Education Opinion


By Philip Manna — March 01, 1993 3 min read

On a cold December night in 1773, a group of Bostonians decided they couldn’t take it any longer. Grim and angry, they climbed into small boats and rowed across the gray water to the ships anchored in the harbor. After scrambling aboard, they picked up some wooden chests, smashed them open, and threw the contents overboard. Rather than allow a stubborn governor to sell the tea, they dumped it into the harbor. Rather than comply with the rules of a distant imperial power, they rebelled. Their act of defiance eventually won them the right to govern themselves.

Similar acts of rebellion are needed today if we are to change our public schools. Questions regarding what we teach, how we teach, whom we teach, when we teach, and the resources we have to teach with are all answered for us by a remote and centralized bureaucracy. Public school teachers, and students, spend their lives complying with arbitrary regulations set by federal, state, city, and district officials. These various governing bodies all make the false assumption that what’s good for one school is good for all. This attitude stifles educational innovation at individual schools. It is a form of imperial governance that has gradually stripped teachers, parents, and administrators of the sense that their school belongs to them. As a result, they do not feel fully responsible for its success or failure.

Numerous studies over the past 10 years have shown that a good school is one that stands for something—one that has articulated its beliefs about teaching and learning and makes a genuine effort to uphold them. Good schools can be very different from each other; there is no one best way for all teachers to teach. What good schools have in common, however, is a faculty that is pulling together to make its shared ideas and practices work. This sense of collective responsibility only appears when a staff believes it has real control over its school.

Just as the colonists had to fight for their independence from British rule, individual schools must engage in a struggle to earn their right to govern themselves. It is naive to expect the educational bureaucracy to assist in this shift of authority. The most we can expect from policymakers and bureaucrats are halfhearted attempts at reorganization designed to give the public the impression that change is taking place. These are well-intentioned professionals. Their jobs, however, depend on their ability to maintain the status quo. They will not cooperate fully in their own dissolution. Therefore, this vital sense of collective responsibility cannot come to life until their stranglehold on the life of our schools is loosened. We can no longer afford to cast ourselves as their victims and wait for our elected representatives to save us. Our representatives have an agenda that only partially includes education. If we want our schools organized to comply with the beliefs parents and teachers hold, then we have to do it ourselves. We have to band together and fight for the authority to make it happen.

Like the early patriots, we must be willing to engage in blatant, well-publicized acts of rebellion against the rules that we believe thwart our schools’ progress. Small groups of parents, teachers, and administrators must be willing to trust each other enough to climb together into the same small boat. We must be willing to row across the gray water, risking the retribution of angry supervisors. We must be willing to smash the wooden chests and risk the consequences. The specific acts of rebellion individual school communities choose will vary. Some acts may need to be more dramatic than others to properly counter the force of regulations most resistant to change.

Like the colonists, we must stand together in our defiance. If enough schools participate with the support of their community, the bureaucracy will be unable to respond properly.

Until we are mad enough to engage in this type of struggle, meaningful education reform will continue to take place in only a few handpicked schools sustained by grants. The opportunity to create schools that more deeply influence the hearts and minds of all our children will only exist if we seize the power and do it ourselves. The imperial governance of our schools has forced us to this point: We cannot have good schools without first having a tea party.

A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 1984 edition of Education Week as Voices


School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Branding Matters. Learn From the Pros Why and How
Branding your district matters. This webinar will provide you with practical tips and strategies to elevate your brand from three veteran professionals, each of whom has been directly responsible for building their own district’s brand.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
How to Make Learning More Interactive From Anywhere
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. school districts are using hybrid learning right now with varying degrees of success. Students and teachers are getting restless and frustrated with online learning, making curriculum engagement difficult and disjointed. While
Content provided by Samsung

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Special Education Teacher
Chicago, Illinois
JCFS Chicago
Communications Officer
Chattanooga, Tennessee
Hamilton County Department of Education
MS STEM Teacher
Woolwich Township, NJ, US
Kingsway Regional School District
High School Permanent Substitute Teacher
Woolwich Township, NJ, US
Kingsway Regional School District

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: January 13, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read