Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Killing Innovation Through Standardization

Have you ever encountered a program, a product, or an educational practice that is worthy enough to be implemented state-wide or even district-wide? I haven't. Really, in almost 30 years as an educator I've outlasted more programs and initiatives than I can count. Most of these were not adopted based on their merits. They most often were adopted because their promoters were great at sales pitches. It turns out that I've begun to think that we've become much better at salesmanship sometimes than our chief task of educating.

I have a hunch regarding why these district-wide and state-wide, or even national improvement initiatives don't work. It's rather simple: you can't standardize true innovation. Schools are individual, quirky, unique entities like the students in them. Innovation can only occur at the school level. Trying to standardize an innovation at the district or state level is an exercise in windmill jousting, or nailing jello to a tree. Nothing sticks, nor will it ever. It turns out that innovation is local. We talk about "personalizing learning for students, then why not localize innovations? Let's start innovation at the level of the school.  Imposing innovation from on high doesn't work nor will it ever.

Next time you start thinking as a district or state education leader that some program or idea would be great for all my schools, just remember you really can't standardize innovation.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Education Administration's History with Eugenics: What Can Be Learned from the Past

Some of our "founding fathers" of educational administration around the turn of the 20th century actually supported the "Science of Eugenics" as it is called. That's right; they supported sterilizations and other measures to "improve the human stock of America" because they considered it to be deteriorating. I realize that during this particular time period, these "founding fathers" of educational administration were products of their times and cultures as well, and that society had just begun to discover its faith in the biological sciences and other sciences, and began to exercise that faith entirely in a variety of ways. Yet, it does disturb our present to think that some of those who began our field educational administration, supposedly dedicated to the betterment of our children and society, advocated eugenics which today is unspeakable.

For example, one of these "founding fathers of educational administration" was Franklin Bobbitt, who was a professor at the University of Chicago, and who also wrote prolifically on both education administration and on curriculum. He was also clearly an advocate of eugenics and actually made an address on the topic to the Conference on Child Welfare at Clark University in July 1909. His words seem so disturbing to read today, but were actually in line with others like our President Theodore Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes. Society was wrestling with what to do with the new science of heredity and genetics at that time and Bobbitt was actually along for the ride.

In that address Bobbitt states:
"If a child is well-born, if he springs from sound, sane stock, if he possesses high endowment potential in the germ, then the problem of his unfoldment is well-nigh solved long before it is presented. Such a child is easily protected from adverse influences; and he is delicately and abundantly responsive to the positive influences of education. But if, on the other hand, the child is marred in the original making, if he springs from a worm-eaten stock, if the foundation plan of his being is distorted and confused in heredity before his unfoldment begins, then the problem of healthy normal development is rendered insoluble before it is presented. Such a child is difficult to protect against adverse influences, and he remains to the end stupidly unresponsive to the delicate growth factors of education." 
Franklin Bobbitt, "Practical Eugenics," Address before the Conference on Child Welfare at Clark University, Worcester, July 1909
From a 21st century perspective, it is very easy to try to excuse our forefathers in administration from advocating what we would call unspeakable. We might even be hesitant to judge individuals like Bobbitt. Still, his support of eugenics should still disturb us. He was involved in shaping the field of public education and educational administration in its infancy, and he was also an advocate for some practices that are so unjust and distasteful to us today.

In this same address he sympathetically described several eugenic measures being undertaken:

Marriage laws were passed  to "shut out from marriage those affected with tuberculosis, alcoholism, epilepsy, insanity, deaf-mutism, blindness, and other serious diseases and defects which affect posterity."

Laws were passed to "raise barriers against the unfit" and "shut out racial pollution at the bottom."

"The sterilization of criminals and defectives of every sort" was being proposed as well.

There were also proposals to abolish public charities, public schools and all other public agencies because these were only serving to "preserve the weak and incapable."

No doubt, these measures to purify the "human stock" are shocking to us today. Still, I submit that we have much to learn from this period in the history of the field of educational administration.

The founding fathers of both the fields of educational administration and education slovenly acted as sycophants to "King Science." Bobbitt accepted "eugenics" and the rationale behind it because it was "scientifically supported." He, like many, had a blind faith in the salvation wrought by science, and if the data and observations demonstrated any proposition, then it was true. That's why he saw eugenics as an attractive audience: his "science," which he uncritically accepted, led him to that conclusion.

We still in some ways are sycophants of science. We test students unendingly and incessantly in order to make "data-based" decisions. We cancel music and art classes because "participation in these don't lead to higher test scores." We load 30, 40 and even 50 students in classes because "there's no 'scientific evidence' to support having smaller classes. Education and educational administration so badly wants to be a science, that it will harm its students, its teachers to follow "science" where 'er it may lead. Just as Bobbitt did, without really asking whether that destination is really where we want to go, we accept the "science" uncritically and almost in a cult-like manner. The problem with our science, and Bobbitt's science, it will not and cannot tell us whether what we're doing is ethical, right, or just, but we pretend that it will.

In some ways, I can understand why Bobbitt supported eugenics as he did. He was caught up in a major discourse of his time. But because of his story, we have no such excuse. We can critically question our "science." Just because a study or studies says it is so, doesn't mean we have to do it. We can realize science's limitations and acknowledge that the 'scientific evidence' is not infallible. We can recognize that just because A happens, it was not necessarily because of B or C. It might have been E, F, and G along with an infinite number of causes. We don't have to believe that by doing A that B will happen.

The founding fathers of educational administration's flirtations with such a distasteful notion as "eugenics" should tell us that we as educational leaders can and do and will get it wrong. Also, there is clearly a danger when we get on a pedestal and shout that what we want is what's best for children is subject to criticism as well. Bobbitt's mistakes are our mistakes. We have to question and then question some more those making decisions. We should encourage people to question our own. That's how we might avoid Bobbitt's mistake.