For Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, innovation seems to mean grabbing the lessons from schools with records of high performance and grafting them on to problem schools. Finding “what works,” adopting it, spreading it around. Why not call that what it is: replication?
Replication is a worthy effort. But ‘new, here’ is not the same as ‘new, anywhere’...
But replication should not be left undefined, as if it's easy to "find what works, adopt it, and spread it around" so to speak. There's a large danger that all you'll do is invent cargo cult education, the education version of cargo cult science.:
In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he's the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land. Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they're missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea Islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. (RP Feynman, Caltech commencement, 1974)
Cargo Cult education seems to be all the rage in lots of communities. Sure, districts could just start "grabbing lessons from high performing schools" but that won't make the students suddenly read or write. They can follow the precepts and the form of schools that actually teach kids, but they're missing several essentials: students who already read, write, and do arithmetic at or above grade level. Unless they understand what's underneath the "lessons of the high performing school" (the high performing parents, the high performing teachers, the high performing students) then it won't matter. Unless the "lessons" they grab are that they need teachers who already know classroom management skills and content, need solid curricula that can be built to mastery, need ability grouping rather than differentiated instruction, need schools that already enforce discipline and control their students' behavior, need raised expectations for all students, and more, then they will be missing something essential.
And is it any easier to explain to a school district how they have to arrange things so that they get some teaching in their system than it is to explain things to the South Sea Islanders?