Education Opinion

Everything Old is New Again

By Susan Graham — September 07, 2008 3 min read
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In the last two weeks, I’ve been hearing a lot about change. It seems that everyone is in favor of it. Me too!

My poor old laptop was retired from active duty and replaced a new machine with more stamina, but less weight.

My virtual teaching community moved on from a listserv to a slick new platform.

My 54 year old house finally got the dream kitchen that I have been planning for 22 years.

My 58 year old body got brand new legs in the form of titanium knees.

And this week, after 20 years of teaching middle school Family and Consumer Science at Gayle Middle School, I got to start all over again with a new school year.

It occurs to me that I am probably an advocate of change because with each of my changes I had the good fortune of retaining the best of the old while reaping the benefits of the new. But change entails a certain amount of loss. It requires letting go of the safe and familiar. And change can exact varying levels of pain in the transition. New laptop and new platform--not so much. New kitchen and new knees---much.

Since the macro vision of change has already been pretty much covered, I thought I might offer some micro observations on the process of change:

Most of us have a love/hate relationship with change.

While excited by concept of change, we are hesitant about giving up the familiar, and we loath the upheaval of the process of change.

Change is almost always more appealing as a theory than as an application because change is usually harder, takes longer, and rarely turns out exactly as we planned.

Generally, the more dramatic and permanent the change, the greater the risk and the more difficult the transition.

The less input we have in change, the more resistant we become to the process.

Change often results in unanticipated consequences, both positive and negative.

Policymakers often talk about change in terms of reinventing education. It sounds visionary, almost always involves dramatic overhauls and new technology, and is often very expensive. But promoting the reinvention implies public education was, and is, bad by design. I would argue that it is one of America’s finest accomplishments and that in many situations, it continues to work well and does not need to be “fixed.” Even in those settings where reinvention is need, the logistics of implementing major design changes in school is not unlike attempting to redesign an airplane while in flight. It’s daunting and dangerous and there are children on the worksite who are, at least to someone, not expendable.

At the other end of the policy spectrum are those who frame the discussion in terms of reforming education. But doesn’t that sort of imply that teachers, students and education in general have gone buck wild and need a firm hand to impose a lot more supervision and discipline? In a culture that thrives on incentives and is willing to overlook personal and policy failure in business and government it seems unrealistic to attempt to motivate through threats and to hold children and their teachers to a higher level of accountability than adults in position of authority. I humbly suggest that reform might be more effective if it trickled down from the boardroom to the classroom.

Somewhere in the middle are those who say they want to restore quality to our public schools. This more moderate group often suffers from nostalgia. They long for classrooms where women in apple jewelry and men in V neck sweaters write neatly across the chalkboard as students sit compliantly soaking up knowledge. These stakeholders often remember their or their children’s school experience through the soft focus lens of time. But we can’t turn back the clock and, no matter how good those schools were then, they won’t serve the needs of today.

So, may I offer my own back-to-school platform for education policy? I don’t believe we need to reinvent, or reform, or restore America’s public schools. I believe we need to renew our schools. Let’s honor and build on the sturdy framework that has served us in the past, but let us also have the discipline to clean out the education closet and get rid of what is no longer functional or no longer fits. Let’s just say “NO” to “But we’ve always done it this way.” But let’s also listen attentively when teachers explain, “This is why I do it this way,” because -- when research tells us that a good teacher is the most important factor in student achievement -- it makes sense to pay attention to what good teachers know and are able to do.

So there’s my personal message of change, and there’s my bold vision for the future. As either a student, a parent, or a teacher, I have now gone back to school for the 50th time. Last Tuesday was my Golden Anniversary First Day of School and I’m celebrating the journey!

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.