Why the Innovative Engines Never Leave the School Station Platform

      The inconvenient truth of the school reform movement is the necessary innovative engine never leaves the train station. For decades governing bodies have passed numerous mandates that they believe will stimulate school administrators to “think out of the box.” These think out of the box mandates have pursued two legislative tracks to coax schools into thinking differently about how we configure school organizations and how we deliver instruction. The first track, which I will term, the do your own thing track, releases schools from governmental constraints to author a new school reality. The second track, which I will term, do what we say or we will hurt you track. Track #1 created the charter school movement; track #2 created the no child left behind movement.

      The subject of this blog is not a detailed analysis of what was wrong with the premises and actions of both movements. Succinctly put, the schools on Track #1 did leave the station—but, only stopped as a similar station down the tracks. The schools on Track #2 remained at the station waiting for governmental inspectors to certify they had left no child behind.

      The failure of both schools of innovation can be attributed to proponents spending too much time standing and talking on station platforms and not enough time inside the train cars they are striving to transform. If these proponents would move off the station platforms and enter the cars on the track they would discover the following schooling realities that will derail any effort at school innovation:

      Reality #1: They need more tracks

      The two-track reform model makes it appear as if there are two distinctly different approaches to school innovation. In reality, although both school platforms are on separate tracks, they both are pursing the same institutional goals—certification—they both leave classroom instruction untouched—telling, listening, testing—and they both leave the school organization in tact—buildings, classrooms, offices, departments.

      Reality #2: They are not practical

      For innovative educational programs to be fully adopted they must stay within the “zone of practicality.” A practical innovative program meets the following criteria:

  • The innovation is IMPORTANT–>It pursues a valued end of schooling that teachers believe are vital for student success.
  • The innovation is CONCRETE–>It is composed of theories and practices that employs familiar concepts, vocabularies, and practices.
  • The innovation is COHERENT—>It aligns with the district’s instructional philosophy and other innovative initiatives.
  • The innovation is TEACHABLE–>It is composed of theories and practices that align with faculties educational background.
  • The innovation is FEASIBLE—>It can be supported with resources the district possesses.

      Reality #3: They are too complex

      Innovate approaches to teaching and learning originate from university research programs and professional organizations. The level of cognitive complexity of these pedagogical models do not fit well into classroom instructional routines or into the professional training of teachers.

      Reality #4: They are in opposition to the grammar of schooling

      All members of a school community have been to school. They have all experienced the same goals, the same organization, the same teaching, the same curriculum, the same incentive systems that their children are now experiencing—the grammar of schooling. Most innovative programs ask administrators and teachers to discard parts or all of the elements of the grammar of schooling. School communities will be quick to show up to board meetings where they believe are tampering with or discarding what their belief in how schools should look and operate.

      Reality #5: They have no engineer

      For any innovation to work in schools requires a school leader—the train engineer—must be part poet (what we can imagine; part teacher (what we know); part politician (what we can get done); and part manager (what we do). Presently, most schools do not have a train engineer. What we do have are train conductors. They are good at keeping the school train running on time and making sure passengers comply with rules, but, they neither have the knowledge, skills, or inclination to redesign the how, what, or why of the trains they work on.

The Fundamentals of High Achieving Educational Systems

            For the last ten years we have been teaching Johnny how to read and leaving no child behind. Now we are embarking on a race to the top.  All of these initiatives carry with them strong doses of testing, privatization, and public embarrassment of students, teachers, administrators, and parents. Along the way, we do have more tests, we do have more charter schools, and we do have more non-performing schools, fired principals, and alienated communities of all sorts. And, the bottom line: American’s achievement scores on international testing are declining—quite a record for decade of “leaving” and “racing”.

            A confirmation of our race to the bottom appeared in a recent release of international test scores which showed that for students in American schools, the bottom is coming up quickly. The predictable response of national and state educational leaders is to blame teachers, administrators, unions, and educational bureaucracies for our dismal performance on international tests. The conventional solution offered by these same leaders is a one-two punch of accountability-driven reform initiatives: punish non-performers and reward performers. Embedded in this carrot and stick approach to school reform is an array of policies designed to loosen certification requirements, eliminate tenure, establish merit pay schemes, and incentivize privatized approaches to public schooling.

            The continuing failure of sanctions and incentives to make any headway in increasing our international test scores have only emboldened policy makers to do more of the same—only harder. The fundamental error that policy makers continue to make is to look at education from the outside-in, rather than inside out. Without institutional changes to the fundamentals of our American educational system (inside-out), we only end up throwing money and penalties at visible parts of our educational system (outside-in) that appear to be dysfunctional.

            When you study the educational systems of countries that have recently completed “the race to the top” you discover that educational leaders and legislators worked together to craft a comprehensive approach to school reform from the inside-out—the instructional fundamentals that generate the kinds of thinking and doing that fares well on international exams. If our country is going to get back in the “race,” national and state lawmakers must start investing in those fundamentals of high achieving schools systems documented in the research and emulated by nations now at the top of the international race to the top. What are these fundamentals?

            Admit the Best:   Schools of Education in high achieving countries only admit prospective teachers who have academic backgrounds conducive to teaching disciplinary understandings of real world problems. American schools of education accept prospective teachers with academic backgrounds suited for teaching textbook facts and procedures that are recalled on weekly multiple choice tests. The fundamental: Teaching matters; quality teachers possess deep conceptual understandings of their subject matter and the pedagogical know-how to assist all students with understanding how to apply these conceptual understandings to solving novel problems.

            World Class Curriculum:   High achieving countries have brought together content and curricula experts to develop national content standards that require students to understand the relationship between subject matter concepts, sophisticated methods of inquiry, and real world performances. A curriculum built on conceptual understandings of real world problems requires attention to depth over breadth and performance over task completion. Content standards in America continue to be a confused combination of some professional standards, some state standards, and some political ideology. Without a purposeful approach for determining what knowledge is of most worth and how to organize that knowledge, American classrooms are left with the default option: encyclopedic list of facts and procedures (the textbook) and multiple choice tests to check the recall of what is listed in textbooks. The fundamental: Curriculum matters; quality curriculum embeds subjects into frameworks designed for inquiry into complex human and physical problems.

            Performance Assessment:   High achieving countries develop state and local assessments which evaluate authentic performances—what students will be expected to know and do in the real world. The billion dollar testing industry in America is designed to place students on a bell shaped curve. When teachers in high achieving countries sit down to examine assessment results they discuss task performance. When teachers in America sit down to examine achievement scores they discuss test performance. In high achieving countries teachers are expected to redesign curriculum and instruction based on what authentic functions and tasks students must be able to perform. In America teachers are expected to adopt test preparation strategies for moving low performing students over state test cut scores. The fundamental: Assessment matters; quality assessment evaluates the gaps between knowledge of subject matter and real world performances.

            Continuous Training:    In high achieving countries teachers are required to participate in continuous professional development venues focused on developing deep conceptual understandings of subject matter. In America teachers are ushered off to staff development shopping malls where they are free to choose from techniques, recipes, and programs designed to reward or punish students into memorizing encyclopedic collections of information. The fundamental: Staff development matters; quality staff development requires that teachers continually be immersed in a learning process designed to expand their ability to create classroom lessons that apply the power of intellectual systems to complex real world problems.

            Strong Instructional Leadership:   In high achieving countries principals become principals through demonstrated excellence in teaching, curriculum development, and instructional leadership. School leaders in high achieving nations spend most of their day doing what instructional leaders should be doing: observing lessons; teaching lessons, coaching teachers; writing curriculum. In America principals become principals by demonstrating excellence in balancing budgets, maintaining boilers, pleasing boosters, and controlling students. When pressed by mandates to become instructional leaders, principals in America view that role as instructional manager: distributor of materials; employer of consultants, planner of one-day workshops, and caterer of continental breakfasts. The fundamental: Leadership matters; quality instructional leadership requires superintendents and principals with the knowledge base and managerial skills to effectively implement quality teaching, quality curriculum, quality assessment, and quality staff development.

            While each of these fundamentals for high achieving educational systems appears to make sense, they would not travel well in a country governed by 14, 000 different school systems, a culture that is suspicious of intellectual attainment and a social system which underfunds the family support systems conducive to success in school. Schools in high achieving nations are embedded in educational systems where all the fundamentals of the instructional system mesh well, are housed in cultures that prize intellectual attainment, and provide families with the kinds of social supports that ready children for the rigors of academic learning.

            Those of us who work in schools have no control over the cultural and political conditions supporting world class school systems. Nor is there any research to maintain the belief that more tests, more standards, more choice, or more bonus checks for supermen will develop the kinds of thinking rewarded on international achievement tests. What national, state, and local educational leaders do have control over are policies and practices that guide and coordinate talent, subject matter, training, and performance outcomes — these are the fundamentals that will get our country back into the race to the top.


      The problems of schooling are one framework, worldview (Kennedy, 1982; Vaughan, 1996; Weick, 1995), or philosophy for making sense out of how schools work and how they ought to be working. The terminology one adopts for “big picture” thinking is unimportant. But what is vital to Strong Instructional Leadership is the formulation of some framework, or a worldview, or a philosophy, or a big picture of how schools work politically, socially, economically, and intellectually—the reality of the schools they stand in. Within that framework should be a description of what schools ought to be doing politically, socially, economically, and intellectually and some method of inquiry to resolve the gap between is and ought of schooling.

      Why should Strong Instructional Leaders preoccupy themselves with philosophies, frameworks, worldviews, or a big picture? First, when school administrators walk into a school they can be assured that staff and faculty are looking at them from someplace. That someplace is a system of theories, ideas, and practices gathered in their life and career which forms a worldview (a philosophy, a framework,) for making sense out of their personal and public lives. School administrators make a grave mistake assuming that instructional leadership is merely a matter of announcing an instructional initiative, providing the appropriate materials to teachers, and managing the logistics of a new program. This is the same mistake teachers make when they think that students learn by looking at subject matter content. Students, as well as teachers, will “in various ways…adapt, adopt, combine, or reject messages” (Coburn, 2001,) about curriculum and instruction depending on what philosophy, worldview, or framework they stand for.

      Secondly, the normative theories, ideas, and practices, which shape a school culture, result from daily interactions between faculty members over problematic situations in their school. After a time, a dominant worldview will emerge around a problematic situation in a school and becomes the foundation for diagnosing what is causing an instructional problem and how the problem should be resolved — what researchers’ term “diagnostic framing” and “prognostic framing” (Benford & Snow, 1992). A faculty, could for example, frame the problem of low achievement in reading on lack of parent support and recommend an after-school program to teach parents how to support their child’s progress in reading. Another way of framing the problem of low reading achievement is looking inside the classroom at how teachers are teaching reading. Understanding the power of worldviews to frame instructional problems, Strong Instructional Leaders actively insert themselves in the center of an instructional problem so they can frame or reframe the problem in a way that conforms with a valued end of schooling or best practice in the field.

      A frame in the sense I am using the term represents a piece in a large mosaic of theories, ideas, and practices which forms a worldview of how the world works, schools work, and how children learn. Strong Instructional Leaders shape the direction of faculty sense-making by providing the resources and logistics that grow a certain instructional initiative; by honoring certain theories, ideas, and practices over others; by selecting theories, ideas, and practices from a variety of disciplines that fit a particular instructional and organizational problem; and by constructing explanations for particular instructional or organizational problem which resonate with a school faculty (Coburn, 2001). Most importantly, Strong Instructional Leaders strategically select explanatory frameworks which challenge worldviews housed in their building.

      The source for explanatory frameworks lies in a worldview or philosophy that a Strong Instructional Leader has personally developed over time. Her depth of knowledge of each component of the worldview permits her to use a wide variety of venues and issues to reframe other worldviews into a statement, a policy, a proposal, an action which is compatible with a personal worldview of how schools should work and how children learn. Faculty meetings are target rich environments for all sorts of worldviews about how schools should work and how children should learn. Typically, bits and pieces of worldviews appear near the end of a faculty meeting where certain teachers, the same ones at every meeting, take turns asking the principal questions which always seem to begin with the phrase, has anyone given thought to…. What follows this introductory phrase is not really a question, but a pronouncement of a policy, a procedure, a practice that the teacher feels the administration should implement. Strong Instructional Leaders recognize pronouncements as opportunities to reframe an oppositional worldview into an explanatory framework compatible with a valued end of schooling or best practice in the field.

      Equally important to the message contained in an explanatory framework are the venues in which messages are delivered. Strong Instructional Leaders use every available opportunity—faculty memo, meeting agendas, board meetings, building meetings, brief encounters in hallways—to communicate and model an explanatory framework. It is in these different venues where an explanatory framework maybe renegotiated to fit a particular instructional situation. Strong Instructional Leaders embrace these opportunities to connect an explanatory framework with classroom practices. They understand that the process for reinterpreting an instructional worldview begins when the “calm on the ocean floor” has been disturbed. Throughout the process of presenting, negotiating, and implementing explanatory frameworks in schools the Strong Instructional Leader assumes many roles, but always remains true to the core message of the explanatory framework and guardian of a philosophy of education which continually gives birth to instructional practices aimed at resolving the problems of schooling.

The problem of educational experience

A great confusion in education is what counts as an educational experience. At first glance this would not appear to be a great source of confusion in schooling. School administrators, teachers, policy makers, parents, and even students quickly resolve this confusion with the belief that everything that happens in schools is an educational experience. Following this belief into classrooms finds educational experience represented in definitions, lists, explanations of processes, demonstrations of procedures, note taking, recitations, and tests. Most individuals in and out of schools would nod their head in agreement—yes, these are bona fide educational experiences. John Dewey, the foremost twentieth century philosopher of education, would term these institutional definitions of educational experiences as, in his words, “mis-educative,” and “non-educative.”

      Dewey’s criteria for categorizing what occurs in classrooms as a genuine educational experience are activity structures that grows student interest and provides frameworks for critical thought. Sitting in classrooms, whether at the turn of the century or in the present, would confirm Dewey’s view, that there is little evidence of student interest or critical thought. What one does observe are lessons that conform to institutional definitions of an educational experience: transmissible, categorical, and testable. School administrators, teachers, and faculties schools of education are drawn to definitions of educational experience where institutional goals are imposed on models of teaching and curriculum design.

      For Dewey, the principal problem with institutional definitions of an educational experiences is they ignore where students come from and, instead, command students to look at a world of academic abstractions that will become meaningful to them at some unnamed time in the future. Schools, if they are doing their job well, house a vast array of intellectual tools that provide young people with curricular and teaching models that evaluate the quality of worlds young people stand in and promising ways of improving the world they will experience. When educational experience is defined this way, from where an individual stand instead of what they should be looking at, school administrators, teachers, and the publics they serve are directed towards curricular structures and teaching models which are deliberative, collaborative, and evaluative. Educational experiences, that give equal attention to where a child stands as well as what they are looking at, design curricular structures and employ pedagogies, which include the following activity structures:

  1. The educational experience begins with a situation, a case, a scenario, which stands as problem, a dilemma, or an interest or, a particular group of students.
  2. The educational experience selects a deliberative process where disciplined ways of knowing are brought to bear on a problem, a dilemma, or an interest.
  3. The educational experience designs venues where students collaborate on possible solutions to a problem, a dilemma, or an interest.
  4. The educational experience contains an activity in which a group of students feels (not sees) the consequences of the actions decided upon to resolve a problem, dilemma, or the pursuit of an interest.
  5. The educational experience determines the connections between the means-consequences of the actions undertaken by a particular group of students.
  6. The educational experience examines the means-consequences of actions in light of a valued common good.

      Strong Instructional Leaders recognize that the schools they lead are institutions designed for looking at the world and not looking from the world. A strong component of their philosophy of education and instructional agenda is devoted to developing curricular offerings, pedagogical practices, and organizational configurations which create educational experiences where all students fully undergo educational experiences from where they stand.


Schools are designed by societies to purposefully influence the “the attitudes and dispositions necessary for the continuous and progressive life of a society” (Dewey, 1916). The pedagogy endorsed by Schools of Education for socializing the young into the life of society originates in Rousseau’s dictum that educators should follow the path traced by nature (Rousseau, 1762/1979).

The problem teachers confront when applying a pedagogy devoted to developing the nature of the child is the inherent conflict between a child’s private ways of knowing—language, culture, personal interests, friends and experiences—and institutional ways of knowing —the methods, structure, and content of the disciplines and the “intellectual, legal, economic, scientific, and political institutions of the larger society” (Olson, 2003).

Schools as institutions are dismissive of educational goals in opposition to their responsibility to “produce a certain output or effect in return for its entitlement of funds and social recognition” (Olson, 2003). To achieve the recognition and funding necessary to preserve the institution of schooling, educational leaders displace pedagogies devoted to “how children perceive, explore, understand, and enjoy the world” (Olson, 2003) with pedagogies devoted to enforcing institutional categories, distinctions, differentiations, and divisions.

To be an expert in today’s educational environment one must know the vocabulary, the processes, and the methods of accountability that will “normalize” a child’s private ways of knowing. In Olson’s (2003) words, “schools as institutions do not ‘care’ whether students enjoy quadratic equations as long as they solve them quickly and accurately.”

The process of “normalizing” (Popkewitz) the child requires that schools, teachers, and support personnel marginalizethe unique beliefs, desires, and intentions of children in the classroom and value a psychology which isolates causal factors (i.e. socio-economic states, impulsivity, learning disability) that detract from the achievement of institutional goals. 

What this normalization process looks like in school is the search by administrators, teachers, and all manner of “specialists” for “pathologies” which explain why a child is unable to conform to institutional norms and the application of “interventions” which “cure” the deviant behavior of the child. 

Strong Instructional Leaders recognize that the schools they lead are institutions designed to normalize the individualities of the children which enter their schools each day. A strong component of their philosophy of education and instructional agenda is devoted to developing curricular offerings, pedagogical practices, and organizational configurations which respect and give voice to “abnormal” talents, interests, and abilities.