Every school reform is a solution to a problem. How a problem is identified (e.g., unilaterally, multilaterally) and who does the framing of it (e.g., policymakers, practitioners, parents), of course, matters. The cartoonish superintendent (or elected official) sees the problem in test scores declining the longer students are in school. His solution: allow 3 year-old toddlers to start school.
Poking fun at the screwy logic of this solution to an identifiable and well-known problem is easy to do. What’s harder is to figure out amid the never-ending flood of school reforms past and present, why some are adopted by districts but stayed mired in a protected corner of the system. And other adopted reforms spread to all schools in a district.
District officials are on the look out constantly for reforms that solve problems they face in school governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction. But these niche-based adopted programs (e.g., charters, Montessori schools, problem-based learning, competency-based learning, International Baccalaureate) persist over time, are admired in what they do–which is why districts embrace them–yet remain marginal to what other schools in the district do daily. It is puzzling.
Before offering my explanation for why this situation is common nationally, past and present, I want to take a crack at the common myth (neither my first nor last time) that schools never change or its companion fairy tale that schools mightily resist change.
Since the middle of 19th century, school governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction have changed in response to external pressures to alter what is done daily. Here are a few examples:
*Shift from the rural one-room schoolhouses to urban age-graded grammar schools in the 19th and 20th centuries..
*Increased state and federal funding of schools beginning in the 20th century.
*From “old” to “new” curricula every decade or so.
*Dumping bolted-down desks and replacing them with movable ones by mid-20th century
*Less whole-group teaching and more small-group classwork and individualized instruction in elementary school classrooms beginning in early decades of 20th century.
*Moving from privately sponsored late-19th century kindergartens to publicly subsidized ones throughout 20th century.
*Establishing comprehensive junior and senior high schools in rural, urban and suburban districts by mid-20th century.
*Creating vocational schools and courses of studies by mid-20th century.
*Since the mid-20th century, adding new personnel to schools such as counselors, special education staff, teacher aides.
*From old technologies of showing films, running videos on classroom monitors, film strip projectors, slate blackboards to interactive white boards and personal computers. Since the early 1990s, nearly all students and teachers now have access to, and use of, laptops, tablets, and desktop computer in classrooms.
I could list many more but these examples should clearly establish that districts, schools, and classrooms have slowly and steadily adopted reforms aimed at improving governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction since tax-supported public schools came into existence. In each instance, external reformers in league with educators defined a problem that had to be solved in governing, funding, organizing, and determining content and pedagogy in schools. Their solutions were a particular set of reforms.
Myth that it is, for anyone in authority to claim today that schools seldom change or actively resist change in the current climate of frontal attacks on facts and truth can be called out for spreading disinformation. Whether these changes improved desired student outcomes is an entirely different (and important) question.
Although the generic accusation that schools do not change remains a convenient fairy tale for disgruntled reformers, I still have to explain why school systems past and present have adopted certain admired reforms that inhabit nooks and crannies of the district organization yet fail to spread to the rest of the system. The rest of the post offers a multi-part explanation for this puzzling phenomenon.
- School districts are complex, open, and adaptive systems that are politically vulnerable to external forces. Such systems adopt new ideas and practices to defuse criticism, maintain funding, and keep the organization politically stable with its stakeholders (e.g. parents, school staffs, district office administrators, school board, taxpayers and voters). See here, here, and here for more about complex, open systems .
Simply listing the stakeholders in a school district suggests the intertwined human relationships, the many moving parts in a school district, the necessity of system leaders to be politically astute, and the loose connections between what parents and school boards want and what teachers and students actually do in classrooms. The word “complexity” often hides the unpredictability inherent in the larger environment (e.g., natural disasters, changes in political and organizational leadership, economic recessions) and periodic external pressures for change as conditions change (e.g., World War II, competition with Soviet Union during Cold War) and one generation of educators and parents ages while another prepares to replace it.
Niche reforms do not spread easily in a complex system where leaders cope with frequent unpredictability, massage varied constituencies, and are uncertain about consequences of disturbing existing relationships among participants.
2. At least three conditions have to exist or be put into place for a district to adopt an innovation and then spread throughout the system. First, policymakers, administrators, or teachers define a problem they believe they have and adopt a solution that is consistent with prevailing norms. Second, there exists an active political coalition of those outside the system in support of the reform. Third, a system infrastructure to help both administrators and teachers implement the reform (e.g., district staff development, access to experts, released time, instructional materials available, district office support) is built and put into place.
Look at the above list of reforms that were once niche reforms and, in time, spread through districts. Educating five year-olds, for example, was a late-19th century solution to the problem of educating very young children in poor, immigrant neighborhoods who went unsupervised. As the economy grew and employers needed more workers during and after World War II, more women, including mothers, were hired. Child care then (and now) became a national imperative and kindergartens were added to the existing organization of the age-graded elementary school.
The kindergarten spread throughout public schools as a solution to societal problems. It was consistent with the norms of taking children from an early age and having students traverse the grades until they graduated. Moreover, kindergarten summoned enormous political support from policymakers, employers, many working fathers and mothers, and educators. And gradually, an infrastructure of college certification for early childhood practitioners, district staff development, and curriculum materials were put into place (see here and here).
3. Niche reforms reduce conflict over competing ideologies. The history of school reform has been an ongoing political struggle between rival views of how best to teach and how children best learn. A short-hand and distilled version of each ideological camp would be child-centered and subject-centered. The former have been labeled “progressives” for decades and the latter have been called “traditionalist” or “conservative.” Hybrids of both have also emerged over the years.
Today, instances of each ideology are on display in school systems. A subject-centered reform such as Advanced Placement courses went from a niche reform in middle- and upper-middle income high schools from the 1960s to the 1990s until it spread to largely low-income high schools over the past two decades. Advanced Placement courses coincided not only with teacher norms of sorting students by achievement but also merged with the majority beliefs of parents that schools must prepare students for college and career.
Now consider the progressive reform of problem-based learning pushed by many parents in elementary schools where students collaboratively work on projects that they defined and put together. To avoid system-wide conflict over limited resources going to a district-wide reform and side-stepping divisive splits among parents and teachers over whether this progressive approach is better than the traditional subject-centered one in general use across a district, school boards and superintendent adopt this child-centered reform and place it in particular schools where both teachers and parents supported this approach to teaching and learning. Conflict avoided.
Politically, then, school systems have the discretion to place a reform in a protected niche or kick-start its spread throughout the district. Although the struggle between these competing ways of seeing teaching and learning have been part of the history of schooling for over a century, the center of gravity in nearly all districts for these decades has been subject-centered or “traditional” schooling. Social beliefs of most Americans–but hardly all–has been the concept of a “real school.” A “real school” is an organization that vests authority in the teacher and principal, establishes policies for academic and student behavior, offers an age-graded curriculum, assigns work to students weekly, administers tests, and grades individual students’ work. Some historians describe such organizations as containing a “grammar of schooling.” Historians and policymakers recognize such age-graded schools with their “grammar of schooling” as the mainstream way of schooling children and youth for the past century.
So when parents and teachers approach district officials for a new program that has all the earmarks of a child-centered approach, the response of those officials is often to park it on the periphery of the district in a number of classrooms or a school or two.
So this tripartite explanation offers an answer to the puzzle of why some reforms do not get adopted and how some persistent and admired ones move into protected niches within the system but remain peripheral to the mainstream form of schooling. The explanation also shows how a few reforms eventually spread from their nooks to the entire system.