Why can’t schools change?

by Steve Wyckoff on January 31, 2010

Why can’t schools change? It’s an interesting question. If you ask many educators they would say that schools have changed dramatically. I disagree. I think what goes on inside some classrooms has changed dramatically, but not schools. We do use more technology in classrooms; projectors, computers, smart boards, etc. But what we’re doing inside those walls is basically the same thing we’ve done for over 100 years. And sadly, with pretty much the same curriculum. Oh there have been some changes, but mostly tinkering inside the old format.

Some people believe that we need to change the rules so that schools look different. But then I can show you examples of schools that look dramatically different than traditional schools and are functioning within the same rules, regulations, and policies. So the rules must not be what is impeding our ability to change.

Other people think that a tradition that is over 100 years old is keeping us from changing. That we’ve done school the same way for so long that the belief system, and the culture around schools is too entrenched to change. These people often see parents as the biggest reason we can’t change. That parents demand that schools look like they did when they were students.

Still more people believe that the arcane rules for admission into college keep us from changing. That the emphasis on preparing every student to go to college forces schools to behave exactly as they always have. They believe that the Carnegie unit, Departmentalization, focus on standardized test, etc. are the fault of universities.

A cause that is never considered among educators is that perhaps we lack the leadership to make changes. School administrators are of the opinion that they are no longer managers, but rather leaders. I’m not sure I see any difference in their behaviors from when they were managers. I don’t think that continuous improvement of traditional processes constitutes leadership when there is a need for real systemic change.

There is also a school of thought that educators are risk-averse by nature, and that has a whole, are very, very reluctant to change. But when I talk to business people they feel the same way about themselves. Being resistant to change seems to be, to a large degree, human nature, and not reserved for educators.

And last, but certainly not least, there seems to be an non-articulated argument about the purpose of schools. There seems to be a “venn diagram” of purposes for schools. Prepare kids to go to college, prepare kids for the workplace, to give them a broad liberal education, to indoctrinate them for society, etc. The conflicting camps all want schools to change in a different way, therefore causing gridlock.

I think, in my humble opinion, that each of these is a characteristic of a centrally controlled bureaucracy. And there is no bigger centrally controlled bureaucracy than public education. Bureaucracies were designed to guarantee compliance, and stability in systems and processes. There is no system with more stable systems and processes nor more compliant than public education.

So what do I think the chances of real systemic change are? Zero. Nadda. None. In fact I think the bureaucracy has moved from the state level to the federal level with a corresponding increase in stability and compliance. I chuckle at the federal government’s insistence that they are encouraging real systemic change in schools. My observation is that they are causing exactly the opposite effect. Our schools have become test preparation Academy, whose sole purpose is to prepare kids to increase their scores on standardized test.

So what’s the solution? I believe the solution is “mission impossible.” The elimination of the educational bureaucracy at a time when our country is moving in the opposite direction seems hopeless. I keep looking for that ray of hope, but every time I see one, the results never seem to pan out. I don’t think there is a rule that America has to stay the best. Time will tell.- Steve Wyckoff

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