American public education has been on a merry-go-round of change for the past 40 years. We made something that is complex by its very nature into a strangled enterprise that is becoming even more knotty and complicated. We have pushed a cascade of reforms and fads on education that were supposed to be keys to change, yet we’ve watched them come and go leaving only a residue of jargon, regulations, and cynicism.
The result of this mindset is more regulation, mandates, orders, policies, and red tape that demoralize teachers and administrators. In actuality, educational systems comprise a web of relationships that do not always respond to the wishes of power brokers or machine-like tweaks and data-based lubrication.
Systems depend on people for change. If the system does not have certain qualities it is destined for rigor mortis and stagnation. The keys to system resilience and success are support for ideas, stability of organizational climate and culture, and freedom professionally to experiment. People, when faced with challenges and changing contexts, must be able to explore new possibilities and have the freedom to innovate.
Educational reforms based on mandates and regulations stifle and kill creativity and energy. Wrongheaded policies result in organizational distraction yielding often unexpected and unhealthy results. Professionals do not follow commands and initiatives that they find meaningless. Some so-called reforms today create competition and distance between people, not closeness, collaboration, energy and innovation. Meaning and values, not fear or money, motivate people to cooperate and perform to their highest levels.
The bottom line is simple. Bureaucratic mandates and regulations make education more complicated, resulting in less creative, innovative, and imaginative education for children. False metrics and carrots and sticks stifle creativity, innovation and imagination and create fear and compliance. Further, the corridor of decision-making in schools becomes narrowed to a sliver as discretion and freedom to imagine and problem solve are restricted and discouraged. Over-regulation breeds moribund institutions that become focused on mandates rather than mission. Creative problem solving and risk-taking become extinct as individuals tow the mark to avoid punishment or to obtain security.
Public education is one of America’s greatest institutions. Certainly there are problems and complex issues facing teachers, principals and parents. But to tie them into a straightjacket of regulations and mandates will not attract inspired, intelligent, and imaginative people to the profession that is governed in a “paint-by-the numbers” mentality.
Creativity, imagination, joy, ingenuity, wonder, and idealism are the foundation for a well-educated and civil society. They must not be extinguished from our schools. These intangibles provide the foundation for the success of our children, our country and the common good.
Written with my co-author Phil Streifer.