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Tom Wilson

Practice-Based Inquiry®

Brings Solutions to Education Reform Dilemmas


The Problem

Thirty years have passed since American public schools were publicly declared a "national risk." The growing pressure on principals, teachers and students is now overwhelming, but the results are meager. While most think that American student learning must dramatically improve, only a few still think that current policy pressures on schools are effective. Many conclude that current reform initiatives are detrimental to better learning. 

Two recent groundbreaking analyses of this major national policy failure have set new directions for how to assess schools to spur better education for students.

In Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform (May 2011), Marc S. Tucker compares the effectiveness of education reform policies of the United States with those of Canada, Finland, China, Japan and Singapore. During the last 20 years the United States joined company with these nations in seeking major reform of our national education systems. But, the results show that the United States lags well behind all of the others in generating positive results.

We went down a different road. None of the successful countries adopted our central reform initiatives: standardized testing, tight school accountability or charter schools.

Tucker sums up what he sees as a major theme in what the other countries did do that we did not do. Their attention was on the skills of teachers and not just on student test results:

The careful attention to the development of skills in diagnosis and prescription, in the development of effective lessons, in the adjustment of instruction to the actual needs of students, under the extended and intensive guidance of master teachers, has no counterpart in the American experience… The most important aspect of their training is skills in diagnosis and prescription, based on a firm knowledge of the relevant research.  
Tucker 2011, p. 19

In The Ordeal of Equality: Did Federal Policy Fix Our Schools? (2009), David Cohen and Susan Moffitt recently probed in depth the effectiveness of federal policy (as exemplified in the No Child Left Behind legislation) on school practice. They concluded that the huge mismatch between what the federal acts (since the 1960s) have required local districts and schools to do and the capacity of local districts and schools to do it effectively led to worse local practice for providing good education. Click here for reference.

In 1992 Catalpa's principal partner, Tom Wilson, began a four-year study to consider whether the 150–year-old tradition of English school inspection provided new solutions for American school reform. Tom had worked in leadership positions in three projects to generate better American public school education at the local school level. Partly because of closely tied research efforts, each project stimulated national interest about how to best reform schools. (1963-5: Cardozo Pilot Project in Urban Education, Cardozo High School, Washington D.C.; the Chicago High School for Metropolitan Studies (Metro), Chicago Board of Education, 1969-74; and the Coalition of Essential Schools, Brown University, 1985-92.)

Tom's early curiosity about the conduct of school research and the value of the knowledge it provided for improving student learning grew into his central professional concern. Over the years, he became convinced that much of the methodology behind school research was poorly thought through, often resulting in results that raised major questions of validity and usefulness.

In 1992 this concern led him to England to carry out a year long field study of English Inspectors at work to see if a different history generated a different tradition of assumptions. As he reported in Reaching for a Better Standard; English School Inspection and the Dilemma of American School Accountability, he found that the methodology behind school inspection was both different and important. In 1994, NEASC (the New England regional association that accredits New England public schools) commissioned Tom to observe their accreditation school visit. He found that, in spite of several distracting problems, the underlying way an accreditation team of visiting peers came to understand the quality of what was taking place in a classroom was very similar to the process behind the English visits.

This congruence and the opportunity afforded by the Rhode Island Department of Education led Tom to become Chief Consultant to a project whose aim was to supplement test scores with legitimate information about actual practice in schools and classrooms. This led to the founding of Catalpa Ltd. in 1996.

Working with numerous practitioner and theoretical colleagues, Catalpa has worked for fifteen years to develop the concepts and technology to shape the professional peer visit into a rigorous and useful methodology for school assessment. (Click here for detail about Catalpa's experience.)

Now the federal call to "ramp up school reform" includes a race to improve techniques for the conduct of school research.  The resulting race to define huge school data sets and computer logarithms for analysis is not so much aimed at correcting faulty scientific assumptions regarding how to measure practice, but at seeking a "precision" that might at least provide a better cover, and thus rationale, for continuing with the unquestioned, century old assumptions. 

PBI is not a finished product, but it is good enough to press into service. It will not only raise productive new questions for how to learn about schools, but it will also contribute to the resolution of several current dilemmas in public education, including:

Improves Student Learning »

Implications for School Reform and Research »