The Permanence Of Change

October 01, 1990 2 min read

Another answer is that people tend to resist change. Perhaps it is the very inevitability of change that makes us struggle against it. The known is more comfortable than the unknown. There is solace in the familiar; the tried and true provide us moorings.

But however stubbornly individuals and institutions resist, however long we hold out, we must ultimately bend, or break, under the mounting pressure of change.

John Morley, Britain’s 19thcentury liberal statesman, said it eloquently: “Great economic and social forces flow with a tidal sweep over communities that are only half conscious of that which is befalling them. Wise are those who foresee what time is thus bringing and endeavor to shape institutions and to mold men’s thought and purpose in accordance with the change that is silently surrounding them.’'

In those words, he teaches the lesson of survival, the formula for success: Adapt--change voluntarily to accommodate and perhaps direct the inevitable.

That is the advice that Lewis Perelman offers teachers in his commentary on page 59. He predicts a bleak future for teachers and schools if they fail to adapt to--indeed, embrace--two emerging forces that he deems to be irresistible: educational technology and choice. Whether we agree or not, Perelman’s blunt and controversial thesis helps alert us to what may be “befalling’’ us.

Clyde Folsom, a principal in Ocala, Fla., is a grassroots example of what Lord Morley would call a “wise’’ man. When he arrived at Howard Middle School four years ago, he found an institution drifting in the backwash of time. Buffeted and shaped by social, economic, and demographic forces that “silently surrounded’’ it, Howard had become a failing school.

The story on page 50, of how Folsom and Howard’s teachers turned their school around, is not unique. Substitute different names and the locale, and it is the story of hundreds of schools that have been rejuvenated over the past decade. It is not through some mysterious alchemy that schools are reborn; it is through the leadership, cooperation, and hard work of principals and teachers. The task is hard because the larger system, which offers little incentive for innovation or change, makes it hard.

What teachers and principals accomplish, they accomplish despite the system. But the gains they make in schools like Howard are often fragile, and may be reversed by the principal and teachers who succeed Folsom and his colleagues. That is why pressure is mounting for systemic change, for the creation of conditions and incentives in education that encourage innovation and institutionalize real progress.

Just as Folsom’s call for change at Howard met with resistance at first, the growing calls nationally for systemic change are being resisted. And the more radical the proposal, the greater the resistance. That is not surprising. Nor is it bad. Change is inevitable, but it is not necessarily synonymous with progress. The best assurance that change will be positive and that it will endure is to forge it in the crucible of public scrutiny and debate. Rapid change is resisted mostly because it is unsettling. But orderly change is the hallmark of stability.

“The art of progress,’' said philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order.’'

-Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as The Permanence Of Change