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