Everyone Changes the System Every Day
Some believe that change happens like this: smart people in universities invent an educational innovation. Policy makers craft funding mechanisms and regulations to promulgate the innovation. Staff developers create clever workshops. Classroom teachers attend the workshops, and the innovation is “implemented”. Researchers then study fidelity of implementation and recommend technical refinements to the process.
In 1973, a young researcher at the Rand Corporation began studying the implementation of four Federally funded school innovation programs. Five years later, she concluded that policy does not dictate practice, that local context matters, that many players exercise agency in the shaping of classroom learning, through a process she termed “mutual adaptation”. Milbrey McLaughlin is now an emeritus professor at Stanford University and The Rand Change Agent Study, published in 1979, has stood the test of time. Other observers of organizational change have drawn similar conclusions. Donald Schon at MIT wrote in the 1980s about the fallacy of the technical-rational theory of change, advancing in its place reflection-in-action. Kevin Dooley has written about the nature of complex adaptive social systems that defy linear change. An entire branch of social science-- systems thinking-- corroborates McLaughlin’s findings. It is widely acknowledged today that organizational change is multi-directional and non-linear.
Still, policy makers, curriculum designers, textbook publishers, and education leaders act as if it isn’t so. Scan the articles and ads from any issue of Education Week: technical trainings, teacher-proof textbooks and software, State Boards creating syllabi that dictate what will be taught. Strategies, driven by a simplistic view of change, are initiated regularly and wind up influencing the system in ways wholly different from what was anticipated. Imagine an eight year old climbing into the cockpit of a commercial jet and pressing the shiniest button thinking, I bet this makes the jet go fast.
To be clear: funding mechanisms, government regulations, assigned textbooks, and central office mandates DO impact the classroom, but not in the ways imagined by those at the top of the system. Human agency has a way of asserting itself all along the path of influence. Any organization is an array of semi-autonomous individuals each of whom can bump an innovation this way or that ensuring the final outcome is nearly unpredictable. Individuals matter. Individual actions matter. Democracy, it turns out, is not just a political ideology, it is a fundamental mechanism of human social organization, whether or not we endorse it.
In Dilbert cartoons, everything always makes perfect organizational sense to that famously clueless manager with the pointy hair. But the workers in their cubicles know that whatever the manager cooks up, actually will make no sense at all in the workplace.
What makes the cartoon so funny is how confident and how wrong the manager is. Dilbert appeals to us because we have all had the frustrating experience of recognizing the stupidity at ground level of policies directed from on high with such swift certainty. And while most of us value sound support and guidance from above, we all legitimately rail against directives that we must carry out contrary to our better judgment.
The history of American schooling could unfortunately be drawn as a series of very funny (and very sad) Dilbert cartoons, with the cluelessness and power of the pointy-haired man growing ever more dire as we progress toward the present. But the pointy haired man is us. He represents the impulse to create a tidy plan in order to serve our own psychological satisfaction instead of the needs and abilities of those impacted by it. The pointy-haired man is the worst sort of bureaucracy, the off-the-shelf school reform “model” ready to be “implemented.” It is the teacher-proof curriculum, the kid-proof lesson plan, the endless conveyor belt of classroom worksheets, and the endless lists of what children should know, annually produced by state commissions, congressional committees, scholars and school committees. It is the notion that good schools may be “replicated.” It is “professional development” by the consultant who blows in, blows hard, and blows out. And in all these cases, it is the systematic theft of the opportunity to think for those whose thinking, thoughtfully deployed (teachers in the classroom), would powerfully enhance their own learning.
We ought to regularly ask, does this practice or that policy, this curriculum or that school reform model really enhance learning or does it just look nice from afar?
For more on this subject, see, The Practice of School Reform: Lessons from Two Centuries. Go to “Books” right here on my website for more information.
The New York State Department of Education reported in August that twenty percent of students in grades three through eight were absent from the annual state test without a “recognized, valid” reason.In New Jersey, nearly fifteen percent of high school juniors refused to take the state exam this spring, according to NJ.com, citing a New Jersey Department of Education memo to Superintendents. In Indiana, the Superintendent of the Year counseled parents to home-school their kids during test week.
In August, the New York Times reported strong “test opt out” movements also in Colorado, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington. United Opt Out, a national umbrella organization will hold a conference in Philadelphia next February. The Opt Out movement is clearly having an impact on the accountability regime that has dominated American education for two decades.
Meanwhile, public officials charged with enforcing test mandates are growing nervous. Their reactions range from denial (New York Governor Andrew Cuomo) to threats (Federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan). On Capitol Hill, Congress is backing off strict testing requirements.
But where do we go from here? The forces against our national testing mania are an odd coalition of libertarians who want “government off my back” along with progressives driven by a vision of education for “the whole child”, and civil rights activists who are split on the merits of testing as a means for addressing inequality.
I believe the way forward is to summon into public prominence the wide array of excellent schools and educational institutions that are virtually waiting in the wings for just this moment. These are institutions that have been pushed to the margins during the last two decades and have quietly, tenaciously, subversively insisted on excellence in the face of the overwhelming industrialization of schools.
If we can inform this opt out moment with the good work being done by such places around portfolios, juried exhibitions and peer review, we stand a chance of moving public education in the direction of high quality teaching and learning for all students. Such practices and the principles that guide them could become the new direction for public education in an emerging post-industrial era. But we need to get the word out. Each of us needs to talk up exemplary schools in our own communities that are already engaged in thoughtful and educationally sound assessment practices.
To help move the conversation along, here are three such schools in my neck of the woods:
Mission Hill School (www.missionhillschool.org) a Boston public pilot school (K-8)
University Park Campus School (www.universitypark.worcesterschools.org) a Worcester public secondary school
Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School (www.theparkerschool.org) a public secondary charter school in Central Massachusetts
There are also organizations that support good work. Here are two examples.
The Coalition of Essential Schools (www.essentialschools.org)
The New York Performance Standards Consortium (http://performanceassessment.org/)
Please do your part by getting the word out about great schools that you know.
We need a social movement to re-make our public schools as an engine of democracy, a source of economic uplift for all our youth, a lever for social justice, and places of joyful learning. We can do this!
Much has been written about the factory-like nature of modern schools and how public schools, co-emergent in the nineteenth century with the industrial revolution, took their organizational cue from the dominant mode of economic production: the assembly line. There’s also a widespread recognition that we need to move beyond the factory model, though, as a society, we lack the resolve to take action. We’re stuck.
I recently read the Omnivore’s Dilemma. The bestselling book by Michael Pollan resulted from his quest to answer the question, where does my food come from? What he found is that, for most Americans, food comes from an industrialized and globalized system of agriculture that is both unhealthy and unsustainable. It relies on monoculture which depletes the soil, which, in turn, requires the input of artificial nutrients, pesticides and herbicides based on petroleum. It crowds large numbers of animals into very close quarters, which breeds disease, which, in turn, requires regular dosing of antibiotics. And because the enormous volume of production drives prices down, the whole system requires government price supports and exerts continuous pressure on producers to increase the scale of every phase of the operation from farm to slaughterhouse to supermarket which, in turn, increases the distance between different phases of the system requiring enormous inputs of fuel to ship resources and products in a crazy back-and-forth zig-zag across the planet. An altogether depressing scenario.
But Pollan, writing in 2004, describes an emerging movement by farmers and consumers to de-industrialize farming by attuning farm practices more closely to the rhythms of nature. Natural grasses replace manufactured animal feed. Rotation of crops and herds replaces monoculture. Local and regional markets replace the global zig-zag, and, in general, a more thoughtful, more respectful (toward nature) ethic guides the work. Ten-plus years after the publication of Pollan’s book, most of us are now aware of this movement and many of us support farmer’s markets and think more about what we pull off the shelf at our supermarket. Where did it come from? What are the ingredients? How was it produced?
I’m thinking the post-industrial movement for sustainable agriculture suggests, by analogy, a way forward for post-industrial education. It can teach us a lot about educating children and youth. By shrinking the scale of operation, the focus in the sustainable agriculture movement shifts from standardization to quality. The sustainable farmer does not look for shiny tomatoes all the same size produced in massive quantity. Instead, she recognizes that her role is to nurture growth not control it. The work becomes sustainable, humane, in tune with natural biologic processes. So much changes: instead of “delivering” education, we create conditions for learning.
Here’s an exercise: try framing your thoughts about education today in terms of a gardening or small-farm metaphor, one where sustainability and respect for natural processes is a guiding principle. Notice whether it changes your frame of mind. And let me know.
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My new book is out from Rowman and Littlefield, “Why Teach? Notes and Questions from a Life in Education.” Why did I write this book?
We’re living through a dark age for education. In the course of 150 years, roughly since the Civil War, we’ve transformed child rearing into an industrial system. We’ve taken a wonderfully complex, intimate, relational, and fundamentally human enterprise and turned it into a system of mass production. In the process, we’ve robbed children and youth of the joy of learning and, with each successive generation, we diminish our creative capacity and collective intelligence as a society. It’s no surprise that we have an economy that’s all-war-all-the-time, enormous income inequality, scandalously bad public health, an unsustainable food chain, deep environmental damage, and a democracy in crisis.
I landed accidentally in teaching many years ago, and from my vantage point as teacher, I began to understand that the priorities for the system were order, control, and a kind of pseudo-efficiency. I decided to do what I could to change the system, or at least my little corner of it. And that’s what I’ve spent the last thirty-plus years doing.
I spent the first part of my career, the first 25 years, starting up new schools, schools that hew more closely to our biological and psychological makeup. Now I advocate for such schools. I observe and write about what I see, and I continue to teach. The audience for my writing these days is mostly other academics, which is okay, but I want to reach a wider audience. Most people won’t read research, but they’ll read a good story. So I’ve used the form of a personal narrative-- a story, my story-- to get at big, important issues in a way people will listen to. That’s my gamble anyway.
This book is a journey inside American education and a story of self-discovery that exposes the damaging impact of our industrialized system of schooling while showing there are other, better, more constructive paths. It is a book for clear-eyed realists who are nonetheless filled with hope and ready to roll up their sleeves. I hope you get as much from reading the book as I got from writing it.
Here’s the link to the book: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781475820355
What Ted Said
Sick from cancer and the side-effects of chemotherapy, Ted Sizer made his way to a meeting with the Massachusetts Secretary of Education. It was 2009, and I was privileged to join Ted and several other educators as we tried for the umpteenth time to make our case about the damaging impact of high stakes testing on students and advocate for more thoughtful assessment practices. Each spoke in turn. When it came to Ted, all he said was “Change the conversation.” There was an uncertain pause. He said it again. “Change the conversation.” The Secretary nodded and we moved on. There were plenty of smart people in the room that day and they all had smart things to say, but there’s just one comment I remember six years later.
We live in a kind of a dark age for public education. All the talk is about punishing accountability metrics, incompetent teachers, big data, and faddish quick-fixes. We ignore history. The privileged classes send their children elsewhere, and pass laws that further harm the chances for other people’s children.
As of 2014-2015, our public schools are majority low income and non-white. Public school is, increasingly, where you go if you don’t have money, can’t speak English or are a person of color.
Ted was right. We need to change the conversation. While the dominant political culture is oppressive, like the European dark age, there are hidden places where good work is being done. I have been fortunate, as an educator, to inhabit some of the hidden places. My writing and my research is about them. Sometimes, like when I walk through hallways of a mainstream public high school, or listen to a radio talk show featuring education policy makers, I feel confused, the same way an Amish man must feel who strays into the big city. So much doesn’t make sense. Under the circumstances, I am tempted to react, to think the opposite of what I see and hear. But if I do that, I am operating within the dominant culture.
This blog will strive to do something different than simply react to the dominant culture. Rather than accepting the terms of the debate, it will attempt to reframe it, to ask different questions, to consider ideas largely ignored by the mainstream. It will attempt to join the conversation and disrupt it. I hope to honor Ted’s imperative.
"Change the Conversation"