"This is exactly what happens when you rush into big, 'disruptive' changes without thinking about them or fully understanding what you're doing. You break things that weren't already broken and you make messes."This is not an original thought to me. For one, it's been said over and over again by many more knowledgeable about education than I am. For example, look at Larry Cuban's recent post about turning around urban schools and Paul Vallas, comparing wiser marathon turnaround superintendents to the more impetuous sprinters:
In many instances, sprinter superintendents follow a recipe: reorganize district administrators, take on teacher unions, and create new schools in their rush for better student achievement. They take dramatic and swift actions that will attract high media attention. But they also believe—here is where ideological myopia enters the picture—that low test scores and achievement gaps between whites and minorities are due in large part to reluctant (or inept) district bureaucrats, recalcitrant principals, and knuckle-dragging union leaders defending contracts that protect lousy teachers from pay-for-performance incentives.
Such beliefs, however, seriously misread why urban district students fail to reach proficiency levels and graduate high school. As important as it is to reorganize district offices, alter salary schedules, get rid of incompetent teachers and intractable principals, such actions in of themselves will not turn around a broken district. While there is both research and experiential evidence to support each of these beliefs as factors in hindering students’ academic performance, what undercuts sprinter-driven reforms in these arenas is the simple fact that fast-moving CEOs fast-track their solutions to these problems, get spent from their exertions or create too much turmoil, and soon exit leaving the debris of their reforms next to the skid marks in the parking lot. Swift actions certainly garner attention but sprinters quickly lose steam after completing 100 meters.
Exactly. So where else did I come around to this way of thinking? Because, let me tell you, it does not come naturally to me.
1) I learned this from my parents. My father is a very cautious and thorough person who doesn't buy a toothbrush without researching it first in Consumer Reports. My mother has worked for thirty plus years as a civil rights lawyer and school finance expert in DC. She has witnessed change and disruption over and over again in the DC Public Schools--so much so that she's seen some of the same changes tried two times, sometimes by the same crop of people. It's not that some changes aren't needed, but first we must ask: How they might these changes work? Have they been tried before? If yes, to what effect? What do the affected communities think about these changes? People like her try to say:Yes, we tried that in nineteen such and such and it was a disaster. Um, yes, that needs to be changed but what are you going to change it with that hasn't been tried before? The school communities were really upset the last time that happened. The reformy response: History? Who needs it? Democracy is over-rated.
2) From the great school leaders I have worked for. This is why I don't argue when reformers (of any stripe) point out how much school leadership is crucial. The best principals and administrative leaders I worked for went about making changes carefully and deliberately with the input of their faculty and staff. I remember my first year at one high school was also the new principal's first year. The ESL teachers there (including me) were really pushing him to make some changes right away and he said, "No, I'm going to observe and learn about how things work already and then I'll see what needs to be changed." He was right. The next year he did make some changes. I didn't agree with all of them and they weren't immune to political considerations, but the transition was so much smoother than it would have been otherwise.
I remember when DC mayor Adrian Fenty came in and hastily replaced Clifford Janey with Rhee. The local community was jarred by the way Fenty did this (locking him out of his office, freezing his e-mail account, not getting input from the public or the City Council, etc.) but not one person said to me that it wasn't time for him to go. I remember saying, well, even so, shouldn't Fenty observe and see how things are working first before he makes such drastic changes? I was thinking of that school principal I had worked for.
3) I live in a very conservative area of Virginia. Sometimes, it's like a foreign country. There are many things that don't jibe with me, but sometimes there are advantages. They are ssslllooooowww. Which means in education that they haven't instituted big changes without taking their time, though this is changing as the Tea Party slash and burn mentality is alive and well here right now. They didn't do whatever's trendy just to do it--they skipped the whole ed tech boom and invested in what has been thus far a very successful technical and trade high school instead (not that we don't desperately need updated technology and textbooks now, but that's a different story). They don't throw money at problems (although now they seem to be with-holding money at problems). All of this has prevented the hasty, "disruptive" thoughtlessness that pervades so much modern school reform, though as I said that is changing somewhat with the similarly minded "break everything" Tea Party presence.
Before I end, I do want to acknowledge that there is something invaluable in the urgency of a we-can't-wait-for-change-we-have-to-do-it-now modus operandi. There's certainly urgency to move, but just because you're not sprinting doesn't mean you're standing still. The problem is that in modern education reform, as with the Tea Party, there's not much slowing the sprinters down, especially when they are fueled by gobs of dollar bills.