08/17/2016 07:24 pm ET | Updated Aug 17, 2016

Will Social Science Spur A New Generation Of School Improvement?

A couple of anniversaries should inspire a discussion of education reform history to inform the next generation of school improvement. Stanford's Professor Emeritus Larry Cuban marked the seventh birthday of his must-read blog, Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice, by explaining that it allows him to "put my teaching hat on," and describing how current policy-driven reforms "are deeply rooted in the past." Cuban understands, however, "too many reform-driven policymakers are inattentive to what has occurred in past efforts and what occurs daily in classrooms," so "chances of full or even moderate implementation approach nil."

As Cuban documents, school reformers failed in their effort to "deputize" teachers as the agents for overcoming the complex and intertwined legacies of poverty. His wisdom is echoed in another great blog, Chalkbeat, which featured Harvard's Heather Hill, and her retrospective on the 50th anniversary of the Coleman Report, and what we have learned since that seminal study was published.

Sadly, the contemporary school reform movement either ignored the key Coleman findings, or just whistled past the graveyard, hoping that social science would be proven wrong. Non-educators sought incentives and disincentives that would prompt others to discover a cheaper and easier path to school improvement. Had data-driven, competition-driven reformers wrestled with the Coleman Report and subsequent research, it is hard to believe that they would have searched so narrowly for solutions to the achievement gap within the four walls of the classroom.

Hill explains that "The logical conclusion," from her analysis is: "You can't fix schools without trying to fix broader social inequality, too." The main lesson remains, as Coleman noted:

One implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child's achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.

Hill tells the fascinating story of the repeated reviews of the Coleman evidence and concludes:

Remarkably, however, at the end of the day their collective re-analyses largely showed that Coleman's original findings stood. Schools appeared to exert relatively little pull - explaining only 10 to 20 percent of the variability in student outcomes - while family background, peers, and students' own academic self-concept explained a much larger amount.

Hill summarizes the arguments over the cost effectiveness of education spending, as well as relatively better ways to invest in schools. It was agreed that "you can't just write a bigger check to each school and expect to get much out of it," but "recent studies have suggested that adopting effective curriculum materials and training teachers in their use show consistently positive effects." Even those gains, however were modest. For instance, "the difference between an effective and ineffective curriculum is about 10 percentile points on standardized tests." She also reviews the evidence which should have made the case for investments in early education. For instance, Coleman found that race-based differences in academic achievement "were in fact quite large in the first grade." Hill adds, "again and again over the subsequent decades, scholars replicated Coleman's finding."

The same pattern applies to summer learning loss. Back in 1978, Barbara Heyns compared summer learning to the rates of student performance growth during school. Since then, studies such the 1999 Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, reached the same basic conclusion that, "Schools, when all is said and done, are fairly effective in teaching students at least some math, reading, and science each year." But, "probably owing to the array of resources non-poor families marshal both within and outside the home, poor children lose ground during the summer."

Even at the beginning of the output-driven reform era, had reformers read the education research canon, it should have been clear that there are no guarantees that additional investments would always be implemented expertly, but that the win-win path of school improvement would be more cost effective and more humane. Investment in the years before school and in the months when school is out would seem to be a no-brainer, but that approach would be more complicated. Reformers were notoriously impatient. Being new to public education, they were clueless about the legacy of the nonstop series of "silver bullets" that has been imposed on teachers. Somehow they assumed that their "quick fixes" would turn out differently.

So, why did reformers impose the stress of high stakes testing as an antidote for the harm done by the stress of poverty? Why push the mass closure of schools and mass charterization in the hope that the stress of competition would alleviate the stress in children's lives which interferes with their cognitive processes? Why commit to value-added teacher evaluations that are biased against educators in high-challenge schools? Why believe that imposing punitive policies on the great majority of educators (as opposed to holding individuals accountable for their own practice) could redress the deficits that grow outside of school? Did they not understand that bubble-in accountability would undermine the effectiveness of most educators, as well as damage children by driving much of the joy of learning out of the classroom?

The good news is that great new research on early education is continually published. The bad news is that science-based programs for improving early education can be expensive and they are much harder to implement than instruction-driven, accountability-driven mandates. And, that leads to the wisdom generated by another outstanding research organization, the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR). Not surprisingly, the CCSR further confirms the need for aligned and coordinated social, emotional, and instructional supports in preschool.

While I don't want to push this point too far, a recent finding could stand as a metaphor describing the dilemma that faces school improvement. The CCSR finds that elementary schools that are strong in all five essential supports are ten times more likely to improve, but even a sustained weakness in one essential component undermines change efforts. In other words, if my metaphor holds, reforms based on the idea that education is too complicated and it is too hard for reformers to touch all school improvement bases are likely to fail. On the other hand, science-based programs face a high hurdle. Gains in one area, such as testable academic instruction, are unlikely to be sustained unless we make progress in the socio-emotional, in the building of trusting relationships, and in out-of-school factors.

So, technocratic reformers may commit to reworking one piston, but unless the entire education engines' timing is fixed, they will continue to fail. The sad truth is that intertwined educational and social problems require complicated and aligned solutions.