Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Conspiracy Theory: Lessons for Leaders from Two Centuries of School Reform

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Conspiracy Theory: Lessons for Leaders from Two Centuries of School Reform

Article excerpt

If school leaders are to bring about successful reform, they must thwart the forces that have conspired against it since the 19th century. Mr. Nehring identifies six "conspirators"--destructive tendencies so deeply embedded in our culture that they often operate unnoticed--and offers practical suggestions for rooting them out.


GENERALLY, I am not an alarmist, but my research into the history of American school reform has led me to believe that there is something of a conspiracy against thoughtful schooling that is deeply embedded in our culture. I have come to believe also that by understanding the sources of this conspiracy, we might marshal the resources necessary to create and sustain thoughtful schools.

During my years as an educator, I have been fortunate to work in a leadership role in the start-up of three small public high schools. These experiences have given me a front-row seat in the theater of school reform. I have also spoken with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of like-minded school reformers about our related efforts, and what strikes me is how similar the challenges are across demographics and across geographic locales. And so, I have been led to ask, What is the source, the common source, of all these challenges?

In recent years I have gone after this question in a focused way through research that blends history and contemporary experience. Driven by a hunch that these common challenges to thoughtful school practice are culturally embedded, I have attempted to connect the dots between the problems faced by school reformers today and the problems faced by school reformers fifty, a hundred, and even two hundred years ago. If the same problems that we face today surface across the historical record, then it's reasonable to conclude that they are somehow embedded in the culture. In exploring carefully selected cases of school reformers from the 19th and 20th centuries and comparing their experiences with contemporary efforts, I have come across several themes. From these themes and from the experiences of school reformers across generations, I have developed some practical strategies for school leaders as we face these cultural conspirators in our own schools and districts.

Before moving on to the conspirators themselves, of which there are six, let me explain why I use the term "conspirator." Okay, it's catchy, I admit. But beyond that, these culturally embedded tendencies, like conspirators, are hidden in plain sight. You will probably not be surprised by them when you see what they are. You will surely recognize most, if not all, of them. And yet, despite their visibility, we tend to look right past them without recognizing their destructive impact on our schools.

A second reason that the term applies is that, like conspirators everywhere, these tendencies work together--in this case, to tear good schools apart. Their combined impact is much greater than their individual effect.

A third and final reason is that, once we're aware of the identity of the conspirators, we will probably conclude, as all good conspiracy theorists do, "They're everywhere! They're everywhere!" Kidding aside, it is important to understand that these tendencies, because they are culturally rooted, can surface anywhere in our school practice. To the extent that we are products of our own culture, they reside in our own hearts and minds. Whenever we are inclined to point out these tendencies in others with whom we work, we would do well to ask where we find these same traits in ourselves.

On to the conspirators. I have identified six that appear in both historical and contemporary records. As you learn about each one, consider the places in your own school setting where you see it at work. After identifying all six conspirators, we will examine the experiences of two representative school reformers from an earlier generation and consider some practical lessons for school leaders today. …

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