Guest Column

Who Contaminated the Effective Schools Movement?

by Dennis W. Kellison

As an advocate and practitioner of effective schools research, I read with interest the guest column ("The Contamination of the Effective Schools Movement," March 2001) by M. Donald Thomas and William L. Bainbridge, both former school system leaders. Their views are misleading and certainly objectionable to those of us who believe strongly in the work on effective schools.

First and foremost, I object to the premise of the article—that the effective schools movement is plagued by "consultants with a series of fallacies." The authors name no consultants. So I would ask who are these consultants? What are their names in order that we may expose them as charlatans who are in no way associated with the effective schools research? Larry Lezotte, a colleague of Ron Edmonds, the movement's founder, certainly is not the source of the fallacies. As the keeper of Edmonds' flame, it is Lezotte's work that continues the beliefs and values of effective schools.

The criticism of Thomas and Bainbridge is misleading, not only because they fail to identify who is perpetuating these fallacies, but also because the authors ignore the effective schools research and its correlates and then subtly blend the anonymous fallacies with unexplained premises.

Time on Task

Let's examine the fallacies as Thomas and Bainbridge presented them:

* No. 1: The fallacy that "all children can learn."

The authors state that "all children can learn at some level and most children can learn the basic curriculum if sufficient resources are provided." They take issue with the idea that all children can learn the same curriculum at the same time and at the same level. Who promotes this fallacy? Lezotte and others repeatedly make the point that learning is based on time to learn, not rate of learning. It has been demonstrated over and over that more time put into learning gets better results.

True advocates of the effective schools research know that a school's resources need to be directed toward those in most need. Lezotte long has advocated what he terms "upstream" solutions to the "downstream" problems created when children come to school from impoverished homes. Effective schools respond to these situations in the school setting to ensure poor children reach the same educational outcomes as their more advantaged peers. More time, better learning opportunities and more effort will always enhance student learning.

* No. 2: The fallacy of the principal as instructional leader.

The authors acknowledge in the second sentence that the principal "may be a leader" but accountability for effective instruction is the responsibility of teachers. Where is the conflict? The effective schools research promotes the principal as the leader, not a model of teacher accountability.

The effective schools research does not in any way suggest the principal replaces the teacher. In fact, the very definition of instructional leadership of the principal, as defined by Lezotte, is that the principal "effectively and persistently communicates the mission of the school." The principal, according to the research, "understands and applies the characteristics of instructional effectiveness in the management (not the delivery) of the instructional program."

Thomas and Bainbridge then refer to the management duties of the principal, which include introducing best practices, protecting the ethics of the profession and promoting a belief system in support of public education. This sounds a lot like leadership to me! Further, the second generation of effective schools' correlates—those characteristics found in schools that are effective with all children as identified in the effective schools' research—promotes the teacher as a leader of teachers and curriculum and the principal as a leader of leaders.

* No. 3: The fallacy of setting standards by exception.

The authors criticize as unrealistic the use of examples of students "who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps" and became successful as exceptions to student success and using their success to set standards for all students. The very premise of the effective schools research was to refute the assertion that schools did not or could not make a difference with students from poor backgrounds. Edmonds, Lezotte and others proved with their research that some schools were succeeding despite having students from impoverished backgrounds.

The inference never was that "the students had pulled themselves up by the bootstraps" but rather the school had found a way to be successful with all students.

Challenging Work

* No. 4: The fallacy of uniform academic standards for all children.

Nowhere in the effective schools research is "equality of treatment" promoted or advocated. The concept of equity is promoted. This simply means that those who need more time, opportunity or resources should get them. The authors make the point that children are born, unless neurologically impaired, with the ability to learn. It is the schools' obligation to level the playing field for all to learn.

We cannot blame the lack of learning on the children's background but rather on the schools' unwillingness to do what has to be done. As Edmonds once stated so profoundly, "We have the knowledge it takes to teach all children; the obstacle is finding the will to do it!"

* No. 5: The fallacy of working smarter, not harder.

First, nowhere do effective schools advocates state that the work of school improvement is easy. It is hard, challenging and exhausting. In this era of high-stakes testing and calls for rapid reform, the work of continuous school improvement is the most challenging work our teachers have ever had to face.

It is absurd to suggest that the effective schools research implies teachers "are not too bright." The very essence of the research model empowers teachers with the day-to-day decision making and long-term planning responsibility of making the school a better place for all children and adults. Our teachers are smart and do work smarter. The effective schools research is their partner in making smart decisions about what is best for our schools.

Again, I wonder who are these scoundrel consultants who pretend to be effective schools gurus but wind up contaminating this profound body of knowledge about what works in schools?

Dennis Kellison is superintendent of the Orange County Public Schools, 437 Waugh Blvd., Orange, Va. 22960. E-mail: dkellison@ns.gemlink.com