Let’s suppose the picture below represents the possible states schools can be in, with the peaks being "good" places to be and the valleys being bad places to be. We don’t really know yet what variables we are even representing with this picture, in fact it is likely that the picture itself would be better represented in 20 or 30 dimensions, as there a huge number of factors which affect how successful schools are.

Peaks and valleys

(For those of you who are interested, the equation of this curve is z(x, y) = sin(3x) + cos(2y) + 1.5sin(x) – 3sin(0.5y) and it was created using GraphCalc)

The first thing which is clear from this picture is that there are a lot of ways to be a good school. No one formula works, no single arrangement of the variables corresponds to the best solution. Similarly there are a unfortunately lot of ways to be a bad school. 

The next thing I notice about this picture is that it’s not easy to be at the top of one of these peaks. Make a small nudge in policy, lose a key teacher or administrator at your school, and you can quickly move from a peak to a valley, and your students suffer. The valleys are hard to move out of because of the inertia of a bad school and the energy required to overcome that inertia. Educators can literally feel like Sisyphus, pushing their school out of a valley only to see it collapse back down again with a change in district support, funding, or policy.

Worse, this picture changes over time and the peaks and valleys don’t remain in the same places as external pressures push on schools. Outside pressures from society can have huge influences on school. Think about what schools would look like if the Internet had never been invented. Would they need to change that much? What about if the civil rights movement hadn’t happened?

It is also equally possible that two people from different schools could be standing on different peaks and not recognize that each person works in a wholely different but equally successful school. Or that two people could be in different valleys, and what works to improve one school is completely unsuccessful at another school.

The key message here is that there is no one single formula to improve a school. All standardizing curriculum and increasing accountability in schools will do is shift schools in the same direction on this graph. This will work for some schools, and fair at others, and can potentially push successful schools out of a peak.