It’s not a shocker that American schools don’t produce the level of output we expect. I’ve written here before about this topic, and one of the largest failings I see (even dating back to when I myself was in high school, though not to the same extreme) is the rigorous constraint and hyper-measurement culture that’s pervaded education. It seems intuitive that measuring an outcome would help you to identify shortcomings to fix, but measuring without a deep understanding of the means and ends can lead to blindness to what’s really happening, not to mention bad incentives to “increase the number” regardless of cost.
Because educating a diverse group of students is extremely non-trivial, expecting some consistent output with basic non-creative input is madness. This article discusses research by a group out of Harvard that analyzes the most effective high schools in the country to try and figure out what makes them tick. Teachers? Students? Parents? Process? It turns out that reducing constraints and enabling creativity from teachers can have a profound impact:
This is at least part of the reason so little creative experimentation occurs in U.S. high schools, the researchers believe. Teachers feel hamstrung by an “ecosystem of constraint”: externally imposed curricular requirements, standardized testing benchmarks, and metrics that colleges use in admissions processes. These external forces are extremely normative, explains Fine; teaching well within that context, as within any context, requires skill, mentorship, and practice.
“Every teacher we talked to, to a person,” she says, “expressed a desire to have their classroom be a place where powerful learning was happening, regardless of what kind of kids they were teaching. They all wanted it.” The challenge, she says, is that often “the system responds to perceived threats by asserting more control, rather than allowing for a natural release that empowers kids to make more choices and to take ownership of their education.”
Much of this stems from the assumption that a classroom or school is like an engine we can “fix.” Even if that were true, it’s a long game. Student engagement and learning aren’t going to skyrocket with a new policy or standardized test implementation. It’s by no means an easy task to marshal support in a diverse, politically motivated community of administrators, parents, and teachers, but hopefully research like this can shine the spotlight on what’s working.
The authors of the study, Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine, are also publishing a book on their research: In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School. Another one for the reading list, for sure.