Guest Column

The Contamination of the Effective Schools Movement

by M. Donald Thomas and William L. Bainbridge

Back in the 1970s and '80s, Ronald R. Edmonds and other leaders in the field of school reform introduced the concept of effective schools as a way to identify what works best in educating children and to provide models for struggling schools to improve.

An army of educational consultants who adhere to Edmonds' principles began to take the message to the streets by selling their services to schools as assessors and advisers. Unfortunately, the effective schools movement as currently promoted by consultants is contaminated with a series of fallacies.

Five Fallacies

We believe at least five fallacies are being perpetuated through articles and lectures.

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

All children can learn at some level and most children can learn the basic curriculum if sufficient resources are provided. The fallacy is the belief that all children can learn the same curriculum at the same time and at the same level.

To believe this is to deny differential financial support for those who come to school with environmental deficits. Not all children have sufficient nutrition, stimulating homes and extensive learning opportunities prior to entering school.

Research in cognitive brain development shows that most of the brain gets built after birth and that environment matters greatly in brain development. Those who have high-protein diets and lots of sensory stimulation tend to have more synaptic connections. Brains that do not get enough protein and stimulation in their environments develop fewer synaptic connections and some potential neural pathways are impaired.

The research findings help to explain what educators have long observed: Children from impoverished environments, where they do not receive good nutrition and stimulating experiences, generally achieve at lower levels than children from more enriching environments.

This concrete evidence from neurological science should be enough to convince us that we should concentrate on improving the lives of children prior to their enrollment in school. Rather than sermonize that all children can learn, we must enact proper public policy to provide economic opportunity for families, nutrition support and education, health care for all children and parenting education for young mothers.

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

Instructional effectiveness is the responsibility of teachers. The principal may be a leader, but accountability for effective instruction belongs to teachers. Principals may understand instruction and support it, but they do not teach the curriculum.

Principals have many responsibilities to manage the school. They introduce best practices, enforce districtwide policies, protect the ethics of the profession, spend within budgetary limits and promote a belief system in support of public education. Principals have more than enough to do without taking over responsibilities that belong to teachers.

Special Circumstances

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

Often effective school promoters cite a student who rose out of poverty to become a success or a school where low-income children achieve at unusually high levels. The exceptions then are used to tell the world that all children can pull themselves up by their bootstraps or that all schools can be like the one cited.

This kind of thinking leads to standards that are set by exceptions and implies that all children can achieve at high levels if they choose to do so: One child did it, so others can too. One state legislator in South Carolina recently went so far as to say that poverty is a self-selected condition and throwing money at "undeserving children" is wasteful.

The hard truth is that exceptions occur under special circumstances that cannot be replicated or may be partially replicated only if sufficient resources are available.

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

Decades of history and mountains of research indicate that every child develops at a different pace. The idea that children and schools should be evaluated by a uniform criterion—usually a test score—is ignorance at best and criminal at worst.

Uniformity of measurement leaves out human judgment, the most critical element in decision making. Those who push uniform academic standards promote a false system of evaluation that will probably disappear as rapidly as it has been established.

Although it is difficult to accept and even more difficult to admit, children in the United States do not have equal opportunities to learn nor do they have equal opportunities to succeed. Children whose parents do not have sufficient resources or know-how to provide them with rich cognitive stimulation and good nutrition generally begin school with lower capacity for achievement. This is true regardless of race, gender or ethnicity.

Research, however, indicates children are born with similar biological capacity for learning. In time, with enough effort and money and supportive social policies, the achievement gaps between the advantaged and disadvantaged can narrow. However, we cannot treat all children equally by setting standards that are not equitable.

Heart and Soul

* No. 5: The fallacy of work smarter and not harder.

Consultants promoting the effective schools movement often tell teachers to work smarter, not harder. Their idea is that most teachers are not too bright and they must suffer the slings and arrows of each outrageous fad that comes along, such as teacher-proof books, no tolerance policies and principal domination.

Teachers are the heart and soul of any school system. They are the models we remember as adults. We must give teachers the instructional authority and the freedom to make individual decisions for each boy and each girl in their classrooms.

Donald Thomas, former superintendent in Salt Lake City, Utah, is chairman of the SchoolMatch Advisory Board, 5027 Pine Creek Drive, Westerville, Ohio 43081. E-mail: thomas@schoolmatch.com. William Bainbridge, a former superintendent in Ohio and Virginia, is president and CEO of SchoolMatch.