This is the season of commencement speeches. Most are forgettable but a few go beyond the familiar homilies of this annual ritual. Alexander Russo wrote about one that triggered many thoughts about my half-century involvement in school reform. Russo is a journalist who publishes “This Week in Education.” He also wrote about the turning around of Los Angeles’s Locke high school in “Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors:Fighting for the Soul of America’s Toughest High School.”
The best and most important commencement speech of the year was given by author Jonathan Franzen, not Conan O’Brian or Stephen Colbert. Franzen’s remarks at Kenyon College in Ohio were witty and smart like those of Conan and Colbert, but they were also much more intensely personal and human — and more powerful as a result. Even more importantly, they contained a message of great importance for educators and school reformers about how to tolerate such a daunting, heartbreaking endeavor.
In his speech, which the New York Times thought good enough to publish as an op-ed, Franzen delves into a key but usually unexamined issue around us: the psychological challenges of caring deeply about an issue that may or may not seem interesting or relevant or fixable to the rest of the world, and that may (probably) break our hearts. In Franzen’s case, the issue is the environment — trees and grass and clouds and all that. For many of us, the issue is education.
As Franzen tells the story, he was drawn to environmental issues from the start, but he quickly found that being an environmentalist was frustrating and uncool and seemed hopeless. So he spent many years trying to avoid thinking too much about it. He went off and did a lot of other things (“The Corrections,” “Freedom”) and generally tried to avoid getting overly involved in environmental issues. It was too much, and generally going so badly. But Franzen could only not care for so long, especially as he became more and more fascinated with the lives of wild birds. The birds became a point of entry for his return to environmentalism, an opportunity for him to move beyond his need to be cool (the world of “like”) and his fear that saving nature was a hopeless task.
People often ask me how they can stand working on education issues. “It’s so depressing,” they tell me. “Nothing ever seems to work.” Reading through Franzen’s remarks helped me understand a bit more about my own on-again, off-again fascination with public education, the cynical and silly ways I sometimes write about school reform, and — even more importantly — the struggle so many of my friends and loved ones (and the general public) have talking about education. The topic is so conflictual, so overwhelming, so depressing and (still) not particularly cool. Most of the time it devolves into a simplistic discussion of news headlines or individual experiences. As a result I generally don’t bring education up outside work hours. Or maybe I just need a break.
But it occurs to me — just a few moments left before my cynicism and self-preserving defensiveness prevent me from continuing along these lines — that admitting to the difficulties of loving education might be part of the solution, might make working on improving education more bearable in the long run. And maybe if we can find small but powerful points of access for ourselves and others — the local school, school lunches, a mentoring program — then we’ll have a lot more allies and a lot less shrugged shoulders.
The importance of small, focused programs that are accessible to a much broader range of people and whose progress can be measured with some chance of success isn’t a new thought for many of you, I’m sure, but sort of a new one for me and others of my ilk, who constantly wag our fingers at programs (TFA, DonorsChoose, Harlem Children’s Zone, Big Brothers & Sisters) whose scope is obviously too small and narrow to make a difference on the aggregate level.
Most of all, Franzen captures the challenges of caring deeply about something, about loving something outside yourself. Doing so will likely break your heart but is still somehow worth it.
Russo’s thoughts about Jonathan Franzen’s graduation talk and reforming schools got me thinking of what I tell students about the history of failed reforms, exaggerated policy talk, and repeated cycles of reform. How depressing, they say. How can I stand it? How can I keep working to improve schools for all children?
My thoughts intersected with Russo’s but traveled in a very different direction when I wrote about them in an earlier post.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak to a group of Stanford University graduate students who were completing a joint Masters’ degree in education and business administration.
Many of the 18 students sitting around a seminar table had taught a few years in urban schools through Teach for America. Those who had no direct experience in schools had worked for consulting firms with contracts in major urban districts. Smart, savvy about organizations and passionate about reforming schools, the students wanted to hear my thoughts about reform that I had extracted from nearly a half-century of experience as teacher, superintendent, and researcher. I offered four lessons. Since I have written about each of these lessons in earlier posts I will compress the lessons and cite the earlier posts for those readers who want more information.
I learned that:
*it is essential to distinguish between reform talk, adoption of reform-driven policies, and putting reforms into practice ( see https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/the-inexorable-cycles-of-school-reform/
* I learned that reform talk and policy action in the purposes, curriculum, instruction and organization of schools often occur in cycles but putting reforms into practice is slow, incremental, and erratic. (See https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/the-inexorable-cycles-of-school-reform/
* I learned that turning to public schools as a solution for larger economic, social, and political problems has become a national tic, a peculiar habit, that U.S. reformers have
- I learned that both continuity and change mark the path of public schools over the past two centuries (See https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2009/08/16/how-do-teachers-teach-2/
I spent about 30 minutes going over these lessons and then I opened the floor to questions.
After a few clarification questions, a visibly agitated young woman recounted her experience as a TFAer in an urban district and her journey to Stanford for conceptual and organizational skills (and credentials). She wants to return to a similar system t0 make organizational and instructional changes.
Then she asked her question: “Larry, look around this room. It is filled with people who want to reform failing schools. We will have the knowledge and skills and we will work hard. But your message to us is that reform talk occurs in cycles, reforms come back again and again, reformers stumble a lot and when changes do occur they are small ones. Well, how can I put it: you don’t give me and my colleagues here too much hope. I am depressed from the lessons you have learned over so many decades. What advice would you give to all of us?”
I was neither surprised nor put off by the question. Over the years as a professor–David Tyack and I taught a course on the history of school reform from which came the book, Tinkering toward Utopia–as a conference keynoter and in many discussions, students, colleagues, and conferees have raised similar questions.
The upside of the student’s comment is recognizing that emotions and passions buried in heart-felt values of equity and helping urban low-income and minority students drive much school reform. That is a plus often overlooked by policymakers who prize values of effectiveness and efficiency and cite cost-benefit tradeoffs and return on investment (ROI). Rationality on steroids. Emotions, however, are what get practitioners, not policymakers, over the inevitable potholes on the road to reform success, not whether it is scientifically proven, logical, or even efficient.
The downside is that I questioned her premise. Wanting to do good for urban youth, hard work, some experience, and a Stanford degree were somehow enough to turn around schools. I claimed that my knowledge of previous well-intentioned designs and reformers who also worked hard but experienced small victories and tasted the salt of many failures was instructive to contemporary reformers. That I may have triggered the blues in some of these wannabe reformers seemed unfair and unrealistic to my questioner.
So what advice did I give this room filled with Reformers-R-Us?
Even though nearly all these students accepted the accuracy of what I said–many had read similar accounts of previous reforms– I sensed that the questioner wanted reassurance that their time, energy, and commitment will pay off later in successful reforms. I could not (and did not) reassure her. Nor could I give her unvarnished hope.
What I did do was talk about the importance of knowing realistically what faces anyone undertaking an adventure that contains the possibility, nay, probability of failure. I compared the launching of a school reform to climbing a difficult mountain. Responsible people want a guide. Someone who can tell the adventurers where the crevices are, what false turns to avoid, where the icy spots are and to be honest about the possibility that they may have to turn back before reaching the summit. That accurate knowledge of the difficulties, honesty, and humility are crucial to reaching the summit and implementing a school reform. Hope for success rests in expertise, problem solving, and courage but–and this is an especially important “but”–climbing that mountain (implementing that reform) is still worth the effort even if success (however defined) is not achieved. That is what I told the students.
Will working on school reform, as Russo said, “break your heart?” Perhaps. But I hope not. Broken-hearted reformers are a sad lot who too often turn their backs on revitalizing a core democratic institution.
My preference is for those who believe in the small projects that Russo suggests and stay in the work of school improvement even after experiencing defeats. I have high regard for those who have learned much from the pitfalls of organizational change; they understand that school organizations have plans for reformers. I honor those who respect the men and women who do the daily work of teaching and choose to work closely with them. I admire and recognize those who have the courage to keep pushing on after disappointment and heartbreaking failure. Persistence is what matters, not a broken heart.