Monday, December 19, 2011

barriers to change

Public education is at a crossroads in BC. As our British Columbia Ministry of Education contemplates how best to implement its new BCED plan for reforming our education system, the government's representatives (BCPSEA) continue to meet for fruitless contract negotiations with the teacher's union (BCTF).  As of Dec 7, 2011, they have met 61 times, and have reached no significant agreements on any major bargaining items. The Ministry agenda and the lack of bargaining progress are no doubt related, as the BCPSEA has made it quite clear that changes to the teacher's contract are necessary in order to allow government the ability to realize its educational plan. In return, BCTF would rather have discussion about educational reform take place at local levels where there is more accountability, experience, and context, and is holding out for contract improvements. Their respective arguments for themselves and against their enemies is easy to find on their websites. Search BCPSEA or BCTF.
Whichever side you support (or trust), change is on the table; the charge against our education system is that it represents 20th century adaptations to a 19th century model, and that we need to focus more on a 21st century approach. This is characterized, arguably (and variably) as a flexible system of personalized learning, problem-solving, embedded/disruptive technology, teachers less as content experts and more as learning consultants, and community-based or contracted learning activities. This contrasts with 20th century education which might be defined by an emphasis on knowledge, a reliance on "brick and mortar" schools, teachers as lecturers, and batch processing of students doing the same thing at the same time. Some would suggest that the current reforms are intended to starve traditional learning scenarios and replace them with cheaper ones that require less teachers, staff, and buildings. Rural schools have already felt this sting. 
Regardless of how urgent these new changes seem to be, the reality is that our school system has always been a set of compromises. Any one of the competing reform agendas has consequences to the system that limit other changes -- decision-making structures, role of technology, class composition, class size, prep time, common and/or standardized assessments, assessment reform, collaborative models, control of professional development, new elective programs, and so on.  Make big changes in one area, and something else will suffer, and too seldom do we replace the lousy ideas with better ones. Decrease class sizes, there is less money for technology. Allow teachers to co-develop vision and make decisions, and the ability of administration to affect change is limited.  Start a new cross-curricular program and other core programs get squeezed. Provide flexible hours and blended learning environments and the ability of parents to work full-time is affected. Add more math and elective programs decline. Add more choice schools and students no longer have neighbourhood schools. Provide robust bus service and classroom funding suffers. Insist on network stability and security and lose out on user-generated innovation and differentiation. This could go on forever; the point is that driving hard towards a new goal usually comes at a price to processes or relationships that were already satisfying a need.  I’m not one to defend the status quo, quite the opposite, but I understand how compromises are crucial if any change is to last. Very skilled, progressive, inclusive, and forgiving staff can often work out these compromises and make a school a successful balance of good ideas. Trying to push a particular education reform, especially where progressive thinking and inclusion are lacking or too many ideas are at play at the same time, and the school stalls out on change -- all the successful programs and practices come to a stop as the “new thing” gets pushed. There are indeed some exceptional schools and programs in which a single sustained vision is able to take root and flourish, maybe an exclusive private school, or a program targeted at teen moms, and so on, but large-scale public education is not sustained on singular visions or niche clientele. I’ve also met a few fantastic teachers who can pursue their vision come hell or high water and have students and parents respect them for it, they are masters at their craft and often pull entire schools along with them. There are also some schools, I imagine, with remarkable principals possessed of brilliant ideas; but these, too, require some patience, balance and broad foundations among staff in order to secure long-term success when the principal inevitably moves on. Getting the most out of change cycles, and sustaining successful programs and positive relationships among educational partner groups requires something less toxic than the current climate, with an emphasis on management directing the activity of teachers while counting on them to make undefined/unrefined concepts of reform take hold. Schools operate within a set of licenses: social, educational, political, economic, perhaps environmental, and the dynamic between these licenses requires complex management and paradigmatic compromise. It falls on leadership among administrations, teachers, and others, to manage these licenses, and inevitably on teachers to figure it our student by student. It is not fair to task teachers with the burden of system change nor to leave it to administration and board offices to design learning scenarios for students and control all aspects of district learning and working conditions. The challenge must be shared and some kind of balance between a respectful role for teachers in system change that does not make them scapegoats or reduce the basic autonomy that we enjoy that has provided virtually every innovation and successful program in our school district in the last 30 years. Barriers to educational change are well-studied (e.g. here's a random search result with plausible arguments), but I'm thinking more about the ongoing barriers and politics that our BC system, from the local to provincial, faces in 2012.
I would suggest that both the Ministry and BCPSEA will have more success if they realize that the barriers to change lie not with the teachers or the teacher contract, but with the leadership models that are tasked with managing change at the school, district, and provincial levels. There is much room for the teacher contract to evolve, but agreeable changes will only take place when the inconsistent words and actions of the leadership model are addressed. To put it bluntly, teachers will respect change when their own efforts to lead change are respected and supported, and when their own educational leaders can model change and show it to be successful. Teachers want their principals and district leaders to be good teachers, to have actions consistent with their talk, or failing that, to get out of the way and let good ideas flourish where they originate. The most powerful experiment a leader can undertake is to have some faith in the ability of others to produce change and to say yes when they offer to lead. I would allow that we need better mechanisms for dealing with ineffective teachers and administrators, whether it be retraining for another profession or a program of development for addressing the concerns, but we don’t need to shake the entire set of licenses (contracts, expectations, relationships) to make this happen. 

The government wants to conduct a large-scale social and educational experiment by designing a system in which the experimentation must take place, instead of simply supporting the experiment in progress and seeking (contractual) changes when it can see the results. For example, many of the key tenets of 21st century learning have been practiced and pushed by teachers and a few principals for at least twelve years in our school district, and yet it is only recently that the board office talk has caught up with what has been going on.  Perhaps fearing a loss of control, the board office has in fact put the brakes on 21st century learning projects for some of this time, slowing the process of change and in some cases disassembling processes that supported change. I've witnessed and documented this trend too often -- teachers (and occasionally administrators) suggest and lead change in real contexts that involve actual groups of students, only to be held up with bureaucracy and a fixation on control and government-mandated rhetoric; they are blocked or sidetracked by their own school board office. This is exactly the kind of evidence that is anathema to the BCTF/BCPSEA discussions, because the government is not at the stage where they want to see that the barrier to change is not with teachers. The vocal teachers, with their left-leaning union and sky-is-falling rhetoric, make an easy target for the simplistic arguments of the BCED plan (that we're stuck in a previous century). The intricacies of school district politics and organizational management are harder to unravel, but I suggest this would be the better place to start if the goal is system transformation. Of course, it would make the labour dispute easier to resolve, too, if both parties could remove their fixation on the cliché-fest of 21st century learning. All parts of our education system should be willing to venture a new approach to education, but should not be anxious to break up the foundations of the teaching profession in order to do so. In this way we get to the education system we deserve, never perfect, but possessed of admirable qualities from many centuries and one that adheres to a vibrant societal license that respects both the requirements and demands asked of its educators. 

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