Metaphors are shortcuts for understanding complicated concepts: Time is money. The mind is a computer. Each metaphor powerfully illuminates and enriches an idea. Which metaphors come to mind when districts implement reforms to improve classroom practice and increase student learning? The common (and inaccurate) metaphor is a well-oiled chain with many links. A more apt one would be spaghetti.
Links-in-a-chain metaphor derives from districts as hierarchical organizations. School boards set policy for the schools.They hire the district superintendent to implement policies. The superintendent appoints principals to convert those board-approved policies into school actions. Principals expect teachers to put board policies into practice in their classrooms. Teachers, the gatekeepers to classroom learning, respond to those policies and teach students the content, skills, attitudes, and behaviors. Then students, the final link in that chain, display what they have learned in homework, discussions, quizzes, district exams, and required state tests.
The metaphor of a chain with links running from the school board to superintendent to principals, teachers and then to students seemingly describes how a policy the school board adopts ends up in teachers’ lessons and student homework.
Consider New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg got the state legislature to eliminate the elected school board and give him control of the schools. He appointed a Chancellor and through that school official commands the school district. The Mayor said: “there is a direct link from the teacher’s desk in the classroom, right to the mayor’s desk in City Hall.” For political rhetoric, it is a great one-liner but , truth be told, school decision-making in New York City, Fargo, North Dakota, and Los Altos, California doesn’t work that way.
The supposed command-and-control chain of authority from a mayor or a school board to classroom have many links (mayor=superintendent=district office=principals=teachers=students), but influence doesn’t always flow downward from the top. Sometimes it flows from the bottom up. Sometimes, teachers get rid of principals; sometimes principals do the opposite of what district administrators seek; sometimes students don’t do homework. Moreover, other important factors such as incidence of family poverty, race and ethnicity of enrollments, size of district, and history of reform in the city gum up the chain metaphor. Finally, in far too many instances, policymakers’ assumptions about the desired reform are simply mistaken. The literature of policy implementation records far more failure than success in altering what teachers and students do daily.
If you are still unpersuaded that the chain metaphor may not fit a school district, think of all those states such as Florida, Texas, and California where governors, legislatures, and state superintendents have mandated policies (e.g., new tests, flag salutes, anti-obesity programs) reaching into schools and classrooms. State superintendents send out policy regulations to district school boards and superintendents who then have to figure out how to put them into practice who then inform their principals–do I need to continue?
Some readers may have already anticipated that I will offer the U.S. President and Congress as the next set of policymakers since No Child Left Behind became law. Even Rube Goldberg would laugh at the chain metaphor stretching from the White House to a Missoula, Montana kindergarten.
The policy chain, then, between a U.S. President, state governor, school board, superintendent, district administrators, principals, teachers, and students is hardly like privates snapping to attention to their sergeant. It is more like wet strings of spaghetti that cannot be easily pulled apart. The entwined pasta and the crooked paths between policymakers and teacher lessons become a major challenge. Pushing a strand of spaghetti along a zig-zag, even meandering, series of paths not one well-paved roadway may give policymakers heartburn and angst but at least it is a metaphor that describes what happens when policymakers implement reforms seeking changes in classroom teaching and student learning.
The next posting will look at some policies aimed at changing teaching practices and increasing student achievement that make the metaphor of a pasta far more apt than a chain.