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12 Difficulties Encountered When Attempting To Start a Revolution in Education

By Merle Marsh — November 25, 1992 8 min read
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Difficulty #1: No one actually wants a revolution. Everyone talks about revolutions in education, but no one actually wants one. Restructuring schools is simply the right thing to say in the right company, but no one expects anyone to do anything that will actually make a difference. Revolutions in education are similar to New Year’s resolutions, only less personal. It’s like making resolutions for someone else and having someone else make resolutions for you. Making them for someone else is, of course, all right, but the other way around is generally unacceptable.

Difficulty #2: Educators like to plan and plan. School districts, states, private grant-givers, and the federal government know that educated people enjoy making plans and allow them to do so. College and university professors and leaders in preschool-12 school systems are especially good at planning, and because of this talent, receive approval for studies. Through research grants, educators devise and tackle ways to change and change back education in this country.

Everything researchers do is supposed to be statistically significant. This forces educational planning to emphasize strange but reportedly important fractions such as one one-thousandth and the like. These minute numbers, that are sought-after at conventions and in journals, are designed to provoke factional reaction from representatives of other groups. The opposition, as is its academic responsibility, makes its own calculations and discovers a different set of minute numbers. The numbers are developed into articles that appear in professional journals, generally after a timely period of five years or so.

Many educators pay little attention to studies, realizing that more numbers are waiting to emerge from researchers, calculators, and computers. All of this, of course, is decidedly insignificant and is ignored by everyone except journal referees whose job it is to withhold the numbers until the combatants are busy with other numbers.

Difficulty #3: People like memories. It is apparent that although educational planning is extremely popular, carrying out sought-after plans is not. People look to the future with hope, but they prefer the way things were done in the past.

Difficulty #4: Superintendents are recycled as are goals. A revolutionary spirit spreads throughout the nation every few years as unhappy school boards fire their superintendents so that they may exchange superintendents with other unhappy districts. The superintendents, realizing that their jobs will last only until the next recycling, declare that they will begin their tenure by studying the needs and problems of the school districts. During this period of inaction, called study, the superintendents do not have to worry, for the problems of the districts were created by the previous superintendents. It is much like the firing and hiring of baseball and football coaches. When a new coach is hired, that coach is allowed to lose games while he gets to know his players, builds his young team, and teaches the players his game plan. This is referred to as the rebuilding stage.

Just as the new coach cannot continue to lose, the superintendent must soon find something wrong in the schools and seek to remedy the problem. The remedy, which is often the plan of a researcher, will be announced and ballyhooed. The plan will be reported to be statistically significant to some degree, which is, in educationese (as was mentioned above), a pretty good thing.

Because of the academic quality of the plan, educators in the district offices will change job titles, but they, realizing what happens in the end to education innovators, will continue as they have always done throughout previous restructuring events. New goals will surface as old ones are reincarnated.

Difficulty #5: People don’t have time or money for a good revolution anymore. A revolution would be simply too expensive and too much work in this fast-paced world. Students couldn’t fit a revolution into their schedules, teachers’ contracts wouldn’t allow one, and administrators and board members wouldn’t know where to insert a revolution into annual budgets. The truth is that reform and revolution have a rather distasteful connotation nowadays. People who insist upon talking about these things must have nothing better to do.

Difficulty #6: There is no one to revolt against, and the leaders are missing. If everyone agrees that there should be a revolution in education, there is no one to revolt against. There are no villains. There is no Marie Antoinette. Nobody can recall what John Dewey said or anything that was long ago memorized for a grade in education courses. Horace Mann is an insurance company.

In any normal revolution, there has to be a leader, but it is obvious here that no one wants to take the lead. Consider the failures. We had an “education President’’ and he did--, and you are hereby challenged to name one living leader in education.

Difficulty #7: Education reform resembles diets. Education plans don’t usually go for the little changes. They are like diets. Losing one pound a month isn’t acceptable. People must lose several pounds a week and then gain them back so they can lose lots again quickly.

Difficulty #8: Blackline masters and videotapes are in control. Educators and parents have worried about technology taking the place of the human element in the classroom. There is no need to worry about technology, for computers and related digital devices are more human than what has already invaded our classrooms: the blackline master (descendant of the ditto master) and the videotape (descendant of the 16mm film). Blackline masters and videotapes have become so easy to duplicate and use that teachers’ desks are stacked with copies and publishers tout masters and videos to sell textbooks.

It may have been better for students when projectors had to be threaded and newsprint jammed ditto machines. The pop-in, fill-in teaching style doesn’t seem to be noticed although it has changed our classrooms more than what we think of as educational innovations. The success of the videotape and the blackline master is evidence that change happens when the innovation is convenient, gradual, nonthreatening, addictive, and easy enough for a couch potato to handle.

Difficulty #9: Technology is considered a necessary inconvenience. Many people aren’t sure if technology belongs in the schools, but they worry if they don’t have it. Although computers and related technologies can bring individualization, involvement, and global interaction to local classrooms, educators aren’t altogether certain technology will fit into the curriculum.

Costs for hardware and software are both a problem and an excuse for not using technology effectively in the schools. Threats such as “If we are going to purchase computers and software, we will have to cut teachers from our staff’’ have been more than whispered. The public then obediently replies, with visions of 1984 looming in memories, that the budget-crunched district should have more, not fewer teachers--who will, without doubt, order more blackline masters and show more videos.

Difficulty #10: Catchy is easier than catching. It must be obvious then that something positive and catching, not catchy, has to be done to get people thinking reform. We might go back to the basics, restructure or reinvent schools. These, however, have already been done. We yawn, and say, “Is it team teaching again or core curriculum or open space? When are we going to hear good things about what we are doing or what we want to do?’'

When the press tells us that our students are scoring last in the world and bringing guns to school, we might get the impression that American education is in trouble. Something has to be done. A quiet, humble approach to reform, therefore, is called for. There are so many publicized meetings and competitions related to educational reform, that enemies must be made. If, after all, we are reforming something, something has to be interpreted as wrong with what most of the people are doing. One of the best guidelines for reform is, “Don’t let anyone know you are even thinking about it.’' If your reform is catching, soon everyone will not know what they are thinking. People will be happy that things are looking up and won’t have to worry about when to return to the old ways.

Hidden goals should be as uncomplicated as possible: "(1) Be positive’’ and "(2) Do something’’ would be a good start. Such goals must apply to everyone, including educators, bus drivers, politicians, editors, and other assorted complainers. These people will not, however, if the reform movement is getting on successfully, know what the goals are, for if they did, they would certainly find it necessary to test the effectiveness of being positive, along with the need for action.

Difficulty #11: No one anybody knows can be an educational expert. People who eat lunch together everyday in the school cafeteria or in the district or state office cannot be experts in education. Experts come from other states, mostly from California, if the reform (although highly unlikely) is taking place outside of California. If the reform begins in California, experts are not needed.

Difficulty #12: Teachers are “just teachers.’' It follows then that regular classroom teachers attempting to start revolutions in local schools will not be considered educational experts or people who may be dangerous to the old system. This is because people know this person, and this person is just a teacher.

The “just a teacher’’ syndrome, which teachers almost always say in answer to the question, “What do you do for a living?’' could be instrumental in revolution initiation. Anyone who is “just a teacher’’ won’t be noticed and could get reform going. Like the silent invasion of blackline masters and videotapes, reform can happen gradually in that hidden cauldron of revolutionary spirit, the classroom.

A version of this article appeared in the November 25, 1992 edition of Education Week as 12 Difficulties Encountered When Attempting To Start a Revolution in Education


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