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.

As a wise old superintendent used to say, “A school board isn’t a governing body, at all; it’s a parade.” And you know as well as I do that school board members aren’t the only ones marching off into the sunset.

I worry, for example, about what will become of the bold initiatives now under way in San Diego (see our Special Report, “Reinventing Education”), now that Superintendent Terry Grier is heading off to Houston.

Leaders wander, but what never seems to stray is the entrenched special interests, those legions who perceive their security and fortunes comfortably cocooned in the way things have always been. Such legionnaires–in management as well as labor, and in the community as well as the academy–have for a hundred years succeeded in thwarting ubiquitous school reform.

All these forces are still present and accounted for. So what’s new now? Two things are different, it seems to me. First, a consensus now exists in every quarter that things must change. That, by itself, can’t carry the day, but it doesn’t hurt.

The second thing is what technology now allows. Hardware, software, the internet, and the whole nine yards now enable learning to snap the constraint of the status quo. Thanks to rapidly developing and swiftly proliferating technologies, the hidebound sticks in the mud that have always managed to beat reform to a standstill eventually will be powerless to thwart it. The avalanche of change already can be heard rumbling in the distance, and short of doomsday, I don’t think it can be stopped.

Terry M. Moe and John E. Chubb in their new book called Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education spell it out:

“What sets technology apart from other sources of reform is that . . . it also has a far-reaching capacity to change politics–and to eat away, relentlessly and effectively, at the political barriers that have long prevented reform. Technology, then, is a double-barreled agent of change. It generates the innovations that make change attractive, and at the same time it undermines the political resistance that would normally prevent change from happening. It pushes for change–and opens the political gates.

“This is not to say that the triumph of technology will come easily, because it won’t. There will be struggles and setbacks, and the process will take decades. But the forces of resistance will ultimately be overcome, leading to a transformation of the American school system. This will mean real improvement, and real benefits for the nation and its children. It will also mean something still more profound: the dawning of a new era in which politics is more open, productive ideas are more likely to flourish–and learning is liberated from the dead hand of the past.”

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