Chapter Ten: Prospects for Education

10.5 The Challenges of Improving Schools

So how have schools shifted to deal with the impacts outlined above? Like most institutions, schools are generally better at maintaining the status quo than they are at making major changes. The tendency of any institution is to focus inwardly on its own operations, and to try to manage the outside world in a way that causes as little disruption as possible to “business as usual”. Although schools have been subject to all the criticisms and reform proposals already mentioned, many observers suggest that the major elements of schools have hardly changed at all. There are still groups of students who are organized by age and ability under the supervision of a teacher, who study a formal curriculum, and who are evaluated at the end of the year. In this sense, all the talk of reform seems to have made little difference.

There are several reasons why this is so. The first is that many reform proposals may be mandated without enough thought given to whether they will work in practice (Fullan, 2009). When these ideas collide with the everyday reality of classrooms and teacher–student/school–parent relationships, they turn out to be unworkable or not worth the trouble. Some fifty years ago, schools experimented with what were called open-area schools, buildings in which most of the walls were removed, and students and teachers were asked to function in large groups. After a few years, the walls were reinstalled in most of these buildings. This was not because open area failed as a concept; the evidence suggests that open-area schools were about as successful as other schools (Walberg, 1990). Rather, open area embodied a particular view of learning that required major changes in teaching practice, and in teacher–teacher and teacher–student relationships. These changes needed a very large amount of time and energy to be implemented effectively. Moreover, the new settings made many parents uncomfortable. In the end, too many people felt that the change wasn’t worth the trouble.

A second problem with changing schools is that people do not agree on what schools are for. Any change presupposes a certain view of the purpose and role of schools. Those who see schooling as being primarily about developing individuality may favour reforms that broaden students’ choice, give more emphasis to issues of daily living, and so on. Those who regard schools as training grounds for the job market may want tighter discipline and more emphasis on mathematics, science, and work skills. Those who see schools as professional organizations may propose giving more authority to teachers, while those who value standardization and control may want provincial examinations instead. Since the formulation of school policy is largely a political matter, at any given time several of these agendas are likely to clash. Thus, schools are often asked to do things that are mutually incompatible. It is difficult for any organization to move decisively in two directions at the same time. No one should be surprised, then, to find that many changes in schools do not take root.

Finally, it is important to recognize that there are many things that we simply don’t know how to do. If there were a straightforward way to teach every 6-year-old to read, schools would use it; but there isn’t, at least as far as we know. Reading experts disagree about how reading should best be taught. What, then, are schools to do? The same is true of many of the other issues that face schools. There is no clear way to teach effectively in a classroom with 25 very different students with all the compositions of ability, ethnicity, health, social, cultural and identity characteristics that each person brings; to provide challenging and engaging instruction for students who have different interests, motives, and needs; or to overcome the impact of poverty and trauma that many children bring with them to school every day.

The American humorist H.L. Mencken once said that “to every complex problem there is a simple, straightforward solution—and it’s wrong.” It would be comforting to think that the problems of schools could be solved simply through some change in school policy or teaching practice, but the world is not like that. We may hear a proposal about an educational reform, find it appealing, and think that it would really work. But in practice it turns out that the problems are multiple, complex, and interrelated, and that the solutions are more difficult to implement and less effective than they seemed when first described.


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