The Tales We Tell Ourselves

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Image and reality in the struggle to improve schools.

From all indications, President Bush and his secretary of education, Rod Paige, enjoy the exalted positions they occupy. But no matter how enthusiastically they pound the bully educational pulpit before them, the story they are telling the American people is incomplete. A good case can be made, indeed, that the broader conservative school agenda on which they labor will wind up wrecked on the rocks and shoals of substantive problems their fervor allows them to ignore.

That’s a fair conclusion to draw from our work over the last 10 years with some 200 school superintendents, urban, suburban, and rural, from across the United States. During that time, we helped lead the Danforth Foundation’s Forum for the American School Superintendent as it applied the latest thinking about leadership and organizational dynamics to the challenges facing local school leaders.

Two lessons stand out from that decade-long experience. First, it’s not wise to impose simple solutions on complex problems that present themselves in different ways in diverse communities. The top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to school reform that’s embedded in the federal No Child Left Behind Act is just the latest evidence that H.L. Mencken was right when he said, "Every complex problem has a solution that is simple, direct, plausible, and wrong." The "No Child" law and other "common sense" approaches to school reform are just such solutions.

Let’s be clear. The great benefit of the No Child Left Behind Act is that it brought accountability to the top of the nation’s education agenda. Its great drawback was to push to the sidelines virtually everything else. Worried about student learning? Accountability is our response. Concerned about teacher adequacy? Annual testing of every child is our ace in the hole. What about educational equity? Accountability, assessment, and adequate annual progress provide both answer and alliteration. The conviction that an assessment system of this sort, applied in this way, will improve learning in America is so egregiously sophomoric that it gives accountability a bad name.

Accountability and standards are so fundamental that they should be considered a commonplace of school improvement, according to the Danforth Forum’s 200 superintendents. But there are other "commonplaces" as well. They can be thought of as forming a jigsaw puzzle of a dynamic triangle or arrowhead pointing toward excellence and equity. Surprisingly, resources played no role in the superintendents’ discussion about commonplaces. Oh, sure, these leaders complained about money. Who doesn’t? But finances never made the cut of commonplaces. Instead, the jigsaw puzzle they put together consists of a complex interplay of leadership, governance, standards and assessment, race and class, school principals, out- of-school support for learning, and community engagement.

When President Bush and Secretary Paige praise the No Child Left Behind Act, they celebrate yesterday’s agenda, a plausible but oversimplified technical response to a complicated array of educational challenges. The Danforth superintendents, by contrast, developed tomorrow’s approach, what the physician and leadership scholar Ron Heifetz, of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, would immediately recognize as an adaptive response encouraging the entire community to "own" the problem, work on the solution, and take up the hard work required to make a difference. Like Mencken, Dr. Heifetz understands a first principle: There are no easy answers.

The second lesson the superintendents helped us learn is equally powerful. In every institution—government, corporation, university, or school—all of us tell ourselves stories about our organization. Then we work at becoming what the story line requires.

Gareth Morgan, a management expert at Toronto’s York University, says most of us carry images around in our heads about the nature of organizations and institutions. Images and metaphorsin powerful but incomplete wayshelp us understand what’s going on organizationally. The images, in a sense, also become self-fulfilling prophecies. We work at becoming what we think we are.

What are these images? There are many, according to Mr. Morgan, several familiar to most of us. Among them is the organization as machine. This mechanistic metaphor emphasizes that parts are replaceable and need to be properly aligned. Then, there’s the organization as a system of government, an image emphasizing politics, relationships, and conflict around power. Theorists like Ron Heifetz and Peter Senge, of "Fifth Discipline" fame, are likely to think of adaptation as crucial to organizational survival. They’re probably attracted to images of the organization as an organism, brain, or culture, each a slightly different conception emphasizing growth and adaptation (organism), intelligence and learning (brain), or values, norms, beliefs, and rituals (culture).

It’s not wise to impose simple solutions on complex problems that present themselves in different ways in diverse communities.

Metaphors like these resonate powerfully with much of the dialogue about schools today. There’s little doubt, for example, that the organizational image held by government and business leaders supporting the No Child Left Behind law is of the school as a machine. Whenever you find machine images of schools, you come across detailed mandates and rules. Regulations govern operations and curricula. Hierarchical reporting is the norm. And the emphasis always is on alignment, control, accountability, and uniformity of results. Sound familiar? It’s the formula embedded in the latest federal legislation.

What about the metaphor of schools as living organisms? That’s an image supported by many. Here, schools and their environments are viewed as mutually dependent and interactive. Appointed and elected district leaders consider themselves to be responsible for protecting and developing the institution in their care. The district will almost always seek alignment not in a top-down fashion but among the many interrelated subsystems in the community, including interests outside the school. Missouri’s Caring Communities school initiative, which coordinates social services around schools, embodies the organism metaphor.

Let’s look at a more hard-nosed image. Salted away in the warrens and back rooms of central offices and union headquarters everywhere we find good, old-fashioned realists. These steely- eyed men and women insist that schools are political entities in which power determines who winds up on top. Competing interests in the schools and community dominate decisionmaking, frequently around contracts, patronage, and employment. Interest groups, disputes, and power relationships are continuously under consideration and assessment. Leadership here is a zero-sum game because winners and losers have to be balanced if community equilibrium is to be maintained. Wherever you see a strike, difficult labor-management relations, or contentious and lengthy school board meetings, assume that political metaphors dominate district thinking, and you’re probably on the right track.

There is even an image of the organization as an instrument of domination. Raw power is displayed at its most formidable in this metaphor. Dominance of the weak by the strong is taken for granted. And the advantage of certain groups is accepted as the natural order of things. That might describe an Asian sweatshop, you say, but it’s hard to imagine in education. Explain, then, the persistence of Jim Crow schools for three- quarters of a century, the monotonous whiteness of enrollment in most Advanced Placement classes, and the disinterest of many school leaders in demonstrable inequalities in achievement.

What does all this have to do with the "No Child" law? It has to do with the metaphors the nation embraces around its schools.

When historians of the future look back at the first decade of the 21st century, what will they conclude about the stories we told ourselves?

When historians of the future look back at the first decade of the 21st century, what will they conclude about the stories we told ourselves? That we sold ourselves a tale promising educational nirvana with a top-down approach to the needs of 48 million students in more than 100,000 schools? That we worked at making the schools our children attended into machines, all stamping out identical parts? That we bought into the promise of an easy, technical fix that was simple, direct, plausible—and wrong?

Or will they conclude that rose gardens were not among the promises our story contained? That we were realists and didn’t kid ourselves? That we respected the rich diversity of the schools and students in the United States and the elaborate dynamics involved with closing the achievement gap? That we faced up to the complex nature of the challenges before us, while insisting on an adaptive response that was difficult, subtle, equally plausible—and in the end correct?

Vol. 24, Issue 1, Pages 42-43

Published in Print: September 1, 2004, as The Tales We Tell Ourselves
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