A ‘Split Screen’ Approach to Change?

Perhaps the biggest single obstacle to progress all across the K-12 field is the notion that ‘We’ always have to agree politically on any change.

For a current example, consider the debate about ‘teacher autonomy’. For years the argument has see-sawed back and forth: “Teachers need more scope for discretion”; then, “No, teachers have too much scope for discretion!”. You’ll be familiar with others. Traditional school vs. the dreaded ‘progressivism’. Phonics vs. whole-language.

So it goes. Across one area after another. Think about the ‘either/or’ with respect to achievement. Some people insist on the ‘equity’ agenda: We have to close the gap. Others focus on the ‘excellence’ agenda: We have to excel at the top. The two fight each other. Why can’t we be working both?

In the conflict between the ideologies—religions, almost—time goes by and nothing meaningful changes. The convictions run deep: This is right. No, this is right. Neither side prevails.

Well, many say, that’s just the way the world works. No. That is not the way most systems work.

Think about most any field: Something new appears, the ‘early adopters’ pick up the new model, those uncomfortable with the change stay with the traditional model. Nobody is coerced into change; nobody is prevented from changing. Both models run along side by side. Over time people move as they are ready. Tractors replace horses; computers replace typewriters. (The country has just finished its transition from analog to digital television, right?)

Gradually one system after another evolves; some new model replacing the old. Often the transition is not without political controversy. But the policy of gradualism, tolerance, holds the conflict to a minimum. We could do this with K-12, too, couldn’t we?

Back to teachers and teaching. We could have some schools in which teachers had a very large opportunity to innovate; to try things they believe might help the students they actually have enrolled. Some teachers would thrive in that environment. Some would not; would prefer to have decisions about instruction made by the principal or by the district. Some families would prefer one model; some the other.

Education|Evolving thinks about this as a ‘split screen’ approach to change. Before about 1990, when there was only a single organization offering public education in a community, an effort to run two different approaches created big conflict in the district, in the board of education. But today students—through chartering or through open enrollment—students have access to different choices. So isn’t the ‘split screen’ approach conceivable?

Take a few minutes to think about it, yourself, in the issue areas you know in K-12. Are we wrong about this?

—Guestblogger Ted Kolderie, Education|Evolving

6 Replies to “A ‘Split Screen’ Approach to Change?”

  1. One way to look at the “split screen” is to consider it in business terms, as competition in the educational space. As we see in most commercial industries, competition and the multiple players involved generally lead to a refining of a particular product based on consumer demand.

    By having multiple players in the public education space, we allow “consumer demand” (perhaps desire for better schooling results, more vocational schooling, more flexible schooling schedules, etc…) to act on and refine the “products” being offered. This seems, to me, an extremely efficient and effective way to proceed in the educational space today. Rather than having a few people or a political party determine educational policy for the entire country, this approach will allow new solutions and approaches to grow organically, thus capitalizing on the creativity of thousands of entrepreneurial educators.

  2. Charter schools are supposed to be part of the “new solution.” Yet, some succeed, some don’t…at taxpayer expense, just like traditional public schools. There really aren’t many choices that are truly different from the traditional models. One thing everyone one is doing, is teaching students to take tests. Where is the innovation?

  3. Ted,

    I have had a TON of experience with exactly the model you suggest here. Typically, we are called in to help a smaller group of teachers work on literacy through the Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop model. However, the same three things always seem to happen:

    1. Just as we reach some level of noticeable success with the early adopters, the traditionalists begin a campaign to scuttle our work. Because there are more of them, and they are loud and negative, administrators cave to their demands and our work is slowed if not curtailed altogether.

    2. We never get comparative data on our method versus traditionalists. We even put in our contract that such data will be provided but it never is no matter how often we ask for it or refer to signed contracts. By skulking around I know our method is 20-40 points better than traditionalists but I can never get this data officially or in enough depth to really make the claim hold water.

    3. Finally, we are barred from recruiting new people to join the early adopters. We are told that any assertion that our method is better will offend traditionalists and that’s not what the district wants. Of course, the only reason we were brought in to try something new was because it was better than what traditionalists were doing — otherwise the district would stick with the traditionalists. And, frankly, there is no reason for someone who is not an early adopter to drop traditional methods if a new method isn’t demonstrably better.

    This 1-2-3 pattern is so common that I have come to be able to predict now when each stage will occur. And it does not seem to matter how successful we are with early adopters. In fact, we get shut down harder with more success than we do with more failure.

    Ultimately, a very small number of administrators hold the power to swing the direction of change in their schools and districts. Because change is hard, and in schools very fragile, even the slightest hindrance can cause a permanent setback. As soon as early adopters know that their administrators do not back the change they have embarked on, they pull back,too. And then we start to lose our models in the district as early adopters close their doors and keep their heads down.

    I do believe the change model you specify can work. I have seen it work in several schools. But in all cases, a strong administrator handled crucial moments well by asserting unconditionally that he or she was in favor of the change at that moment. Without this kind of consistent leadership for change, all we seem to end up with is regression to the mean or some form of teaching to the lowest common denominator.

  4. Excellent post. With so many issues “the answer” is all of the above. We need to attact the full range of caring and talented adults from all backgrounds with all personalities to teaching. Duncan’s turnaround will require all types of turnarounds with reforms with the same staffs, reconstitution of staffs, regular public schools and charters and even private companies. I could go on but you get my point. I doubt I could work under someone with the personality of Geoff Canada. But clearly, we need him, his ideas, and as many others who can follow in his path. I doubt I could teach at KIPP but we need them and we need other methods of “teaching students to be students” and increasing time for learning.

    Where in the world did we get the NCLB-type accountability idea that we must destroy “the status quo” and we must all use data-driven accountability to be the “watchword” of reform?

  5. John,

    The origins are in one sense public knowledge and in another shrouded in mystery. The public knowledge part comes from the great state of Texas. NCLB was modeled on their accountability system. And then they went and created the TAKS test which, in addition to being the easiest test to pass in the country, has also been pronounced through research as “immune to instruction.” The mystery part is how anyone could have kept from laughing their head off while they wrote up the law and figured out the particulars. Wish I could have been a fly on the wall in some of those meetings. There must be a cadre of policy wonks out there who participated in this knowing full well what a disaster it would be. I mean these guys where expensive suits and have Ivy League degrees.

    So we got NCLB from George Bush and Rod Paige — and a bunch of policy wonks who were probably “just doing their job” as the CIA likes to say these days. And I think everyone knows both their stories at this point. Paige was a fraud in the Houston School District who now runs his own big “data crunching” education company. And as for W, well, he’s writing his Big Book of Decidertude. Let us not misunderestimate him again. There may be a chapter where he tells how he decided not to use the English language during press conferences.

    NCLB was hatched merely for political reasons. Let us not now, nor ever, forget that Ted Kennedy was the co-sponsor of the legislation. Obviously, one too many bourbons snuck into his decision-making on that one but I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time.

    The other thing we must all keep in mind is that folks like you and I didn’t exactly put up much of a fight over NCLB. That is to say, we had no viable alternative in place. So that’s a big screw up on our part.

    In short, I think there’s plenty of blame to go around. The question is who’s gonna do the dirty work now to get us out of this mess? (And don’t count on Obama or Arne Duncan. They’re in the bag to the status quo.)

    I’m in. Are you?

  6. I am a teacher who does not want someone handing me lesson plans and telling me what to do in my classroom. However, I work with several others who seem to not have the ability to plan without someone holding their hand. I would prefer this idea of allowing teachers to choose to work in a environment that would provide more freedom. Innovation and creativity is something we expect from my students so shouldn’t we be modeling this in our school system?

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