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Conspiracy Theory

The discontent with “school as is” is palpable, not just in the blogosphere, but throughout the press. From Bill Gates plans for high school reform to Alvin Toefflers suggestion to tear it all down to the voucher movement to the excesses of NCLB, the call for school reform is as loud as I have heard it my 30 years in education.

So why, with all these very smart people thinking about and advocating for major changes in the educational system, does so little (positive, anyway) seem to happen?

James H. Nehring in  "Conspiracy Theory: Lessons for Leaders from Two Centuries of School Reform." (Phi Delta Kappan, February 2007 - members only online) attempts to answer this question. Nehring has had a variety of school leadership roles including starting three public high schools and has some realistic answers.

He identifies “six conspirators against thoughtful school practice:”
1. The tendency to view schools as factories. “the intellectual and social development of children is vastly more complex than the production of goods, and to the extent we think of schools this way, we diminish conditions for learning.”
2. The tendency of community fears to drive school activity. “situations that ought not be governed by impulse -  situations such as school governance, which ought to be driven by thoughtful deliberation – fear leads inevitably to decisions that are impulsive and reactive.”
3. The tendency to impose plans that look great from above and make little sense at ground level. “decisions made at the top that fail to take into consideration their effect at the point of impact are likely to have unintended consequences that are antithetical to an organization’s central mission.”
4. The tendency of the system to crush promising innovation. “a tendency on the part of school leaders to assess new programs not by their effectiveness but by the degree to which they fit within the existing system.”
5. The tendency of schools to say yes to all legitimate requests. “the tendency to try to be all things to all people is that we end up doing nothing well.”
6. The tendency to promote favored groups to the detriment of others. “to the extent that we advantage those groups that are already advantaged, we erode the foundations of democracy and civil society.”

I’ve seen those conspirators in action. They, among other things, keep everyone K-12 in a school building from 8-3, devise state-wide computerized tests that prevent kids from using the computers for research and communication, and block social networking sites because of hyped-up news stories. I am sure you can think of other examples where these conspirators are at work in your organization.

To be fair, I have participated in the conspiracies a time or two myself. Thankfully Nehring ends the article with some practical lessons for today’s school leaders. I will try to take his advice to heart.

Other conspirators that are out there waiting to be disclosed?


The Oath of Brutus

Gavin Hamilton, 1763-64
Oil on canvas, 213 x 264 cm
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven


Alert from ISTE

Posted here on behalf of ISTE: 

WEBINAR:  Teaching with Digital Images!
I wanted to make you aware of a high-interest webinar to be conducted by ISTE on Wednesday, February 21.  Featuring the authors of one of ISTE's most popular publications, Teaching with Digital Images: Acquire, Analyze, Create, Communicate.  Learn more and register at <>  ...  lower-middle of the homepage.  I hope you will register and participate.

Many thanks,

Don Knezek


Travelling with Sacagawea

I recently returned from a trip to northeast Florida where I did some work with the St. Johns and Clay County schools - really nice people who arranged to have the temperatures there  high enough to thaw this Minnesotan out. The Clay County dinner was exciting since I got to speak about the importance of school libraries and their impact on student achievement not just librarians, but to administrators, department chairs, and  school board members as well. It's always fun to be able to preach those not already in the choir. We need to do more of that as a profession. I'm pretty sure we've already convinced ourselves that we are important.

I took my Garmin GPS to use in the rental car again on this trip. I've nicknamed its female voice Sacagawea and she did a fair job of getting me where I needed to go. I ask her to guide me to the following locations:

  • My hotel in St Augustine
  • Clay County High School in Green Cove Springs
  • A school office building in St Augustine
  • The downtown public library in Jacksonville
  • The Jacksonville airport

Of the five locations, Sacagawea was unerring on three of them, and I could have relied on her exclusively. One, Clay County sacagawea.jpgHigh School, was located on a state highway and Sacagawea has problems with addresses on highways and roads and I never could get her to even admit there was such an address. Going to the St Augustine school address, she routed me a couple blocks west, a few blocks north, and then a couple blocks back east right onto the same street I started on. It didn't look like the scenic route and I don't give Sacagawea credit for having a sense of humor so I have no idea what that was all about. In downtown Jacksonville, the taller buildings made getting a satellite signal difficult.

As much as she is really handy when she works, I don't think I will be relying on Sacagawea alone anytime soon. Only getting three out of five trips right is not nearly good enough. I'll continue packing my MapQuest directions and consulting the cheesy map from the rental car company. Which leads me to ask the bigger question: Just how reliable does a technology have to be before one is willing to rely on it?

In an earlier posting, I suggested teachers demand that any technology they use work 99% of the time. Is that an overly high expectation? Analog telephone systems brag about 5 nines reliability - pick up the handset and there is a 99.999% chance the thing will be working. That means out of an entire year, the phone system is down less than nine hours.

Before a teacher ventures into the lab, how reliable does it need to be? Is a 90% uptime acceptable? Over a two week period and ten classes, if things aren't working one of the class periods will a teacher still use it? I don't know.

I thought our district had been heading toward that 99% network/Internet reliability mark  with the network being down less than 90 hours throughout the year. Then the "denial of service" attacks started last week and have been overwhelming our firewall ever since. We still have Internet connectivity, but is seems about 1/10th as fast as normal.  Teachers are already saying, "the network can't be trusted." How much ground will we lose on this one?

I am packing Sacagawea for my trip to the ISTE board meeting in Santa Fe this weekend. But I'll also make sure I have a road map.  I am only willing to trust Sacagawea's artificial intelligence so far. After all, the operative word in "artificial intelligence" is artificial.