Some Thoughts about Change, Innovation, and Watching Paint Dry

Let’s face it, in the U.S. change is far sexier than stability. Words like “innovation,” “revolution,””disruption,”and, of course, “reform” have replaced the 19th century common word of “progress.” With so much evidence about war, civil war, torture, poverty, in the world, the concept of “progress” is a hard sell. But not the idea of change. Especially, technological change. From iPhones to Chromebooks to driverless cars to controlling all home appliances with clicks on smart phones, Americans will line up outside stores days in advance to buy the next new thing.

Stability, continuity, day-after-day routines hardly excites Americans or makes films (except perhaps Andy Warhol creations). Stability is, you guessed it, ho-hum, prompting open-mouth yawns. No pizzaz, no cheerleaders, no drum rolls accompany calls for more stability in daily routines or in life. Political leaders from U.S. presidents to local school board members promise to turnaround the status quo. Particularly, when the topic is tax-supported, compulsory public education for children and youth ages 6-16 across the U.S. For the past thirty years, civic, business, and philanthropic leaders have targeted U.S. public schools for their mediocrity, as compared to international economic competitors. Calls for “transformation” of school governance, curriculum, organization, and instruction have rolled off the tongues of politicians, CEOs, and superintendents. What policymakers,  practitioners, parents, and researchers too often overlook or ignore is the dual purposes (and paradox) of compulsory public education in a democracy. Tax-supported public schools are expected to conserve and change.

Consider public opinion polls on what schools should do for U.S. children and youth. One illustrates the rich array of collective and individual purposes that parents and taxpayers expect schools to achieve. In order of importance, the top five purposes were as follows:

*Prepare youth to become responsible citizens;

*Help young people become economically sufficient;

*Ensure a basic level of quality among schools;

*Promote cultural unity among all Americans;

*Improve social conditions for people.[i]

The numerous and competing goals would not have surprised education scholars who have documented these public expectations for children attending schools. In the late 1970s, John Goodlad and associates conducted a major study involving 38 urban, suburban, and rural schools in seven states across the country. Their “Study of Schooling” examined the historic goals of U.S. schools and those they found stated in district, state, and school documents. There were 62.[ii]

Of course, I do not need to lean on public opinion polls to assert that public schooling’s socializing role remains a powerful expectation among parents and taxpayers since schools historically have been agents of preserving civic and moral values. Go into any preschool or kindergarten classroom and see how the teachers train young children to take turns, wash their hands before eating, to talk things through rather than hit one another–you get the picture. For older students, what they should learn in class has prompted battles over school prayer and ugly spats over whether “creationism” or “intelligent design” should be taught in high school science courses.

Historically, public schools have been expected to both conserve community values and traditions while simultaneously giving children and youth the knowledge and skills to make changes in their lives, communities, and yes, in those very values and traditions they absorbed. Some commentators see this as the ongoing conflict between the school’s traditional purpose of transmitting the dominant culture and the purpose of becoming a modern institution in step with the ever-changing society. That dual purpose of public schools has been often lost in current and past reformers’ enthusiastic embrace of schools becoming modern change-agents solving grave national problems.

This conflict in values prizing both continuity and change help explain the laundry list zealous reformers and ardent supporters of the traditional purposes have compiled about change and stability in public schools.
*Schools are resistant to change;
*Schools adopt one fad after another
*Schools change at a glacial pace;
*Schools move at warp speed in embracing innovations.

The contradictory complaints go to the paradox of what parents, voters, policymakers, and practitioners expect of schools and what seems to happen after reform-driven policies are adopted. Even after many changes are introduced into districts and schools, abiding routines and practices persist. Some social scientists call this phenomenon “institutional stasis” and “dynamic conservatism” where the Siamese twins of change and stability keep the organization in balance. In public schools it is not change or stability; it is both at the same time. Coping with this paradox of reform requires policymakers and practitioners to recognize the conflict embedded in the two-fold function of tax-supported public schools and then to—I use a metaphor here–master the art of jiu-jitsu in bringing opposites into harmony in a gentle, supple, and gradual way, a task that few policymakers achieve.

Educators often get flummoxed when they are expected to preserve community and national values while simultaneously being asked to make changes in school organization, curriculum, and instruction in order to solve larger economic and social problems harming the nation. Repeated criticisms of public schools over decades arise from this misunderstanding among fervent reformers of the public school’s basic role to both conserve and change.

Transmitting the dominant values and beliefs in the culture is far less sexy a proposition–more like watching paint dry–than “disrupting,” transforming,” and “revolutionizing,” public schools.

____________________________________________

[i] Lowell Rose and Alec Gallup, ” The 32nd Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools”Phi Delta Kappan, September 2000, p. 47.

 

[ii] John Goodlad, A Place Called School (New York: McGraw Hill, 1984), pp.50-56.

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13 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, Reforming schools

13 responses to “Some Thoughts about Change, Innovation, and Watching Paint Dry

  1. JoeN

    Stability is one of the least understood and most powerful characteristics of genuinely excellent schools. It is one of the main reasons many of the world’s most entrepreneurial and wealthiest citizens, place their children in UK boarding schools. It is also accounts for why some of these schools have been so successful exporting their model of schooling abroad.

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    Unfortunately, as you point out Larry, stability also has minimal appeal to either policymakers or politicians, usually of the liberal left, who regard such schools not as the models of excellence they really are: but as barriers to progress.

  2. Wilson Lambert

    Hi Larry

    I don’t know what to say! I mean I am speechless? I always have more to say than I need to. But that comment “watching the paint dry” has me in serious reflection. And I want to tell you, that in deep reflection I am not a proponent of charter schools, but it is time to dismantle public education as we know it. If one is on the front lines of a public school and urban public schools in particular, then one has a clear and acute understanding of the systemic processes and abundance of school structure that actually inhibits learning. It is my firm belief that a majority of “peculiar” phenomenon associated with the public school house has it’s origins in the bureaucracy of school administration and their refusal to teach in the classroom. And I do not mean an AP Class, or an honors class, but have to teach some classes as part of their workload in a high needs classroom. It is within the confine of this arena where one can truly separate fact from fiction. Thank you again Larry……………….

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Wilson.

    • “If one is on the front lines of a public school and urban public schools in particular, then one has a clear and acute understanding of the systemic processes and abundance of school structure that actually inhibits learning. It is my firm belief that a majority of “peculiar” phenomenon associated with the public school house has it’s origins in the bureaucracy of school administration and their refusal to teach in the classroom. And I do not mean an AP Class, or an honors class, but have to teach some classes as part of their workload in a high needs classroom. It is within the confine of this arena where one can truly separate fact from fiction.”

      I could not agree more, Wilson. My opinion extends from the secondary and elementary school system to teacher preparation programs in higher education. As with anything in life, the further you are from the action, the less timely and less informed your decisions. Simple and true. If anything, this fact seems to support the teacher led school model.

      • Wilson Lambert

        Hi Dave

        I would like to know more about the teacher led model? I have read some articles/very little on the subject and their is not a lot of research on the topic, but when examining the historical role of public schools (e.g. superintendent) these are positions that were created over time in response to politics. I am in support of teacher led school models but I would like to add that it needs to go a lot further in regard to policy/school governance. School boards as we know them need to be changed significantly. This could happen through the introduction of new legislation in this regard. It is my firm belief that school boards need to be comprised of educators that serve for a certain length of time. Most school boards are comprised of parents with axes to grind, and special interest groups within the community with self-serving hidden agendas. By implementing boards of education comprised of licensed educators within a district a lot of the politics can be eliminated, and the business of improving student achievement and school experiences of students can begin. Thanks for sharing…

      • I do not have any specific research on teacher-led schools, however, I never let that stop me. Google is my best friend, as is JSTOR, when I have access. I believe boards of ed need former teachers, a current student or two, parents, and community members as members in the spirit of our founding fathers.

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