Commentary

Reform Versus Renewal

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You have returned with two colleagues from an arduous trip, mid-evening, in the beginnings of a sleet storm. Your car in the airport parking lot is dead; the engine simply will not turn over, not make a sound. Wet and disgruntled, you ask for advice from your two companions. The first says:

"You can't depend on a Toyota when you get cold and wet weather like this. I told you before that you need a new car. Let's hail a cab and go home. I'll give you some time tomorrow, and we'll go buy a Taurus."

But the second has a different message:

"Let's not get excited. This car is O.K. I'll bet you left your lights on, maybe a door was ajar a little bit and your interior light never went off. All we need to do is find someone with cables and a good battery. New car? Don't be silly."

There seem to be two similar but competing metaphors these days related to reform and renewal in American public education. The reformers are selling new cars, and the renewers are talking about jump starts. On one hand, educators are told they are broken, in need of major repair or replacement; on the other hand, they are told that with a little help from their friends, they will be as good as new. The contrast is puzzling to the educators who are the targets of reform and renewal.

Here are some examples of the confusion.

  • Reform is for institutions; renewal is for individuals. Linking reform to individuals reminds us of reform school, a place to change the character and behavior of a miscreant. But reform is applied best to salary schedules, to governance structures, to accountability measures, to flexibility waivers.

    In contrast, renewal focuses on the eclectic, idiosyncratic, and unique personality that a teacher or principal or superintendent brings to work in the morning. Is the intellect tuned and challenged? Is a sense of collaboration firmly in place? Are creative juices flowing? Is a personal agenda (within a professional setting) legitimized?

  • Reform adds something new; renewal recaptures what already exists. Reform projects bring change to professional life--a revised curriculum; a new area of responsibility; extended planning responsibilities; or a drastically altered organizational arrangement.

    Renewal, on the other hand, asks the individual to remember rather than to invent. What talents have been placed in storage? Which understandings or conditions have been gathering dust? Which dreams have been deferred? An effective renewal program helps an individual recall what is known, revive what exists, repair (not replace) what has been broken, and restore what has once been dependable.

  • Reform assumes blame, while renewal begins with faith. More than occasionally, reform fastens on a recalcitrant problem (such as the dropout problem) or on recalcitrant men and women (such as poorly trained teachers). Something or someone is keeping the system from working effectively. Monies must be reallocated from a frill (by someone's definition) to a necessity (by the same someone's definition). New graduation standards will bring faculty members into line. A law will force local districts to include drug education in their curricula.

    Renewal, however, places emphasis more on encouragement than accusation. It assumes that most (though not all) educators are competent and committed to their profession and their clients. What is needed is the sustenance of praise and confidence. In short, if reform is the stick, renewal is the carrot.

  • Reform is imposed, usually by groups outside the schools; renewal is contractual, an agreement between willing partners. In North Carolina, a six-step lesson plan is a required part of the evaluation of probationary teachers; this is a reform measure. In contrast, attendance at a seminar of the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching involves application and acceptance, and then a choice by each teacher from a smorgasbord of 25 to 30 seminar offerings; this is a renewal strategy.

    The reformer defines problem and solution for someone else. The educator searching for renewal defines his or her own problem and then has at least a modest range of solutions from which to choose. Reform is characterized by compliance; renewal is characterized by search.

  • Reform is for the many, while renewal is for the one. Because reform focuses on all of the members of the group (that is, a school district, a school), it allows little variability in allegiance for practice. But renewal is by its nature personal, and the restoration of confidence and skill and commitment and energy varies dramatically from teacher to teacher. Thus, renewal programs must provide space, opportunity, and permission for individual agendas (created by the teacher, not imposed by outside judgment) to appear, to exist, and to be nurtured.
  • Reform can be codified rather easily; renewal is difficult to describe, much less to assess. If a reform measure is implemented over a county or region or state, then Scholastic Aptitude Test scores will increase or decline or stay the same. The nuances of cause and effect are not usually of great concern to reformers. Renewal takes myriad forms, from writing a novel to creating a syllabus; from making pottery to planning new laboratory experiences for students; from learning something entirely outside one's field to deepening one's experience within that field. Not only are the practices of renewal divergent and hard to categorize, the effects are personal, of the spirit, hidden from all but the sensitive.

For almost five years, under the auspices of the University of North Carolina and with the support of the General Assembly of the state, the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching has been offering week-long renewal seminars to superior K-12 teachers from public schools (and now, under a grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, to those from independent schools as well). Some 165 seminars and 2,700 teachers have taught us several important lessons about reform and renewal and their relationship. Here are two of them.

The first involves learning for the sake of learning. I chatted with an Orange County, N.C., teacher and NCCAT alumna a year or so ago, as we sat next to each other over lunch, part of a larger group. The conversation went something like this:

"What have you been doing lately, Pat?"

"I'm back in graduate school, Bruce, working on a doctorate in music education at UNC-Greensboro."

"That's wonderful. When did all that begin?"

"The week after I came back from NCCAT" A pause ensued as she was reading the somewhat flabbergasted look on my face.

"You see, Bruce, I realized I wasn't taking good care of my intellectual life. It has felt so good to be back in class at least once a week."

A second pause as I assumed Pat was interested in a supervisory position of some kind. I probed gently:

"What are you going to do after you finish your doctoral work, Pat?''

"Oh, I'm not sure ... maybe take a post doc?"

Oh, ye of little faith. Learning for the sake of learning; were it a snake, it would have bitten me. And it lies at the heart of renewal.

Exposing teachers to learning for the sake of learning more regularly has some other distinct (even practical) payoffs. A sense of the learner (rather than teacher) as responsible for learning is fostered. The usual accouterments of higher education are avoided--tests, papers, credits, degrees, diplomas, and so on. The North Carolina center does not offer even renewal credit as an incentive. The collegium of learners that is formed gives the teacher a sense of being in a class, but in this instance one that can be cooperative rather than competitive, and interactive rather than didactic. Finally, such learning encourages teachers to study outside their fields, to become more interdisciplinary.

In a second lesson, we have learned that effective reform can occur best when and where renewal has done its work. There is something of a sequence to the two improvement strategies. It goes like this.

Begin with the people in schools and school systems, rather than policies and organization charts and long-range plans. Provide them with a wide range of renewal activities, including those in which learning is simply for the sake of learning. Increase renewal programs to bring them into a better balance with reform initiatives. And then ask educators to start to take reform seriously.

We have learned that especially for the outstanding North Carolina teachers who came to the center, renewal leads to reform. They tell us that their abilities to provide leadership in school-based reform are undergirded by a week in the Blue Ridge Mountains, recharging their batteries and learning playfully once again.

Renewal before reform. A strange and unsettling idea. It seems designed to gratify some of the critics of education and astonish the rest. My apologies to Mark Twain.

Vol. 10, Issue 29, Page 27

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