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Reform, Transform, Or Just Hang On for Dear Life?

| 4 Comments

This week I have read two points of view about school change that both appeal to me, yet seem mutually exclusive. First I read Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach’s essay, The Fabric of Community- The Key to Transforming Education. She argues that we get stuck reforming our schools, when in fact we should actually be transforming them. Then I read Mary Kennedy's Education Week commentary, Solutions are the Problem in Education . She describes how the well-intentioned drive to solve problems in our education system is resulting in teachers being deluged with solutions – and becoming exhausted by the resulting constant turmoil. How can we reconcile the desire to improve with the reality that teachers are getting burned out?

Let's start with a closer look at each perspective. Nussbaum-Beach quotes Phillip Schlecty, who draws the distinction between reform and transformation:

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REFORM usually means changing procedures, processes, and technologies with the intent of improving the performance for existing operating systems. The aim is to make existing systems more effective at doing what they have been always been intended to do.
TRANSFORMATION is intended to make it possible to do things that have never been done by the organization undergoing the transformation. It involves metamorphosis: changing from one form to another form entirely. In organizational terms, transformation almost always involves repositioning and reorienting action by putting the organization into a new business or adopting a radically different means of doing the work it has traditionally done. Transformation by necessity includes altering the beliefs, values, and meanings- the culture- in which programs are embedded, as well as changing the current system of rules, roles, and relationships- social structure- so that the innovations needed will be supported.
REFORM in contrast, means only installing innovations that will work within the context of the existing structure and culture of schools.

Nussbaum-Beach relates that in her work, most leaders she encounters are satisfied to be reformers, not willing to take the risks involved in attempting transformation. She concludes:

Personally, I believe that the secret to change lies in developing the social fabric, capacity and connectedness found in communities of practice and learning networks. I believe that by focusing on a strengths-based model of education, looking at possibilities rather than problems, by using inquiry to ask the kinds of questions that reveal the gifts each of us bring to the table, by realizing that "none of us is as good as all of us" and somehow leveraging all of that to shift the conversations toward building a new future- one that focuses on the gifts each teacher, student, parent and leader has, that we have all we need to create an alternative future for schools.

Mary Kennedy, on the other hand, focuses on the often overlooked downside of our drive to improve the schools. She explains that

…we live in a time when reforms and fads have become so commonplace that every new board member or superintendent feels a need to make a personal mark on his or her district by introducing something new. As these policymakers come and go, teachers are buffeted by the raft of competing new ideas they leave behind. So routine turnovers in leadership reignite this continuing series of distractions, further reducing teachers’ chances of finding time for reflection and maintaining a stable environment for intellectual work.

I have experienced this firsthand working in a struggling urban district, which only very recently partly emerged from a seven-year-long state takeover. We have had top-down reform initiatives come and go. Sometimes it seems like the perpetual state of change prevents us from digging in to the real problems at each school site. Instead, we close the school down and start all over, or send the whole staff off to be re-educated.

So what is the answer? I think it is a mistake for administrators to think they can reform schools simply by putting teachers through professional development workshops, no matter how good they are. The transformation that Nussbaum-Beach describes is essential to real school change. Teachers need to develop leadership through being challenged to solve problems, and given some decision-making authority. Teachers need to decide on the process they will follow to develop their inquiry, and implement their solutions. And they need time, and compensation for their efforts. But teachers need to be careful as well, because our students and parents are our partners in this endeavor, and we need to make sure their voices are heard, and their leadership is developed alongside our own.

Thinking about this systemically, the trouble is that teachers and administrators -- let alone parents and students -- are not really expected to undertake this kind of work, and it is very time-consuming. We DO have official mandates to give all sorts of benchmark tests, to align our instruction to standards, and to focus on student outcomes as revealed in the state tests. Administrators are swamped dealing with student discipline, complying with state and district mandates, parent communication, and teacher evaluations. And with current budget shortfalls, administrators and teachers have even more work, as nurses, counselors and librarians are laid off, and class sizes grow. It is difficult to find time for teachers to even meet to accomplish the mandated tasks, let alone the sort of collaboration needed to bring our practices to the next level, or accomplish the sort of transformation envisioned by Schlecty.

So it should not be a shock that the level of stress, and resulting turnover for our teachers and administrators is high. The ones who go beyond mere survival are able to develop sustaining networks of colleagues, to share the work, and provide some mutual support. Wise administrators see that no particular protocol is magic. The key is that teachers have real ownership and leadership in the process, and that they are truly engaged in active reflection on their practices, and working together to improve. That could take the form of Lesson Study, or Action Research, or the National Board’s Take One portfolio process, or any number of other processes and protocols. What matters is that they are actively engaged in an ongoing collaborative process, they are looking closely at student learning, and challenging themselves to improve.

If this sort of transformation is going to be undertaken, we need recognition from policymakers that this is beyond what has traditionally been expected of teachers. We need to recognize teachers as leaders of this work, invest some trust in their ability to tackle this challenge, and compensate them accordingly. Likewise, if we want our parents and students to be involved and developed as leaders, we need to create roles and provide funds to support this work. Without this kind of systemic support, this kind of transformation is likely to be rare and short-lived.

What do you think? Are you a reformer, a transformer or a survivor? How can we sustain educators through this process
?

Photo by Rob Shenk, used by permission through Creative Commons.

4 Comments

Right now I am just surviving. Which makes me sad. I am a 'change of life' teacher. I went back to school to teach special ed when my children went off to college. I love connecting with my students, designing curriculum for them, working with my families to help my students. But I am DROWNING in state mandated assessments. We have to create portfolios showing students working at grade level state standards when my students have multiple cognitive and physical disabilities. It takes up almost all my teaching time. I end up having the aides teach while I work on worksheets that are rigidly defined - I am constantly redoing because I don't measure up to the state's requirements for passing - and look who's work is being assessed? Mine! Not my students. It takes almost all my class time from Oct. 1 to March 31. I would love to be the creative and engaged teacher I once believed I would be. But the state does not trust that it is good for my students to be exposed to any form of creativity. I would love to transform special education. But until we are out from under the burden of state and national standards, that won't happen

All the reform efforts begin to feel like a giant rubberband ball that I can no longer remember what was inside. Pretty soon I can not recognize the orginal shape... When someone asks about my progress on some project proposed two or three layers ago, (or worse yet when I am finally ready to report out) the mood has changed and I am out of synch. I can not please anyone and I realize all I wish to fight for is the right to share with kids the subject I love.

YOU said....So what is the answer? I think it is a mistake for administrators to think they can reform schools simply by putting teachers through professional development workshops, no matter how good they are. The transformation that Nussbaum-Beach describes is essential to real school change. Teachers need to develop leadership through being challenged to solve problems, and given some decision-making authority. Teachers need to decide on the process they will follow to develop their inquiry, and implement their solutions. And they need time, and compensation for their efforts. But teachers need to be careful as well, because our students and parents are our partners in this endeavor, and we need to make sure their voices are heard, and their leadership is developed alongside our own."

To me the answer is simple-- community. We need to learn and grow and shift through powerful communities not drive by inservices and workshops.

" The future is created one room at a time, one gathering at a time. Each gathering needs to become an example of the future we want to create. The small group gains power with certain kinds of conversations. To build community, we seek conversations where people show up by invitation rather than mandate, and experience an intimate and authentic relatedness. We have conversations where the focus is on the communal possibility and there is a shift in ownership of this place, even though others are in charge. We structure these conversations so that diversity of thinking and dissent are given space, commitments are made without barter, and the gifts of each person and our community are acknowledged and valued."

-- Peter Block in Community: The Structure of Belonging (p.93)

Thanks for starting that needed conversation here Anthony.

Of course Sheryl is right about community being the environment of change. This does require that teachers begin to see themselves differently. They cannot continue to see themselves as either 9 to 5 (or 7:30 to 2:30, or whatever) assembly line workers with responsibility only to follow orders and meet their daily quota, or as missionaries from a better place sent in to save the savages from themselves. Neither point of view is conducive to community. Community requires immersion, it requires participation, it requires a sense of equality with all those around. It requires a stake in the decisions and a willingness to take a personal risk on the outcomes.

Community is not an us and them sort of thing.

I can sympathize with teachers like teachsan who feel overwhelmed by implementing performance-based assessments with validity for their students with disabilities. And yet--I can hear the voices of teachers who wanted alternate testing for their students with disabilities, the teachers who decried multiple choice assessment and wanted something closer to real life. What none of these voices was willing to acknowledge was that they were locked into reactionary formats, railing against accountability, and knew far less about implementing such assessments with validity than anyone realized. Yes, now teachers are having to learn how to submit portfolios that provide more information about what their students know about the content than about what the teachers know about portfolios. It wasn't as easy as they all thought.

The state isn't trying to protect your students from creativity. What you are finding out is that you knew a whole lot less about it--and its affects on your students--than you thought you did. It's possible that had schools been more community connected, or places of community, that a more organic evolution of this knowledge might have occured. Parents might have been listened to as they asked hard questions about what students were learning. Employers might have been able to provide information about how your students are performing ten years down the road, after school. But, the really crucial piece is that within a school community (as opposed to a school building, for instance), teachers can identify weaknesses and work together on improvement. There are mechanisms and collaborations so that every teacher is not alone in a room with a bunch of kids, but a part of a system in which professionals work together. It's possible to look upstream to identify problems that have solutions. There are voices downstream that alert us when our efforts are not holding up.

I don't know that teachers, as a group, realize this, or are willing to risk sufficiently to find it out.

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