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Topic: Why Make Reform So Complicated?
Replies: 5   Last Post: Jan 22, 2014 11:42 AM

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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Why Make Reform So Complicated?
Posted: Jan 17, 2014 6:09 PM
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From Education Week [American Education's Newspaper of Record],
Wednesday, January 15, 2014, Volume 33, Issue 17, pages 22,28. See

Why Make Reform So Complicated?

By Mike Schmoker

In the realm of organizational improvement, complexity kills. It
demoralizes employees and distorts the critical connection between
effort and outcomes. It is the enemy of the most indispensable
elements of improvement: clarity, priority, and focus.

That is the message of multiple prominent studies, from Jim Collins'
2001 best-seller Good to Great to more recent books like The Laws of
Simplicity, by John Maeda, and Simple: Conquering the Crisis of
Complexity, by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn. These experts implore
us to simplify: to prioritize, minimize, and employ only the clearest
language in the service of focus. Only this will allow teams and
individuals to understand, practice, and perfect those few,
highest-priority skills and actions that are most critical to

Education clearly doesn't get this. Perhaps no enterprise is more
crippled by complexity than school improvement. For two decades, I've
worked with educators in every kind of school and district. For every
major initiative, a common theme emerges: There is simply too much to
do, and most of it is maddeningly ambiguous and confusing.

Maybe it started with state-mandated strategic planning, which
produced those book-length, jargon-laced documents with their
impossibly long bulleted lists of goals, tasks, and action
plans-which turned out to have no substantive effect on teaching

Then came the standards movement. As John Maeda wrote, the first law
of simplicity is "Reduce." We didn't get the memo: After state
standards documents were launched and hardened into law, it was
discovered that it would take about 20 years to teach all the skills
and topics contained in them. But their worst feature was their
abstract, imprecise language, which made it hard to convert them into
clear, coherent curriculum and lessons.

So, too, with the Common Core State Standards. The spirit of this
initiative (warts and all) is largely welcome and long overdue: an
emphasis on a more authentic literacy and real-world mathematics. But
the actual lists of standards and practices were never piloted-ever,
by anyone. They are still overlong and abounding in indecipherable
abstractions. Siegel and Etzkorn found that long documents written in
confusing language are the worst enemy of confident, effective

Officials at the highest levels of both the English/language arts and
math common core have admitted to me that there are still too many
standards, and that much of the language is still mystifying-fraught
with the potential for improper practice. Indeed, the ELA common core
deserves praise for developing, however belatedly, the much clearer,
more concise "three shifts," which (if practitioners would realize
it) rescues them from having to teach to the inanities of the long
grade-by-grade lists. [See
]Math teachers tell me that the "eight math practices" of the math
common core would likewise benefit from a serious rewrite and
reduction and from much clearer guidance on which practices are best
applied to which math standards. [See ]

Our standards documents contributed directly to the confused state of
our (so-called) "curriculums." I've reviewed curriculums with
hundreds of teachers, leaders, and central-office administrators, in
some of the largest districts in the United States. In almost every
case, we discovered that these documents are virtually unusable.

Today's curriculums are typically a riot of moving parts, of columns
and boxes packed with ambiguous terms and buzzwords, "big ideas," and
long lists of ill-conceived "suggested" activities, resources,
"differentiation strategies," technology integration, assessment
ideas, and readings of wildly varying length and quality, all replete
with long, cryptic lists of alphanumeric references to state
standards covered. They are visually and conceptually bewildering.

Within minutes of these reviews, even the curriculum people admit to
how confusing the curriculums are, that they themselves wouldn't know
how to translate them into lesson plans. This probably explains what
the curriculum directors and I see in the classroom tours we conduct
before the curriculum review: a profusion of worksheets and aimless
group activities, but little evidence that teachers are using the
official curriculum.

All this pedagogic complication and accretion found its way into
teacher evaluation (of which I've written in these pages). Done
right, good evaluation criteria could greatly clarify good
instruction and thus promote its improvement. But the most popular
teacher-evaluation templates and rubrics bury or entirely ignore the
most critical elements of good instruction.

As The New York Times reported in an article last year, teachers in
Tennessee were responsible for addressing as many as 116 criteria in
multiple domains, with no hint of their relative priority or
].This has corrupted lesson planning itself, as teachers (as I've
been seeing) are feeling that they must submit elaborate, multipart,
five- to seven-page technology-drenched lesson plans concocted to
address the innumerable evaluation criteria. Sadly, most of these
lessons still lack the elements most critical to success (which I'll
describe in a moment). The best lessons I've ever seen are simple,
low-tech affairs that could be described in half a page.

And that, according to the experts, is the real cost of complexity:
It prevents us from perceiving the simplest, but most effective
practices and then focusing our limited time and energy on mastering
them, one at a time.
SIDEBAR: "Perhaps no enterprise is more crippled by complexity than
school improvement."
We know, for instance, that a very straightforward, coherent,
content-rich curriculum-abounding in opportunities for purposeful
reading, discussion, and writing-may have more impact on achievement
than any other factor. But such curriculum is found in only a tiny
minority of our schools.

And we know how to deliver such curriculum. There is overwhelming
agreement that effective instruction has a very simple structure at
its core. It starts with a clear purpose or objective and an
assessment aligned with that objective. It is followed by an ongoing
cycle of teaching in small, manageable steps, punctuated with
frequent, informal assessments of learning for each step-e.g., by
circulating to observe student work, with reteaching when
necessary-all with the aim of ensuring that all students succeed on
every phase of the lesson until they are ready to successfully
complete the assessment or assignment. But, like effective
curriculum, such instruction is rare in the extreme, even though both
are within reach of any school that makes them a priority.

The transition to simple, priority-driven school improvement might
require a kind of civil disobedience: a refusal, by a critical mass
of educators, to implement anything unless it has been adequately
piloted, amply proven, and then made clear and simple enough for
educators to learn and implement successfully. If we insist on such
conditions, we will move forward at a rate not seen before.
Mike Schmoker is an author, speaker, and consultant. His most recent
book is Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student
Learning (ASCD, 2011). He can be reached at
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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