Monday, May 2, 2011

The Fog of Education

According to Wikipedia the fog of war is a term used to describe the uncertainty in situation awareness experienced by participants in military operations. It describes the uncertainty regarding own capability, adversary capability, and adversary intent during an engagement, operation, or campaign. The term is ascribed to the Prussian military analyst Carl von Clausewitz, who wrote:

"The great uncertainty of all data in war is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not infrequently — like the effect of a fog or moonshine — gives to things exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance.".

Fog of War is also the title of an Errol Morris film based on interviews of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He emerged from the business world to lead another but very different arm of the government(see related post here or here). The film mostly deals with Vietnam and the fundamental misunderstanding of American commanders about what was really happening on the ground.

A parallel can be drawn to the current state of education from a teachers point of view. Those currently directing the course of public education from the top at the federal, state and local level are lost in the fog. They arguably possess a more omniscient point of view than teachers yet continually fail to effectively understand all that is happening in the current landscape at the classroom level. They, like McNamara are applying business concepts and ideas to the world of education. One of the chief impacts of this course might be the slow erosion of valuing of teacher/student interaction. Sacrificed as a result of the focus on testing and measurable results in an AYP world.

What's worse is these individuals lacking clear insight have either accepted or promoted misconceptions about the reality of what needs to happen in education albeit unintentionally. Some of these ideas purposefully pushed by groups and organizations that put ideology or profit ahead of the student. The tragedy of this situation is it means things could potentially grow more challenging for the educators in schools working so hard to help, parents and of course kids. The impact is teachers burn out, get demoralized and even quit. This leaves those really at risk, the kids and parents feeling under-served and the cycle worsens.

In our current economic climate many folks get engaged in the debate on the local level concerning taxes and education funding. Usually things come to a head at a public meeting where all sides speak out. The impact of increases or decreases in funding are usually less than what either side contends. But cuts adds up. The sum total is subtle changes occur that affect the quality what we do.

In focusing on these local budget issues or even on an individual school's improvement we can all get lost in the fog. It is impossible to exist in a public school and avoid the adverse effects of the push for results. We can be complicit in this when we simply "feed them what they eat" ...or talk and report in a way that we think higher-ups either want or that paint us in a favorable light. An ailment common among large bureaucracies and given the division of labor in schools no single level is fully responsible. It is easy to forget what we are actually there to do, teach and help young people develop and grow.

The only effective way to get a sense of what is really taking place is to be as close to these issues as possible. As momentum for change mounts many current efforts coming from the top will in fact will continue to devote energy and resources away from where they are needed, classroom instruction. I cannot name a current reform which to me shows promise of helping increase the time, quality or ability to interact with students. They will likely trade what matters most for what matters now.

Absent the insight of the actual events within a school the fog will simply continue to thicken obscuring the view. Mistakes will continue to be made by well meaning individuals at the top. I have heard it said of military policy that only those who have put their life on the line get to second guess the soldier in the field. I feel much the same with regards to teaching and education policy. A strong suggestion is that anyone entrusted to chart a course for policy be both familiar and in touch with those below the layer where they are unable to see.

1 comment:

  1. I have only seen parts of a few episodes, but it reminds me of that television show Undercover Boss. It is easy to stand above and think things are going great. We've been consolidating standards and expanding testing for over a decade. What do we have for it? An even bigger perception that schools are failing. What's the cause? Certainly not the emphasis on testing that gained so much ground in the 1990's. But what do we get from our leaders? More testing, even to the point of expanding testing so that we can evaluate teachers with it.