Commentary: The avalanche of change

What's different this time is that reform isn't being driven exclusively by leaders.
What's different this time is that reform isn't being driven exclusively by leaders.

Once every generation or so, something big takes place that alters education, and it’s usually bad — or so it must seem to most Americans.

Knowing what I know about reform and disappointment, I nonetheless believe big, good things at last are beginning to happen for this field–and it’s been a long time coming.

In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, and that scared everybody around here into a furious push to reform education. We got to the moon, but lasting school reform never quite got lift-off.

Then came 1983, and we learned yet once again we were A Nation at Risk. We found out that our children–and, in fact, we all–were in peril of being engulfed by “a rising tide of mediocrity” in our schools. This news set off another round of frantic reforms–most notably a fervor for accountability that ultimately boiled down to too much testing. (Pity the poor farmer who must constantly yank his carrots up to see how well they’re growing.)

The heat originating from A Nation at Risk–altered, reconstituted–still can cause discomfort through the likes of No Child Left Behind. Now, however, the cycle of alarm/reaction/disappointment has accelerated to the point that it’s generated a whole new phenomenon, clinically known as the “Jell-O Syndrome.” Gripped by this condition, reform is hot, sweet, and colorful when it’s first stirred up, but it turns cold and shaky as it inevitably lingers unconsumed.

You’ve seen this syndrome all too often. But now I think something new is under way. What’s different this time is that reform isn’t being driven exclusively by leaders.

Don’t get me wrong. Leadership generally is important to reform. If you doubt it, read about the inspiring work of turnaround Principal James Dierke here. But even great leadership is transitory. This fact is exacerbated by the very way we organize our schools.

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