The worship of change

Whenever there’s a drive for a particular change in education, reformers talk as though change in general were desirable and good. Those who “resist change” are seen as impediments to reform.

During the curriculum change movement of the 1950s, education reformers applied social engineering methods to curriculum change. Many faculty meetings were devoted to the “change process,” with group activities designed to “re-educate” teachers and bring about consensus. (For a fascinating analysis of this movement, see Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, pp. 335-343.)

Policymakers continue to use social engineering techniques in order to bring about change in schools. Professional development facilitators use those methods frequently. It is not difficult to find articles, policy papers, and opinion pieces that glorify change and trivialize opposition to change. See, for example, Jana Hunzicker, “The Beliefs-Behavior Connection: Leading Teachers Toward Change” (Principal, November/December 2004, pp. 44-46). According to this article, teachers resist change because of low levels of knowledge, experience, and comfort, as well as poor moral and ego development. Not once does the author consider that the change in question might be a bad idea and that those who resist it might be wise.

Why the assumption that those who resist change are defective? Aren’t some changes much sounder than others? If a school is considering a flawed reading program, for example, some teachers may resist it for excellent reasons. Why ascribe shortcomings to them and not to the proposed change itself?

Demiashkevich offered a dualist conception of education, combining idealism and materialism. In An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, he argued that neither idealism nor materialism is sufficient in itself to explain existence or to address the complexities of education. We must honor both permanence and flux. Change has no inherent goodness. On p. 123 he writes:

The confusion between novelty and desirability, between changing and improving, should, of course, be vigilantly avoided in education as much as in other human matters, or perhaps even more so. On the other hand, suggestions for reform and the invitation to review the existing educational situation, when prompted by a sincere and solid quest for social good, should be welcomed.

Once we break the link between “novelty and desirability,” between “changing and improving,” we can consider individual changes on their own merits. The dissident voices may be among our greatest assets, because they can help us recognize when we are doing something silly.

In his wonderful little book And Madly Teach (1949), Mortimer Smith poses the question:

We have been going along now for some time on the theory that education consists simply of experience and change and “growth,” and this theory has not, as far as I can see, furthered the millennium to any startling degree. Perhaps we need to set up some ends for education; perhaps we need to ask, “Growth towards what?”

Yes, growth towards what? Change of what, and why? And what do we hope to keep?


  1. Margo/Mom says:

    I think that most recent reforms have been pretty clear about what they hoped to accomplish (generally improved academic outcomes, although sometimes it’s various steps along that path: increased attendance, diminished problems with discipline, increased teacher knowledge). What seems to be lacking is 1) any sense of cohesion with regard to implementation; 2)willingness to track and evaluate the impact of change in any meaningful ways; and 3)any sense on the part of those charged with implementation that there is a need for change.

    When an alcoholic has lost every job that s/he has held over the most recent five years, is alienated from friends and family and faces bankruptcy, it is not uncommon for everyone BUT the alcoholic to be clear that 1) there is a problem and 2) the problem stems from drinking. This is appropriately called denial. Sometimes friends and family get taken along for the ride, blaming the employers, the creditors, the other parts of the family/friend circle who have left. They all regard themselves as the expert on what is REALLY going on (he wouldn’t have started drinking if his wife wasn’t such a witch; the problem isn’t the alcohol–its that she lost her job; if they could just get rid of the creditors then they could get things back on track again)–and resent any clueless do-gooders on the outside who are clamoring for change in the fundamental problem–which is drinking.

    Teachers seem to have a difficult time confronting some basic realities about the mal-distribution of education and knowledge in our current system of public schooling. Some will freely tell you that they are GOOD teachers, but they cannot make kids learn. They know that they are good teachers because they are doing what they have been doing for the past 20 years–and some kids seem to follow along just fine and end up learning. But–too many (how many? 30%, 50%, 70%?) just aren’t interested, lack the basic smarts, don’t have enough family support, are too hungry or too sick or too criminally oriented. Why put any effort into change when what you are doing works just fine for the kids that you believe are “ready to learn?” (Senge refers to this as changing the goal to accommodate the existing system, rather than making improvements).

    I have worked with groups of children and youth in decision-making situations. A basic parameter was always that the “group” had to arrive at a decision (consistent with the overall philosophy of the agency where I was working) that everyone could live with. Diane Ravitch deals with this approach harshly in Left Behind. But the antithesis is something like anarchy (or top down edicts, if they can be enforced). Clayton Christensen describe a situation in organizations in which neither goals nor methodologies are agreed upon. There are three other possibilities to work from (agreement on both, on one or the other), each calling for different leadership qualities. But the lack of agreement on anything is at once the most difficult to confront, and the most damaging. Nothing can ever improve (because there is no agreement on where the organization is to go, or how to get there), and morale suffers tremendously.

    I personally tend to still attempt some definition of agreement–even if it is only to try something and then evaluate. Christensen (and others) really look to more drastic action–cleaning house, sanctions–the kinds of confrontations that will force enough change to get far enough away from the anarchy to allow for some agreement and movement (I think it is Good to Great that uses a bus analogy–ensuring that the right people are on the bus–all headed in the same direction).

    What I absolutely cannot buy into is a defense of the status quo as being good enough. Accepting the need for improvement implies an acceptance of the need for change. At that point there is room for discussion about whose way is the right way. Are Diana’s teaching methods exemplary and something to be emulated in other classrooms (and how do we know, and exactly what are the things that should be carried over)? Do we see evidence that some identifiable group of kids or segment of curriculum is repeatedly being left out?

    These are big picture questions and require a big picture point of view–something hard (but not impossible) to maintain from a classroom–but also frequently rejected out of hand by classroom teachers. Administrators, after all, are nothing more than failed teachers. Their point of view is useless–“reformers” who want change for the sake of change.

    As a parent–and therefore an outsider–and one who may be cast (without shame) as a “reformy-type” I will honestly say that I want change. I don’t want another mother’s kid to be treated the way that one of mine has been by the school system. I want a school system that sees the overwhelming low achievement of some groups to be a problem begging for solution. I don’t want to hear again (and again and again) that despite all evidence to the contrary–what has happened in my kid’s classroom is the best that can be expected–and that the problem is that I expect too much.

    I am not committed to change just to make teacher’s lives unbearable, or because I think that teachers are all stupid. I want improvement because I see every day on my block and in my neighborhood and in my house the evidence that too many kids are overlooked by teachers who firmly believe that what they are already doing is the best of all possible options.

  2. Robert Wright says:

    Great posts like this one, of which there have been several lately, move me to confess that I would pay to subscribe to this blog if/when the day comes that I have to.

  3. Ponderosa says:

    Oh, you are so right: too many Americans equate change and novelty with improvement. Our superintendent has just foisted huge changes on us, including many radically different teaching assignments and lumping history in with language arts/literature –I despise many of these changes not because I have little knowledge but because I have MORE knowledge. Change, in my experience as a teacher, often means rooting out something imperfect-but-workable and replacing it with something imperfect and unworkable. Incessant and misguided change seems to be the lot of American schools.

  4. I find all the talk about change in schools fascinating. Before I became a teacher I was a business consultant and computer programmer. I was paid to make change. But before any change happened we spent a lot of time crunching the numbers and determining the least intrusive way to figure out if our changes were improvements or not. And then there was always a pilot program that was rigorously studied. If the pilot didn’t get the results we wanted we went back to the drawing board. A large company was not made to change whole hog until we could prove that we were on a desirable path based on the metrics the company itself helped to establish.

    I realize that education and business, while similar in some respects, are not the same. But I am amazed at how administrations and other seemingly interested parties jump into something without a true notion of the cost and what the real change will be. I think there are a lot of teachers resistant to change because they’ve already seen change and it’s been a failure. Why make more work that’s just going to fail? It’s bad for teachers and it’s bad for students to keep failing at each next great thing. It’s hard to study changes in education because there are so many variables.

    I like change. I usually embrace change. But I don’t like it for its own sake and I want to know that the change is worth my time. I’m even willing to be a pilot subject and I want to see the results when it’s over. Do not tell me that it’s in the interest of the children unless you can either prove it to me or convince me that we need to try it to see if it will work and I’m the first study subject. I’m ok with that as long as I know where I stand.

    Let’s face it: bad teachers will always be able to mess up your system. Good teachers find a way to make it work no matter what, even if that means subverting the system so kids can learn.

  5. I completely agree, Robert.

  6. There’s also the problem of misinterpreting the same recycled ideas that didn’t work the first 5 times as change.

  7. tim-10-ber says:

    Patti — very well said!!