“We know that what you write about are the right things to do. We understand the need for an educational experience that is personalized and relevant, that capitalizes on the innate curiosity and creativity of children. And, we get that the role of ‘teacher’ must change if we are to adequately prepare kids for their futures. Heck, we even know how to implement many of the initiatives you propose. So, why aren’t we doing it?”
That was the tenor of a recent discussion I had with two retired educators. I respect them both very much. Their careers spanned decades, including classroom and administrative perspectives. As our conversation unfolded, two primary themes emerged.
First, it was suggested that the size and scope of the educational bureaucracy makes innovation nearly impossible. In analyzing that premise it’s easy to see that we have come a long way on the slippery slope from the local control that once epitomized American public education. Gradually, that spirit of local autonomy has been eroded by government interventions and mandates imposed under the guise of improving educational outcomes. This is especially true of the carrot and stick funding apparatus utilized by the federal government, and the trickle-down accountability passed to the states, who then, in turn, place pressure on districts where it eventually lands at the local school house. From No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, we have left many children behind and are far from reaching the pinnacle of our collective potential. In spite of the resulting lack of progress seen from these government mandates, they have a stranglehold effect on local innovation. Building from the bottom has been replaced with blessings from the top: blessings that come wrapped in spools of red tape. It is this red tape, and the resulting fear and apprehension, that stands in the way of applying the wisdom that we posses to implement what we know needs to be done to provide kids the education they truly, and justly, deserve.
The second theme that arose during our conversation was the thought that the effective implementation of useful strategies is difficult, “it’s just too hard.” And, because of the challenges associated with implementation, the tendency is to revert back to what is familiar.
I can’t argue with the notion that a change in practice is difficult. Of course it is, as is anything that is worth while. But the real challenge of implementation in the field of education lies at the very psychology of expectation that is deeply imbedded in the profession. We tend to see innovation or the implementation of new ideas or practices as additive. “Here’s the new great idea. Add it to your arsenal of practice.” How many times has that message been conveyed? Teachers understandably hold their breath when they know their administrators have attended a conference or training and will be bringing back something new to try. These new ideas, no matter how profound or how infused with potential they may be, are usually dead on arrival. Not due to unprofessionalism, but, instead due to fatigue. The culture of American public education expects teachers to balance very full plates of ideas, practices and accountability. It is already a very heavy burden, and when the plate gets heavier as more and more gets heaped upon it, it becomes “too hard.”
For any strategy to have a chance, for any idea or concept to take hold, requires an end to our additive practices. We must adopt an “add one, take one” approach. In other words, if we are to expect teachers to embrace an approach toward any degree of fidelity, we must grant them permission to stop doing other things. To avoid breaking the camel’s back, we must take a straw or two away as we add a new one. It’s only fair. It’s only reasonable. It’s only respectful.
It is my vision, my dream (hopefully not a fantasy), that an expectation once communicated to me becomes the law of the land. What I was once told by a district level administrator was this: “You are responsible for making sure that your students master the standards. How you get them there is up to you.” What a freeing statement! What an empowering directive. Consider these possibilities.
What if . . .?:
Systems and bureaucracies would exist to support innovation, rather than impede it.
Local entities might be empowered to employ strategies that work for their unique communities, enjoying the autonomy necessary to truly serve these communities.
Professional judgement reigns above governmental mandates.
Standardization would move to second place behind personalization.
Will it be hard? Damn straight. Will it be “too hard?” Not if we stop trying to serve the priorities of many masters; focusing, instead, on the one before us - the kids. What they need. What they deserve. While challenging, it will be work that is not deemed “too hard.” Rather, it will be characterized as professionally invigorating.