Most of the 1980s I spent writing and researching schools and organizations. My work culminated in an edited volume entitled Education Reform: Making Sense of It All which had a forward written by governor’s William Clinton and Thomas Kean.
In the 90s I decided that my time had come to move on. It seemed academia and practitioners were engaging in the education reform business and they were just repeating the same ideas over and over.
A few weeks ago someone asked me to reexamine the state of education reform and, what do you know?–the same debates are still raging. Merit pay versus the unified salary schedule. Career development, standards, participation is schools, teacher involvement, standardized testing, and the professionalization of teachers, etc., etc.
It’s been almost 30 years after Reagan gave his famous education reform speech and we’re still discussing the same constructs and the same ideas.
When will it stop? When will we at least repackage the debate?
But there is a critical lesson here for leaders who want to push for change in institutions and organizations: beware of new ideas. In reality, they may be dormant ideas coming back to life.
There’s always an interest in discussing old ideas. It’s easy and tempting. We’ve already developed the lingua franca. And, after a few tweaks, old ideas help us feel like we’re on the cutting edge—but that’s not enough.
As Cohen, March, and Olsen pointed out in the A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice—problems don’t search for solution. Instead, existing solutions somehow get linked up with emerging problems.
In the case of education reform we keep juggling the same set of problems and solutions within the bounded constraint of the Garbage Can Model. In all organizational settings we must be sure that we break out our old habits. We can’t simply resurrect old ideas, shuffle them in a can, and hope they match emerging problems.
True change demands moving new ideas forward, expanding them, building on them, and throwing out those that don’t work.
Remember quality circles? Remember re-engineering? They had their heyday. But they now emerge as something else. So, just as people concerned with education reform should worry about not repeating old concepts and tired vocabulary so should all change leaders.