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The (only) three ways to improve performance in schools
HGSE Professor Richard Elmore

"You don't change performance without changing the instructional core," states Anrig Professor Richard Elmore. "The relationship of the teacher and the student in the presence of content must be at the center of efforts to improve performance."

Read a presentation summary, or view a brief video presentation from a recent Dean's Weekend event where Richard Elmore describes the significance of the teacher- student-content relationship for school improvement. Elmore warns, "If you can't see it in the classroom, it's not there."

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Richard Elmore pinpoints fundamental tensions between district-based efforts for systemic improvement and the performance-based accountability demands of No Child Left Behind. "We have gotten ourselves into a situation where testing has become the primary lever of accountability and improvement," Elmore says. He cites significant consequences that interfere with our efforts to bring about instructional change:

  • We have vastly underinvested in human capital and resource development. Schools and districts have to figure out exactly what the requirements are for raising skill and knowledge without much guidance, or more importantly, without the resources to do it.
  • States have become agents of the federal government and are headed toward a crisis. There are more schools headed toward receivership than any state can handle. No one has the capacity to deal with the growing case load of low-performing schools.
  • The Adequate Yearly Progress standard is not empirically grounded. We have to generate data about how schools actually improve and start to make accountability policies represent that.
  • People shy away from acknowledging the negative consequences of performance-based accountability. Where are the kids who don't show up for the test? Where are the kids who start 9th grade and don't finish 12th grade? What is the consequence of receiving a curriculum that is based on test preparation versus one that is based on teaching high-level skills?

"These issues don't actually compromise or demean performance-base accountability," states Elmore. "They just pose problems for it – and they're not getting treated as issues of public accountability."

Elmore cautions districts as they wrestle with creating instructional change in this climate, "If you don't have a way of connecting instruction to management, organization, and accountability, you're behaving irresponsibly." He advises focusing on those things that make the instructional core work.

What this means, says Elmore, is there are basically only three ways you can increase learning and performance:

  1. increase the knowledge and skill of teachers
  2. change the content
  3. alter the relationship of the student to the teacher and the content

"The instructional core helps us identify where we're trying to improve," explains Elmore. "The teacher, the student, the content – if you change one, you have to change them all." He elaborates:

"You can't alter the skill and knowledge of the teacher when you stay in a low-level curriculum. If you alter the content without changing the skill and knowledge of teachers, you are asking teachers to teach to a level that they don't have the skill and knowledge to teach to. If you do either one of those things without changing the role of the student in the instructional process, the likelihood that students will ever take control of their own learning is pretty remote."

Given the serious consequences of the current accountability context, Elmore advocates focusing on the instructional core in schools – the teacher and the student in the presence of content. He cautions districts and policy makers, "If you push on an organization and you don't have a theory about how it shows up in teaching and learning, you're basically causing people to do rain dances."

By Susan Henry, doctoral student in Learning and Teaching at HGSE.

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