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