May 21, 2021

I am going to get right to it in this post. This post is not meant to be a research-based paper. It is only some thoughts to help make you think.

I have been thinking a lot about two different spheres competing for defining the purpose of education in the United States. The first sphere consists of the communities in which a school lies. The second sphere is the schooling bureaucracy that has developed over the past 130 years.

What I find interesting is the chasm between these two spheres. It seems to me that each sphere has its own lens in which to view schooling, and the two sides are moving in opposite directions.n Ultimately, I believe the chasm holds a GREAT opportunity for a learner-centered leader to take action and bring the two spheres together. In my mind, this is what I see.

The chasm between the expectations of society for schooling and education professionals is wide. As a matter of fact, it is almost as if there are two separate expectations for schooling. One is the expectations of society and the community, and the other is from the people, systems, and bureaucracies of schooling.

The opportunity is to help bridge the gap between these two spheres.

The expectations of the education professionals are rooted in a bureaucratic mindset. A bureaucracy craves efficiency. In schooling, the efficiency of the bureaucracy has subsumed the purpose that the bureaucracy was set up in the first place…to help students learn something.

This goal of bureaucratic efficiency in schooling manifests itself in two significant ways:
1.the operations of the bureaucracy itself
2.the cult of efficiency in data gathering of learners.

Feeding the beast of bureaucratic efficiency actually hampers the overall efficiency of the system of schooling. There is only so much time and effort that the people within the bureaucracy can give on any given day. In theory, the goal of bureaucratic efficiency is to manage things in an efficient manner which will allow for more time for people to do the creative work necessary to educate our children.

Unfortunately, that is not what happens. The goal of efficiency becomes an end in and of itself. Once someone looks for efficiencies, you never stop. After all, can’t you always be more efficient? The efficiency cultist keep demanding more efficiencies well beyond the time where finding efficiencies is actually helpful for the system. It becomes a tighter and tighter circular loop where the goal is greater efficiency, even as the efficiencies create inefficiencies!

The people within the bureaucracy have no time for anything other than the Quixotic goal of efficiency. The resulting effect of bureaucratic efficiency on teachers and administrators must be considered. In schooling, efficiency is measured from data collected on different aspects of the school. Data can take the form of the number of students in a class (what is “optimal,” what is not), student/teacher ratio, the square foot of classroom space per pupil, and the list goes on.

More worryingly, data points have become a substitute for actual, living people. Efficiency in learning, according to bureaucratic efficiency, is measured by student test score data. The nefariousness of substituting data for a person is subtle. When students (through their tests score data points) and teachers (through their student’s test score data points) become numbers, they are dehumanized.

Why should we care about this dehumanization? On a superficial level, the dehumanization of people in the schooling system creates the conditions in which we forget that we are in a human business. Humans are not rational all of the time. Humans can be messy. Substituting data points for humanness creates a culture where we forget that students and teachers are more than the “product” (test scores) they produce.

On a societal level, I can’t help but think about the effect on the person of becoming aware they are just a data point. I believe nothing less than the health of democracy is at stake. Totalitarianism creeps into society when people feel isolated. When people feel they are just a data point, they become separated from their social selves. After all, they say, “ I am 53.4%, not Jane Doe”. Once isolation becomes a part of their being, and their worth for society is a number, they are more susceptible to the tyrants. A tyrant, after all, gives people an enemy to blame their isolation on.


One Action You Can Take To Cross The Chasm
Crossing the chasm between the two spheres requires two things. First, it requires a recognition that there are two spheres competing for the purpose of schooling. Society must come to grips with the fact that there is this disconnect between the two spheres. Second, once there is recognition, there must be action to bridge the gap between the two spheres. Taking action is the only strategy that will bring the two spheres together.

Someone (maybe me) can write a book about the actions needed to cross the chasm between the two spheres, but I know one action a learner-centered leader can take right now to start the process

Go through a strategic design process with all members of your community. “Community” includes key people in the school (learners, staff, Board members, administrators, parents) and people outside the school walls (businesses, non-profits, service organizations, library systems, the old men sitting at the restaurant drinking coffee each morning, and you can think of more, I am sure).

The goal of the strategic design process is to create a shared vision, purpose, and goals for the school system. Cio-creating these with representatives from both spheres will be a start to crossing the chasm. It will not end there, but starting the conversation about what really expect from school will set you on your way.

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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