Today’s North American Education Debate is so circular that it’s getting to be tiresome. Surveying the Education Wars at a distance, it begins to resemble a “merry-go-round.” Recent serious contributions such as David L. Kirp’s New York Times column “Teaching is Not a Business” seem to get it half right. Peeling away the layers to get at its complexity is even posing a challenge for perceptive analysts like Frederick (Rick) Hess, curator of Education Week’s Straight Up blog. Few education observers in Canada have the temerity to even attempt a diagnosis let alone offer a prescription.
North American school reformers now routinely declare that “schools are broken and need to be fixed.” Some committed school reform warriors seek to promote charter schools to introduce competition; others embrace “disruptive innovation” to unfreeze a monopolistic education system. Defenders of the status quo in public education respond that students are graduating at ever higher levels and, besides, “education is not a business.” A new breed of futurists wedded to technological transformation are attempting to use machines to implement system-wide “personalized learning.” It’s tempting to say “a pox on all their houses.”
The sad state of the Education Debate is most dramatically revealed in British Columbia public education, where the system is experiencing a protracted ‘crisis’. The gulf separating the Government and the BC Teachers Federation is now a canyon and the total breakdown has all the elements of a “class war” with students as the victims. In this game of brinkmanship, BCTF militants like Tobey Steeves are attempting to depict the conflict as “an encounter” with what Naomi Klein termed the “shock doctrine,” a cruel by-product of world-wide “disaster capitalism.”
It’s time to reclaim the sensible middle ground. More thoughtful educators like Kirp are correct in claiming that “teaching is not a business” and system-wide reforms based upon the business model are bound to fall far short of expectations. Failing to build professional relationships and organizational capacities can and do make or break any —and all –well-intentioned, clearly needed, school reforms.
The real lesson is that system-wide reforms live and die in the classroom. “It’s impossible to improve education by doing an end run around inherently complicated and messy human relationships,” Kirp wisely points out. “All youngsters need to believe that they have a stake in the future, a goal worth striving for, if they’re going to make it in school. They need a champion, someone who believes in them, and that’s where teachers enter the picture. The most effective approaches foster bonds of caring between teachers and their students.”
Education policy reformers have been very slow to grasp what American educator Robert Evans once termed “the human side” of school change. Here’s how it works: School reform initiatives come in waves and seasoned teachers do have a built-in “crap detector.” Most veteran teachers have learned to be skeptical about “faddism” and can often be heard muttering, particularly in secondary school staff rooms , that “it too will pass.” Change in education is threatening because it always signifies “a loss” of some kind, usually infringing upon teacher freedom or autonomy.
Waves of reform disappear as quickly as they arise at school level. When provincial testing, or destreaming, or differentiated learning, or one-to-one student laptops fall short of initial expectations, policy-makers and school managers tend to blame it on “confusion” or “implementation problems.” The severity of the implementation problem, as Rick Hess recently observed, is rarely acknowledged, and even then only when it is too late to turn back.
School reform breaks down and falls apart for a variety of interconnected reasons. It is determined by how complex and technocratic the measure is (blended learning); whether it’s imposed from the top-down (provincial testing); whether the plan is fully baked (personalized learning); whether incentives exist for effective execution (teacher evaluation); or whether, in Canada, the teacher unions are fully on board with the change.
School leadership is a critical factor, particularly in school systems where superintendents and principals play musical chairs. Block scheduling, destreaming, outcome-based-learning, gradeless schools, and the holistic curriculum were all passing fads that attracted rather opportunistic champions. Superintendents and principals who embraced them were promoted upwards, leaving others to make it actually work. More problematic are the “serial champions of reforms” who move from one faddish initiative to another, swinging from student accountability to esteem-building, without missing a beat.
What matters in Canadian education is what happens in our 15,500 schools, spread over 10 provinces and three territories, educating some 5 million children. It is, as Rick Hess reminds us, all about implementation. “Good policy” is too often stymied by poor implementation because we should be paying more attention, at the outset, to the visible and subterranean implementation challenges. Introducing charter schools in Canada outside Alberta is perhaps a good example. What if that good, well-intentioned idea is best not pursued because the “winning conditions” are not present and, in any case, broadening parental school choice can be achieved more effectively through other means.
Why have a succession of North American school reform initiatives since the 1970s come in waves and then disappeared? In pursuing school reform, are we drawing the right lessons from the business world? What can be done to find a sensible middle ground in the struggle to improve the performance of both schools and students? Is it possible for us to overcome that hardy perennial – “bad implementation”? How critical are “organizational capacities” and the teacher-student-parent relationship?