CURMUDGUCATION: So Now Failure Is Okay, Apparently

CURMUDGUCATIONThe slightly-cranky voice navigating the world of educational “reform” while trying to still pursue the mission of providing quality education.

So Now Failure Is Okay, Apparently

Fail better,” says Michael Q. McShane (Show-Me Institute, AEI) in a piece at US News, arguing to reformsters for the virtue of admitting failure and building upon it. Part of his point is vaid, part is hugely self-serving and part of it is just plain annoying.

Policy ideas like charter schools, teacher evaluation and high standards first exist in the abstract. When they are actually implemented, they look quite different from state to state or district to district. What one state calls “charter schooling” might look different from charter schooling in another state. So if charter schools struggle in one state, it isn’t necessarily an indictment on the idea as a whole. It might just be that the particular manifestation didn’t match the context of the specific environment where it was tried. In an ideal world, we’d learn from that, and do better.

In other words,even when a policy has been tested and it has failed, that doesn’t mean it’s not a great policy that we should keep trying in new and different markets. This is just a variation of that golden oldie that folks used to defend Common Core– “The policy is brilliant; you’re just implementing it wrong.” The policy may look like an utter failure, even after over a decade of reforminess, but honest– any day now it’s finally going to work the way we imagined it would.

This is part of a valid idea. But his list of possible causes for failure is missing one critical possibility– your policy idea is a bad policy idea, and that sad pig won’t fly no matter what shade of lipstick you try smearing on it.

He does offer a good description of the process often involved with reformy policy failures:

When a new study comes out that says a policy has “failed,” we man the ramparts. Opponents (who were against the policy before any data were available) come out and tut-tut at advocates, telling them to “follow the data” or not to “cling to ideology.” Advocates circle the wagons. They spin the findings or pettifog the implications. They counter with personal stories or impugn the motives of critics. Rinse and repeat.

I sense that McShane is leaning toward the use of data to really determine whether a policy is a failure or not, but that’s a self-defeating inclination because so many education policies are tangled up in the question of what data we’ll use, how we’ll collect it, what it actually shows, and whether or not the entire data set that we’re dependent on is a heaping pile of junk (spoiler alert: in the education world, mostly we’re looking at the heaping pile).

But the rightest thing McShane says is in the final paragraph:

Anyone who has spent more than a day in front a classroom knows that failure is an essential part of learning.

Yes– that’s absolutely true. Failure is a necessary part of exploration and exploration is a necessary part of education. One can’t help but wonder, however, if learning offers a legitimate parallel with concocting, pushing and implementing policy.

But I don’t want to pick at that– it’s absolutely correct and I’m only tempted to nitpick because of my huge irritation over McShane’s reformy central point.

Failure is super-okay! It’s how we get better! It’s a necessary part of the process!

Which is all great– but where the heck has tis attitude been for the last twenty years.

Reformers have stapled “failed” onto “public schools” relentlessly, occasionally swapping it with “failing” for variety’s sake. Public schools are “failure factories.” The public school system is a “dead end,” a “failed model.” Students are ‘trapped” in these “failing” schools, and must be liberated ASAP, because the “failure” constitutes a state of emergency that must be rectified immediately because the Fail is just So Very Bad! Nothing to learn from– just run away from the Fail.

Now, all of sudden, failure is cool? Failure is okay? Failure is to be not only tolerated, but embraced?

McShane and Jay Greene are going to have a whole conference, a day-long celebration of the fail,
which somehow still works on the premise that public schools are to be avoided and replaced, not embraced.

Once upon a time, reformers wanted to blow up the status quo, but now that they are the status quo, somehow it has to be massaged, embraced, studied, tweaked, and lovingly nursed to hoped-for health. I am ceaselessly amazed at how one of the defining characteristics of the education reform movement is a steady and repeated redefining of term, repeated changing of objectives, constant moving of the goal posts. It is useful only in that, as everything else changes, we can see more clearly what the true values and goals of some within the movement are.

But that’s a discussion for another day. Right now I’m trying to wrap my head around the news that failure is now awesome. I will wait with bated breath for that new fail love to be extended to public schools.

Source: CURMUDGUCATION: So Now Failure Is Okay, Apparently

Closing Low-Performing Schools is a Failing Reform Strategy | National Education Policy Center

Key Takeaway: Closing schools to improve student achievement is, at best, a “high-risk/low-gain” strategy.

BOULDER, CO (May 18, 2017) – Federal and state school accountability policies have used standardized test results to shine a spotlight on low-performing schools.

A remedy offered to “turn around” low-performance in school districts is the option to close the doors of the low-performing schools and send students elsewhere.School Closure as a Strategy to Remedy Low Performance, authored by Gail L. Sunderman of the University of Maryland, and Erin Coghlan and Rick Mintrop of the University of California, Berkeley, investigates whether closing schools and transferring students for the purpose of remedying low performance is an effective option for educational decision makers to pursue.Closing schools in response to low student performance is based on the premise that by closing low-performing schools and sending students to better-performing ones, student achievement will improve.

The higher-performing schools, it is reasoned, will give transfer students access to higher-quality peer and teacher networks, which in turn will have a beneficial effect on academic outcomes.

Moreover, it is argued that the threat of closure may motivate low-performing schools (and their districts) to improve.To investigate this logic of closing schools to improve student performance, the authors drew on relevant peer-reviewed research and well-designed policy reports to answer four questions:

  • How often do school closings occur and for what reasons?
  • What is the impact on students of closing schools for reasons of performance?
  • What is the impact of closing schools on the public school system in which closure has taken place?
  • What is the impact of school closures on students of various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, and on local communities and neighborhoods?  

Based on their analysis of the relevant available evidence the authors offer the following recommendations:

Even though school closures have dramatically increased, jurisdictions largely shun the option of “closure and transfer” in the context of the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program.

Policy and district actors should treat the infrequency of this turnaround option as a caution.School closures have at best weak and decidedly mixed benefits; at worst they have detrimental repercussions for students if districts do not ensure that seats at higher- performing schools are available for transfer students.

In districts where such assignments are in short or uncertain supply, “closure and transfer” is a decidedly undesirable option.School closures seem to be a challenge for transferred students in non-academic terms for at least one or two years.

While school closures are not advisable for a school of any grade span, they are especially inadvisable for middle school students because of the shorter grade span of such schools.The available evidence on the effects of school closings for their local system offers a cautionary note.

There are costs associated with closing buildings and transferring teachers and students, which reduce the available resources for the remaining schools.

Moreover, in cases where teachers are not rehired under closure-and-restart models, there may be broader implications for the diversity of the teaching workforce.

Closing schools to consolidate district finances or because of declining enrollments may be inevitable at times, but closing solely for performance has unanticipated consequences that local and state decision makers should be aware of.School closures are often accompanied by political conflict.

Closures tend to differentially affect low-income communities and communities of color that are politically disempowered, and closures may work against the demand of local actors for more investment in their local institutions.

In conclusion, school closure as a strategy for remedying student achievement in low-performing schools is at best a high-risk/low-gain strategy that fails to hold promise with respect to either increasing student achievement or promoting the non-cognitive well-being of students.

The strategy invites political conflict and incurs hidden costs for both districts and local communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color that are differentially affected by school closings. It stands to reason that in many, if not most, instances, students, parents, local communities, district and state policymakers may be better off investing in persistently low-performing schools rather than closing them.

Find School Closure as a Strategy to Remedy Low Performance, by Gail L. Sunderman, Erin Coghlan and Rick Mintrop, at:

Source: Closing Low-Performing Schools is a Failing Reform Strategy | National Education Policy Center