Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Centennial Reflections: A Conservationist Ethic in Education

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Centennial Reflections: A Conservationist Ethic in Education

Article excerpt

Since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, reformers have focused on innovation, on change in the name of making things better. Mr. Tyack reminds us not to forget that some things are worth preserving.

AMID the fervent policy talk about what is wrong in public education and how to fix it, there has been little attention given to what is right and how to preserve it. Reformers typically have justified changes by an imagined future rather than an examined past. They have generally lacked a conservationist ethic aimed at keeping good schools good.

In the 20th century there has been no shortage of innovators in U.S. education, many of whom have wanted to reshape schooling from the ground up. They have mobilized followers by highlighting the faults of public schools. Rarely, however, have they stopped to appraise what their reforms might do to healthy schools and programs. Over and over again, reformers have called for progress through guided change. In a society that often equates novelty with progress, it requires determination and wisdom to balance innovation with conservation.

It is easy to become so obsessed with what is not working in education--the cacophony of dirges over bad schools--that one forgets what makes good schools sing. Good schools require healthy relationships of trust, challenge, and respect--qualities that take time to take root. Schools don't thrive when they are uprooted again and again to accommodate the latest educational innovation.

There is no one best system of education. Indeed, preserving a variety of institutions and programs amid rapidly changing times can promote the health and resilience of schools. Good schools come in many forms and can be adapted in many ways to changing conditions. And even mediocre schools sometimes have practices worth preserving, points of strength on which to build.

When teachers, parents, students, school board members, and administrators create effective communities of learning, it is important to preserve what makes them work, to sabotage ignorant efforts to fix what ain't broke, and to share knowledge about how to create and sustain more such places of learning. That is active conservation in education.

It's curious. The word "conservationist" has a positive ring when citizens band together to protect fine buildings or to save wetlands and redwoods. But when advocates in education work to conserve effective schools and educational practices and to protect them from rash experiments, such educational conservationists are often dismissed as standpatters, foes of progress.

Governments require environmental impact reports for construction projects, but who demands studies of the educational impact of reforms on students and teachers? Who is there to defend endangered species of good schools--traditional or progressive, new or old--from the relentless zigzag of educational progress? Decision making for school reform needs processes that pay attention to the likely effects of reforms on the schools and programs that already function well. Such an approach asks: How can reforms build consciously on the strengths of schools?


The educational conservation I have in mind is an attitude, a habit of mind, not a political orthodoxy or yet another layer of school bureaucracy. This conservationist ethic is not an automatic reflex to defend tradition and the status quo. Rather, it is a recognition that debating what to conserve in education can provide opportunities for engaged deliberation. An ethic of conservation invites reflection and honors a variety of institutional forms and multiple approaches to instruction. There are many kinds of effective schools.

In most communities there are people both inside and outside the schools who share a conservationist outlook on education. Typically, they are not so visible and well organized as reformers who advocate innovations, but there is a large potential constituency for conservation in education. …

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