School & District Management Opinion

Reflecting on Tinkering Toward Utopia

By Beth Holland — September 16, 2015 3 min read
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In the Prologue of their 1995 book, Tinkering Toward Utopia, Tyack and Cuban define reform as a planned effort to institute change as a result of perceived social or educational problems. Theoretically, once these problems have been identified, solutions are presented, policies adopted, and institutional change occurs - or doesn’t. Policy talk versus true reform often sounds “utopian” or “pie-in-the-sky;" however, the authors argue that educational reform has occurred incrementally over time as educators, administrators, and other interested parties “tinker” with the system as a means of “preserving what is valuable and reworking what is not” (Tyack & Cuban, 1995, p. 5).

On the other hand, Tyack and Cuban make the claim in Chapter 2 that while reform may be incremental, rhetoric is often cyclical. Ideas presented at one moment in history may circle back around at a later point in time. In reading the first few chapters of this book (disclaimer: I have only read the first two chapters at this point), I have focused on understanding the historical perspective of two distinct reform movements that have been both incrementally progressing as well as cyclical in nature: the push for 21st Century Skills and the implementation of educational technology.

21st-Century Learning and 21st-Century Skills have reached buzzword status, yet the call to action to prepare students for the “knowledge economy” can be traced back to the 1983 A Nation at Risk report. Since that catalytic paper, politicians, the media, business groups, parents, and educators have called for reform in schools. What that reform may look like has varied, but the message has remained consistent: schools need to prepare students for the new, knowledge-based economy. The report cited dropping test scores, the loss of jobs to a global marketplace, as well as an increased need to invest in “human capital.” Twenty years later, these statements still ring true as policy talk both continues forward as well as touches on issues raised over two decades ago.

Talk of 21st-Century Skills has become inextricably linked to the integration of educational technology. iPads, Chromebooks, laptops, Interactive Whiteboards, computer labs, have all entered the reform conversation over time, and the message of preparing students for a world dominated by new information technologies has been relatively consistent since A Nation at Risk. The tools to develop those skills, however, have evolved at an unprecedented rate of change resulting in new cycles of policy talk with the launch of each technological innovation. Because of their fleeting nature, it may seem as though these initiatives may have failed as reforms. Tyack & Cuban might argue otherwise as technologies - once viewed as revolutionary - ultimately become part of the fabric of schools.

Other innovations, once deliberate reforms, became so pervasive that they were no longer seen as reforms and thus disappeared from the scoreboard of successful changes. Indoor plumbing, central heating, and blackboards are examples. They may seem trivial, hardly worth the label of 'reforms,' yet not long ago they were high on the agenda of necessary innovations" (Tyack et al., 1995, p. 54)

Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a recently retired educator. She told me that a primary reason behind her retirement was her frustration with the constant upheaval caused by administrators and politicians seeking to institute yet another reform. Tyack and Cuban attribute this feeling of hopelessness to the cycle of policy talk. Each time a conversation cycles back around, the context of school - and society - has changed. This historical perspective sheds light on not only the pervasive attitudes of those seeking to institute new reforms around 21st-Century Learning and the integration of new technologies, but also the teachers and administrators wrestling with how to bring them into the system. While the utopian view of reform may call for a cataclysmic upheaval of K-12 schools as we know them, Tyack and Cuban present a less apocalyptic image of what may be required, offering a prescription to tinker with the system such that we do not lose sight of what is already working.

For regular updates, please follow me on Twitter (@brholland). You can also view my resume and other articles at brholland.wordpress.com.

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