On Abandoning the 'Paradigm of Conformity'

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The year was 2081 and everyone was finally equal." Thus begins Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron." The story continues: "They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else."

The 212th, 213th, and 214th Amendments to the Constitution guaranteed all this equality, according to Vonnegut, an equality enforced by the Office of the U.S. Handicapper General, whose task it was to assign handicaps to individuals who might be brighter, faster, or more beautiful than average. A naturally graceful ballerina, for example, might carry around her waist a 30-pound bag of birdshot to keep her from leaping higher than the less-gifted dancers. An attractive man might be forced to sport a red ball on the end of his nose. And the more intelligent population wore headphones designed to emit ear-shattering noises periodically to discourage anyone from having a creative idea or analytical thought. Thus equipped, the above-average in any way would never make anyone else feel like "something the cat drug in," the author notes. Equality, in this society, did not mean providing all people with the equal opportunity to succeed, but providing safeguards against anyone's succeeding beyond anyone else.

A similar philosophy exists in many areas of public education today. Despite all our talk about setting standards of excellence for all children, too many roadblocks on the path to high achievement have been long established by state and federal governments and by local school districts. Essentially, these roadblocks are a result of confusion about what it means to provide equitable educational opportunities for all children. Many in public education believe that only by strictly regulating how monies are spent, by narrowly defining curricular goals, and by scrupulously monitoring schools through wholesale standardized testing can equitable opportunities be guaranteed. What all this careful scrutiny and control guarantee are not equitable educational opportunities for children--but assurance that the same system that produced a nation of young adults who cannot do simple math and have no idea when the War Between the States occurred will endure.

To be sure, we are not without our visionaries in education. In New York State, our commissioner of education has published a philosophical treatise called the New Compact for Learning. At the heart of the compact is a call for grassroots initiatives, for creative programs, for innovative restructuring of the public-school model. One wonders exactly how these changes could occur given the educational strictures regarding curriculum and testing already established by the state board of regents, but the document does contain the heady suggestion that attempts to break the old paradigm might find support. Likewise, some educators have watched with an odd mixture of cynicism and hope the efforts of the Rochester, N.Y. school system and the Kentucky state education department to effect sweeping changes in their respective systems. President Bush's America 2000 proposal calls for the establishment of 535 unique model schools. While the lack of specifics in Mr. Bush's program makes many educators look askance, the emphasis on individual schools designed to meet the needs of children in different and creative ways echoes other proposals for school reform. Even Christopher Whittle's Edison Project, despite cries of crass commercialism from the education establishment, shows the promise of individual initiative unfettered by the usual rules, regulations, and past practices. Yet none of these efforts can flourish unless we are all willing to encourage the risk takers within our educational ranks.

As a professional educator, I have spent part of my career in public schools and part in private. My experience tells me that the great advantage private schools have over public is not money, privilege, or a more motivated student body. These attributes may describe some of the more prestigious private schools, but they do not account for the academic successes of the hundreds of private schools around the country that are operating on a shoestring and are not as rigorously selective as their better-known counterparts.

The major advantage private schools have is the ability to chart their own course, to decide upon their own curriculum and standards, to establish their own mission, and to hire people to carry it out. The rigorous monitors of the private school are not state or district officials, but parents, and the penalty for failure is severe. This point, I believe, is the crucial distinction between public- and private-school success: If students perform poorly in the public sector, the district continues to function and may even be awarded more aid; if students perform poorly in the private sector, the school closes. While educators are often offended when reformers attempt to draw parallels between education and business, it is difficult to ignore the fact that private schools are essentially small businesses and that to survive, their product must be competitive in the marketplace.

It is curious to me how rabidly most public-school officials oppose the idea of parental choice. If students carried with them their individual portions of state aid as they elected to attend a private or another public school, I suspect administrators and teachers might begin to develop measures by which their respective schools might also become more competitive in the marketplace. As students voted with their feet, we would see a truer picture of a school's effectiveness than any state-mandated test would ever reveal. It might also be interesting to see what would happen in public schools if, as in private, salaries were determined by enrollment.

Back at Harrison Bergeron High, however, the height of reform is changing the passing time between classes; anything else requires a waiver from the state and a union vote. The problem is that too many people within the education establishment have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Restructuring may mean changes in class size, days worked, use of personnel. It may mean greater accountability. It may mean incentives for creative initiatives. It may mean that not all classes will operate the same way and nor will all schools in the district. It may mean greater parental involvement in the decisionmaking processes of the school. It may mean the role of the principal changes dramatically. And it may mean that the state redefines its role as regulator and begins serving as a support system.

It is not easy for states and school districts to abandon the paradigm of conformity. A large district that allows or even encourages its individual elementary schools, for example, to find their own solutions to instructional challenges may well find itself having to explain or defend those solutions to parents. If one school in the district is getting exceptional results, how will the district explain what's wrong in the other schools? If innovative programs exist at one school, is it fair to deprive children in other schools of the same program? What if the other building staffs don't want to become involved in new programs? How do you explain their reluctance to parents? And shouldn't all monies be equally distributed among the various schools despite their individual programs or needs? Truly, innovation is not for the faint of he art.

Yet to insist that no school in a district adopt an innovative program unless all schools do ensures not equity, but mediocrity or worse. Schools then are not led by their best and brightest teachers and administrators, but by their most suspicious, most cynical, most easily frightened.

Consider the tortuous path of an innovative proposal at Harrison Bergeron High. If initiated by teachers, the proposal must first meet with the support and approval of the building principal. If she agrees, the proposal next goes to the various district-level supervisors, including the superintendent. If the proposal is still alive, it must meet with the approval of the board of education. Up to this point, this path seems a reasonable route for an initiative to take; after all, few would object to a system of checks and balances that ensures that new initiatives are grounded in research and have the support of those who must implement them. Unfortunately, it is the undergrowth on the path to implementation that often entangles, constricts, or even strangles proposals.

Often the stickiest thistles are state mandates, which seem formulated at times on the unflattering premise that local administrators and teachers can be trusted with neither curriculum nor money. One wonders how private schools refusing state aid, and thus for the most part state regulations, manage on their own. Again, having been there I am assured that private-school educators are neither brighter nor more responsible than their public-school counterparts; but as Oz observed, they do have something we don't have: In this case, autonomy and direct accountability.

Surely at this juncture someone will point out that public schools must be accountable to the state for their use of public monies. I am not suggesting that how we appropriate funds within our districts is nobody's business. What I am suggesting is a great deal more self-determination.

Insisting that all schools, good and bad alike, adhere to the same regulations for disbursement of funds is like punishing the entire class for the indiscretions of a few. Furthermore, I would propose that the litmus test of a district's effectiveness is not how students perform on state tests, but what happens to graduates of the system. How many go on to college and graduate? What percentage is readily employable? What do local businesses say about graduates? What is the dropout rate and attendance rate? This information, I would suggest, provides a more reliable indicator of a district's real effectiveness than does the median score on the state regents' examination in Global Studies.

Other entanglements lurking in the undergrowth of the path a new initiative must take are limitations we place upon ourselves in the form of union agreements and past practices. If a teacher wants to volunteer his time to coach, for example, his union may object. If an administrator wants to work collaboratively with the superintendent, her bargaining unit reminds her that this is a negotiation year won't give anything away. It would be interesting to ask students, teachers, parents, administrators, and boards of education what each believes is the mission of their school. If it is truly to prepare our children to be productive citizens, to reach individual potential, how does each mandate, regulation, and past practice further that goal? How can lettered teachers and administrators unfetter children to be as good as they can possibly be?

Is it any wonder that our children leave Harrison Bergeron High with creative juices that have never been tapped, with intellectual curiosity dormant since 1st grade? Maintaining the status quo is a long-standing tradition in education, and despite national calls for local initiatives and innovative practices, nothing will change while the structure remains intact.

Perhaps it is time to start all over again. Perhaps it is time to re-examine the private-school model, putting aside our usual objections of elitism and focusing instead on private education's tradition of local control and accountability. The role of the Handicapper General has been equally shared among local, state, and federal authorities; perhaps it is time to encourage and reward excellence by removing the bags of birdshot and allowing innovative projects to soar.

Vol. 11, Issue 04, Pages 26, 32

Published in Print: September 25, 1991, as On Abandoning the 'Paradigm of Conformity'
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