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The 'Systemic' Epidemic

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If "systemic,'' the word much in vogue these days in school-reform rhetoric, means what I think it does, the United States has for many years maintained the most systemic school system anyone could imagine. Both the organization of schools and the practices of teachers in their classrooms have been part of the same system, even though each of the 50 states was quite free to do it another way if anyone could be cajoled or bribed or otherwise stimulated into being different.

In the last 10 years, the systemic nature of our schools has progressively been under attack as the so-called school-reform movement has progressed. Immediately after the appearance of A Nation at Risk in early 1983, there was an initial wave of systemic response. Forty or more states legislated similar tests, graduation and promotion requirements, and various other across-the-board policies to enhance the systemic nature of schooling. The basic assumption of these actions was that we needed to buttress the strength of the system we had sometimes identified as the "factory'' system of schooling.

But within one to three years, a number of unsystemic thoughts began to creep into our education system. They came from varied sources. Theodore R. Sizer proclaimed that if schools were to change, classroom practices and organization had to change and that unless teachers were stimulated to take on the burden of change no amount of systemic prodding would produce action. He saw the job of stimulating teachers to accept new challenges as a school-by-school endeavor, and he launched a coalition of schools connected by common, general concepts, not by any requirements at all. If requirements were to have meaning, they had to be invented by teachers and students in classrooms, not legislated.

James P. Comer took a different tack, but one with a common basic assumption: The school was the source of stimulation for change, not the school system, the state legislature, or the federal government. His concern reached to the human relationships of the school. He sought an institution where people knew each other, respected each other, and built a community that they found mutually supportive. That community embraced students, parents, teachers, and anyone else with interest in the school. Dr. Comer didn't emphasize curriculum and pedagogy. He is a people person, indeed, a psychiatrist.

Accompanying these bottom-up advocates of school change from within, along came a concept that emerged from the corporate world, restructuring. Whatever its meaning in corporations, restructuring as applied to schools came to mean decentralization. It suggested that more authority to decide about what is done in schools be assigned to the individual school. If schools in a school system wanted to be different from each other in order to serve their particular students, that was quite acceptable, as long as the learning results were adequate. In the context of restructuring, the roles of principals, superintendents, school boards, and even state education departments were fundamentally changed. These individuals and agencies, instead of telling schools what to do, became enablers to assist schools with defining their missions and carrying them out.

A major cross-current in the restructuring movement was the issue of the extent and nature of its reach into the classroom. Some "restructured'' schools developed what is called school-site governance but didn't necessarily involve individual teachers in the task of changing the practice in their classrooms. Other schools went all the way and attempted to enlist teachers in changing the old factory system typically found in their classrooms to a different style of learning, that sought to enlist students in their own education in an active mode. This shift from passive to active learning can be illustrated by a sentiment from the Chinese: "Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.''

I don't know whether the ideas of Mr. Sizer, Dr. Comer, and the best restructured schools are "systemic'' or not. They all share a certain missionary-like characteristic: the desire to spread their beliefs, practice, and experiences to other schools that are interested in taking on the frustrating task of building change in classrooms. My guess is that the leaders of systemic thinking and planning would not accept this notion of "conversion'' as an adequate system for national school improvement. They want more leverage on the situation than conversion will allow.

If you examine the plans of the system advocates, you will find much language that seems to say they are primarily seeking to support the independent professionalism of classroom teachers as the major engine of change. All of their elaborate structure of national standards, national tests, and state plans are interpreted as stimulation for teachers, not inhibiting requirements. The recent federal legislation on these matters proclaims that many concepts it advances are "voluntary.''

I can't help wondering if there is a kind of similarity between the federal posture on gays in the military and the federal prescription for teachers in schools. For the former, their presence is accepted as long as they don't reveal it; for the latter, as long as they are guided by it, no one will bother them. But if some school decides that its vision lies somewhere outside the new standards, isn't it likely to find itself bucking the state plan and denied some of the fiscal goodies that the plan distributes?

In any case, this speculation is not the really important issue in the systemic epidemic we are going through. The issue is really a question. Can we expect teachers to digest and make use of a mammoth package of advice on every subject they teach and still remain willing and able to put forth the kind of energy and commitment that are necessary to make the shift from passive to active teaching? My guess is that the possibility for success with the systemic package we are now developing depends upon real undergirding of the voluntary aspect of the new legislation. If teachers believe that they can truly choose from the stimulating ideas coming to them from the top down, they are likely to accept a system by which they are enriched in their own decisionmaking, rather than told what to do.

This paradox of getting more done by freeing up teachers to decide what they will do, rather than putting pressure on them to perform, is based on a universal human truth. Leadership which taps the creativity of those who are at the center of the project, whatever it is, will always do better than leadership that uses its authority. In the realm of schooling, this principle is particularly significant, because American teachers today are on the verge of becoming true professionals--a status that the best of them can already claim. A truly professional teacher, like a professor in a university, does not want to be told what or how to teach. Making decisions on such matters is the essence of the academic freedom that accompanies professional standing.

Mr. Howe is a senior lecturer at the Harvard University graduate school of education.

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