I put a dollar in a change machine. Nothing changed. George Carlin, comedian [i]
The quip echoes a disappointed reformer eager to improve public schools and classrooms but coming up with zilch. The one-liner suggests that change and its flip side, stability, are inextricably tied together. Just as a shadow cannot exist without light, change and stability cannot be separated from one another in organizations. Constancy and change, as another instance of yin and yang, helps explain why so often well-intentioned leaders often fall on their faces after adopted policies aimed at altering what happens daily in the nation’s classrooms end up unimplemented. Smart, energetic decision-makers frequently miss the importance of seeing both continuity and change at work in classrooms, schools, and districts. Like George Carlin, they insert a dollar when they adopt policies and are disappointed when they see little change.
The embrace of change (one can substitute “progress” or “improvement”) as an unvarnished good, particularly in public schools, is understandable in the U.S. The idea of change is highly valued in the culture and daily life (e.g., high-fashion and automobiles get re-worked annually, re-inventing one’s self is common, moving from one place to another is a national habit, standing in line overnight to buy the most recent technology is unremarkable). Change is equated with progress toward material or spiritual success (or both). Opposition to whatever planned change is proposed in a family, workplace, school, or community is often clothed in negative labels such as “resistance” or “supporting the status quo.” [ii]
Improving education as a worthy goal in of itself has fueled myriad reform efforts over the past century. Reformers from the political left and right—each seeking different goals for U.S. schools–have assumed that public school officials and practitioners often oppose designed changes to keep things as they are. That assumption is in error.[iii]
The organizational concept of “dynamic conservatism” involving both continuity and change to maintain a tenuous balance in classrooms and schools comes into play here. Institutions often fight and embrace change in order to remain the same. Families, hospitals, companies, courts, city and state bureaucracies, and the military frequently respond to major reforms by adopting those parts of changes that will sustain stability.
Consider, for example, school districts where administrators add new courses on critical thinking to meet reformers’ demand for 21st century skills. Or teachers urging students to bring their laptops to class to do Internet searches, take notes, and work in teams to make PowerPoint presentations to class. These teachers have made changes in how they teach while maintaining their usual order of tasks and activities in lessons. They “hugged the middle” between traditional and non-traditional ways of teaching. [i]
Reform-driven policymakers, however, dead-set on redesigning classrooms and schools scorn hybrid teaching practices. They want transformation, not some cosmetic changes. Institutional stability is dysfunctional, they argue. It keeps worthy fundamental changes at arm’s length. Such policymakers see schools as complicated organizations that need a good dose of castor-oil rationality where incentives and fear, not habits from a bygone era, drive employees to do the right thing in schools and classrooms. [ii]
When policymakers intent on improving schools err in viewing schools as complicated rather than complex systems, hurdles multiply quickly to frustrate the turning of reforms into practice. Too many decision-makers lack understanding of “dynamic conservatism” in complex organizations or understand it and choose to ignore it because they see these systems as ineffective, even pathologically unworkable, and in need of re-engineering.
In adopting reforms that will jolt the system sufficiently to substantially alter teaching and learning, policymakers have mistakenly grafted practices borrowed from business organizations onto schools (e.g., zero-based budgeting in the 1970s; “management by objectives” and “restructuring schools” in the 1980s; pay-for-performance).
No surprise, then, that policymakers treating complicated systems as complex ones in adopting and implementing school reforms–have triggered both active and passive parent, student, teacher and administrator resistance.
Analyzing the idea of “dynamic conservatism” at work in complex systems leads to a deeper understanding of why teaching over the past century has been a mix of old and new, both continuity and change. Change occurs all the time in schools and classrooms but not at the scope, pace, and schedule reform-driven policymakers lay out in their designs for reform. Sadly, such policymakers fail to understand the complex interaction between stability and change in nearly all organizations. In this failure of understanding lurks the many errors that decision-makers make in repeated efforts to transform schooling, teaching, and learning.
[i]“Funny Comedian Quotes and Videos” at: http://funnycomedianquotes.com/funny-quotes-and-jokes-about-change.html Retrieved March 10, 2015.
[ii] Robert Nisbet, The History of the Idea of Progress (Piscataway, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1995); Henry Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education, fourth edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995).
[iii] For a recent and typical example of this genre of critique see Jeff Livingston, “3Ways to Radically Remake U.S. Schools and Education,” U.S. News and Report, February 5, 2013.