Why top-down reform won't save the education system
Countless top-down reforms haven't improved the U.S. education system; can community-based education make a difference?
- A new report from the RAND Corporation details another top-down initiative that failed to improve student achievement.
- Community-based education reform creates coalitions of stakeholders to support lifelong learning.
- Though barriers exist, such reform could synthesize the best of top-down and bottom-up reform.
If there's one constant in education, it's top-down reform. Long-time educators are as familiar with its ebbs and flows as a sailor the tide's. A new administration or organization promises sweeping changes aimed at enhancing effectiveness; they leave behind a dross of curriculum changes, administrative requirements, and new testing standards.
A few years later, a new administration comes to wash it away and start over.
This ebb and flow would be welcomed by educators and parents if these reforms achieved their goals of improving scholastic achievement, creating productive environments, and imbuing students with a sense of motivation and self-worth. But that's seldom the case.
Failing from the top down
There's a long history of studies showing top-down reform's lack of efficacy. In 2018, the RAND Corporation released a report looking at the Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching Initiative, designed and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The initiative ran for seven years and cost roughly a billion dollars.
Three school districts and four charter management organizations participated in the initiative. Each adopted a rubric "that established a common understanding of effective teaching" and trained classroom observers. These observers scored teachers on their effectiveness and measured that alongside student achievement. The schools then used these measurements to determine recruitment, dismissal, compensation, and advancement criteria.
Unfortunately, the more than 500-page report found the initiative to be a failure. Across the years, few metrics in student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and dropout rate were improved at participating schools, while many saw negative dips when compared to similar schools who did not participate. Nor did the schools retain or hire more successful teachers.
The effective teacher initiative is just one study, but there have been many others. The most well-known example of this century (so far) was the No Child Left Behind Act, which was gutted by a bipartisan Congress after censure across the political spectrum. Smaller examples exist as well, such as a 2019 study that found local nudging strategies, such as text reminders to apply for financial aid, don't scale up effectively.
As evident by such frequent, fruitless attempts, top-down education has clearly not been successful. Then why do we continue to pursue it? Jay P. Greene, endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, believes it stems from a mistaken theory on education.
As he wrote for Education Next, "In its essence, that theory holds that there are policy interventions that could improve outcomes for large numbers of students if only we could discover them and get policymakers and practitioners to adopt them at scale."
Writing on the effective teacher initiative, Greene further adds that these failures aren't "inherently wrong." Individuals and societies can learn from failures, so even mistakes can serve a purpose. The problem with top-down education reforms is that the administrations and organizations pushing them aren't learning the appropriate lessons. (A disheartening irony given the subject at hand.)
Why? Merrill Vargo, former CEO emeritus at Pivot Learning Partners, argues such organizations champion top-down reform because that's what works in the closed-system of the business environment. But public education is an open system, where variables shift constantly through interactions with the environment.
It takes a village
It's here that we find a clue to lasting, beneficial education reform: community-based education reform. Like top-down reform, community-based learning doesn't describe a specific approach. It can refer to many different instruction methods and programs, such as youth apprenticeships, lifelong learning, and experiential learning programs.
It is instead a philosophy of where such reform should be centered. The key driver is an understanding that community engagement, decision-making, and reflection are integral to improving education. In turn, community members and institutions view education as both a responsibility and an asset.
"Schools and universities tend to focus, appropriately so, on the performance of their students. Yet another important aspect for schools to consider is the impact they can have as catalysts for the well-being of local communities," write Rosana G. Rodriguez and Abelardo Villarreal for the Intercultural Development Research Association. "The type of interaction between schools and universities and their constituent parents and communities has great potential to be a strong positive force for improving the quality of life for local citizens."
They point out that community-based reform brings sectors of a community together to form a unified coalition. These stakeholders should include schools, government, community institutions, community members, and, of course, parents. Each working toward the goal of creating a local environment that supports scholastic achievement and motivates students to learn.
Rodriguez and Villarreal further argue that community-based reform pays dividends in the form of economic gains, increased access to social benefits, and community empowerment.
"[W]hat if our system's greatest strength is the thing that is most often cited as its fatal weakness? Proponents of top-down reforms prey on the alleged weakness of our decentralized school governance system, but what if this idea could be turned on its head?" wrote Dave Powell, associate professor of education at Gettysburg College and former "K-12 Contrarian" for Education Week.
He continues: "We can introduce more choice into our system and still keep it genuinely public, and we can also protect equity and opportunity while simultaneously holding school professionals accountable for student learning. We can even provide a more stable source of funding for schools if we want to. We just haven't figured out how to do it yet. I, for one, believe that careful planning in the communities where schools actually exist will help us get there."
While we haven't figured out how yet, there exists an extensive, years-long study in community-based learning that has shown tremendous results. It's called Finland.
Thirty years ago, Finland's education system looked a lot like the U.S.'s. It was top-down heavy, extensively tracked teacher effectiveness, and leaned heavily on test scores to grade efficacy. Then the country made a concentrated effort at reform.
The Finnish system is guided by a national core curriculum, but local municipalities, school administrators, and teachers have broad autonomy to steer education to meet local needs. They can decide timetables, what tests to give, and how to evaluate students. Education is viewed as a community initiative — for example, students support each other and teachers are seen as cornerstones in their communities. While standard tests are administered, they are tied neither to funding nor performance incentives.
Today, the country's education system is recognized as one of the world's best.
Reforming the next reform
Anyone familiar with education literature will know there's been much ink spilled over top-down versus bottom-up reform. If done correctly, community-based learning doesn't have to be top-down or bottom-up. It can facilitate a synthesis between the two.
So why hasn't it been attempted at scale in the United States? There are several barriers.
Some are practical. Teachers need to be trained away from standardized testing and toward working with students individually. Public funding and investment must be retooled for parity for all students, including access to transportation and essential technologies. Parents and community members need to be informed and oriented. And evaluations of student learning cannot be one-size-fits-all.
Others are ideological. Many still see education as imparting required knowledge — not as a creative, lifelong process we all engage in as a community. This can lead community-based learning to be seen as a distraction from traditional, if potentially outmoded, curricula.
These barriers, however, are not insurmountable. They only require planning, resources, support, and the will to work toward positive structural changes.
In May 2018, the city of Paris set an ambition to be carbon-neutral by 2050.
- Countries, governments and companies are aligning on a need for net-zero - and this is an opportunity to rethink decarbonizing our cities.
- There is no "one-size-fits-all" solution – each city's needs must be at the heart of developing integrated energy solutions.
- A city can only decarbonize through collaboration between government, the private sector, and local communities.
The results could help NASA's Perseverance rover find evidence of ancient life on Mars.
- In a recent study, researchers simulated the environment of ancient Mars and tested whether a type of extremophile found on Earth could grow on fragments of a meteorite from Mars.
- Extremophiles are organisms that have adapted to survive in conditions in which most life forms cannot, such as ice, volcanoes and space.
- The results showed that the extremophiles were able to convert the rock into energy. What's more, the microbes left behind biosignatures that could help scientists identify evidence of past life on Mars.
Northwest Africa (NWA) 7034
NASA<p>Extremophiles are organisms that thrive in conditions where most life forms would die. Scientists have observed them in volcanoes, soda lakes, Antarctic ice and hydrothermal vents. Some have even <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/tardigrades-extremophiles" target="_self">survived the vacuum of space</a>. The team behind the recent study focused on a particular class of extremophiles called chemolithotrophs, which are microbes that use inorganic compounds as a source of energy.<br></p><p>To test whether chemolithotrophs might have been able to evolve on Mars, the team placed a chemolithtrophic microbe called <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metallosphaera_sedula" target="_blank"><em>Metallosphaera sedula</em></a> onto bits of Black Beauty. The researchers simulated the ancient Martian environment by keeping the microbe-covered rock bits in a bioreactor that controlled temperature and levels of carbon dioxide and air.</p>
The high-angle annular dark-field (HAADF) scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM) image of the focused ion beam (FIB) section extracted for STEM analysis from the NWA 7034 fragment used in this study
Milojevic et al.<p>Using microscopy, the researchers saw that the microbe successfully converted rock pieces into biomass.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Grown on Martian crustal material, the microbe formed a robust mineral capsule comprised [sic] of complexed iron, manganese and aluminum phosphates," Milojevic told Science Alert.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Apart from the massive encrustation of the cell surface, we have observed intracellular formation of crystalline deposits of a very complex nature (Fe, Mn oxides, mixed Mn silicates). These are distinguishable unique features of growth on the Noachian Martian breccia, which we did not observe previously when cultivating this microbe on terrestrial mineral sources and a stony chondritic meteorite."</p>
Mars 2020 mission<p>The study didn't prove that chemolithotrophs or any other type of life ever existed on Mars. But the results did show that the chemolithotrophs left behind unique biosignatures as they converted the rock bits into energy. </p><p>With these fingerprints on the books, scientists working with the Mars 2020 mission might be able to find similar biosignatures in rock samples collected or observed by the Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in February. Rock samples collected by the rover are expected to return to Earth in 2031.</p>
While not the first such minister, the loneliness epidemic in Japan will make this one the hardest working.
- The Japanese government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness to implement policies designed to fight isolation and lower suicide rates.
- They are the second country, after the U.K., to dedicate a cabinet member to the task.
- While Japan is famous for how its loneliness epidemic manifests, it isn't alone in having one.
The Ministry of Loneliness<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/I5FIohjZT8o" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p><a href="https://www.jimin.jp/english/profile/members/114749.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetsushi Sakamoto</a>, already in the government as the minister in charge of raising Japan's low birthrate and revitalizing regional economies, was appointed this <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">month</a> to the additional role. He has already announced plans for an emergency national forum to discuss the issue and share the testimony of lonely <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/12/national/loneliness-isolation-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">individuals</a>.</p><p>Given the complexity of the problem, the minister will primarily oversee the coordination of efforts between different <a href="https://www.insider.com/japan-minister-of-loneliness-suicides-rise-pandemic-2021-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ministries</a> that hope to address the issue alongside a task <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">force</a>. He steps into his role not a moment too soon. The loneliness epidemic in Japan is uniquely well known around the world.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Hikikomori</em></a><em>,</em> often translated as "acute social withdrawal," is the phenomenon of people completely withdrawing from society for months or years at a time and living as modern-day hermits. While cases exist in many <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00247/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>, the problem is better known and more prevalent in Japan. Estimates vary, but some suggest that one million Japanese live like this and that 1.5 million more are at <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/article/japan-hikikomori-isolation-society" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">risk</a> of developing the condition. Individuals practicing this hermitage often express contentment with their isolation at first before encountering severe symptoms of loneliness and <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200110155241.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">distress</a>.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodokushi" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Kodokushi</em></a>, the phenomenon of the elderly dying alone and remaining undiscovered for some time due to their isolation, is also a widespread issue in Japan that has attracted national attention for decades.</p><p>These are just the most shocking elements of the loneliness crisis. As we've discussed before, loneliness can cause health issues akin to <a href="https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/americas-loneliness-epidemic-is-more-lethal-than-smoking-heres-what-you-can-do-to-combat-isolation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">smoking</a>. A lack of interaction within a community can cause social <a href="https://bigthink.com/in-their-own-words/how-religious-neighbors-are-better-neighbors" target="_self">problems</a>. It is even associated with changes in the <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/loneliness-brain" target="_self">brain</a>. While there is nothing wrong with wanting a little time to yourself, the inability to get the socialization that many people need is a real problem with real <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/brain-loneliness-hunger" target="_self">consequences</a>.</p>
The virus that broke the camel's back<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Hp-L844-5k8" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> A global loneliness pandemic existed before COVID-19, and the two working in tandem has been catastrophic. </p><p>Japanese society has always placed a value on solitude, often associating it with self-reliance, which makes dealing with the problem of excessive solitude more difficult. Before the pandemic, 16.1 percent of Japanese seniors reported having nobody to turn to in a time of need, the highest rate of any nation <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">considered</a>. Seventeen percent of Japanese men surveyed in 2005 said that they "rarely or never spend time with friends, colleagues, or others in social groups." This was three times the average rate of other <a href="http://www.oecd.org/sdd/37964677.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>. </p><p>American individualism also creates a fertile environment for isolation to grow. About a month before the pandemic started, nearly<a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/01/23/798676465/most-americans-are-lonely-and-our-workplace-culture-may-not-be-helping" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> 3 in 5</a> Americans reported being lonely in a <a href="https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">report</a> issued by Cigna. This is a slight increase over previous studies, which had been pointing in the same direction for years. </p><p>In the United Kingdom, the problem prompted the creation of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The commission's <a href="https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/active-communities/rb_dec17_jocox_commission_finalreport.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">final report </a>paints a stark picture of the U.K.'s situation in 2017, with millions of people from all parts of British society reporting feeling regular loneliness at a tremendous cost to personal health, society, and the economy.</p><p>The report called for a lead minister to address the problem at the national level, incorporating government action with the insights provided by volunteer organizations, businesses, the NHS, and other organizations on the crisis's front lines. Her Majesty's Government acted on the report and appointed the first Minister for Loneliness in <a href="https://time.com/5248016/tracey-crouch-uk-loneliness-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2018</a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracey_Crouch" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tracey Crouch</a>, and dedicated millions of pounds to battling the problem. </p><p>The distancing procedures necessitated by the COVID-19 epidemic saved many lives but exacerbated an existing problem of loneliness in many parts of the world. While the issue had received attention before, Japan's steps to address the situation suggest that people are now willing to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.</p><p>--</p><p><em>If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. The suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.</em></p>
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