If calling Richard F. Elmore the “father of school reform” sounds high and mighty, consider this: the Anrig Professor of Educational Leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education estimates he has worked with 30 or 40 school systems nationwide on issues of educational policy and leadership, including New York, Chicago, and Boston. He is also among the key players in the Public Education Leadership Project (PELP), a joint venture between HGSE and the Harvard Business School aimed at helping nine large urban school districts navigate the intersection of good management practices and sound educational policies.
Much of what Elmore has seen, done, and heard in his years guiding school systems and teachers can be found in his new book, School Reform from the Inside Out: Policy,Practice,and Performance, published by Harvard Education Press. In seven essays, Elmore lays out his provocative views on the topics he has spent a lifetime studying, including “scaling up” good educational practice, responding to accountability measures, and the challenge of boosting the knowledge and skills of teachers in the face of obstacles.
On the unrelenting pressure to improve schools without corresponding improvement in teachers’ skills: “In its least desirable face, educational reform can become a kind of conspiracy of ignorance: policymakers mandating results they do not themselves know how to achieve, and educators pretending they do know what to do but revealing through their actions that they don’t.”
On the federal No Child Left Behind Act:“The law’s provisions are considerably at odds with the technical realities of test-based accountability. Never, I think, in the history of federal education policy has the disconnect between policy and practice been so evident, and possibly never so dangerous.”
On the challenge of improving teachers’ practice: “The conditions under which teachers are asked to engage in new practices bear no relationship whatsoever to the conditions required for learning how to implement complex and new practices with success.”
Timothy Knowles, Ed.D.’02, a former deputy superintendent in the Boston Public Schools, says Elmore is an authority on one of education’s most pressing issues: getting to scale. “Richard has done some of the most practical, insightful, and carefully crafted work on how to improve urban schools…not just in one or two classrooms and one or two schools, but in a systemic way,” says Knowles, now the executive director of the Center for Urban School Improvement at the University of Chicago.
Elmore is now working on two books—one on public policy and school improvement, and one on New York City’s District 2, whose successes Elmore and his colleagues have spent a great deal of time studying. Despite decades inside schools, Elmore himself has never taught in the K–12 system, but derives his ideas from research, interviews, observations, and reflection on the day-to-day life of schools. He began his career in academe as a public policy professor. But in 1985, he switched to education because he wanted his research to be more connected with practice in schools—a reward difficult to find in the more generic field of public policy. One of his mantras is that schools can improve by changing school structure to be compatible with successful practice. But that’s not what schools do, he noted.“The idea of change overpowers the idea of innovation,” Elmore says, “and what people change is what they’re comfortable with.”
Another problem is that school improvement is not seen as a matter of refining teachers’ knowledge and skills. Professional development is often undervalued, and when it’s done, it is haphazard or detached from classrooms. Compare that to the nursing profession, with its requisite body of knowledge and systems in place where improvements are replicated, and the range and variability in nurses’ practices has narrowed. “You can make a much more compelling case in terms of social costs of knowledge and skills for teachers than you could for nurses,” Elmore says.
Still, Elmore has noticed that a “substantial proportion” of educators increasingly want to be viewed as professionals, with clearer guidelines for the craft. And many educators seek to nurture their knowledge and skills for the rest of their careers—a vital necessity. “If people don’t enter the teaching profession with the idea that they’re going to have to learn over time how to do the work,” Elmore says, “we’re dead in the water.”
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