The inconvenient truth of the school reform movement is the necessary innovative engine never leaves the train station. For decades governing bodies have passed numerous mandates that they believe will stimulate school administrators to “think out of the box.” These think out of the box mandates have pursued two legislative tracks to coax schools into thinking differently about how we configure school organizations and how we deliver instruction. The first track, which I will term, the do your own thing track, releases schools from governmental constraints to author a new school reality. The second track, which I will term, do what we say or we will hurt you track. Track #1 created the charter school movement; track #2 created the no child left behind movement.
The subject of this blog is not a detailed analysis of what was wrong with the premises and actions of both movements. Succinctly put, the schools on Track #1 did leave the station—but, only stopped as a similar station down the tracks. The schools on Track #2 remained at the station waiting for governmental inspectors to certify they had left no child behind.
The failure of both schools of innovation can be attributed to proponents spending too much time standing and talking on station platforms and not enough time inside the train cars they are striving to transform. If these proponents would move off the station platforms and enter the cars on the track they would discover the following schooling realities that will derail any effort at school innovation:
Reality #1: They need more tracks
The two-track reform model makes it appear as if there are two distinctly different approaches to school innovation. In reality, although both school platforms are on separate tracks, they both are pursing the same institutional goals—certification—they both leave classroom instruction untouched—telling, listening, testing—and they both leave the school organization in tact—buildings, classrooms, offices, departments.
Reality #2: They are not practical
For innovative educational programs to be fully adopted they must stay within the “zone of practicality.” A practical innovative program meets the following criteria:
- The innovation is IMPORTANT–>It pursues a valued end of schooling that teachers believe are vital for student success.
- The innovation is CONCRETE–>It is composed of theories and practices that employs familiar concepts, vocabularies, and practices.
- The innovation is COHERENT—>It aligns with the district’s instructional philosophy and other innovative initiatives.
- The innovation is TEACHABLE–>It is composed of theories and practices that align with faculties educational background.
- The innovation is FEASIBLE—>It can be supported with resources the district possesses.
Reality #3: They are too complex
Innovate approaches to teaching and learning originate from university research programs and professional organizations. The level of cognitive complexity of these pedagogical models do not fit well into classroom instructional routines or into the professional training of teachers.
Reality #4: They are in opposition to the grammar of schooling
All members of a school community have been to school. They have all experienced the same goals, the same organization, the same teaching, the same curriculum, the same incentive systems that their children are now experiencing—the grammar of schooling. Most innovative programs ask administrators and teachers to discard parts or all of the elements of the grammar of schooling. School communities will be quick to show up to board meetings where they believe are tampering with or discarding what their belief in how schools should look and operate.
Reality #5: They have no engineer
For any innovation to work in schools requires a school leader—the train engineer—must be part poet (what we can imagine; part teacher (what we know); part politician (what we can get done); and part manager (what we do). Presently, most schools do not have a train engineer. What we do have are train conductors. They are good at keeping the school train running on time and making sure passengers comply with rules, but, they neither have the knowledge, skills, or inclination to redesign the how, what, or why of the trains they work on.