Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more… - William Shakespeare
Systemic change is a process, not an event. It occurs over time and often with great reluctance on the part of those involved. Individuals are often resistant to change as with change comes the unknown. There is comfort to be derived from situations that are easily anticipated, processes that have become rote and procedures that do not create any cognitive dissonance. The larger the system, the more difficult it is to propagate substantive transformative change. Those responsible for the creation of educational policy in this country have fallen victim to this inertia and, rather than change our course, continue to put forth the same policies that have proven to be ineffective in reforming what they believe to be a failing system. However, what is becoming readily apparent is that those policies reflect an outdated ideology and fail to take into account the very different culture in our country today.
One example of the dramatic impact which failure to understand and adapt to an altered environment can engender occurred in 1914. That year marked the beginning of World War I. World I saw extremely high casualty rates as military commanders utilized strategies and tactics that were tried and true, yet failed to reflect the realities of the modern battlefield. Technological improvements in the tools of war like machine guns, airplanes and chemical weapons created situations where massed infantry charges upon fixed defensive positions led to massive numbers of casualties and a bloody stalemate on the Western Front. It was not until the military leaders recognized the change in circumstances, adapted their strategies and tactics, and developed new weapons that the stalemate was broken.
I bring this up because this country finds itself in a similar situation today. Thankfully, not with respect to war and weapons, but rather in its approach to the way we are educating our children. Much talk and energy is being directed at the idea that our educational system is failing to prepare our students for the world they will enter upon graduation. However, rather than adapt to the new reality of the cultural shift our country is experiencing we continue sending our students “over the top” and into the heavy fire of outdated “standardized testing” and “accountability” tactics that have failed to achieve the results our leaders intended. Rather than recognize the error of the polices that drive the system, they choose to blame the educators and schools for failing to implement those policies correctly. This is the equivalent of a military commander in WWI blaming the troops for failing to take a position through a frontal assault while rushing headlong into heavy machine gun fire. It is time that instead of blaming educators for a perceived failure, policy makers should listen to their concerns and value their professional opinions.
In this environment, reluctance on the part of educators is often perceived as resistance to change when it is frequently a reflection of their professional assessment that the new initiatives are not as valuable as the ones they are replacing or do not work to further local objectives. It is thus that the world of state and federal policymakers collides with the local (district, school, and classroom) world of front-line implementers as both strive to achieve their own priorities and goals. Consequently, after more than a decade of the current educational reforms, achievement gaps still exist and schools are still consistently labeled as failing. Policy makers need reevaluate the theory of action which controls the creation of these policies rather than just propagating more of the same type of policies if we are to expect a different result.
In our country today, big business is driving the corporate education reform agenda in this country and they are attempting to push business solutions for the problem they have identified as students not being prepared to enter the workforce. Their solutions are grounded on the assumption that educators are lazy and students need to be pushed harder. Out of that belief comes our current reform efforts that focus on increasing “rigor” and holding teachers “accountable” rather than focusing on what is actually developmentally appropriate for students and what teachers need to shift their practice. This is flawed thinking as simply making something more difficult and telling someone to try harder will not lead to achievement of the desired goal. For example, I am a rather large middle aged man and I can’t dunk a basketball. I’ve come to accept that fact and realize that I have talents in other areas. Raising the rim, giving me lessons on technique and telling me to try harder is not going to change that, yet in the minds of policy makers that same strategy is how we will improve public education.
For over a decade now, these underlying assumptions have driven reforms in this country with minimal gains shown in the very metrics that policy makers have put forth to measure success or failure. These “reforms” have been detrimental in that they’ve gotten in the way of the work that needed to be done, hijacking the conversation and diverting attention and resources away from where they are needed. True professional development is a victim of the current educational reform environment. The irony is that the very processes by which policy makers are attempting to stimulate growth and change are acting in concert to inhibit and slow that change in our schools. Mere compliance is draining let alone actually implementing these initiatives with fidelity.
I recently had a conversation with a policy maker who said that he was strongly in favor of expanded learning time for students. It was his belief that this would help to dramatically improve student outcomes. He was surprised when my response was that I didn’t want my students for a longer period of time; I wanted my teachers. The United States already ranks among the top in the world for the length of time students spend in the classroom on a yearly basis. Come in to any classroom at the end of the day and teachers and students are drained. Learning, done well, is exhausting. Teaching them more is not what is needed, we must teach them in smarter more thoughtful manner. Rather than have students for a longer period of time, I want my teachers for extra days so that we can have time for meaningful professional development that is designed to change the way teachers are instructing our students. Teachers need time to collaborate on new strategies, develop engaging lessons and work to maximize instructional resources to shift our teaching to meet the needs of today's students and our society.
Time is the greatest casualty of this “reform” era. Time is a precious commodity and educators never have enough of it. All the bureaucratic business type reform initiatives take time to train the staff, time to implement and time to prove that we are complying. We need to stop throwing billions of dollars the problem in an attempt to force teachers to prove what they are doing, rather we need to support, with appropriate resources, the time necessary to change what we are doing. What we truly need is time for professional development that consists of more than just training teachers in methods to ensure bureaucratic compliance. All too often we get caught up in a defensive cycle where we are too busy fighting against something to fight for something. It is time for that to change. It is time to stop sending students and educators “unto the breach” and fight for the time we need to work with experienced educators to identify the instructional shifts necessary to effectively teach today's students.