Breaking the Barriers to Change: A Fall Forum Special Report

No one can identify magic solutions to the problems of school reform. But if school people at all levels will sit down together, they can come up with strategies for change, see where they might go wrong, and begin to create new ways to address their most troubling problems.

There must be days that some of them wonder –those teachers, principals, and superintendents, those board of education people from the state and the legislators who are trying to make the taxpayers happy, even the parents and the students themselves –what it really would take to get serious change going in the schools. How many conferences they have to go to before they can stop listening to inspiring abstractions and start talking about the practical problems in their school that just won’t seem to go away. How many times someone in their system is going to say to them, “That won’t work here.” How change such as the Coalition of Essential School proposes is ever going to work if somebody doesn’t start figuring out what to do about that one simple objection, which turns into millions more before their eyes.

There must be times when what they want is a strategy huddle –to get together, for a day or two, with people who understand the problem and are going through it themselves, people not necessarily entrenched in the same school system, and so able to see it with fresh eyes. People who can suggest things. People who can alert them to what might go wrong if they try new strategies, and encourage them to try them anyway.

That’s what the planners of the Coalition’s 1990 annual Fall Forum had in mind when they invited participants to choose another path through that conference, especially if they needed no introduction to Essential School philosophy. “Strand A” of the Forum’s two-day program, they decided, would offer the usual workshops in CES’s basic ideas; but “Strand B” would take school people one step further, linking them into strategy sessions designed, in organizer Pat Wasley’s words, to “break through the barriers to change.”

The 200 people who signed up for that approach –Essential school teachers or administrators, district and state people, foundation people, professors –chose to forgo a “survey course” approach to the Forum in favor of “less is more.” They identified one problem that had come to seem intractable in their school: heterogeneous grouping, for instance, or scheduling cross-disciplinary courses, or faculty members who resisted new ideas. Then, in three half-day sessions, they joined with other school people who faced the same issue, and struggled to come up with strategies that might work.

The format was strictly devised –so strictly, in fact, that some groups rebelled almost immediately and threw it out the window. First, they were to define the problem, including all its characteristics and giving a number of examples. Next, they were to pair off and describe a specific variation on the problem that confronted each participant. One partner in each pair would come up with strategies to address the other’s problem; and then the group together would “troubleshoot” those strategies, projecting how they might affect people throughout the school’s organizational structure. All this would be recorded on forms provided for the purpose –the materials, in fact, that are distilled and summarized in the pages that follow here.

On the first morning, as groups gathered with a mixture of trepidation and hope to define their problems, the unwieldy monster of school reform unleashed itself. No single problem exists, it appears; or each is hydra-headed, containing in itself all the other problems as well. How can you talk about scheduling cross-disciplinary courses without confronting the resistant faculty who will not consider teaching outside their specialization? How can you talk about common planning without coming up against scheduling? Can you rethink the curriculum, or place students in heterogeneous groupings, without asking how to assess what is good work? Around tables in the cavernous exhibition hall at St. Louis’s Clarion Hotel, groups expanded and contracted with excited, sometimes explosive energy as they tried to contain their problems in words.

“The point,” said Paula Evans, a Strand B organizer who is director of the Coalition’s Citibank Faculty Program, “is to allow the group to think much more creatively about the strategies they come up with. Forcing open the definition as far as you can gives you different perspectives on the specific problem, and a bigger arena from which to draw solutions.” If the problem is construed too narrowly, she noted, it may be difficult to see its complexity, and to find entry points that can lead to solutions.

“People want to define the problem quickly so they can get on with posing solutions right away,” agreed Fran Flynt, who has taught in the Essential school program at Springdale High School in Arkansas, and who led a lively Strand B group. “Taking time to look at all aspects of the problem makes it bigger, messier, more interconnected –which may be the whole point.”

Accepting the messiness was the first step, and perhaps the last as well, as weary participants disbanded at the end of their second day. What came between — highly specific, one-to-one conversations that outlined problem situations and collaborated on strategic solutions –was so unusual to those present that they kept remarking in amazement on finding it at an educational conference. “This is an exercise in ‘student as worker,” one teacher said. “But we’re the students. We’re charged with finding out answers together, among ourselves, and testing them against reality. What an experience to take back to the classroom.”

Not everyone was happy with the process. Some participants complained that they had too many problems to stick with the same subject for a day and a half; others left without clear “Coalition answers” to what troubled them. But Strand B organizers smiled and nodded when such objections were raised: Just so, they said. Only through sustained conversation among people with such different roles –an assistant principal from a Brooklyn school for pregnant teens, a home ec teacher from Illinois, a PTA council chairwoman, a foundation director, a middle school principal from rural New Mexico, a member of the governor’s staff in Indiana –does a model emerge, they said. It is a model not for “the answers,” or even “the strategies,” but for how to get to them. “The question is how to translate problems into strategies,” said CES consultant Faith Dunne. “You have to get past identifying the problem and then throwing your hands up in despair.” Even the hard task of sticking with one problem through three long workshop sessions was a big step towards learning to achieve change, said many of those who did it as they left St. Louis for home.

Undeniably, though, a majority of those who came to the Coalition’s Fall Forum are already persuaded of the value of Essential schooling. In more than a few cases, the dilemmas they presented were met with “strategies” that boiled down to optimistic platitudes on the order of, “Just explain the advantages and those guys will see the light.” The real test of Strand B’s collaborative approach must come when its participants take the process home to the real world of their own school systems. Will it work there as well as it did at the Forum, where people with such different roles were able constructively to enrich each other’s experience and come up with new ideas? Or will the nature of change within a system, made up as it is of a million small personal interactions with all their individual nuances and politics and power, prove daunting on that level? If answers emerge at all, they will come school by school, person by person, problem by once “intractable” problem.