." Excessive oversight that is evaluative rather than supportive or pragmatically helpful, bolstered by inordinate amounts and detail of highly particular record keeping, also numbs resilience and induces a compliance mindset.

Feature # 3: "Gradual progress through patient, long-term advisory and aid relationships" (p. 121). Building capacity must be the focus, and that requires the latitude to take one step forward and two back, toward the goal of three forward and two back. Change cannot happen without disequilibrium, and creating a new normal can involve conflict, disagreement, and harmonizing processes to become part of the reformed climate. This, in turn, requires trust, and that is exactly what is most lacking between the outside forces of school change and the "uncivilized" and "failing and failed" school folks who need to be changed, or replaced...or so it's thought.

Feature # 4: "The watchwords should be patience, gradualism, and tailored responses: enhancing effective governance through a variety of models attuned to local patterns and needs, in advisory and supportive ways" (p. 121).

This is how it happens. Fast change is fragile change. Imposed change is like a tree with shallow roots -- unable to withstand the inevitable strong winds and storms ahead. Implicit in this perspective is the need to involve a wide swath of the school community in the change, foremost the students. They will benefit from their inclusion, and the responsibility and empowerment that this affords, more than the pedagogical changes which will take years to bear fruit. Down the road, future students in that school will accrue the benefits of genuinely adopted and tailored instructional changes, accumulated developmentally. While change is taking place, participation in the process brings great social-emotional and character development rewards.

New Possibilities

Similarly, genuine collaboration among faculty, staff, parents, members of the service sector, business, and parents in the community all will bring great short-term benefits to the school-in-change that will not show up in test scores.

What would happen if we changed our approach from business models in helping troubled schools to instead implemented the lessons learned from turnaround failing states? Michael Mazarr puts it well:

"One of the benefits of this change, ironically, will be to allow local institutional development to proceed more organically and authentically, in its own ways and at its own pace. Most of all, the new mindset will reflect a simple facing up to reality after a decade of distraction" (p. 121).

What are your thoughts and ideas about this blog post? Please share in the comments section below.

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
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Elizabeth Stewart's picture
Elizabeth Stewart
First Grade Teacher

So true! "This is how it happens. Fast change is fragile change. Imposed change is like a tree with shallow roots -- unable to withstand the inevitable strong winds and storms ahead." Weren't we taught to take our time with our studies and projects growing up? Why should schools and staff be forced through rapid changes which only hurt the emotional climate of the building and as a result- the students.

Maurice J. Elias's picture

Elizabeth, you point out an important and mystifying truth in education... too often, we continue to do what we know will not work, and, in some cases, will be harmful. I think a large reason for this is that we are in too much of a hurry to create genuine change, and the latter requires nurturance and time.

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