Thursday, November 11, 2010

"New and Improved" or "Just New"

When purchasing a home or car beware the presence of "Wet Paint". You can hide just about any flaw with a coat of new paint. It seems educational reformers love change or "fresh paint" as well. Not just for the sake of change but I think they feel that if you change something it must be improving it. People who work in a school building welcome improvement, but know that changes are not always an improvement. A funny example was when a school board member visited our computer lab years ago and stated how wonderful it was to see students using technology and we needed more of this. The student in question was playing minesweeper.

Much of the reform that arrives at the schoolhouse door is merely a centralized form of the innovation many teachers are doing already. While I do not presume that reformers are ill intentioned, quite the opposite, I do feel it is difficult for them to grasp the impact of their changes on the classroom teacher and students. Arne Duncan is no doubt a learned man and well versed in the challenges faced in education from his decade of service in the Chicago City Schools. But he is helping drive nationwide change based on a system where the makeup and needs of the community are potentially very different from elsewhere. Implementing these ideas everywhere may in fact impede and disrupt much of what is being done well. Reformers love to point to results and too often fall into the trap of falsehoods. Improvement is linked to a single indicator or solely to reforms that have been instituted. When the gains stop, it must then be time to switch to something else.

Let's think about the iconic image of American education, the yellow schoolbus. The bus driver is tasked with safely navigating the bus with precious cargo intact. Imagine if you will that the bus was now driven by a national reformer, edupreneur, staffer or administrator at the division level who is years removed from the classroom or never spent time there. As they pass side roads they would be attracted by shiny objects or the fresh pavement and smooth surfaces. They might jerk the wheel sharply in order to change the direction of the bus thinking this is an improvement. The effect would be felt most by the passengers(students, teachers and parents), helplessly hanging on for dear life. Turn after turn...change after get the point. By the time the bus opened its doors to unload, folks are worn out.

My image of a bus driver evokes that of an old kind-hearted and grizzled figure who knows all the roads by heart and has driven them for years. They worked on buses and know every inch of the darn thing. They greet each passenger and appreciate how important they are to their parents. Maybe they even transported an older sibling in the past. They drive slow and wave as they pass, but you could set your clock to them. Some outsiders in their own cars who are trying to get to their own destination quickly get annoyed with the lack of progress, these drivers represent the most vocal critics of our public education system. The ride is smooth, measured and safe. The bus driver chats with the other drivers via the radio or in the lot while awaiting the rush of kids at the end of the school day. They spend hours caring for the bus, mopping the floor, returning lost items, maintaining the bus and wouldn't dare seek recognition. They are the human element in education.

Their reward is knowing they have done a solid job as they always have, and always will. I admit this is a bit idyllic and different from some of the years I rode the "Cheese Wagon". My most memorable driver was Mrs. Dubell. She lived up the street and blew a whistle when we got too loud, which seemed to happen at least two times per trip. She got us there every day, cared about us, did her job well and was left alone to do her job.

But times change. Drivers were forced to endure change in order to improve the system and make it more efficient. Routes were shifted and demands increased to "maximize" this efficiency. Mrs. Dubell's bus no longer sat in her driveway and it was now parked in the county lot. She had to go get it each day only to drive it back towards her house to begin her route. It wasn't long before she stopped driving all together. This began a laundry list of drivers on our route, none of which knew me, and few of which I can remember.

This story applies because the bus, analogous to the education system in general, I am on now is jerky and changes course frequently. Standardized testing, NCLB, formative assessments, schedule changes, online courses, push for common practices among classrooms, grading changes, increasing class sizes and work load, staff turnover, declining morale, technological overload ,the list of changes goes on. Much of this change is unproven and quite profound. It carries the power of mandate which is often unfunded consuming resources which could be used elsewhere. I am being asked to do pretty much the same thing I was doing well earlier in my career, before I was expected to change to something else. And now there's a whole lot more of it. Honestly it is getting hard to do anything well. I guess my choices are hop off this bus and walk(too far) or suggest ways the driver can improve.

The problem for me is the same as it was for the old bus driver. Determining my role in this new landscape and wondering if the relationships I forge with the students will have as big of a place in the equation? As my own child nears the age where she will depart on a schoolbus for the first day of school I know I prefer she ride with the old seasoned driver. I will want the same one each year who does their job well. I wonder what changes she will encounter that may not be improvements?

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