Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Why Top-Down School Reform Rarely Works

One of the most critical aspects of the present wave of school reform is that would-be reformers don't bother to ask teachers what they think. Emboldened by their own ignorance and impelled by a desire to posture for the electorate, politicians concoct top-down changes then try to force-feed them to gagging teachers.

This condescending style of management dates back to the era when classroom teachers were long-suffering females and the power holders were self-satisfied males. Today this style is alarmingly bisexual. Consider Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of Education, Washington, DC. She is a top-down reformer par excellence.

Top down reform also used to be a right wing specialty. William Bennett, President Reagan's blowhard Clown Prince of Education, for instance, combined top-down reform with unrestrained teacher bashing. These days, however, progressives like Arne Duncan, our conspicuously untrained, but politically connected, Secretary of Education, has adopted it without reservation.

The chief problem with this heavy-handed approach is that it rarely works. As far back as the 1970's a Rand Corporation study clearly demonstrated that successful introduction of innovations requires voluntary, highly motivated participants.

Think about it. It is teachers who must implement these so-called reforms. And once they close that classroom door there are a thousand ways to resist ranging from inaction, through half-hearted implementation, to sabotage.

The perception that teachers stand in the way of needed reform is one motivation for imposing non-consultative change. But resistance to change is hardly distinctive to teachers. Resistance is an inevitable response to any major change in any organization.[3] And when those changes are being pushed on you by the same people who disrespect you and ignore your advice, resistance is not only more likely, but sensible.
Nevertheless, teacher resistance so frustrates policy makers that if they ever thought about soliciting teacher consent and cooperation, they think about it no longer. Instead they become ever more controlling, autocratic and disrespectful. They implement straight jacket policies, eliminate delegated authority, and ratchet up coercion via so-called "merit pay."

The trouble is such policies only increase the sort of frustration and anxiety that stiffens teacher resistance. Nevertheless, politicians exercise their power with complete disregard for its impact on teacher morale. In fact, they seem to have lost all concern for the actual consequences of their "reforms" on those who must carry them out. Perhaps these reformers can't imagine the negative state of mind their actions promote — much less the negative consequences they have on instruction.

One reason policy makers underestimate the need for teacher cooperation is that they are too far removed from classroom realities. Unilaterally imposed "reforms" might seem plausible when viewed from the Olympus of Capital Hill or the White House. Imposed change might even seem credible in the less rarified atmosphere of a state capital. But on the ground, at the classroom level, the top=down approach fuels opposition, lowers teacher morale, and decreases teacher effectiveness.

Sure teachers must be held accountable for being informed, caring and doing their best with the resources they command. But contemporary reformers are going way beyond that. They demand that teachers be miracle workers who must somehow nullify anything that impacts school achievement. Never mind what goes on in the home, on the street, in the community, the economy, or in the school in general. There are to be "no excuses." If a child fails in school it is ultimately attributable to a teacher! What humbug!

Teachers know from bitter experience that what the boss calls "excuses" are often well-founded explanations. And researchers have found that a major source of employee resistance to change is fear of failure in the new environment.[4] So what are the reformers doing? They are demanding that teachers embrace a change that literally allows no room for failure no matter what. Who wouldn't be fearful of that kind of craziness?