Friday, September 1, 2017

Why is Change so Hard?

            Everyone seems to want schools to change. “Improve” is usually the word used when the topic comes up, but either way, it is implied they are not working properly now. As you know by now, I disagree with that statement. In general, schools ARE working properly, but they do not exist in a vacuum. The impact of increasingly negative social and cultural issues is daunting. And the public and private discourse about improving education must focus on changing those social and cultural impacts that teachers and schools were never and should never be tasked with dealing with alone.

            But no matter the semantics, why is change so hard? Several forces are at work that impact change in public schools. No one alone can be blamed, though some blame the teachers and unions. I don’t agree. I recently saw that only 17 states allow teacher unionization of public servants and/or teachers. That leaves 33 that do not have unions to blame. Even in those states with unions, teachers don’t resist change that will improve the learning and eventual good of the children they work with. They resist changes and demands that are counterintuitive with respect to that process.

            Teachers want what is best for their students. Sure, we all know a few teachers whose only focus is themselves but their numbers are very small, and occur in no greater percentages than in any other group. Selfish people are everywhere. I know people at church who want what is best for themselves, not the church. I see friends in industry who want what is best for them and not their companies. To blame a few teachers for not wanting change and pretending that they are the reason schools are failing is not only farfetched, but an abdication of responsibility by people other than those who stand in front of a class of students every day.

            Change takes time. Before becoming a teacher, I worked for the U.S.  Army Corps of Engineers at a construction research lab. While talking to a research civil engineer one day, we talked about why change took so long in the field. He said that when his department’s researchers came up with a better way to build something, it took an average of 17 years before it became common practice.

            That was back in the 1980s, long before the internet and lightning-fast communication, but change in construction methods still doesn’t happen overnight. Why thinking people would expect it of schools and teachers, even if the change is well-justified, is mind-boggling to me.

            In education, a reason I hear often from my colleagues about changing is that whatever the change, “it won’t last.” There have been so many “reforms” pushed on teachers for so many years, with results expected in “a year or two,” that none of them really believe they will ever be given the time they know it will take for them to fully understand and implement new programs.

            I understand that we want results and we want them quickly. But I also understand that the source of so many “failed” policies and procedures in both the corporate and public spheres today is not a failure of policy. It’s our failure to fully examine the positive and negative ramifications of our actions before they are undertaken, based on information provided by experts representing all of the direct shareholders. The legislators and media do not want to wait for the process of change to occur—of late, they are more interested in political expedience and ratings.

            But, whether we think it should be or not, it is not human nature to change overnight. We are creatures of habit. Putting even changes we want to make for ourselves, such as lifestyle changes, weight loss, or watching less TV, take a while. To expect a large organization of diverse people to change within a year or two, completely revamping the ways in which they deliver information and are evaluated, and to expect the children themselves to respond to those changes as quickly, is neither realistic nor does it demonstrate even a basic understanding of people.

            When the expected changes that politicians or central offices impose on schools and teachers do not occur as quickly as desired or “promised” to their constituents rather than reexamining the original time frames for their basis in reality, the now standard response seems to be to mandate and push down more new programs. As a result, many teachers and administrators have become jaded. They don’t believe they will be offered the time to absorb, retrain, and truly integrate new curricula or programs into their methodologies (and the evidence suggests that they are right), so they carry on the best they can, adapting where they can, until the next policy or program comes along. In the end, what is measured and reported is the failure of the schools or the teachers—but not the lack of wisdom, maturity, and expertise of those doing the imposing.

            The recurring theme of reform efforts also speaks to another underlying issue that impedes change—resistance from parents. I hear parents complain about schools, but when speaking to me, they are usually referring to other schools—not the one their child attends, parroting what they’ve heard from the media and politicians whose agendas have nothing to do with what’s best for education or the reality of the options.

            When I did the research for my dissertation, which focused on the effects of high-stakes testing on interdisciplinary teaching, I found that upwards of 80% of parents were satisfied with their child’s teachers and school. But when questioned further, they believed that other public schools had issues and needed to improve. The “broken” schools must be “the inner city schools,” a view which circles back to underscore other often skewed ideas also promoted by politicians and the media.

            The bottom line is that individual organizational characteristics, industries, policies, and behavior all must be considered when change, even if it improves things, is orchestrated. By nature, smaller organizations can change faster than larger because there are fewer people involved with and impacted by the changes. Corporate organizations may be able to change faster than government bureaucracies because the rules and procedures are different and the “shareholders” are limited, whereas in government, every citizen within the jurisdiction has a say with his or her vote.

            Add the extra scrutiny of the public when you are talking about change that impacts their children’s lives (as opposed to raising a gas tax, for instance) and the process takes even longer. The sheer numbers of people required to make even simple changes come about—from districts to principals to teachers to students to parents and members of the general public whose children are either already adults or not yet born…you get the picture.

            Like it or not, the public education system is made of humans. It takes humans time to change and if we take the process seriously, it should.

            Give us clear direction, goals, and timelines that are well-documented and justified in bringing about the purposes we have agreed on, set a reasonable deadline for when the first measurements of progress will be conducted, convince us of the relevance to the outcomes you seek, and then leave us alone. We are professionals, and we will deliver. We do not need micromanagement, especially not by those who have never stood in our shoes and cannot possibly understand the challenges we face daily.

            Tell us what you want and we will teach the children. We are trained professionals. Believe in our craft and the children, and we will do what is in our power to help children grow into the self-sufficient, well-informed, successful humans we all want them to be. With all of the things that have changed, some haven’t, however—how we learn, what makes learning more likely to occur, and what can interfere with the process. Those trained today for the occupation of teacher still learn Bloom’s Taxonomy. The basics of Piaget’s stages of cognitive development are the same as they ever were.

            But for me, it’s another theory, Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that most clearly frames the problems of public education today.

This an excerpt from “STOP BLAMING + START TALKING: Developing a Dialogue for Getting Public Education Back on Track” pages 35 - 39. Paperback and eBook available at: