Guest Column

Surviving the Latest Educational Fad

by RANDY J. DUNN


Every so often a smooth talker like Rich LaCapio descends from that mountain, all smile and tailored suit, to spread the state education agency's latest innovation with a zealot's pride and an iron fist.

This year it's been something called "Academic Standards," and it will make us do the dance of St. Vitus before it floats off into the netherworld of educational time, as all fads do.

"It makes perfect sense," Rich stated knowingly, as his cadre of assistants from the state education agency passed around stuffed, glossy packets to all of us school administrators in the audience. "We want each school, under the principal's leadership, to form collaborative teams to review their goal statements, align the old outcomes with the new standards, create benchmarks across the age-grade levels and, finally, develop a high-stakes assessment that brings it all together for the student. Of course, you will want your improvement teams to revisit both your instructional methods and curricular materials to determine their appropriateness under our new system."

Then, we surmised, the agency would place any of us who couldn’t or wouldn’t comply on an academic watch list.

In the coming months, we filled out more planning matrices than any government bureaucrat buried in the bowels of the Pentagon. Workshops were held in nice hotels, and our teachers collaborated all over the place, so much so they barely had time to worry about classroom innovation. No worry, though. As the school district’s leadership team fondled its new Tinker Toy, the school board members and administrators were seized by an even more immediate demand: budget cuts.

Out the window went the assiduously maintained planning documents. With them went quite a few of the folks who populated the teams. Of course, nobody has heard from Rich since, except over free drinks in conference hospitality rooms, when we haul out his memory for a hoot--not unlike what we do when telling tales of our graduate student days. Then we go back to the reality of our schools.

A Familiar Ring

You'll have to excuse us veteran educators if we don't get too giddy each time the next new dogma comes along. You see, we've been transformed before. We've done learning styles, learning objectives and learning outcomes, at least until the latter phrase became too liberal for some. We've been "Hunterized" and "Gardnerized," and we’ve been before high-heeled priestesses exhorting us to care for the whole child. Some of us have providentially found a new paradigm.

Almost always, we've been willing to give each new creed a hearing--even a chance--until its impatient police begin torturing the innocent into false confessions. The thing of it is, ironically, when the right idea has an opportunity to age, become friendly and familiar and finally ooze deep into a school's culture, it might actually do some good. But many of us aren't in one system for that long.

Even when the idea is right--and that doesn’t often occur--most big education bosses still get it wrong. "Deep change ... results from approaches to change that match the unique cultural requirements of schools and that match the unique operational requirements for new teaching and learning," says Tom Sergiovanni, a professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. But changing a culture, he went on to say in a recent lecture to the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration, "requires that people, both individually and collectively, move from something familiar and important into an empty space ... to build a new set of meanings."

The significance of this "empty space" is too often disregarded. A key fallacy holds that individual attitudes and knowledge, when mystically altered across classrooms and schools, leads to real, systemwide change. Hence, the need for a zealous conversion. However, individual action is more powerfully shaped by creating organizational contexts--with transformed roles, different responsibilities and fresh relationships for people--than forcing new attitudes and behaviors upon them by administrative fiat.

With today's demand for instant accountability, schools have become nearly desperate to take any action and wait for the results. Parents, politicians and community activists demand that we do something with these kids--in Compton, Calif., East St. Louis, Ill., Gary, Ind., and the Bronx, N.Y., in my school district and your school district. To spark positive action, any upward movement, we face tremendous pressure to grab at solutions for difficult situations.

What we often grab at are the fads. Now if you take any one of those ideas on how to run a school, it may make some sense. But if treated as a silver bullet, a single tool applied in the extreme, things become goofy.

Playing Along

No matter, when the authorities from the state capital get that scary gleam in their eyes, you may have to snap to. The ones put in charge of the new way usually aren't the Mother Teresa type. Most of this stuff is personal to them, and they don't hold up well under prolonged questioning, especially in a public venue. Don't let them deceive you with their warm and fuzzy verbiage. It's all a part of the deployment strategy. This is no drill.

Now how do you survive without being cast in the prehistoric role? Haven't we all seen more than one vocal critic dispatched practically overnight to the purchasing department?

First, shut up. Yes, the propaganda and the cheerleading seem absurd, but some instant naivete can be quite helpful. Say nothing; just sit there and smile. These things tend to take on religious overtones and if you question them or show your cynicism, you're more than just an old grump--you're an apostate.

Keep up with the regular responsibilities. The requirement that you play with the new fad gizmos doesn't give you a bye from your actual job. Stay on top of your kids and your school system, and don't ignore your real duties. Remember the administrator who spent six months doing a curriculum alignment matrix as big as a barn door while his schools fell apart around him? He finished the matrix, nobody paid attention to it, and he was fired for incompetence. By the way, he became a consultant and currently is aligning many client schools.

Resisting Excesses

Professor Skinner! I had no idea you were dropping by. There's a strong dose of stimulus-reaction posturing in many educational fads and some of the bigger boosters certainly see themselves as Moses. Hey, it won't hurt to look as if you're reading the tablets. If you can take some visible yet innocuous action, do it.

Many times these fads don't get past the awareness step before the next new wind blows in, but that's where a lot of the pomp and circumstance comes into play. Even if it is stupid, what will it hurt if you sign the "Vision Compact" that the latest facilitator is putting in front of you?

Probably nothing. But an alternative strategy is also just to unostentatiously resist the worst excesses. There probably will be no punishment for those who fail to affix their signatures to the blue-sky document. If others can be persuaded to join with you in kidding about it or laughing it off, the most invasive and ridiculous activities may get moved to the back-burner.

If all else fails, dare to be sold. A little "believability investment" can sometimes have a great payoff. A friend used to work in a school system that decided to dedicate itself to improved customer (read parents, not children) service. The campaign inflicted on them was brutal. Surveys and needs assessments were actually read and corresponding changes made. Normally staid business managers actually had to spend money to increase school office staff, hire aides and make other accommodations for faculty, such as voice mail. Initiative in increasing parental contacts and other targeted activities was tangibly rewarded. And though I know it strains credulity, that ponderous, hibernating creature began to lumber forth, to change its behavior, to succeed. It was both unexpected and inspirational.

A year later, the makeup of the school board changed. Too much of the taxpaying public's money was being spent on this and assorted other soft projects so the initiative abruptly came to an end. Goodbye service. Hello tax relief. Ah, what the heck: One good fad deserves another.

Randy Dunn, previously a superintendent in Illinois for five years, is associate professor of educational administration and higher education at Southern Illinois University, MC 4606, Carbondale, IL 62901. E-mail: rdunn@siu.edu. He adapted this column from "How to Live in a Fad Culture" by Stanley Bing, which appeared in Esquire magazine.