For at least 15 years, federal efforts at “school reform” have focused on “fixing” the schools; now it is focused (fruitlessly) on teacher evaluation. One thing that is obvious: schools can’t be “reformed” by federal legislation. They can surely use federal money to reduce class size and to reduce spending gaps between districts and schools. But federal policies and laws like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have generated more disruption than school improvement.

Aurora Moore received her doctorate from Stanford, where she studied school improvement strategies. She concluded that the school is the wrong unit of analysis. A school is a building, a “pile of bricks.” In this post on Julian Vasquez Heilig’s blog, she argues that federal policy has missed the most important variables in successful school improvement. While writing about “the myth of school improvement,” she does not say that it can’t be done and never happens, but that the federal government and “reformers” (privatizers) have rejected meaningful strategies and chosen to deploy failed strategies.

What matters most for genuine school improvement is what she calls “context stability” and autonomy. The irony is that federal policy and mandates actively weaken and destroy what matters most.

She writes:

“Variable 1: Context stability

The first variable is something that I call context stability. Context stability is a combination of low teacher turnover, stable leadership, and a demographically consistent student population. Context stability is also about having continuity in curriculum and materials, programs and program staff from year to year –or something that researchers studying Chicago schools called, “coherence.” If you dig deep into the research on effective and improving schools you find out that all of them had continuity in staff, leadership and student demographics during the period studied. Staff and leadership stability was a condition of effectiveness.

“Anyone who works in schools today can tell you that context stability is very uncommon, especially in schools deemed “in need of improvement.” Teacher turnover is an ongoing problem, particularly in schools serving large percentages of students living in poverty where the average teacher stays less than five years. And ironically, the federal School Improvement grants have convinced many district administrators that it’s a good idea to move school principals around. And in many locales, particularly urban ones with open enrollment policies and large immigrant populations, student demographics can change dramatically from year to year.

“And the real rub is that context stability itself doesn’t last forever. Most research about effective or improving schools is done in a 1-5 year period. Give me an effective school or improving school and wait three years. The effective principal or effective program will have gone, and it’ll be back to square one.

“Variable 2: Autonomy

“The other important variable we failed to consider is autonomy. During the previous eras of school reform people working in schools had much more control over their curricula, their technology and their programs than they did today. The research on Chicago’s improving schools was conducted during the 1990s during an unprecedented experiment in local school control. Nowadays districts and states often dictate what materials teachers can use, what programs they can implement, and even what page to be on in a pacing guide. Some researchers say that schools should be responsible for “crafting coherence” but in my experience, that’s more pie in the sky idealism than reality, particularly when district-school administrator power dynamics are involved.

“If you really think about it, schools are just buildings that have a constant and complicated flow of policies, programs and people moving in and out. School administrators and teachers have very little control of that flow of information, people and practices—they can only manage those things within the confines of district, state and federal policies.”