Changing structures, while necessary, is insufficient to deliver improved outcomes


Politicians love changing structures in education.  Dr Richard Elmore  of  Harvard University has said ‘ To reformers, changing structures signal practitioners and parents that they are really serious about making important changes. In short, structural changes are politically symbolic. They choose structural changes also because they are easier options to pursue than, for example, closing down low-performing schools and sending children to better ones; hiring high-performing teachers with a common set of beliefs and practices that have produced desired student achievement; firing ineffective teachers and principals. So, reformers like to change structures because, among the array of alternatives available for transforming failing schools into successful ones, they are feasible, readily available, and politically symbolic.’

This seems to be a fair description of why our politicians focus to such an extent on  reforming structures.

Of course there has been an on-going and rather futile debate about standards and structures. Its all about standards not structures, some say. Others say to deliver improved standards you, self-evidently, need the right structures and so on. But surely  its hard not to conclude that standards and structures are two sides of the same coin. Changing structures must have a purpose ,as  it is not an end in itself . And  that purpose must be to improve educational outcomes.  But whatever the structure, educational outcomes wont change unless something changes in the classrooms and in  teaching practice in those classrooms . As Stanford University Professor Larry Cuban says  ‘Findings from research  suggest changing certain structures may be a necessary condition to alter teaching practices but it is hardly a sufficient one.  Researchers have discovered that once new structures are put into place—–teaching practices do not move directly or even necessarily from point A to point B.’

In fact there tends to be relative immobility of teaching practice. Moreover,  according to Cuban, without teaching practices moving the needle of change then the impact on student learning will be  negligible.

A school with freedoms to innovate will not necessarily choose to innovate, or to change teaching practice.  Perhaps one of the disappointments of the Academies initiative here in the UK, thus far, is how few academies are actually using their autonomy and the new freedoms that go with it,  to approach educating pupils differently, changing the learning environment,  or changing teaching practice. This may, of course, have something to do with the fact that some schools have clearly altered their status not because they want genuine autonomy and the  new freedoms to innovate that go with the new status  , but because they want access to  the extra funding that goes with conversion. And Academies do get extra funding. (see Chris Cooks article in FT today).  There is also a suspicion that some autonomous schools have limited capacity to gather evidence and transmit knowledge about practice, or the improvement of practice. Others are simply trying to do the basics as well as they can rather than take any risks.

Larry Cuban talks of barriers to change and the fact that changing structures is just the start ,if you seek improved outcomes.

Why is that? He says ‘ Because other factors come into play to influence what and how teachers teach beyond new structures: Individual teacher beliefs matter. School and district cultures of collaboration matter. How schools are organized matter. School and district leadership matter. These factors combine to create what reformers euphemistically call “barriers” to change, obstacles that reformers must disassemble for routine classroom lessons to become ambitious teaching ventures that produce desired student outcomes.’’

Cuban’s rather harsh conclusion is that ‘Changing structures do not often alter classroom practices and, as a result, hardly lead to improved student learning.’


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