The Right Reasons
Photo from Flickr by Mike Gifford
Illinois superintendent Michael Smith’s post this morning called “Dumbest Education Thing Ever. At Least Since Duck and Cover” took me a bit off guard, but as good blogging does, it pushed me to consider some of the why behind decisions I make. His post is rooted in the frustration most or all administrators have to deal with in March – particularly in economic times like this. In this business, March is the season of figuring out enrollment and budget projections and nailing down the list of possible layoffs and budget cuts. He’s simply calling the question – why is it a formula of last hired = first to go in the cutting process? It’s a fair question after all and one a principal or superintendent that has any sense of feelings will wrestle with. We all understand and empathize with the feeling that years of service should account for something, but should that be the only variable in the incredibly important business of educating our children? Anyone who has been responsible for letting someone go will tell you that this system is not directly aligned to our mission. Seniority simply does not equal effectiveness. Make no mistake, this isn’t teacher bashing at all. It hurts deeply to layoff anyone who has signed up to do the incredible work of teaching. Ensuring the right people are on board to do this is a huge responsibility. A very difficult part of the job is even more difficult when one is forced to make the wrong call due to a system that is oversimplified.
The deeper question called for in Smith’s post is – upon what criteria do we make decisions about how and what we teach or about how we operate as a school or district? No doubt most of our practices are rooted in our own personal journeys and the frame of reference created in each of us – both personally and as an organization. Holding those behaviors, beliefs, and practices up to be analyzed against research about effectiveness is scary, difficult, and hard work! This is exactly the kind of work that drives improvement and the call to teach children demands us to have the courage to deliver on it. This kind of work is at the core of what PLCs do, what great organizations do, and what continuous improvement is all about. So the next logical question is… what does the research say?
I have intended to purchase the book Visible Learning, by John Hattie for quite a while now, and this morning I was able to start digging into the new addition to my bookshelf. “This book aims to synthesize over 800 meta-analyses about the influences on achievement to present a more global perspective on what are and what are not key influences on achievement” (pg 14). Hattie successfully makes mountains of research (52,637 studies involving over 200 million students)understandable to the general reader and the conclusions he has to share are likely quite surprising to most of us. According to the numbers, class size and extra-curriculars have little impact on achievement. Another surprise – the impact of homework is less than significant and motivation has only an average impact. Common cliché statements about the effect of class sizes, constructivist learning, direct instruction, teacher effectiveness, or a particular reading program are blatantly confronted by the brutal facts Hattie puts in front of us. His lens on teaching and learning is inspiring. “Instead of asking ‘What works?’ we should be asking ‘What works best?’ as the answers to these two questions are quite different” (pg 18). To help people like me understand what impacts achievement most significantly, Hattie gives the reader a graphic “barometer of influence” for each area or contributor to learning that is studied. Because almost everything we do in schools has some kind of positive effect, the scale of the barometer is centered at d = .4 which has been determined to be the average impact in the range of attributes or variables. On this scale, attributes with an influence greater than .4 are better than average and need to be considered greatly. Likewise, attributes with an influence of less than .4 should be looked at and considered for possible removal or ending the practice due to inefficiency. The main point is… if maximizing student achievement is the goal, we need to invest our resources (time, money, energy, etc…) on the attributes that have the greatest influence on that goal. Visible Learning is a must read for teachers, education leaders, and policy makers.
John Hattie has posted the slide show below to Slideshare. Towards the end he lists the effects that his research identifies as having the least influence, the most influence, and some of the effects in the middle of the continuum. Take a look – you may be as surprised as I am!