Beware the Quick Fix in Schools
by Jared Gellert
I’ve had the pleasure of reading Schools That Learn by Peter Senge et al. over the past month. My next few blog posts will address ideas raised in the book.
“Shifting the Burden” = How We Solve Problems
One core issue in our educational system is our persistent attempt to solve problems before we have deeply understood them. The authors call this “Shifting the Burden.” (pp375ff). They write the “quick fix is obvious and immediate; it has the illusion of certainty and the reward of short term efficiency. But it diverts attention away from the real or fundamental source of the problem and ultimately it does not sustain itself.”
Testing = A Quick Fix
The most common example of this in our educational system is high stakes testing. There is a shared, felt sense that our schools are failing too many of our kids and that they aren’t preparing students in ways we want. So instead of deeply probing what kind of educational system will succeed in educating all of our kids and will prepare them to compete with China and India, we jump to the conclusion that high stakes testing is the answer.
Why use a Quick Fix?
Part of the attraction of quick fixes is that we think they work. Fundamental solutions are more difficult and unsure. The authors write “Fundamental solutions are slower to produce results, and one cannot be certain of them.” Let’s say that in your analysis one of the fundamental factors with kids who don’t succeed in school is their lack of connection with adults who care about their performance in school. Fixing that is significantly more complicated.
Consequences of the Quick Fix
The authors point out three interesting consequences of quick fix thinking.
1. The first is a decrease in capability. If a school district is solely focused on testing, it gradually limits other programs, typically counseling, the arts and physical education. The district gradually loses their will and capacity to use these programs which might be integral to fundamental solutions.
2. The second is that districts often become dependent upon “intervenors” or outside indispensable professionals. The example the authors use is specialists like school psychologists. If the school psychologists don’t work with the classroom teachers so the teachers are more effective with different students, the psychologist just gets more and more referrals.
At least some of our Professional Development business at CITE consists of things that ideally a principal would do herself but can’t because she is too busy with the quick fixes handed her by the DOE.
Principals, what do you wish you could do, that is hamstrung by the demands of a “quick fix” handed down from the DOE? Let us know – tag us on Twitter or write on our wall on Facebook
3. The third common consequence of the addiction to quick fixes is that goals wind up eroding. Texas was the perfect example of this, back when George Bush the younger was Governor. They had a goal of increased test scores. Special ed kids got tested, but their scores didn’t count on a given schools report card. The Special Ed kids did more poorly than the general population. First couple of years test scores go up, and then they stop going up. What was their response?
You can see where this is going…
A sharp increase in kids who were classified as special Ed and therefore whose scores didn’t count. They thus settled for a lower level of achievement while preserving the illusion of increasing achievement. Thus they blinded themselves to the fact that the quick fix didn’t work. I’m sure we could all multiply stories like this, such as when the NYC DOE renormed the scores, or what is going to happen when scores plummet with the new Common Core based tests.
Quick fix thinking is endemic in our society. It’s not at all a problem limited to our schools. But until we have the maturity to “go slow to go fast” and take our time to work through issues to come up with fundamental answers, we are going to reproduce the very problems the quick fixes are designed to solve.
Jared Gellert is the Executive Director for CITE.