Tie And Jeans

Can Schools Fix It In Post?

The real problem with not writing for a week is that my brain doesn’t ever acknowledge the vacation period. So instead of feeling relaxed, I build up a pile of half-posts and inspirations that molt into open loops, which in turn chew away at the edifice of DONE.

Living on the academic calendar does weird things to your mental model of time, leaving most of us more comfortable wishing people Happy New Year in September than in January. Every step I take outside of the classroom weirds me out even more, as the administrative calendar always runs three to six months ahead of teachers and students. So this week kids and teachers grapple with exams, and my head is swimming with new schedule plans and logistics for the coming year.

I’m enough of a colored-block nerd to like scheduling as a task. It’s a puzzle with intertwined and non-obvious restrictions, one that can reward either balanced or monopoly strategies, and it SEEMS ripe with novel victory conditions. Unlike any of the games linked above, there’s the potential to have a tangible, positive effect on everyone’s day to day school experience.

Larry Cuban posted a great exploration around why school reformers lean so hard on structural solutions like block schedules, enforced common preps, or linked courses, even though most research and observation shows that structural changes alone are rarely effective. I think the answer might be obvious, but it bears repeating — structural changes magnify the speed and power of administrative level decisions.

If a moderate-size school wants to move away from content-based lecture classes and a model founded on student inquiry, then each classroom and and teacher will need to drastically rework their classroom practice. To start this process successfully means building a consensus among the staff, extensive professional development and creating new support structures among the faculty, but at some point the structure of the school and school day will need to change as well.

When these structural changes are made without those other components, without clear vision, faculty preparation and extensive support, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the reforms are markedly less successful. But I can see how well-intentioned people can make psuedo-rational arguments for that sequence of choices.* Changing the structure first shows that the school is “serious” about the new direction, thereby limiting the need for real consensus among the faculty. Switching to 120 minute block periods, the thinking goes, will force teachers to change their approach and seek out new PD resources. Perhaps the schock of a new structure will convince an entrenched teacher to look for their next school, rather than adjust their practice. The negative effects of jumping into structural change are not mysterious or unexpected. Often they’re fully anticipated but recast as motivating challenges, and as such, lackluster preparation becomes an “authentic” sink or swim moment. It’s the EdReform version of “we’ll fix it in post.”

I’m personally guilty of this form of magical thinking, to the extent where even now there’s a part of me that wants to argue “you just have to jump SOMETIME!” It’s true! If the school experience you want to create won’t thrive in 45 minute blocks, then structural changes will need to happen. Opting for smaller piecemeal changes waters down the transformative potential, and perpetuates the message that we should tweak, rather than rethink, our teaching practice.

But using those “big changes” without, or possibly in lieu of, the necessary groundwork is the ultimate sacrifice of image for substance. Instead of embarking from a position of consensus and committed vision, the hardships of a sudden transition reframe the process as a series antagonistic moves on the part of the administration. Now instead of grappling with the “sink or swim” challenges, there’s a host of toxic and damaging behaviors developing. Teachers who feel slighted by the transition will avoid changing their practice out of principle, waiting for the administration to lose focus, change personell, or just concede and move on to the NEXT major reform. The entire experiment enters into the cultural memory of the school as yet another stupid reform plan that “won’t work here.”

Which makes winter a hard time of year. Instead of finessing the details of making that crazy awesome schedule work for fall, administrators need to push deeper into classrooms that are already overtaxed with exams. Playing the schedule puzzle can be fun, but without the cultural backing of classroom teachers willing to change their classroom practice, it’s probably better to stick with the games.

* The malicious interpretation is that reformers and administrators define success in terms of implementations they can list on their resume, rather than the longterm success or health of those schools. Choose your favorite quote from The Wire or The Simpsons to illustrate.

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