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School & District Management Opinion

Change Overload

By Irving H. Buchen — December 12, 2001 6 min read
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Too much of a good thing?

Each month, I try to find an afternoon to go through the pile next to my easy chair and catch up with all the mail, magazines, brochures, and other papers that have been accumulating. It is a quiet, informative time, often fascinating and even enlightening, as I review all the new education-related books, workshops, tapes, and so forth that are available. This is accompanied by a perusal of the professional calendar for the next few months, chronicling all the meetings, institutes, and conferences scheduled and their various topics. It is a formidable list. Although I am also involved in business consulting, research, and teaching, I find that the educational products and activities easily match and sometimes exceed the depth and variety of the corporate output.

And yet, when I had leafed through it all on a recent afternoon, I found myself inexplicably saddened, even depressed. I could not understand why. Normally, I would be upset by what was not covered or was covered inadequately. But that was not the case here. Nor was there a lack of balance between academics and practice, theory and application. Authorship was often multiple. Researchers and practitioners, professors of education and classroom teachers, typically were combined. Moreover, collectively, the new items I surveyed covered the waterfront.

Here is a brief summary of areas and topics covered for instruction: brain research, differentiating instruction, data- and Internet-enhanced curricula, understanding by design, diversity instruction, multiple intelligences and learning styles, character education, emotional intelligence, problem-based learning, standards-based education, performance assessments, teacher portfolios and instruction, and more. For administrators, the topics included energizing meetings, bridge-building with communities, creating leadership capacity, designing successful grant proposals, guiding school and performance improvement, forming networks, and finally, countering violence, aggression, and hostility in school.

These are remarkably impressive—and oppressive—lists. Can anyone imagine what it must be like to be in a district where enlightened (or desperate) administrators and boards feel compelled, because of a desire to be “with it,” or pressures from without, to implement these panaceas wholesale?

I recall consulting once for a corporation that had simultaneously launched, without any coordination, four major new managerial keys to heaven: “re-engineering,” “balanced score card,” “learning organization,” and “scenario innovation.” The company was reeling. It was suffering from the shell shock of excessive change. Our recommended and inexpensive remedy was this: Let the toxins pass through and exit the system, then do nothing new for at least six months afterward. The patient had to recover from being overdosed.

Sometimes too much of a good thing applies unexpectedly to solutions. Perhaps, every new solution should be viewed as a problem. Whatever targets these magic bullets were meant to hit—in themselves and, especially, in the aggregate—they tend to spread out like buckshot. Any evaluation of how good they may be is inextricably tied to the extent to which they burden those who have to implement them. Binding someone’s feet and asking him to run faster is self-defeating. In fact, given such less-than-ideal circumstances, would it be surprising for so many experiments to be stillborn?

Proffered solutions are likely to be add-ons. They are almost always in addition to, not in place of.

The real dilemma is that these proffered solutions are likely to be add-ons. They are almost always in addition to, not in place of. Nothing is ever taken off the plate to make room for the new items of salvation. Ironically, we have doomed the chances of success by debilitating the experimenters.

Then, too, administrators often complain that very few teachers are open to change. Some put the figure at less than 5 percent. (Does that also apply to administrators?) This reluctance convinces many that in order to alter the status quo, teachers must be bribed or frightened into making adjustments: the basic carrot-and-stick approach. The only problem with such motivators is that they cannot be internalized. They constantly require an external (and eternal) sergeant to offer inducements—or use the two-by-four. Protests notwithstanding, there are many principals who enjoy such constant martyrdom.

The author and management-systems theorist Peter Senge, in an interview in Fast Company, recently lamented how many companies that he had worked with failed to change and be transformed by the introduction of his “learning organization” approach. He waxed philosophical and concluded that change is difficult (welcome to the real world), that it probably requires a generation of 25 years (with that much time everything can change), and that the definition of a change agent as a “mechanic” should be altered to that of a “gardener.” (I am sure that when the production line goes down, the workers will find it interesting to call for a gardener.)

So what is one to do? Five things come to mind.

1. Declare a moratorium on the introduction of any new educational innovation.

2. Survey teachers to identify activities and forms of record-keeping that either should be dropped entirely or amended to be less burdensome. After all, the research shows that smaller classes are more effective to teach. Why does that not carry over to a teacher’s general load? If class size cannot be reduced, at least reduce the load on the teacher. It may be another way of accomplishing the same end.

3. Shorten the workday for teachers. Give more time to students for physical activities, for independent studio or computer time, or for other useful pursuits on their own. Use the extra teacher time, for example, for collaborative lesson planning, examining student work, or meditation exercises.

4. Ask the teachers what they would like to try. Schedule professional-development meetings in which the various “new solutions” are trotted out and explained. Let teachers ask tough questions. Seek consensus on their preferences and then ask for a few volunteers to bone up or attend special meetings on a particular new approach and report back to the faculty.

5. Appoint a “Save Time and Energy Committee” to review time spent at meetings, other ways information could be conveyed, automated methods of record-keeping, and so forth. This would be a watchdog group charged with discovering new ways to lighten the load, on the one hand, and to prevent slippage back to past practices, on the other.

Shorten the workday for teachers.

How would those who helped develop our marvelous array of new approaches feel about these recommendations? Probably, they should take a leaf from the fiction writers, who ask of readers only that they be read well. As one who is as guilty as any others of coming up with new ideas, I would rather have fewer and more informed implementations than the massive or coercive marketing it might take to create an idea “best seller.”

I also would be consoled that at least I am not adding to change overload, which is exactly what seems to be stopping change from happening in the first place. Besides, if the moratorium I propose resulted in more breathing room and reflective time for teachers, that might be all that is needed.

Irving H. Buchen is a senior research associate with the Center for Public School Renewal, based in Ann Arbor, Mich. He lives in Fort Myers, Fla.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2001 edition of Education Week as Change Overload

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