Remembering Richard Elmore
Updated: Oct 12, 2021
How many people as part of their life’s work, commit everything to a cause, know the odds are too great, yet they do it anyway?
There is much to learn from such people, Richard Elmore is one of them.
Richard Elmore was a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for more than 30 years. For much of his career he dreamt big, focusing on implementing policy to bring about system change at scale. For someone who was extremely passionate about bringing sector wide excellence to fruition, Elmore lamented for at least the last decade that schooling was ‘broken’ as we know it, and couldn’t be fixed. As early as 2010 Elmore was working with innovative organisations (Nu Vu; Beijing Academy in China; Redes de Tutoria in Mexico) who were looking to provide an education focused on high quality learning for students outside of the conventional system.
Elmore had long concluded that the mainstream wouldn’t allow for the deep learning and excellence he desired in every school. Despite this he continued to work in the space, and consistently spent time in schools (particularly disadvantaged schools) supporting them to bring about the improvement they were looking for. Sadly, we lost Richard Elmore in February earlier this year.
This piece is dedicated to Elmore, and I hope schools, networks, regions, and entire systems continue to keep his work front and centre.
Two key ideas Elmore left us with are:
1. Internal accountability trumps external accountability
2. Task predicts performance
Elmore’s definition of internal accountability is when there is alignment between responsibility, expectations, and accountability. In other words, the school has developed the ability to hold everyone to account.
External accountability is something that has become more and more of a reality for schools and school systems over the last 15-20 years (e.g categorising schools based on test scores). Elmore has an interesting take on the notions of internal and external accountability. He argues that if a school doesn’t yet demonstrate internal accountability and is subjected to external accountability it will do more harm than good. Think of when carbon is in the form of graphite.
On the flip side for those schools that have a strong culture of internal accountability, they will become even stronger when external pressures are exerted. Think of carbon in the form of diamonds.
I have first-hand experience regarding what Elmore is describing in terms of accountability.
I was appointed to a school as principal that had unstable leadership for an extended period. The data of the school was that bad that we could have focused on any area as the focus for improvement. At first glance the one piece of data that looked healthy was that supportive leadership was rated above the 90th percentile. However, when you scratched the surface, this reflected that there was no internal accountability. If staff didn’t want to do something they didn’t have to, even if it wasn’t in the best interests of the students. The
supportive leadership was in fact permissive leadership. Prior to my arrival the school had been subjected constantly to external accountability, i.e labelled underperforming, had significant resources provided. All this did was waste money and cause staff to bunker down even further.
Nothing would improve until we developed our internal accountability.
Out of the multitude of options, we decided that reading would be our school improvement focus. Together we studied a key text that was practical, and research based (‘Strategies That Work 2nd Edition’). The expectation was that staff would read an agreed section of the text, trial practice in their classrooms, and then we would collaboratively discuss the implications for pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment. Also, there was always chocolate. Teachers love chocolate.
The collaboration flowed into all areas of the school. Quite quickly the culture changed. At the end of the year, we developed our beliefs and actions as a whole staff for how we teach reading as a school.
This allowed us to build on to that culture in other areas after the success of that first year.
Having internal accountability is desirable and puts you in a really good position as a school, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to get the results that you are after.
‘Task predicts performance’ is another phrase that Elmore is well known for. This stems from his influential work that he called instructional rounds. The key question being ‘if the students did exactly what the teacher asked them to do, what would they know and be able to do?’
Elmore argues that often tasks are “in the sense of cognitive demand, the level of the content, student engagement, student thinking - are actually much lower-level tasks than the teachers and administrators think they are.” So, they think students are operating at a much higher level than they are.
We noticed improvements relatively quickly through our internal measures, but it took longer for that improvement to be noticeable on external, system wide assessments. Over time our professional learning community focused on looking at student work. We would all bring samples and discuss what we thought our students were doing well, what we would like to see improved, and most importantly how we would target our teaching to the areas of improvement. By focusing on this in one area, staff became familiar with the processes, and this thinking was replicated for everything we did.
By continually raising the bar regarding what we thought our students could achieve, our actions reflected our high expectations. Over time this equated to deep learning and excellence.
Revisiting Elmore’s work has rekindled my passion for system wide sustained change that benefits all students. In Victoria we are in a good position to build on the excellence in place, and to scale this across the system.
Developing case studies and resources around internal accountability would be an excellent starting point. Sharing tasks and student work samples across the entire sector will provide clarity on what is possible.
The challenge is great, but I subscribe to Elon Musk’s thinking that “if something is important enough, even if the odds are against you, you should still do it.”