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Sunday, January 5, 2014

Schools of Brick and Mortar, and a World of Click and Order

I recently interacted with someone who is applying for entry into a special program at a college in New York City. As part of the application process the person had to respond in essay form to two written statements. One of them asked, “How do schools make change happen in society?”  I was asked for advice. After volunteering that it was merely my opinion, lacking a great deal of thought generating it – more of an “off the top of my head” approach – I shared the following:

That question provoked my own thought process, as someone who has been in public school since I enrolled in Kindergarten fifty-five years ago and went from high school through college and directly to serving as an educator and school leader for thirty-eight years. I reflected on that question with respect to public schools and technology.

I do not lean toward “either-or” options, instead preferring “both-and” solutions. That being the case, I have often thought of the oppositional nature of the ever-present conceptual conflict between schools of brick and mortar in a world of click and order. Proponents of each perspective seem to favor one particular position over the other when there is the potential for both to coexist. First, we will respond to the questions of how schools make change happen in society by examining some background and illustrative examples. Then, we’ll look at the growing gap between the perspectives of those comfortable with the brick and mortar schools and those welcoming the prospects of the world of click and order.

The factory model of schools that appear to be like an assembly line spread out over a thirteen year shift, complete with bells that shape the work environment and products that move slowly from one adult worker to another, remains a bastion of public school as an institution if only for the shared, time worn tradition bound experience of almost every adult who ever attended public schools and now pays taxes to perpetuate the enterprise.  Each year newly hired teachers enter public schools that resemble those they attended as a child and they subsequently become part of the process by which the pattern is continued, largely replicating the experiences they had as a learner years before. This is particularly true when one assumes that teachers generally had positive experiences in school, successful enough to eventually enter college and obtain a degree, and thereby are less likely to change an institution that they perceived as benevolent. I believe the central tenet of Dan Lortie’s classic sociological study of teachers, simply titled Teachers, remains on target despite the years that have transpired since it was published.

Public schools have sustained themselves despite periodic attempts to encourage a change in the paradigm. Promising programs with catchy acronyms have come and gone. Technology has found its way inside the school walls, like the evolution from film strip projector to overhead projector to interactive whiteboard… Yet, the basis of schools, a teacher in a cell-like room with 20-25 learners for 40-45 minute blocks of time remains. I’ll acknowledge that many classrooms, particularly at the elementary level often have a paraprofessional or even a consultant teacher that joins with a teacher in the teaching/learning dynamic. And, I’ll point out that a growing, but relatively small, number of secondary level classrooms have extended block of time that meet every other day, but at times they appear to be two lesson put together as opposed to any change in pedagogical practices or a radically different way of using the allocated time.

The school of today would not be significantly different than the school of yesteryear. That comparison harkens back to a story I once heard about a man who fell into a Rip Van Winkle like slumber in 1940 and emerged suddenly in 2010 when the sound of a jet flying overhead woke him. He looked up at the source of the noise and was shocked by the size and speed of this propeller less plane. He reacted in fear and ran toward the old corner store, only to discover a mall and accompanying big box stores had replaced it. Further alarmed, he raced toward his home, but his path was interrupted by a four lane highway full of cars stuck in their daily commute during traffic hour. Exasperated, he fled in another direction and was relieved to see something that restored his orientation. It was the school he attended as a child. Peering inside the windows (he couldn’t enter the building due to security measures) he could see the familiar signs of education; a teacher’s desk situated in front of 25 student desks in a twenty-five foot  by twenty-five foot room.

I believe it was educational researcher Larry Lezotte who once described schools as a large brick building divided in half by a long, straight hallway separating rooms of exactly the same size and shape, in the fashion of an egg crate. Fiber optics, Wifi and the evidence of technology aside, not much has changed structurally.

Let’s move the appearance of schools aside and address the question of how schools make change happen in society. My first response was that schools generally do not make change happen in society, since my opening paragraphs in this Blog entry seek to demonstrate how resilient schools are at warding off change. That opinion rested on an interpretation of “make happen.” I assumed that the question asked how schools initiate change, as a by-product of active, planned, strategic changes resulting from a desire to be an agent of change.

However, when I expanded my perspective to view the question from a neutral position, that is, schools could produce change as an unintended consequence of policy or practice; I saw the question quite differently. This angle perceived schools as a venue of change more than an agent of change.

For instance, a significant change in many schools occurred in 1954 not because a school district sought change, but rather because a school district fought change. I am referring to the landmark Supreme Court ruling on Brown vs. Board of Education that found state laws creating separate schools for Blacks and Whites were unconstitutional. In that sense, it could be said that schools were a venue for change since the suit was brought against schools entrenched in their support of separate but equal schools as provided earlier in the 1896 ruling of Plessy vs. Ferguson. The 1954 judicial proceeding prompted a vast change that swept across many school districts, and provided fuel to the civil rights movement that later precipitated additional opportunities for African-Americans.

Similarly, other Supreme Court rulings precipitated changes in schools, particularly with respect to student rights,  through Tinker vs. Des Moines (freedom of speech), and Goss vs. Lopez (due process).  This is not meant to become a primer on education law. Instead, it supports my contention that schools are more likely to be venues of change, not agents of change.

Other significant changes that involve schools, and therefore as a result, the lives of children who subsequently become adults who can initiate levers of change evolving in part from their experiences in school, were invoked through the intervention and funding of the federal government. I am referring to the advantages or opportunities accorded students in assistance programs sponsored through Title 1 funds, Title IX rights, and others than have prompted compliance with mandates designed to be fair and equitable. The sweeping legislation enacted in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, an effort to eliminate poverty and racial injustice, produced the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. That act included provisions for Head Start among other programs. Ten years later, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, expanded rights and opportunities for those learners identified with special needs that inhibited their learning potential.

In sum, schools have supported change, through conformity with legislated and judicial acts. Schools thereby provided experiences for students who would otherwise not have benefitted by the school practices and programs that had to be eliminated or adjusted through laws and courts. To that degree, schools have served society by enacting policies designed to improve society. That leaves school more of a vehicle for, not a driver of, change.

This brings us to another change that has been persistently knocking on the schoolhouse door without much response; technology.

The threat of inappropriate use of some forms of technology – either in personal hardware, such as cell phones and tablets, or software platforms such as social media sites – has prompted a defensive strategy among school administrators. The potential for viruses to seep into the district through the use of personal tablets/laptops of learners represents another reason that schools have been reluctant to capture the full possibilities of technology. There are many other factors as well. Those examples, plus the price tags associated with school-wide or district-wide introductions and applications of technology – particularly when one understands and projects the shelf life of purchases before the units are rendered inferior or obsolete through successive innovations and generations of faster, stronger, cheaper forms of technology – have left public schools behind the point from which they could be considered as a change agent in technology.

The ebb and flow of pricing, access, and training all contribute to impact the use of technology in schools. At times, it resembles a roll of the dice, with political consequences for failed financial propositions. There is a suburban school district in our region that used funds made available through a capital project to purchase large plasma screen televisions for each classroom in the school system. Not long afterward, perhaps a few years, it became apparent that the capabilities of these units were overwhelmed by interactive white boards. The plasma screens are dinosaurs and virtually unused now. It was a gambit designed to enhance instruction in that district and instead became a sunk cost that hampered the system’s ability to replace them with the latest technology. In contrast to businesses in the private sector who must buy the latest and best technology to gain or maintain a competitive edge within their industry to keep in business, public schools are dependent on taxpayers for their funding and therefore are unable to keep pace with the frequent technological advances.

In yet another example of misguided strategy, another district, again using money via a voter approved capital project, secured interactive white boards for every classroom in their district. However, they lacked money to properly train the entire staff, since capital project funds in New York cannot be applied for that purpose. They could proudly and loudly boast to the taxpayers that all of their classrooms were equipped with cutting edge technology while competing districts in their region suddenly fell behind in the “technology race,” but the claim echoed in the silence of sufficient training of the teachers who were not prepared to fully exploit the advantages of the technology.

And, it appears that even when schools are fortunate enough to have the necessary resources to secure the advantages of advanced technology, the basis of the school program remains anchored on the brick and mortar structure and traditional paradigm of schooling. As I look back to when schools first introduced computers on a large scale – the early to mid-1980’s, I recall that for the most part, the computers were used as little more than expensive electronic worksheets that were capable of producing endless math examples. That is, the computers did not evoke a significant change in the delivery of instruction. Additionally, perhaps because the computers were new to teachers who lacked experience and expertise with the technology, my memory recalls that the learners who were most exposed to computers during those early days were those in gifted and talented classes, since the thinking went that if college educated teachers couldn’t fully understand the what, when, why, and how of the technology then how could anyone but gifted learners grasp them either?

Ah, but now we often discover that the members of the general learner population are more comfortable with, and knowledgeable of, technology in its varied forms than are their teachers. Once again, teachers often find themselves in a defensive position in the teaching and learning dynamic. 

The fluid and dynamic nature of technology and information presents a wide ranging menu of possibilities in a variety of virtual learning experiences that stretch or erase existing boundaries of a six hour day and a one hundred eighty day school calendar based on the needs of an outdated agrarian culture, all contained within a classroom or building. Interestingly, many of the barriers or obstacles to positively and constructively exploiting the potential benefits of technology are manufactured by policies and statues that have been left behind by progress. Certifications, attendance and seat time requirements (and state aid formulas predicated on them) are just two examples from among the impediments.

In summary, I believe that perhaps the biggest obstacle to schools producing change via technology rests with an almost blind observance of tradition that perpetuates an institution in which most of the population has shared common experiences. It may be nothing more than a nostalgic, collective and unwitting clinging to the past in the face of so many other changes impacting and reshaping our society.  Central to sustaining an institution is compliance with its defining structure. Such a perspective is in sharp contrast with the characteristics of technology, which evolves in part because there are few limits and boundaries to the imagination that spurs continuous innovation. It is more than a bit ironic that we, as a society, simultaneously expect and benefit from the freedom of choices presented by technological advances of click and order (hundreds of TV channels available around the clock; countless product choices; personalized consumer goods and playlists; instant access to information,…) while stubbornly supporting an educational system of brick and mortar that lags behind in terms of provoking change, or even willfully adapting to change in a timely manner.

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