Educators: innovate less, execute more

In the fickle world of K-12 school reform, innovation is in.

Educators must, so the catechism goes, imitate how business and technology find new ways to improve products. Not so long ago President Barack Obama called for “a new vision for a 21st-century education — one where we aren’t just supporting existing schools, but spurring innovation.” A leading consulting firm is pushing a “U.S. Education Innovation Index.” The full name of the Kirwan Commission — charged with recommending how Maryland should prepare students for the global economy — is the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education.

Innovation sounds irresistible. Who can be against finding new ways to do old things in public schools when things are going as badly as they are?

Yet innovation is what is needed least right now. If I could get educators to adopt one resolution for the new school year, it would be: Innovate less and execute more. Robert Slavin, an expert on school reform at Johns Hopkins University, has said it best: “The problem of education reform is not a lack of good ideas, but a lack of good ideas sensibly implemented.”

We don’t know everything that could be done to improve student achievement. Online education, for example, could be instrumental in the future. But we know far more than innovation gurus and other reformers, left and right, would lead us to believe.

Most particularly, we know how to solve our single biggest problem: how to teach struggling learners, predominantly poor and minority students, to meet state learning standards. About 60 percent of Maryland students now are below proficiency in reading.

The solution is surprisingly simple. It lies in the instructional framework of “Response to Intervention (RTI).” Under RTI, struggling learners are identified as early as possible, which usually means pre-Kindergarten through first grade. They then are provided with, if needed, three tiers of increasingly intense research-based instructional interventions that enable them to meet age appropriate standards. Among other virtues, effective RTI can prevent the great majority of students in special education from being placed there and mislabeled as disabled.

To paraphrase one expert, if this isn’t educational motherhood, what is? Yet effective RTI has never been executed on a large scale.

For example, in 2008 the Maryland State Department of Education disseminated an exemplary RTI manual for local school systems. But this year, when state legislators tried to get information on implementation, MSDE said that no data was available. No local district can document effective execution.

Why is that? There are two paramount reasons: money and management. More money is needed for intense interventions, and the money — current and future — must be better managed.

The two strategies go hand in hand, but better management is far less understood. We all see how schools foul up budgets, personnel, transportation, facilities and you-name-it. But we don’t see the instructional mismanagement that is hidden in the classroom: the deficiencies in curricula, research-proven interventions, professional training, supervision and monitoring. Teachers as well as students are deprived of the support they need.

If better management were the norm, it would be far easier for advocates for increased state funding to convince mistrustful political officials that the money would be well spent.

A bargain can be struck. More money for RTI (and other essentials like teacher quality, early childhood and career and technology education) in return for more management accountability. You could even call the bargain “innovative,” though it would be about a new kind of educational management and politics, not an attempt to reinvent the basic tools of classroom instruction.

In fact, the constant churn of educational “innovations” (often, in retrospect, fads) has for a long time set back school reform. We have been “Tinkering Toward Utopia,” the title of a classic history of American public schools, without focusing enough on “the daily interactions of teachers and students.”

Educators should heed the lesson. Show that current resources, if well managed, and teaching tools, if well executed, can greatly improve student achievement. And then open the door of the schoolhouse to would-be innovators who can try to further improve classroom teaching and learning.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a member of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, and a former chairman of the Baltimore school board's budget committee. His email is khettleman@gmail.com.

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