Lessons Learned from a Career as Practitioner and Scholar

As a high school history teacher for 14 years, an administrator for five years, a district superintendent for seven years, and, finally a university professor for a quarter-century, I have worked in organizations my entire professional life. Here are some lessons I have learned about working in schools, districts, and higher education.

I learned (and, yes, re-learned again and again) that organizations have two kinds of problems:tame and wicked. Tame problems are familiar situations facing both policy makers and practitioners, and for which they have a large repertoire of solutions. Tame problems often involve procedures (e.g., too much classroom time taken in collecting lunch money) and relationships (e.g., dropping a high school student because of too many absences). In most districts, policy manuals lay out step-by step ways of dealing with routine problems. Seldom, however, do those policy manuals or repertoires deal with wicked problems.

Wicked problems are ill defined, ambiguous, and entangled situations packed with potential conflict. For policy makers, wicked problems arise when people compete for limited resources (e.g.,since we cannot fund both the new phonics program and smaller class sizes for K-3, we will have to choose), hold conflicting values (e.g., the superintendent believes that project-based and inquiry driven ways of teaching will eventually lead to higher test scores, but the school board demands immediate results that require teachers to spend more instructional time preparing students for tests).

Unlike tame problems, wicked problems cannot be solved; they can only be managed. For this reason, I called them dilemmas.


Dilemmas require anguished choices between competing, highly prized values that cannot be simultaneously or fully satisfied.  Consider the options facing those who seek small high school  in districts with large comprehensive high schools. How, for instance, do you break up a big high school into small autonomous learning communities and give parents choices of where to send their children, and still provide efficient school-wide services and retain traditional norms of behavior (e.g., sports, clubs, food service, disciplinary procedures, counselors, etc.) Or consider the abiding dilemma over student test results: How do you raise state test scores  quickly enough to satisfy both supporters and critics of small high schools when growing such innovations is a long-term process yielding a variety of difficult-to-measure student outcomes going well beyond test scores?

Surely, tame problems can involve some degree of conflict. But dilemmas are far messier, less structured, and often intractable to routine solutions. Faced with conflicting but highly desirable options, as a teacher, administrator, and policy maker I often constructed compromises—”good enough bargains”—rather than neat all-encompassing solutions.

Think of a mouse negotiating a maze in search of Gouda and settling for cheddar. That is, when we cannot get the best, good enough is OK. These good-enough bargains, however, to my surprise time and again, had to be renegotiated repeatedly as circumstances and people changed. That is why, more often than not, as a high school teacher, superintendent, and professor I ended up managing recurring dilemmas, not solving problems.


Yet it remains rare for policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and taxpayers to consider this simple distinction between problems and dilemmas. Too often the notion of intractable dilemmas erodes hope and curtails efforts to improve schooling. Not for me. I came to accept the realities of unrelenting conflicts in reforming districts, schools, and classrooms without succumbing to despair or losing hope that better schooling for rich and poor children could happen.

I also learned an important lesson that at the core of every school reform is a solution for a supposed problem. Embedded in that solution (a.k.a. reform) is one or more value-laden beliefs. Many decision-makers latch on to a reform, say, charter schools, mayoral takeovers of big city districts, iPads for kindergartners, or blended learning. These buzz-creating, media-hyped reforms are policy shells that have buried within them a pearl of an idea (posing as a belief or value) fashioned to solve a perennial dilemma. Value-driven beliefs, then, (camouflaged as solutions) do matter when policymakers launch reforms and mobilize-taxpayers, parents, and other constituencies to embrace competing values buried within the reforms.

If value-laden beliefs buried within reforms need to be parsed publicly as dilemmas, so does putting them into practice. Even well planned policy implementation trips over the unanticipated. Most policy makers, I also learned, see implementation as a technical process best handled by subordinates who can work out details, write regulations, and fix problems that arise. As a result, then, policy makers often ignore the practical, emotional, and political realities that sabotage reform-driven policies on their journey into schools and classrooms. They then scramble–to coin a metaphor–to find glasses they think they lost without realizing that the “lost” glasses are perched on their noses.

If some reform-driven policies are ill conceived that is one thing—after all some reforms are simply bad ideas (e.g., paying teachers solely on the basis of their students’ standardized achievement test scores). Other reform-driven policies, however, contain a few good ideas (e.g., equity provisions in No Child Left Behind) but decision-makers fail to anticipate the inevitable value clashes and practical logistics that will occur when dilemma-laden policies enter schools.

And that myopia about on-the-ground implementation is what repeatedly (and shamefully) drives policymakers to grasp at fairy tale solutions like kissing frogs to get princes. I have learned that fairy tale solutions are, well, dreams of make-believe, not real, organizations.



Filed under leadership, school reform policies

8 responses to “Lessons Learned from a Career as Practitioner and Scholar

  1. agrudjr

    Posted this on FB and shared with my college. Should be of interest to anyone working in an organization…everyone.

  2. Pingback: Lessons Learned from a Career as Practitioner and Scholar | Education3.0 | Scoop.it

  3. Pingback: Lessons Learned from a Career as Practitioner and Scholar - Larry Cuban | Professional Learning for Busy Educators | Scoop.it

  4. John

    This post reminds me of a “polarity management” session I attended as a school principal. It influenced how I see and communicate about so-called “problems” now. My experience teaching–and the illusion of control it encouraged–did not prepare me for managing the innumerable ambiguous situations I encounter as a school leader. As I look back at my first years as an administrator, I recall the frustration I experienced in trying to solve problems that, in retrospect, were unsolvable. Understanding this was the beginning of some sort of managerial wisdom…and greater empathy for the principals who came before me.

  5. Pingback: Lessons Learned from a Career as Practitioner and Scholar | Larry ... | college and career ready | Scoop.it

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