By John Adsit
Editor, Curriculum & Instruction
As I noted in one of my past articles in which I mentioned the problem the computer giant DEC had with creating critical improvements in its computers, the problem lies in the fact that an incumbent system, created to better accommodate an existing situation, acts to perpetuate itself even after the situation changes. That comes about for two reasons.
The first is simple resistance to change, both psychological and legislative. We have always done something one way, and we are used to it. We also have systems, rules, and regulations that have to be changed, and that requires convincing people who are not experts in the change situation that the change is necessary and beneficial. That has already been mentioned, so I hasten along to the second point, the one on which I wish to dwell.
Many people may remember the staggering improvements made decades ago at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, a school with almost complete Hispanic enrollments, with 80% on welfare, which went from the poorest imaginable academic success to unbelievable (to the College Board, at least) academic success in only a couple of years. One small part of that improvement, the efforts of math teacher Jaime Escalante, was depicted in the movie Stand and Deliver. While that movie did a good job depicting Escalante’s work, it failed to show that he was a part of a school-wide revolution, a revolution brought on by earth-shaking changes in the educational process.
One of those changes was instituting a rule that students could not take elective classes if they were below grade level in the key academic areas of reading, writing, and math. As a consequence, the school went from 12 art teachers one year to 2 art teachers the next. That was great for student academic achievement, but it was not so great for the 10 art teachers who lost their jobs. It took a lot of courage for the leadership to override the obvious objections and still make those changes.
I saw the same thing first hand when I was involved with an effort to do something similar, but on a much smaller scale, in a high school. Like almost all schools, such decisions were not made by any one person; they had to be determined by the school’s shared decision making body—in this case the department chair council. All attempts for change proposed by the four key academic departments (English, Math, Social Studies, and Science) had to be approved by the entire council, and those four votes were regularly opposed by the other 17 departments. (Yes, that’s right. Some of the departments represented one teacher or even half a teacher.) Any serious attempt to focus on academic achievement in the core content areas meant a very real threat that we would lose enough jewelry, typing, or vocal music students to cost someone a job. Any proposal that threatened that was a non-starter.
In one whole faculty meeting, an art teacher stood up and said, “I’m against this because it could cost me my job, and if you vote for this, you could be voting to take away my job.” It was the most effective argument anyone made on any side of the issue.
Similarly, when the school board of this very large district considered cutting back on bus transportation, the entire body of employees in the transportation department—a shockingly large number—came out en masse to make sure such a travesty could not be considered.
Whenever any change, such as Jim descries, is considered, we have to remember that a very substantial percentage of people are invested in that status quo, and they will do everything in their power to make sure it is maintained. There are a lot of people whose livelihoods are tied up in capital improvements, and you can be sure they will do whatever they can to keep those funds flowing.
If you want an example, turn on your television today and see how long before you get an urgent appeal from the health care industry trying to make sure that these horrible (to them at least) changes in the health care system are prevented.
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