A Chance for Change

By Mike Schmoker

Could public schools, from urban to affluent, be on the verge of an unprecedented breakthrough in effectiveness? Yes, as we’ll see in a moment. For Robert Gordon (education adviser to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry), simple, reasonable changes in schooling would allow us to achieve “a social miracle ... an America where birth doesn’t dictate destiny.” Importantly, school board members -- like you, like myself, a former school board member -- may be the linchpin to such historic success.

But there’s a catch. As Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, has famously found, swift, dramatic improvement requires an encounter with the “brutal facts” -- those awkward, unpleasant truths that organizations prefer not to address -- or even talk about. In education, what are the pertinent facts that, if addressed, would work this “social miracle”?

First the good news: Among factors that affect student learning at all levels and could erase our horrific achievement gap, instruction is king. It has a larger impact on student success, college admission, and college graduation than all other factors combined.

Here’s where it gets brutal. Every close study of actual classroom practice reveals that instruction is typically mediocre, or worse -- even in so-called “good” schools. In most classrooms, there is a massive gap between effective practice and actual practice. The primary reason for the poor state of instruction is that we do not, in all honesty, supervise it. Therefore, good instruction is voluntary -- and rare.

These facts are established by research studies and close analyses of classroom practice in every discipline. They explain why we have not made tremendous strides toward better schools in the past 20 years. Perhaps most interesting, every audience of teachers and administrators I have spoken to across North America has admitted that these facts are indisputable.

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