I recently read a book by Frederick Hess, entitled Commonsense School Reform, and so far my favorite quote from it is â€œ…great schools are not legislated into existenceâ€¦ they require nuanced leadership that forges a sense of shared purpose, rewards creative thinking, and inspires excellence. Public policy cannot mandate great schools any more than it can mandate great leadership of great teaching; it can only make it easier or harder for great schools to exist.â€� But the reason that we have bureaucracies plaguing our educational institutions — that trickles down to our principals and our teachers — is because so many good recommendations get pushed through legislation without a clear, thoughtful strategy. So while statesÂ mandate classroom sizes, teacher requirements, curricula standards, assessment test conditions, etc., all of these just add to the confusing patchwork quilt of “reforms” that are supposed to improve student outcomes. In reality, however, these perpetuate a culture of compliance! As Hess put so eloquently, “Compliance rewards obedience rather than excellence.”
I attended a discussion last week with Harvard Professor Tony Wagner, who presented his findings from his 10-day delve into Finland’s education system–Finland arguably has the best and highest performing education system in the world according to a set of international assessments that the OECD nations partake in (read more about it here and here)–and I was immediately struck by the subtle yet pervasive differences in their culture of education. Wagner kept bringing up that their education system’s foundation was built on a system of trust. State trusts that the districts will manage. Districts trust principals to lead their schools to the highest results. Principals trust teachers to teach effectively and to deliver results. Teachers trust students to be engaged in the classroom and to take responsibility for their education. The culture of trust not only trickles from top to bottom, but also throughout the Finnish society.
Americans, on the other hand, love to do assessments, and when those assessments aren’t stellar (as evidenced by any number of recent studies), we love to play the blame game: it was the teachers’ faults, the principals’, the districts’, the unions; it was because we did not have enough money/resources/support or not enough family involvement. If we are starting our education reform conversation by placing blame, we easily marginalize essential groups of people: teachers, principals, unions, families, schools of education. How can we expect everyone to be bought in to the recommendations and reforms in an environment that is so unsafe? We need to move away from our system of distrust and compliance, and start to cultivate a culture of trust. The question is… is that too un-American?