Inside Story

Orthodoxy and heresy in school reform

What should we learn from US experiments, asks Dean Ashenden

Dean Ashenden 4 December 2014 4608 words

Some operators specialise in “restarts,” taking over failing schools or even whole school districts. Pekka Nikrus/Flickr

On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools Are Pushing the Envelope
By Richard Whitmire | Jossey-Bass | $32.95

The agenda for school reform in Australia and in most other parts of the Anglosphere is now settled to the point of orthodoxy. “The key to improving Australia’s education system is not doing a lot of new things,” the Gonski panel was advised by one of its two excellent commissioned reports, “but rather it is [in] applying what we know works in a comprehensive, integrated and sustained manner.”

This orthodoxy derives from the “effectiveness” paradigm and its epic quest to pin down “what works,” a quest which, by John Hattie’s celebrated estimate, has launched more than 50,000 separate studies and 800 meta-studies. This research and the agenda that sprang from it take as their focus student attainment, particularly in the foundational subjects and in the formative years. The key instrument of reform is the teacher. “Teaching quality,” which research finds as making more difference to outcomes than any other “school variable,” is to be lifted by better selection, training and rewards and through the collaborative, workplace-based development of the existing workforce. The method is whole-school improvement led by the principal, whose task it is to build a consensus in the school’s leadership group about educational priorities and directions, get buy-in from staff and parents, and then lead the step-by-step construction of a consistent, school-wide approach to teaching and learning.

There are differences in emphasis in this formulation, of course, and disagreements over such matters as the balance between “outcomes” in “the basics” and the rest of the curriculum, or about the uses and abuses of standardised testing. The paradigm has been refined over the ten or fifteen years since it first crystallised, particularly in its understanding of learning as cumulative growth that proceeds in different ways and speeds. “Personalisation” or “individualisation” of the curriculum has moved to the centre of the agenda. But differences, disagreements and refinements notwithstanding, the broad direction is set. For the first time schooling has a coherent, evidence-based theory of educational improvement that empowers the teaching profession and endorses its claim to be the very heart of the schooling enterprise. It can be shown to deliver at the level of the school, of groups of schools, and even of entire school systems.

Against this formidable orthodoxy, the Rocketship of Richard Whitmire’s title advances a series of counter-propositions. Where the orthodoxy assumes a workforce dominated by the single category of “the teacher,” trained and credentialled by mainstream university-based courses to work within the isolated microcosm of the classroom, many Rocketship teachers are products of intensive TFA (Teach for America) programs, and operate as members of multi-level, multi-skilled, closely managed teams, often teaching students grouped according to need rather than in standard batches of twenty or so. Rocketship changes the organisation of teaching and learning as well as the practice of teaching, and with that what has long been the fundamental building block of schooling, the class and the classroom.

The orthodoxy’s lodestar is effectiveness, a concept shaped and articulated within the mental universe of education. Rocketship is influenced by business methods and the discipline of economics that underlies them, and appeals to cost-effectiveness and productivity. Where the orthodoxy relies on organic, evolutionary change in each school, Rocketship’s schools are designed from the ground up. To the orthodoxy’s cultural change, Rocketship adds structural engineering.

Technology, peripheral in the orthodoxy, is central to the Rocketship model. It suggests that schooling’s future will not be continuous with its past, that schooling has now arrived at a point reached by one industry after another ever since the industrial revolution got under way late in the eighteenth century, the point at which machines begin to displace some labour and demand the reorganisation of the rest. Rocketship implies that “what works” is actually what has worked in the past, not what will work in the future.

Rocketship is a chain of quasi-independent “charter” schools. It opened its first school in California’s Silicon Valley only seven years ago, to almost instant prominence and controversy. It quickly became a lightning rod for intersecting conflicts over the charters versus the established public school systems, over competition versus regulation, over technology and the future of the teaching profession, and over the proper nature and purposes of schooling. Hence Whitmire’s book.

Rocketship departs from the orthodoxy, but not before learning from it. As the orthodoxy would urge, Rocketship has an almost missionary zeal to “close the gap” between the educational attainments of the children of the poor and the affluent. Rocketship’s first schools were not for Silicon Valley’s Porsche-driving geeks, venture capitalists and startup entrepreneurs but for the Latinos who cook and clean for, deliver to, and wait on the Valley’s elect. As it expands eastwards, Rocketship is targeting other disadvantaged groups including African Americans.

Again as the orthodoxy would want, Rocketship’s educational focus is on student attainment, in the foundational areas of language arts, maths, science, and social studies, in the early years (K–5). Teaching is student-centred in a way that makes most such talk seem merely rhetorical. Rocketship teachers know where each student is up to in each key area of learning, and deploy student grouping, adaptive software and supplementary tutoring accordingly.

Much of the Rocketship recipe comes directly from the “teacher quality” agenda. It pays its teachers up to 30 per cent above standard rates. It pours the effort into school-based teacher induction and development. As well, it is heavily committed to parent and “community” involvement, including annual teacher visits to every home.

Then come the differences. Most obviously, Rocketship embraces technology in a way rare in schooling but common in business. It has little interest in technology as “enrichment,” or as “preparation for the twenty-first-century workplace,” or because “we’re living in the digital age” or because the kids like it. Its productivity-focused approach rests on a truth often missed or fudged in a growing research literature which finds that technology “doesn’t work”: technology can, among many other things, substitute for some of the labour of teaching, if you use the right software in the right way.

Rocketship was an early adopter of “blended” learning, which combines technology-delivered with conventional instruction. It was a very early adopter of “adaptive software,” designed around the growing understanding of the intimate relationship between student, task, assessment and feedback, and qualitatively different from the old lockstep textbook-on-a-screen instructional programs.

Blended learning both makes possible and requires the reorganisation of the teaching and learning process, of space and of staffing mix. The last of these is the most incendiary. Rocketship schools employ fewer teachers than the mainstream, sixteen for an elementary (primary) school of average size against the typical twenty-plus, and relatively more support and paraprofessional staff. It makes “time-technology swaps,” as the euphemism has it.

Rocketship’s use of software reflects its origins as the brainchild of John Danner, a cashed-up Silicon Valley entrepreneur. It also reflects a businessman’s habitual search for greater productivity rather than merely improved effectiveness, although it would be a mistake to see Danner as just another in the growing band of American business types (with Bill Gates as the alpha male) who want to use their money and methods to “fix” schooling.

Danner spent three years teaching in a hard-yards public school after he’d made his millions, and more years helping set up the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter network and then designing his own. At which point he did what startup entrepreneurs do. He sat down with his spreadsheets to develop “the proposition.” What configuration of effort, what kind of educational workplaces, would generate most learning from the resources available?

Not, Danner decided, the old low-tech, one-teacher-one-classroom model, as taken for granted by most educators (and by most effectiveness research). But what? Eventually Danner opted for a mix of adaptive software (the long search for which provides Whitmire with one of the most entertaining of his many anecdotes); fewer but better-paid teachers; a student working day divided between learning lab and classroom; better coordination of teaching effort; and shifting resources from buildings and land to equipment and staff and staff development. All that, Danner decided, would generate more learning from the by-no-means-generous funding available to charters than any alternative configuration.

Does it?

Whitmire reports with obvious relish the results that shot Rocketship to instant fame. Its first school opened with scores on statewide tests around the 900 mark on 200–1000 scale. That is a very high number by any standards, let alone for a brand-new school starting with a full complement of kids, 85 per cent of whom qualified for free lunches and 68 per cent of whom came from families in which English was a second language. When Rocketship opened another school in the same area it began with an enrolment of 426, scored 872, filled its quota of 640 students, and soon had a waiting list of 400.

By way of emphasis Whitmire records the performance of two district schools operating in the same area and serving much the same clientele. One scored 654, below the “basic” 700 level, with only 23 per cent of students proficient in reading and 40 per cent in maths, while the other managed only 16 per cent proficient in reading and 30 per cent in maths.

These are numbers and examples that show Rocketship to advantage, of course. There are claims that Rocketship’s scores overall have declined steadily since inception, but even if that is the case it leaves open the question of how Rocketship’s scores compare with those of other schools with a similar clientele, not to mention the question of how the productivity equation pans out.

Rocketship’s apparently remarkable performance, Whitmire argues, was accomplished on rations. Rocketship builds its schools at $180 per square foot, around half the cost of district schools. While the 654-point mainstream school referred to above “floats in a luxurious island of land, fifty-seven thousand square feet of buildings on 6.4 acres,” its Rocketship competitor “clings to an acre lot with only twenty-two thousand square feet under roof.” The former had twenty-nine teachers (and a counsellor), the latter just sixteen teachers.

By the standards set for them and just about every other American school, Rocketship schools do seem to produce more from less. Whether it is the right “more,” and whether it is achieved at a greater cost to a broad and broadening educational experience, neither Whitmire nor the evidence seem able to say.

So many charter schools have failed at least as badly as mainstream public schools that apparent success poses a problem of explanation. Some of Rocketship’s critics argue that its apparent gains are “selection effects.” Rocketship’s students come from families actively seeking high achievement in “the basics,” the critics argue, while established public schools are left with the rest and with a broader educational remit.

Other and related “effects” may apply. For example, Rocketship’s students have so far come predominantly from immigrant families and are beneficiaries of their parents’ desire to find a better life. Rocketship teachers are young, many of them highly motivated TFA graduates working in newly established schools, perfect conditions for the “observer effect” to do its work. Teachers work long hours, and spend an average of less than three years teaching, although that is consistent with the TFA idea, and some of those who leave teaching stay with Rocketship in management and leadership positions. Whether Rocketship can sustain its “sense of urgency” (as Danner’s co-founder puts it) remains to be seen. Its cost structure is likely to change for the worse if expansion creates the need to pay more to retain longer-serving teachers.

On the other hand, Rocketship has proved to be remarkably willing to learn and to change. Danner’s “rotational” blended model is being phased out in favour of a “flex” system, which combines the two kinds of space into a single large area, making it easier for teachers to put the right students in the right groups for the right support at the right time. Whitmire argues that even more fundamental to Rocketship’s success than blended learning is its deep commitment to productivity and an acceptance of its organisational imperatives. Rocketship really, really understands that any failure to wring the maximum educational value from every dollar is not money wasted, but learning lost.

Just how good Rocketship is, and just how much of that is owed to its particular way of assembling the many atoms that make up the complicated molecule of schooling, is yet to be determined. But in the meantime we must take seriously the likelihood that it is Rocketship and not the orthodoxy that has glimpsed the future of schooling.

This is not to suggest that Rocketship is a template for the “next” model of schooling. It is not. Its rethinking starts from teaching rather than from learning. It implicitly sees students as the objects and recipients of instruction rather than as producers of learning. There is clearly much further to go, particularly in the redesign of the student labour process as “adaptive” software gives way to fully interactive programs, and in exploiting students’ capacity not just to “learn to learn” but to learn to help each other learn. Rocketship is a Model T, at best. But it is definitely not a horse and buggy.

Rocketship’s first heresy concerns models of schooling; its second, the process of reform.

The charter movement, of which Rocketship is a prominent part, asserts that established school systems can’t do “comprehensive, integrated and sustained” change. The orthodoxy is a recipe in search of a cook. In the usual metaphor, the old systems lack “drivers” powerful enough to override the tangle of institutionalised interests attached to massively expanded school systems. Hobbled by “legacy orgware” developed over centuries of evolution – infrastructure dominated by the classroom box, a tenured workforce dominated by a single category of worker, locked-in budgets dependent on increments to sponsor any reform, and habits of mind shared by everyone from researchers to parents, teachers to students – the old systems are cumbersome, immobilised, disempowered.

In this view, only the hot breath of competition from schools formed outside the legacy orgware will get real reform under way. Reform will be driven into the systems, not by them. Rocketship has its own way of emphasising the point. Unlike some charters, its schools are greenfield sites, in both literal and metaphorical senses of the term. Think Aldi. Rocketship buys land, builds buildings, recruits staff, enlists parents and then, like a vehicle at the end of the production line, another Rocketship school lifts off. Each new school is a replica of the last and an incubator for the next, developing the nucleus of its leadership and staff.

If one side of the Rocketship model of change is expansion through replication, the other is competition. Like most charters, Rocketship “takes” students (as many would have it) from long-established mainstream public schools. But of course students can’t be “taken” unless parents choose to go. Here is the big driver (the charters claim) that the established systems lack: parent power, enabled by competition, legitimated by choice.

All this is straight from the neolib playbook, of course, but it would be both incorrect and foolish to explain the charter phenomenon in those terms alone. Insofar as standardised testing reveals what is going on, American schooling is in much more trouble than Australia’s, in both overall “performance” and its social distribution. At fifteen times the size of the Australian system, and with control divided between three levels of government rather than Australia’s two, it is even more unwieldy. What the charters tap into is a sense shared by many parents that they are being dudded by “the system,” a conclusion amply supported by a mass of research evidence.

The Australian situation differs in degree rather than kind. The preconditions for a charter insurgency are present in Australia: a deep and deepening failure of schools to educate the poor; increasing anxiety within systems and frustration without at ever-increasing funding and flat-lining performance indicators; the apparent inability of the big government systems – with the possible and contingent exception of the NSW system under its remarkable minister Adrian Piccoli – to mobilise; little to show for the almost frantic efforts of the Rudd and Gillard governments at the national level; the fragmentation of the old command economies, most recently in Western Australia’s “independent” government schools policies; and of course acceptance in Australia of “choice” of school as something close to a basic human right wrapped up in an irrefutable economic truth. The charters have expanded across the United States and into England and Sweden. If, as seems at least possible, they turn up in Australia, is that a bad thing?

It depends, first, on what kind of charters. Some operators specialise in “restarts,” taking over failing schools or even whole school districts. Most, however, depend on “choice.” It must be acknowledged that the “choice” offered by the US charters is not the same as “choice” in Australia, and is in several respects less toxic. There is no equivalent of Australia’s free-versus-fee, secular-versus-religious choice. Rocketship, like most charters, is a not-for-profit organisation and its schools are part of the secular public system. Choice is exercised not by those with advantages of location and/or income, but by those who typically lack both. In the not-uncommon circumstance of over-subscription, the choice is made by lottery.

Most fundamentally, the choice is not between educational flavours, often reflective of socioeducational pecking orders, but between different educational models and different levels of educational performance. This is, in Whitmire’s view, what makes Rocketship and some other charters so important. Choice, in and of itself, as in voucher schemes (or in Australia, we might add), is worse than useless. The key thing, Whitmire argues, is what’s available to choose from.

On the other side of the ledger, however, charters by their nature threaten the viability of incumbent public schools. Some schools (including some new charter schools) die. That kind of take-no-prisoners attitude, fed into schooling from the world of business, has spread through the US system up to and including campaigns for elections to school boards and other regulatory authorities. The ensuing arguments about the educational merits of the two kinds of school tangle with debates over the ethics and consequences of competition, as well as industrial and ideological conflicts between the mostly unionised districts and the mostly non-union charters. The charter wars, which form the second of Whitmire’s two big themes, are in content, alignments and temperature not unlike the chronic Australian conflict between government and non-government schools.

Nor is it at all clear that the charters are working, or ever will, at a system level anyway. More than twenty years after the first charter schools opened in Minnesota there are almost as many students in home schooling (3 per cent of the US total) as in charters (around 4 per cent). While “top charter schools” are indeed “pushing the envelope,” as Whitmire’s title has it, many are doing no better than the mainstream schools, and doing it in much the same way. Some are even worse.

Is there an alternative to the Gullivers, on the one hand, and competition red in tooth and claw on the other? Rather than pressing on with yet more cumulative incrementalism, or trying to blast away at schooling from the outside, is there a third way? There is, but it must be admitted that it is easier to imagine than to expect. A third approach would go right to the regulatory core of the legacy orgware: the relationship between employees and employers in the heavily institutionalised form of “industrial relations.”

Industrial relations as we now know it came into being in the 1950s and 1960s, when the pressure of soaring enrolments and retention rates transformed genteel “professional associations” into blue-collar unions, and transferred control of terms and conditions from employers to a semi-judicial arena of contest. There was no other option at the time, and big gains were registered in working conditions (elimination of impossibly sized classes particularly) and in terms of employment (especially for women).

These gains came at a cost, however, and not just to the public purse. Relations between employers and employees became adversarial. Oppositionism entrenched itself in the culture of the profession and in the identity of some teachers as well as in the behaviour of some governments. Cyclical, almost ritualised bargaining became the ratchet of “conditions” and costs. Consideration of the “externalities” of teachers’ work (pay, hours, workplace rights) was separated from its educational purposes and content. Negotiations depended upon, and agreements were struck in terms of, a way of organising educational work taken for granted in the 1960s (one teacher, one class, one lesson and so on), increasingly found to be problematic, and now on the verge of obsolescence. The status and material rewards of teaching are much as they were fifty years ago. Over the course of half a century industrial relations passed from solution to problem, becoming a central component and basic guarantor of the legacy orgware, counterproductive from systemic, professional, industrial and educational points of view.

What may be worth considering is whether the missing “driver” of “comprehensive, integrated and sustained” reform can be found in a shift in relations between employers and employees as substantial as what occurred in the 1950s and 1960s: from adversarial to collaborative; from an exclusive focus on the terms and conditions of employment to include the nature and organisation of educational work and the composition of the educational workforce; and from cyclical tactics to long-term strategy.

A rethink on that scale might not amount to a Pauline conversion but it is a big ask nonetheless. Alternatives of the Rocketship kind, and modes of thought often rejected or even reviled by educationists would need to be inspected, not to find fault but to see what can be learned. Both parties would need to acknowledge that, in the circumstances now emerging, their joint and several interests are best served by pursuing a strategy that makes sense on budgetary, professional, industrial and, above all, educational fronts. They would need to collaborate to map out a long march through the legacy orgware, from what has worked to what will work. Whitmire’s book provides food for thought for those willing to entertain such heresies, and a warning for those who are not. •

Thanks to three moving spirits of school reform, Graham Marshall, Chris Wardlaw and Vic Zbar. The views expressed are, of course, my own responsibility.


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Tom Greenwell writes:

Thanks for another stimulating article Dean. The call for a collaborative focus on optimising and, where necessary re-imagining, the organisation of educational work and workers is thought-provoking.

It also provokes a range of questions which you don’t appear to address, or even acknowledge.

Is it really accurate to characterise technology as ‘peripheral’ in the ‘orthodoxy’?

Aren’t blended learning environments common, if not ubiquitous?

Are challenges to ‘the old low-tech, one-teacher-one-classroom model’ happening in any places beyond US charter schools, including Australian public schools (the ones you imply are constrained by industrial arrangements)?

Are Enterprise Agreements between State and Territory Governments and their teaching workforces really negotiated without reference to ‘the nature and organisation of educational work and the composition of the educational workforce’ or education’s purpose and content?

Is it accurate to characterise relations between education employers and employee groups as exclusively adversarial, driven by entrenched ‘teacher oppositionism’? Aren’t they ever collaborative in nature?

Is it useful to assume, with David Gillespie, that education unions must either be in the ‘genteel professional association’ category or the ‘militant blue-collar trade union’ (ie. they take industrial action) category? Conversely, is it possible education unions tend to evince qualities from both these categories?

If a radical re-organisation of educational work is desirable, isn’t it crucial that the workers concerned play a decisive role in that process, both because they have unique professional and organisational knowledge and because they’re the people who will implement it? If yes, won’t such a decisive role only be enabled by something like the current industrial practices you so readily dismiss?

Dean Ashenden writes:

And thanks for another stimulating comment, Tom! To begin with your concluding question: having ‘the workers concerned play a decisive role’ in a ‘re-organisation of educational work’ is exactly what I suggested, exactly. (In fact, you seem to acknowledge the point in your opening remarks re my ‘call for a collaborative focus’?) Perhaps where we part company is in my further suggestion that if this is to happen, a form of relationship between education workers and employers constituted in the 1950s and 1960s would have to change, substantially?

On your other questions: I do think that industrial agreements as currently struck entrench a form of educational work which many of those involved, wearing their educationists’ hats, would question. Those agreements do frustrate efforts to really figure out what the new technologies bring to the party. They are particularly restrictive with regard to both ‘time-technology swaps’ and the re-allocation and re-organisation of the work of teaching. ‘Blended learning’ generally operates within the received allocation of resources and organisation of time, space, and labour. That is accepted (in my view) by even such tech-savvy proponents of the orthodox agenda as Michael Fullan.

There are schools, as you suggest, which get around the rules, perhaps particularly in Victoria, which has the least restrictive of the government-system agreements. But this is typically in result of outstanding leadership. The exceptional schools are person- and/or circumstance-dependent. In at least some cases tacit ‘permission to proceed’ is given on condition that a low profile is maintained. My suggestion is that the exceptional and contingent nature of these schools is a function of ‘legacy orgware’ which is much more extensive than the industrial relations system and agreements, but in which they play a crucial role. And, to repeat, my suggestion is that IR just might play a key role in transforming itself and the legacy orgware, rather than conserving it. For teacher organisations to lead or collaborate in such a process would represent, in my view, an act of enlightened self-interest.

Again, thanks for taking issue, and for going so directly to the nub of the matter.