Equity & Diversity Opinion

John Thompson: School Transformation in the 21st Century: Turtles, Frogs or Butterflies

By Anthony Cody — June 25, 2011 5 min read
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Guest post by John Thompson

In an earlier contribution to the Harvard Futures of School Reform, Richard Elmore described “the dismal, glacial, adult-centered, congenially authoritarian, mindless soup in which our children spend the bulk of their days.” I assume he was mostly describing failing schools, that tend to be high-poverty. I wish he had also acknowledged the excellent teaching that occurs in many inner city and lower-poverty classrooms. Elmore was clearly accurate, however, in recounting “how little the monolithic beast of American secondary education has been affected by the bright, high-minded optimism of professional reformers.”

In a concluding essay for the Harvard Futures series, Elmore and Elizabeth City wrote, “with rare exceptions, schools currently treat the digital revolution as if it never happened.” They then described three possible futures for our public schools. Two of them would be tragic, but it would be an honor for a teacher to participate in a third.

Elmore’s and City’s first scenario was “fighting for survival,” or “turtle gets a laptop.” Schools would continue to be run in much the same way as they are today, as more learning technology is implemented. Under scenario #1, schools would simply add more computers without rethinking the way they do business, and they would increasingly become “custodial institutions, isolated from the lives of their students.”
Elmore and City called scenario #3 the “open access to learning,” or the “caterpillar learns to fly.” This presumably would be the brave new world of “disruptive transformation” which Frederick Hess and Clayton Christensen proclaim. Under this scenario, “schools are on their own, competing with other types of service providers and learning modalities for the interest and loyalty of students and their parents.” Once schools gave up on playing “the determining role in what constitutes knowledge,” a golden age of learning would supposedly flourish. Technology would allow a family to “combine services from two or three different organizations into a learning plan for its children.” Under this free market system, “schools as we presently know them, would gradually cease to exist and be replaced by social networks organized around the learning goals of students and their families.”

Before we get carried away with this vision, let’s return to Elmore’s previous article, where he also described a high school class with “four students asleep with earbuds in place.” Six students are carrying on a conversation unrelated to class. The teacher attempts to engage the class in a discussion, and four students respond. “The remainder of the class sits silently, staring into space, waiting for the bell to ring.”

“Open access learning” might be wonderful for the class’ four most determined learners. But Elmore and City offered no suggestions how the students who are “staring into space” would get there from here. Neither did they speculate as to the number of more difficult-to-educate students who would learn to fly like a butterfly. And what would happen if disruptive innovation blew up our K-12 system, and new “learning modalities” were unable to miraculously accommodate all students?

Also, the rationale behind NCLB-type accountability is that we already have plenty of schools offering unlimited access to learning for top students, and their performance is so great that it hides students who are left behind. After all, isn’t American culture already the ultimate institution of “open access learning” for students and adults who have already learned how to learn? Don’t our kids already have unlimited access to digital social networks, whether or not they have been taught how to function in them?
Elmore’s and City’s hopeful scenario #2 would be “controlled engagement,” or “frog gets a GPS device.” Under its “controlled engagement,” “schools set the learning destinations and map out the best pathways to those destinations. Technology becomes less about adult control.”

Under that scenario:

Teachers are less gatekeepers of knowledge, and more knowledge brokers. School leaders become less managers of instruction, and more entrepreneurs connecting their organizations to the broader learning environment. Schools become less places where students go to learn from adults, and more places where adults and students get together to enter a broader learning environment. But schools still play an important role in determining what constitutes 'knowledge' and 'learning' for students.

Elmore and City did not mention a key factor that has delayed such a transformation of schools. “High-minded” “professional reformers” have imposed a system that could be called “the frog and the cattle prod.” They have promoted schools where a favored few have the autonomy required to connect students with the outside world. But for the majority of students, such institutions of learning could only happen over the dead body of data-driven “reform.” The accountability hawks’ vision of schooling makes no sense unless the only learning that counts is conducted in a measurable manner within the four walls of the classroom. The irony is that as long as the purpose of education is increased “outcomes,” student engagement must take a back seat.

Elmore and City concluded with a three-step proposal for making the leap into the 21st Century. By far, the most important step was #1, “talk with students, teachers, and other educators about what school could and should look like.” I suspect that most would embrace the “frog gets a GPS” strategy. In fact, I bet most of the students and teachers in the worst of the “mindless soup” of schooling that Elmore described would love schools committed to “controlled engagement.” But nobody is likely to hand-deliver a GPS to guide such a revolution. So, perhaps students and adults should first unite and throw off the yoke of “so-called ‘high stakes accountability.’” If we built on the energy created by such a revolution, perhaps we could even talk about ways for all of our caterpillars to learn to fly.

What do you think about the scenarios shared here? Are high stakes tests keeping our caterpillars earthbound?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.