School & District Management Opinion

The Power and Peril of Idea-Driven Reform

By Robert L. Hampel — April 21, 1999 10 min read
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In dreams begin responsibilities, as the poet Delmore Schwartz once said. The educators profiled in these pages recounting the century’s philosophical debates in education wanted to see their ideas take hold. They knew it might require a decade or more for schools to put the principles into practice. Stamina had to accompany passion. Publication often marked the start, not the end, of the work. One upshot is that many of the best-known books on education reform this century have one or more sequels where “implementation” is the story.

I put implementation in quotes because the word misrepresents what happens in reforms where ideas are central. Whenever broad concepts are at the heart of a coalition, the teachers who use them will adapt, not adopt, those notions. Each site is encouraged to interpret the ideas to suit local needs. A central staff will offer advice, host conferences, and generate materials to explain the concepts, but there are no models to imitate slavishly or detailed procedures to follow unswervingly. Idea-driven reform respects teachers and honors their ability to read, talk, and link theory with action.

Idea-driven reform is practical rather than quixotic in that other approaches rarely work. Cajoling schools with legislative mandates, shackling teachers with minutely scripted curricular packages, replacing staff with the latest technology: All have been tried and none went very far. Without honoring the wit and will of the people closest to students, new initiatives falter. The history of school reform indicates that agendas pushed down from above telling schools what to do eventually get set aside unless the teachers understand and endorse the ideas.

Yet sustained faculty conversation about important educational issues is as rare as it is crucial in most American schools. Doing takes precedence over talking, and isolation is more common than collegiality. What might seem an exception--the lengthy “self-study” done for accreditation--often promotes a checklist mentality. Do we have this or that? Can we match our programs with their guidelines?

Necessary for serious discussion of reform principles is a shift in school culture, a quest for what some writers call “reflective practice” in a “community of learners.” Teachers like to quip that anyone can “talk the talk” rather than “walk the walk.” But talking the talk is a big job in itself, too easily dismissed as pointless “philosophizing.”

To converse thoughtfully takes time and effort. Although few reform principles are abstruse, they are not simple or self-evident. They convey more than “try something different,” which is how some teachers construe membership in a national network--permission to do something, anything, new. As an ideology, reform principles are not as open as a psychologist’s projective test, a Rorschach with no right answers. Nor are they as narrow as a specific instructional strategy--an ideology is not a script to follow, package to buy, or program to install.

What often happens is that people and principles get equated. Schools join reform networks, but individuals carry out the changes, especially at the start, when “whole-school change” is still far away. Particular teachers, or groups of teachers, emerge as the staunchest advocates. Their words and deeds seem to be one and the same as the beliefs of John I. Goodlad, John Dewey, whomever.

That confluence can be helpful. Without the example of an articulate and respected colleague, the core ideas and their manifestations in action are elusive, more abstract, and harder to grasp.

But what if the vanguard teachers are not the school’s best teachers? In school improvement initiatives, the leaders usually volunteer. Eagerness to participate, not pedagogical excellence, is what the vanguard shares, and the two traits are not always synonymous. Rejecting old methods does not guarantee success with newer ones (just as acceptance of old ways does not ensure failure with new ways). So it becomes easy for an observer to leap from, “That 5th grade team is struggling,” to, “E.D. Hirsch’s ideas stink.”

The conflation of people and principles helps explain why in many schools a measure of progress is the conversion of individuals who had been holdouts. That is, the willingness of a previously indifferent or ornery teacher to join a team, chair a committee, create interdisciplinary units, or participate in others ways is heralded as evidence that the ideas are spreading. However, the recruits sign on for many reasons, some only remotely related to educational principles. Snaring a second planning period, teaming with an old friend, protecting curricular turf, and other motives can overshadow agreement with and understanding of the ideas driving the reform.

Even when excellent teachers with honorable motives join and lead the way, the cadre may not have strong organizational skills. Little in their background equips them for the sudden responsibility of overseeing school change. So sometimes their stewardship seems naive and improvised. For instance, in the late 1980s, in networks keen on “restructuring” schools, many teacher-leaders were remarkably wary of structure. Meetings would lack ground rules, evaluation would be postponed, budgets wouldn’t be balanced, and so on. As a result, some colleagues stayed away because they equated the project’s ideas with chaos, even when the problems were simply the predictable and well-intentioned fumbling first steps of inexperienced teacher-leaders.

It is not an easy task to read, discuss, and use the ideas in the major books on education. Unlike a university seminar, it is hard to establish one interpretation as better than another. Who in the faculty is privileged to do so? There are few teachers who know the concepts so deeply that they can call attention to unthoughtfulness, misinterpretations, and other lapses in the conversations. Those who do may hold back for fear of sounding preachy and bossy.

In place of debate, teachers often try something new, tell colleagues it worked well, and no one then pushes to see if in fact the innovators performed as well as advertised. Colleagues congratulate each other for their willingness to experiment.

That generosity is sensible strategy early on, when it is vital to win allies. At the beginning, why risk offending anyone by insisting on this or that point of view, especially if teachers have heard there is no model to copy? There may be enough tensions and conflicts within the school without pouncing on each other’s comments in meetings. But the price of the peace is lack of practice in the rigorous analysis and questioning that the principles themselves usually press teachers to do with their students.

Without frank, collegial discussion of the reform ideas, teachers are prone to stress part of a concept and overlook or reject the rest. For example, the popular “less is more” aphorism is often oversimplified. It is easy to envision “less” but much harder to see how less can be more. How can one Shakespeare play possibly offer more than three? Doesn’t the state test require coverage, not depth? Won’t our students botch their Advanced Placement exams? Without conversation and discussion, each question can become an exclamation point, an easy excuse to reject less-is-more. A major challenge for school reformers is to take away the easy excuses (especially the popular “But we already do that!”) without insulting anyone.

American schools have long been polite places where no one confronts anyone else too directly. Teachers who disagree with policies complain in private and ignore the policy in practice. Administrators congratulate themselves on their accomplishments without seeking evidence of success or failure from those they know to be skeptical. Those schools that consistently paper over areas of disagreement hardly ever build educational programs that truly develop their students’ potential.

Schools that do engage in rigorous discourse have many advantages that increase and persist over time. The climate of the school becomes more professional, centered around dialogue about teaching and learning. Those usually labeled as resisters can win the regard of their peers because of their ability to ask the most difficult questions. In turn, the resisters find legitimate avenues for involvement. All staff members feel relieved they can speak openly instead of covertly, and they begin to see that direct conversation, straight shooting, can improve their capacity to work with students.

There is no reason why the landmark books on education cannot find a wide audience, both within schools and outside. The books and reports cited in “Lessons of a Century” broadcast familiar aspirations for schools. They set forth hopes and dreams shared across the country. Many sold well for that reason--they expressed yearnings deeply felt but not fully developed or forcefully articulated by parents and citizens.

A key reason why most of the major works are accessible is their attentiveness to life in classrooms. They are full of painstaking descriptions of teaching. The canonical works are not philosophical treatises or arcane research disconnected from everyday life in schools. It is a literature of exhortation based on close observations, including a large amount of autobiography. It is thus surprising whenever anyone dismisses the works as “theory” or “educationese.” The opposite charge--not enough theory undergirding the anecdotes and testimonials--would be more appropriate.

Readers also value the moral outrage in many of the books. The popular autobiographical accounts by John Holt, George Dennison, Jonathan Kozol, James Herndon, and others in the 1960s pilloried schools for the poor, and celebrated idealistic teachers who persevered inside dreary urban schools. To a man like the social critic Paul Goodman, pedagogical change should have gone hand in hand with a transformation of the entire culture. On the other hand, educators have occasionally been the target of the indignation. Arthur Bestor and other critics of progressivism were forever sputtering over the excesses of the “life adjustment” movement at midcentury. Recently, there have been fewer books marked by indignation, but they still appear, sell well, and arouse strong feelings, as Kozol’s Savage Inequalities demonstrated.

One group of writers who carry on the tradition of impassioned observations on schooling is journalists. We need a good history of 20th-century journalists’ commentary on schooling. They produced portraits of schools before qualitative research became fashionable, lacing their descriptions with blunt criticism. Books by Benjamin Fine, Martin Mayer, Peter Schrag, Fred and Grace Hechinger, and Charles Silberman are indispensable for understanding what it felt like to teach in schools between 1945 and 1970.

Recent books by the journalists Samuel Freedman, Tracy Kidder, Thomas French, and Patricia Hersch provide what is too often missing in research from the academy: the perspectives of students. Usually, the journalists profile between six and 15 students, and astonishing variety stands out more than any commonalities. Within the same school, kids with utterly different lives are side by side. Often they move within social groups totally separate from other social groups. The journalists’ accounts caution against across-the-board reform proposals that minimize or ignore the inescapable fact that kids differ.

If there are books about students, it is rare to find books and reports that are for students. Where in these pages celebrating the century in education are passages addressed to adolescents? In contrast to reformers’ focus on other adults, the corporate appeal to the youth market is direct and intense. The incentives are immediate and substantial--magazines, movies, music, and other after-school pursuits yield billions. The commercial messages are pervasive, beguiling, and thoroughly anti-intellectual. If marketing departments can reach and hold teenagers, why can’t educators and students develop equally sophisticated campaigns on behalf of better schools? I hope that in our 2099 review of the 21st century in education, there will be many books excerpted that target the only people who can sustain school improvement, the students in our schools.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 1999 edition of Education Week as The Power and Peril of Idea-Driven Reform


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