I want to start a series of posts about the prospects of education reform, combining what I know about organizational and change theory. I know, boring. I promise to try and make it interesting. I will start by introducing you to one of my favorite theorists.
Joan Woodward was never married to Paul Newman, that was JoAnne. Joan was a researcher from England who helped change the way we think about organizations. She challenged the popular notion that there was one right way and that one size fits all. She was a proponent of contingency theory: that activity determined structure. In the late 50s this was a radical notion, especially coming from a woman in a field dominated by men. One of the ways that she looked at organizations was by assessing their flow, looking at three basic activities: inputs, throughputs, and outputs. I love the simplicity of this model, which is why I used it to introduce my graduate students to organizational theory; it’s simple, comprehensive, and a great starting point for understanding the silliness of many reform efforts.
Whenever education reform gets politicized the conversation usually centers around inputs (resources) and outputs (assessment). Soon the rhetoric starts flying about funding and test scores. So, why do we have such a lopsided focus on inputs and outputs? There are three basic reasons. First, they are the most politically expedient and immediately recognizable to voters. Tax payers want to know what they are getting for their money and politicians have been known to exploit society’s concerns on those two issues when they fit an election cycle. Secondly, the two easiest things to influence in Woodward’s framing are inputs and outcomes. You want to improve schools? Throw money at them, or raise the bar on test scores. Surely, if the process that doesn’t work now is given a new bus and told to do better on a test, change will happen. Don’t get me wrong, inputs and outputs are important but reform really starts with process, throughputs. Unfortunately, when organizational geeks like me start talking about process everyone looks around the room for caffeine, which leads us to the third reason we avoid process, the biggest reason: it’s too hard. So there you have it, focusing on process is not politically expedient, it’s boring to many, and it’s hard.
Public education represents decades of entrenched practices and systems that have their origins in the industrial revolution, where only a small percentage of students are meant to go on to higher education while the remaining are expected to learn enough basic instrumental skills so they can find an entry level position where they will receive specific training. Education was just part of the larger industrial model. Schools still graduate kids for jobs that vanished overseas with the industrial bubble. (See RSA video in previous post.) And at the heart of this outdated factory that we’ve created for our kids is its process, how it turns resources into outcomes, with little regard for the differences that each person brings to learning.
What we’ve learned, especially with the kids labeled LD, is that “how” we teach is as important as “what” we teach. Dr. Jude Garnier, an education reform expert and veteran teacher recently told me, “if we designed our schools to be more naturalistic, to take advantage of all the ways kids learn, the designation LD would become irrelevant.” That would be a fabulous vision. Unfortunately, most of us get caught up in debates about inputs and outputs. This is especially frustrating for the LD kid who knows that he/she learns differently but feels trapped in a system built for an exclusive group of learners and accepted by the larger society. However, change is coming sooner than we may think, and it will not be because of reform. Stay tuned.