Opinion + Voices

UCLA faculty voice: Education reform is not a zero-sum competition among schools

The best education reforms encourage cooperation and sharing of innovations among all types of schools

UCLA Community school students in class
Jennifer Young/UCLA

The success of the UCLA Community School shows how a partnership among UCLA education researchers, Los Angeles Unified School District and community organizations can work to improve local schools.

Louis Gomez
Marcelo Suárez-Orozco

Louis Gomez is the MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning and chair of the department of education at UCLA. Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco is the UCLA Wasserman Dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and a distinguished professor of education. This op-ed appeared Feb. 4 in the Huffington Post.

At a time when 65 percent of Americans believe the country is heading in the wrong direction, we stand solidly behind our schools. Our national optimism, even in pessimistic times, sees the schoolhouse as the workhorse of a better tomorrow, the bedrock of opportunity. By large margins we love our local schools and trust our teachers, according to the research. With a near unanimous voice, Americans say continuing to college is important to them.

We also rest comfortably in the belief that our children's schools look, and feel like, schools of our youth. This is far from today’s reality on the ground.

A generation ago, the standard fare of K-12 education consisted of public schools with a smattering of private and parochial schools. Today, the genome of American schooling is dizzyingly complex. Public schools now come in a myriad of forms including pilots and magnets. Charter schools, likewise, come in many flavors, as do independent schools and religiously affiliated schools, along with a healthy dose of individual, and organizationally led, home schooling alternatives. No other country on earth has the extensive variation in schools and schooling that we do. In every niche of this vast ecology, schools are innovating.

With globalization, mass migration and growing inequality, America’s schools are asked to do more than ever before. Our schooling diversity could be a game-changing asset, if we could learn how to mine it for gems of improvement. Alas, we are not learning from our diversity. A broad range of actors — philanthropists, policy makers, academics, parents and, of course, educators — are weighing in, often in less than optimal ways, on how to make our beloved American schools better.

Yet, we pit one categorical solution over another. Some say the prescription for improvement is to redouble our efforts to make traditional public schools better. Others suggest we need to increase our efforts to create more magnet and pilot schools within the public context. Yet others conclude that schools would be made better if parents were allowed to invest public dollars in private or religious schools. Still others swear that we need to create many more charter schools; Exhibit A is the (Philanthropist Eli) Broad Foundation’s plans for a truly massive investment to move half of the children in Los Angeles’ public schools to charters.

Whatever the prescription, the assumption is that one category of schooling is fundamentally better than all others. Charters for many have emerged as the silver bullet. If charters are better than public schools, then creating more charters will de facto enhance outcomes for America’s children, so the theory goes.

This is wrongheaded.

There are many examples, across the country, of great schooling, in traditional public, charter, independent, religious, and home schooling categories. Likewise there are examples in each category, including charters, that are abysmal. If we put these examples under a microscope we will see complexity: rachitic charters alongside vibrant religious schools, along with underwhelming independent schools, along with public schooling facing a powerful undertow in ever more segregated, poor and dystopic neighborhoods.

The current binary logic for improvement unfolding nationwide but above all in Los Angeles — charters vs. publics does not serve us well.

How do we get beyond simplistic silver bullets and dubious binaries? How do we use the unique diversity that is the ecology of American schooling to the advantage of American children? One way forward comes from work spearheaded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In “Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better,” the authors, including one of us, suggest another path. First, we ought to become more adept at learning from practice to improve practice. Improvement science offers powerful tools now proven in disparate contexts — from enhanced aviation to safer operating room procedures. Improvement science can also be used to help schools arrange themselves to accelerate their learning and organizational improvement.

In our country all education is local, so a local example will do. UCLA has created a laboratory of diverse schools from which we are learning and sharing the know-how. Our approach starts with practitioners who share significant traits. First, they have identified important problems of educational practice that they have in common. Second, they are eager to share their professional know-how to create engaging and effective learning environments for children. Third, they are in partnership with university researchers to study and take to scale successful practices. The network includes the UCLA Lab School, one of the oldest lab schools in the nation, the UCLA Community School in Pico-Union Koreatown [a pilot school], and four Tie-In [Together in Education] public schools in West Los Angeles. A new public Community School in South Los Angeles will be added to the network and others will follow.

The challenge in urban school reform is to find ways to make effective know-how transparent and shareable. We have seen that a collection of local teachers, in partnership with university scholars, can be masterful in figuring out how to solve thorny problems: for example, teaching English language learners the academic language to do 21st century math. Universities, working as facilitators, can help schools put useful knowledge in relief, adapt it and share it across sites. Our aim is nothing more and nothing less than schools learning from schools through purposeful collaborative networks of practitioners, academics and designers. The 21st century university should not only be creating original insights in its educational labs. It should also work to identify innovation in local communities of practitioners and bring it to scale. We believe that communities of schools working together will almost always come to better insights than academics or teachers working alone no matter how many philanthropic dollars are invested.

Public universities should be in the business of catalyzing local networks of diverse schools working on common problems. The challenge is to animate a deep commitment to urban schooling, working side by side with teacher practitioners to take joint responsibility and shared authority for outcomes in schools. In a brisk five years, the UCLA Community School saw a tripling in college going rates, in a population of largely poor, immigrant, first-generation students. The results: Over 90 percent of the last graduating class is now heading to college.

Other university assisted schools are springing up across the country. The expertise exists in many schools of education to assist practitioners in bringing their know-how forward, improving it, and sharing it. The key to improvement lies not in placing a bet on one category or another, but placing a big bet on well-conceived practice and faith in practitioners. Local practitioners manufacture success and failure every day. Let's share successes and learn from the failures.

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