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Volume 31, Number 1
January/February 2015

Breaking the Cycle of Failed School Reforms

Using Networked Improvement Communities to learn fast and implement well


Comparative improvement trajectories

The recent history of school reform reveals a disturbing pattern: Over and over, change efforts spread rapidly across the education landscape, despite an absence of knowledge as to how to effect improvements envisioned by reform advocates, or whether it’s even possible. From the push to embrace small high schools in the late 1990s to current mandates to adopt rigorous teacher evaluations based on complex value-added analyses, policy leaders quickly jump on a new reform bandwagon even though very significant technical and logistical issues remain unsolved.

While teacher evaluation and high school redesign are high-profile cases, they are not anomalies. The press to quickly push good ideas into large-scale use rarely delivers promised outcomes. Results are typically modest and vary from school to school. In some locales a reform might work; in many places it does not; and in some instances it might even do harm.

At base is a common story of going fast and learning slow. We consistently fail to appreciate what it actually takes to make some promising idea work reliably in practice. We become disappointed when dramatic positive results do not readily emerge, and then we just move on to the next new reform idea. This should trouble all of us. If we continue to seek improvement in the ways we have always done, we are likely to continue to get what we have always gotten. The strategy of implementing fast and wide and fixing problems later has failed again and again.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


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