Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Movers and Shakers, Then and Now

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Movers and Shakers, Then and Now

Article excerpt

WHAT truly shakes up the education field? How does real change begin? I asked myself all sorts of questions like these after reading the results of a recent Education Week survey that rated which people, groups, reports, and media have the most influence on education policy.

The survey really raised more questions than it answered. I agree with Alex Russo's observation on his website that there is a difference between influence and prestige, and the results of this survey really said more about prestige. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), for example, is our only national indicator of overall student achievement. Thus it has a lot of prestige. The survey respondents picked it as the most influential resource, but I can't think of any significant policies that can be attributed directly to NAEP. What I consider the most important influence on public policy in the last half century--the judicial system--didn't even make the list.

Nor can I see any way that Bill Gates deserves to be named as the most influential person affecting policy. The small-school movement existed long before the Gates Foundation endorsed it, and not much state policy with regard to small schools has showed up since the Gates money made its appearance. Meanwhile, federal policy has fizzled out. When the Gates Foundation realized that just being smaller did not guarantee successful schools, it moved on to such other issues as systemic district reforms. Some governors took up Bill Gates' call for high school reform, but we don't know yet if stiffer high school graduation requirements will produce the kind of fundamental changes that he called for last year.

More than 10 years ago Congress (also listed high on influence) decided to invest in building-level, comprehensive school reform. This move encouraged and sustained dozens of reform initiatives, such as Success for All, Accelerated Schools, America's Choice, and the Talent Development High School. But recent research on both elementary and secondary comprehensive reforms has found that only a few of the models improved student achievement and then only moderately. Most had not produced any change whatsoever.

So, what does make a difference in education policy? Unlike the business sector, which can "order" change ranging from total quality management, to downsizing, to outsourcing and, consequently, can change the culture of an organization or a sector, the public sector changes policies slowly and only with great difficulty. Often, the changes are the result not of clear and forceful action but, rather, of political compromise. Even with all its perceived clout, the No Child Left Behind Act is mired in controversy and resistance and does not seem to be as much of a vehicle for improving student outcomes as its supporters anticipated.

There aren't any ready answers to these questions. But I do know of some examples of how change comes about.

Many years ago, I sat in a hotel room in Las Vegas, listening to the female members of the National Association of State Boards of Education hatching a plot. They wanted to break the monopoly control of the organization by white men and decided to outmaneuver them by promoting the candidacy of an executive board member who was not only female but also black. This was a bold political move, and it worked. In this little group were a future state legislator and a future state superintendent.

A few years later, I heard about another small group of change makers: state superintendents who wanted to wrest control of their organization from a backward-looking tyrant of an executive. At a fly-in meeting in an East Coast airport, they decided on a strategy to remove executive board members, one by one. In a short time, they had enabled a more progressive organization to evolve. …

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