Sunday, March 20, 2011

Change in our System of Public Education

I've often heard repeated the following comparison to describe the inertia of our public education system and its resistance to change. And it's probably even true. It's said that business has changed so much in the past 50 years, that if were possible to transplant a business executive, a secretary (what's that?) or an engineer from 1961 to 2011, they would not be productive in a modern corporation or small business for many, many months, if ever. And yet, it is also said, a teacher from 1861 would probably do just fine in a modern classroom.

Have you heard this? What does this mean? Do you suppose it's true? Why is it so?

Check out this amazing animated talk by Ken Robinson to get a feel for the dimensions of change I am talking about.

Business executives know that change in business has not been easy or cheap. On the contrary: it's real work, fraught with risk of failure. Even private businesses are more likely to fail than they are to change when challenged, not by a little but by a lot. A few of them might change in maladaptive ways although most of them simply fail to change at all. And the bigger they are they more likely they are to atrophy and fail...

But if large private companies are hard to change, then large public entities are pretty near impossible. And public entities with a charter we might call EDUCATION have an additional challenge: a "mission conflict" that makes this task EVEN HARDER. It is their unenviable job to teach our children to think for themselves while, at the same time, they are custodians of knowledge. Like museum curators, they must care for and pass on ALL of what we know as a society, most of which was once true, some of which is still useful, and a small bit of which is actually essential!

But as this body of knowledge grows and the world changes, it's increasingly difficult to say with any certainly which is which. And how are these poor classroom teachers or administrators to decide? Would YOU want to try new things, to make these choices and manage such trade-offs with shrinking budgets and parents, administrators, politicians and pundits scrutinizing every action!?!? What we we have is a recipe for conservatism and fear of change: OMG?!?! What if we experiment with something new and, as a result, neglect to TRANSMIT something that is both true AND useful?

Reform of such a system is a wicked problem indeed.

Yesterday I met the CEO of the Stupski Foundation, Susan Colby, to introduce her to some of the people I've met at the MIT Media Lab, which must be the center of the Universe for divergent thinking about Education. Seeing their research through her eyes was an amazing experience. It's pretty obvious talking to her that gobs of money, inspirational teachers and wonderful, innovative ideas are just not going to be enough. This is going to take organizational talent, patience, and political wizardry the likes of which we've NEVER seen in public education.

(Do you suppose Dewey was an exception? I wonder, who were the ACTUAL reformers who paved the way, helped his ideas stick, take root, and flourish? How were they successful changing the system they encountered at the turn of the last century?)

I am obviously an outsider in this historic process. But, Susan and the Stupski Foundation seem to have a great thing going. It's a project called the Partnership for Next Generation Learning between the Stupski Foundation and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) across all 50 states.

I'm writing about it here for a very specific reason: their approach is quite interesting and related to many of the themes developed in this blog. It begins with the premise that there are tons and tons of great ideas around that might improve our system of public education and that the problem is ADOPTION, not INNOVATION. And secondly, they are acting on the evidence, which seems to be pretty substantial, that we cannot THEORETICALLY PREDICT which innovations will be adopted and will work with actual students, teachers and administrators in the context of real communities and their social, cultural and political systems. Instead they have created what they call "laboratories" from real school systems -- as a whole -- in 6 different states, to measure and study adoption.

In other words, they are developing experimental end empirical models for education reform that are REAL SYSTEMS, a platform to study the adoption and impact of innovative ideas on entire school districts.

Sounds like science to me.

Go Susan! Be aggressive. Be bold. Try new things. Ask the right questions and measure the right things. Collect lots and lots of data. And be patient even if you have to act impatiently.

1 comment:

  1. Postscript: Susan Colby has shut down the Stupski Foundation. I'm not sure what's the status of the project with the CCSSO but it's probably not good. Change: it's not easy.