A Simple Choice: Change or Boil To Death


Frank Merlotti of Steelcase Inc., a Michigan-based company that makes high-performance office furniture, describes in the following way why his company is always trying to do better:

"We kept saying we were the best. Then, we started thinking, maybe the best time to try something different is when we're on top rather than waiting until we are in trouble and then trying to claw our way back up. We talked about the old frog syndrome: If you throw a frog in a pot of boiling water he jumps out, but if you put a frog in a pot of cold water and heat it slowly, he'll sit there and boil to death. We didn't want to get boiled."

Those of us responsible for leading educational change in the 21st century understand very well that the waters of public opinion, as they relate to public education, are at the boiling point. And we are trying desperately to save the lives of tens of thousands of employees who still don't realize they're in hot water.

For centuries people believed Aristotle was right when he stated that the heavier an object, the faster it would fall to earth. All it would have taken was for one brave person to take two objects, one heavy and one light, and drop them from a great height to see whether or not the heavier object landed first. But no one stepped forward until nearly 2,000 years after Aristotle's death!

In 1589, Galileo summoned learned professors to the base of the leaning Tower of Pisa. Then he went to the top and pushed off a 10-lb. weight and a 1-lb. weight. Both landed at the same time. But the power of belief in the conventional wisdom was so strong that the professors denied what they had seen. In his book, The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli said, "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."

If you have been a superintendent for more than 24 hours, you recognize the absolute truth of this statement.

Resistant Personnel
Changing beliefs, behaviors, practices and processes that schools have cherished for decades, sometimes even centuries, is difficult, messy and complex. It is also essential to the well-being of the students whom we serve and the future of this nation. Our choices about school reform are limited and simple: Change or boil. Yet guiding teachers, principals, central-office staff and board members to this reality often seems impossible.

Our predicament reminds me of the story of the man and his wife who were shopping in a mall. The man picked up a shirt with a label that said, "Shrink resistant." He asked his wife what that meant. "It means," she responded, "that it will shrink but it doesn't want to."

School system employees will change, but they certainly don't want to. However, as superintendents we have a professional and moral obligation to help our staffs understand that while change may be difficult for them, maintaining the educational status quo is fatal for the millions of students who rely on the public school system in their communities to open the doors to prosperous and productive futures in a techno-information age driven by microchips and fiberoptics.

Our children live in a fast-paced, action-packed, Nintendo-dominated world where they create their own rules, compete against themselves and constantly reinterpret their reality in order to win. Most of us grew up in a calm, orderly, structured world of Monopoly, where we learned definite rules and were branded cheaters if we did not play the game accordingly. If you cut your teeth on Monopoly, you must make a determined effort to learn how to reach children coming of age with Nintendo.

Worldwide Competition
Too many of our teachers and administrators are still preparing students for the U.S. manufacturing economy when they live and work in a global information society. The era into which we continue to rush headlong is a technological one whose major product is information. Those who do not possess the skills necessary to function in this new information economy will find themselves locked out of ever attaining the American dream.

Our children's competitors are not just other students nationwide but technologically literate young people in Taiwan, Belgium, Korea and every other developed nation. For today's young people, learning and retraining will be a lifelong experience. Their educational foundation must be built on excellence, not mediocrity. Otherwise it will crumble beneath them, leaving their futures and ours in ruins.

In this information-based, global economy, the wealth of the nation is measured more in terms of the knowledge and skills of its workers than in the number of its industrial plants or the abundance of its natural resources. The ability of public schools to graduate young people who can read and understand sophisticated materials; write coherently; speak clearly; input, retrieve and analyze information; and apply mathematical skills to solve problems will determine the extent to which our nation can compete in the international marketplace.

Those of us who have committed our lives to public education are struggling to create a new map that will allow whole systems of people, not just those in a few schools, to make the quantum leap necessary to equip all graduates with the behaviors, skills and knowledge to meet the demands of the techno-information age. We cannot take our children where they must go by tinkering around the edges of the old system.

Everyone responsible for the education of children must make the paradigm shift that will enable us to recreate every school into the kind of student-centered, high-performing educational community that has traditionally been available for too few young people. If excellence is not the standard for all students, early in life, those chosen to have large futures will be separated from those chosen to have small ones.

The public schools of this land were not created to train some to rule over others, but to prepare all to fully participate as fellow citizens and workers in a prosperous, democratic society.

Six Prescriptions
From working in Chapel Hill, N.C., a small, affluent, suburban district, and in Memphis, Tenn., a large, poor, urban one, I have learned some lessons about the changes that need to take place for the systemic improvement of our schools.

  • Lesson 1: Systemic reform is the hardest work you'll ever do.


    Perhaps this story told by a former president of Southern Bell best illustrates this point:

    "Lawrence of Arabia once accompanied some Arab chieftains to Paris for peace talks. They were awed by modern wonders they had never seen ... especially the faucets in their hotel. These men of the desert were fascinated that water could be made to flow by just a flick of the wrist.

    "When Lawrence escorted them back to the Middle East, he found that one man had removed a faucet and brought it along ... fully expecting water to flow out of it in the Arabian desert, just as when it was hooked to the plumbing system of the Paris hotel."

    Building a system of beliefs, behaviors, policies and practices necessary for systemic school reform is a great deal more difficult than designing a system that will allow water to come out of a faucet every time you turn it on.

  • Lesson 2: What works in other systems won't necessarily work in education.


    An experienced principal, John Marlowe, in an article titled "Six Easy Lessons," wrote: "It is a tragic injustice that the public at large compares schools to some idealized model of private industry. … Business people say, ‘The kind of thing that goes on in schools would never happen in my business.' Ignore them as politely as you can. They do not know what they are talking about. Just because everyone has an appendix doesn't mean everyone knows how to perform an appendectomy.

    "Imagine how CBS would make decisions if the network had a citizen group that had to approve anything that appeared on the Geraldo show. Imagine Toyota waiting for state funding. Ford would be in even more trouble if the company had to chaperone company dances and discipline drunk cheerleaders after a company picnic."

    Everybody in every walk of life thinks he or she can fix education better than educators themselves. This may well be our last chance to demonstrate that we can do well the job we were trained to do--teach children. But unless we seize what may be our last opportunity to create schools for the 21st century, those who know less and care less will take over and try to do what we did not do ourselves.

  • Lesson 3: Systemic reform takes longer than you think.


    In the beginning, I naively thought, "Give us three years and we can turn this whole thing around." It's true. Pride definitely goeth before a fall. I can't imagine why I thought that 125 years worth of ritual, culture and relationships could be undone in just three. We have been at the business of school reform in Memphis unceasingly for seven years. It will take a minimum of another four before I can say with some confidence that we have reached a true turning point and can never go back.

    You must work to support within and without the system to have the permission of the key stakeholders to continue until the job is done and done well. This is extremely difficult because some circumstances are beyond your control. But you manage the ones that you can for as long as you can and keep your eye on the prize.

  • Unpopularity Contest
  • Lesson 4: A lot of people may not like you or what you are trying to do.

    Leading the kind of systemic change necessary to get the right results is not a prescription for popularity. A cardiologist who tells patients with heart disease to eat whatever they want; exercise only if they feel like it; smoke whenever the urge strikes them; and take their medication when they get around to it, may be popular--for a while. But she is prescribing certain death for her patients.

    Making the kinds of bone-deep changes that will ensure the long-term health of our schools and ultimately our nation is difficult, messy and painful. But the alternative--to continue to allow large numbers of students to exit school prepared only for lives of tedious drudgery--is unthinkable.

  • Lesson 5: Leadership can be lonely.


    The former world champion hurdler, Renaldo Nehemiah, used to say: "I get myself out front, which is where I want to be. I'm used to the loneliness out there."

    But if loneliness is the price of leadership, limitlessness is the reward. For those willing to run the race out front, the view can be so clear, so compelling. It is what keeps you striving forward while continuously reaching back to bring everyone else to this place of possibilities.

  • Lesson 6: There is no rescue team.


    If meaningful school reform is to happen, you and your colleagues in your school district will make it happen. There is no one else.

    Nicolo Paganini, considered one of the greatest violinists of all time, was about to perform before a soldout opera house when he realized he had someone else's violin in his hands. Horrified, but knowing that he had no other choice, he began.

    That day he gave the performance of his life. After the concert, Paganini told a fellow musician: "Today, I learned the most important lesson of my entire career. Before today I thought the music was in the violin; today I learned that the music is in me."

    Within us is everything needed to transform our schools into places where the minds, bodies and spirits of all children thrive and grow. We can and must reach deep within ourselves and make it happen. Every time you feel like giving up, ask yourself the eternal questions: If not me, who? If not now, when?

  • Continuing Legacy
    We have the fortune, or misfortune, to stand and watch at a momentous point in time. Mary Antin in her book, The Promised Land about her experience as an immigrant child, says this about the nation's public schools: "Education was free. … It was the one thing that my father was able to promise when he sent for us--surer, safer than bread or shelter. No application made, no question asked, no exam, ruling, exclusions, no fees. The doors stood open for everyone of us."

    This has been the legacy of every American almost since the founding of the republic. It was our legacy. It is what gave us what we needed to be in this profession today. We can do no less for the generations that are to come.

    One of the last great promises we have to keep to those who founded this country and to those who will inherit it is that of educational equity and excellence for all children. As a nation, together, we have conquered so many new frontiers. Perhaps none will prove to be as important as the one which stretches before us--the unmined intellect of all of our children. I believe that this is territory worth fighting for and a legacy worthy of being passed on.

    Gerry House is superintendent of the Memphis City Schools, 2597 Avery Ave., Memphis, TN 38112. E-mail: superintendent@memphis-schools.k12.tn.us