Vail Daily column: There are no silver bullets
March 18, 2014
The proven solution to better schools is simple and straightforward, yet it has proven difficult for systems to maintain the necessary focus on strategies that work. To improve, school systems need to focus a tremendous amount of energy on quality instruction and efforts to mitigate the effects of poverty on learning (preferably as early as possible). Unfortunately, politicians and the national media prefer simple ideas that make a good sound bite. These are easy to present and sell to their constituents and readers. We call them "silver bullets" — magical solutions to complex problems. Unfortunately, the problems don't respond to magic.
Quality instruction occurs when we have a school system that insists on high academic expectations for all students, and works to deliver them in an individualized manner by a talented, caring professional educator. The mitigation of poverty happens when we demonstrate a strong moral commitment to equity, making sure that the poorest children in our community are provided access to quality education, nutrition and health care.
Yet, following the recipe of improving instruction and mitigating the effects of poverty is not the norm — especially for America's (and Colorado's) schools. Instead, schools typically expend an extraordinary amount of resources on disconnected, disjointed and disruptive "silver bullet" approaches, which act as a sort of educational kryptonite, eroding and diminishing quality.
"Silver bullet" educational policies come from all across the political spectrum and are generally well intentioned. They advance the notion that if this one "silver bullet" strategy were advanced, then the quality of our education system would improve. Frequently, "silver bullet" policies are backed by a lot of ideological hot air, but are weak on empirical evidence that indicates the policy actually improves outcomes for students.
Variety Of 'Silver Bullets'
The variety of "silver bullet" policies is extraordinary. They include things like hyper-focusing on the basics (reading, writing, math) — at the expense of things like art, music and physical activity. Or adding more days and hours to school time in an across-the-board manner — as if to say whatever we are doing, we should just do more of that. Or, relentlessly pursuing lower class sizes — although the best performing education systems typically have larger class sizes than we do in the United States. Or building complex merit pay systems — as if an annual bonus of a few hundred dollars will motivate and incentivize teachers to try harder for kids.
Other "silver bullets" have a decidedly "meaner," and "get-tough" edge to them. Policies like failing and holding back students who can't pass a standardized test, working to de-certify or disenfranchise teachers unions, and publicly attacking school boards and school administrators.
Contradictory 'Silver Bullets'
"Silver bullet" approaches can also run in direct contradiction to each other. One side would have schools add more standardized tests, while the other would ban all testing. Some would have schools force teachers to use a "lock-step" and scripted day-by-day curriculum, while the others would put each teacher on an instructional island, having them individually do their own thing. One side says money is the answer to all our problems, while the other works to starve schools into fiscal oblivion.
Taken with a more thoughtful and considered approach, each of the "silver bullets" might have an appropriate role to play, depending on the system and the context. But the problem is that they usually aren't approached thoughtfully or as part of a larger systemic effort. They are blunt force and overly simplistic answers to complex problems that require precision and coordinated solutions.
Each year, national, state and local political decisions heap more and more of these disconnected "silver bullets" on our community schools to create a chaotic swirl of heated, but disconnected, activity. The result is incredibly inefficient and disrespectful of the people working in our buildings.
Eagle County Schools
The educators working in our schools are going to try very, very hard to implement whatever is asked of them. Because of this, policy-makers of all levels must be incredibly careful about what we ask the people in our schools to do.
Here in Eagle County, we develop our strategies by studying the best performing education systems on earth and considering how we might incorporate those lessons into our context. We've seen that high performing systems resolve to put the issue of educating the children above the typical political fray and insist that the focus stay squarely on instruction and equity.
We ask our community for your support in our straightforward, hard working approach to improving education for 21st century jobs. We are working to improve instructional quality and mitigating the effects of poverty. In our county, this direction works for all students. Affluent, high achieving students need the best teachers leading them onward to adulthood. Students struggling in poverty need to be able to check their socio-economic status at the door and have access to the same high standards expected of all students.
Is It Working?
What is important to understand about our approach and how can you tell if it's working? First, we're redefining our hiring policies to explicitly recruit top performing educators from the best educational universities in the region. Second, we're inverting the professional development paradigm so that those closest to the work can tell us what supports they need to address specific challenges. Third, we're looking at ways to modernize the "factory model" of education to be more engaging with today's students. Fourth, we're moving toward one set of high standards for all students, with individualized tailoring of instruction to meet each learner's profile. Fifth, we're looking to integrate technology more fully into our process to accelerate learning.
These are big changes that will pull us into alignment with the top performing schools in the world. It's not the same school we went to, so during the next five to seven years, things will start looking and feeling differently. We know that Eagle County parents and community members understand the difference between hard work and wishful thinking, and we are grateful to be engaged in the hardest, most rewarding work on the planet — educating our community's children.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at email@example.com.