AERA preview
AERA reflections, Part II: The potential power of mindfulness

AERA reflections, Part I: A seismic shift for the education industry

Yesterday the American Educational Research Association conference kicked off in Vancouver.  There are more interesting sessions available than I have time for in my schedule, but I did come away yesterday reflecting on some big ideas from the presentations I attended.

Perhaps the most compelling thing I heard was from Vanderbilt's Joseph Murphy, who gave an invited talk last night for the Leadership for School Improvement Special Interest Group.  With his typical wit and direct, cutting insights, Murphy described how education in America has only been through one seismic shift that completely changed the industry (more on his use of the word "industry" momentarily).  That shift occurred between 1880 and 1920 and marked the standardization and professionalization of schools and schooling, essentially giving us the schools we have known for the last century.

We are now living through the second seismic shift in the education industry, and we are not prepared for it.  Understanding school improvement requires reflecting deeply on the nature and implication of these changes.

The education paradigm that has reigned for a century now essentially reflected an early industrial, manufacturing model.  The purpose of schools was to rank and sort students for careers in a blended, agrarian-industrial economy. 

Schools delivered very effectively on that mission, Murphy explained.  In other words, schools gave us exactly what they were designed to deliver, and still do.  The problem is that, because of external political, social, and economic forces, the mission of education has changed, but the structures remain largely the same.  The new mission focuses on educating every student to a high level of cognitive skill and proficiency, but also involves a heavy focus on a market-oriented ("customer relations"), approach to educational policy.

Murphy offered no specific strategies or solutions for approaching school improvement in this new era, but rather emphasized that all school improvement efforts must take this new paradigm into account.  In spirited questions and comments that followed, various audience members noted that the test-score obsession of current educational policy, while meant to help address the goal of educating all children, actually contributes to a watering down of high-level curriculum that would actually prepare students with the critical thinking skills needed in the new century.  Others noted the dearth of real jobs of college graduates and the failure of an "educate everybody equally" mentality to prepare students for jobs in technical fields that might not require a university degree.  And yet, there was strong consensus that we do indeed bear a moral imperative to educate students better than we have in the past, especially those from vulnerable populations.

Two things occur to me in reflecting on Murphy's talk.  The first is a point I have often made in my educational administration courses: I am not at all sure that the structure of schools as we now have them can ever meet the goals of the new educational paradigm.  In fact, I'm fairly convinced they cannot.  Schooling as we know it might very well need to be dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up.  In doing so, I think various market-based reforms might play a key role.  Genuine innovation in education will only come from the kind of competitive climate that provokes creativity, risk-taking and new technologies and structures in every other sector of the economy.  Schools that are run by the government, maintain a near total monopoly on educational services, and are designed for a past era will not be capable of meeting this new challenge.

This is partly why I really loved Murphy's use of the word "industry" to describe education.  Because we are, indeed, an industry.  It just happens to be a socialized industry with all the bloat and inefficiencies associated with socialized industries throughout recent history (for a great take on this, including a critique of education from this same perspective, see Kevin Williamson's Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism).  Just as I've been emphasizing that teachers and principals must begin to think of their work as practice, perhaps we also need to start acknowledging that we do, in fact, work in an industry).

The second insight that arises for me has to do with how we train and support school leaders in light of this vastly changed educational paradigm.   Yesterday I attended a research session on the professional development needs of principals, and this morning I participated in a research roundtable discussion on the roles and career paths of educational leaders.  A theme that emerged again and again was the inadequacy of current structures of professional support to assist principals in managing the diverse challenges presented by today's schools.

A persistent theme was how principals struggle with the human dimensions of their work: communicating, building teams, managing conflicts, and navigating the stormy seas of their own emotional and physical needs.  Principals have always had these needs, of course, but the stakes have never been higher for successfully developing these skill areas, both in terms of school outcomes and for the principals personally.  A question that arose in the roundtable session was whether these skills can actually be taught, given that they also reflect disp0sitions that arise from deep with each person's individual psychology.

I am not sure if "taught" is the right word, but I have come to believe that these capacities can be developed within most people.  I question, however, if the current structure of principal training and professional development is up to the task or is even designed to do so.  It seems to me that most people need structures that facilitate and foster the development of deep self-awareness and self-reflection, and the attendant growth that can emerge as a result.  We must first know ourselves in an authentic sort of way, and then employ tools for becoming more whole, effective versions of who we are.

My work with the Enneagram, which I employ with several of my educational administration classes and the leadership development work I do via Contemplative Learning Solutions, is one example, but remains a fairly unusual dimension of leadership training.  If our industry has indeed changed in a seismic way, and I believe it has, then we must find more ways to embed these kinds of tools into the daily growth and development of all educational leaders. 


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