The Predictable Failure of School Reform

reviewed by Milbrey W. McLaughlin & Joan E. Talbert - 1992

coverTitle: The Predictable Failure of School Reform
Author(s): Seymour B. Sarason
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 1555426239, Pages: , Year: 1993
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Seymour Samson wrote his influential 1971 book, The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change, as an exercise in prediction. He saw reformers as blatantly insensitive to the culture of the school and predicted that unless they recognized the need to involve and inform teachers at all stages of the change progress, “then whatever [reformers do] will be largely unproductive.“1

Two decades and three waves of reform later, Sarason’s forecast remains the same: Reforms will fail because policymakers and reformers continue to misunderstand the problem of change and the conditions necessary for success. Predictable Failure, like The Culture of the School, places teachers and their classrooms at the center of the problem of change and argues that unless they and their realities are taken into account, change policies and the hopes of reformers will amount to little. Reformers, Sarason argues, have only a superficial understanding of the complexities and power dynamics of classrooms and schools and thus are unable to think in terms of a system of interdependent positions, tasks, problems, and power relations.

To drive home that point, Sarason relates a provocative conversation with a “mover and shaker” who excelled at fixing ‘sick companies” and, as part of a task force to improve a local school district, was bent on implementing draconian measures of accountability and penalties for poor performance.

Sarason leads the businessman through a series of questions that reveal a sharp contrast between his recommendations to local school administrators and his own successful actions in turning around a manufacturing firm. The dialogue highlights the CEO’s wisdom about effective management in complex organizations—the importance of local knowledge (knowing the territory), of understanding the ways in which hierarchically organized systems work, and of motivating and supporting the individuals at the “bottom” of the system to do their best. This analysis is classic Sarason, facilitated by insights from theories of organizational behavior and work-place management.

Though both books reach the same general, disheartening conclusion, there is much about Predictable Failure that is new and important. Sarason’s latest book reflects his thinking and experience in the intervening years since Culture, and both amends and extends the earlier analysis. An important mistaken assumption in The Culture of the School, Sarason writes, was that schooling occurs in “encapsulated” schools and classrooms. Schools and classrooms, teachers, teaching, and learning are not encapsulated but are embedded in a larger social system that shapes both the ends and means of education. Context matters and matters differently in different settings.

Reform that uncritically accepts the axiom of encapsulation is “doomed” because it miss specifies both the problem and the solution. Schools are not unrelated to other aspects of the social system and cannot do it alone. Educators, Sarason charges, have promised more than they can deliver. They can respond to social problems only as manifest in the schools; they cannot “cure” them. Reformers err, likewise, when they assume major educational problems to be a “within-system” problem, “arising in and comprehensible only in terms of an encapsulated school culture” (p. 35). Sarason argues that there is a limit to what society can expect from its schools; they can be an agent of change, but they cannot affect the external conditions—homelessness, substance abuse, changed family circumstances, crime—that create pressures and complex demands for teachers and for the educational setting.

Another fundamental, mistaken assumption that inevitably will continue to frustrate reform is contained in the usual answer to the question “For whom do schools exist?” Most parents, policymakers, community members, and education critics respond unhesitatingly: “Students!” Sarason himself answered in this vein in Culture, when he argued that schools are for all students, not just the very bright or the physically able.2

An essential and difficult point central to Sarason’s argument in Predictable Failure is that schools exist for teachers as well as for students. In the tradition of John Dewey and in the very good present company of scholars such as Roland Berth, Ann Lieberman, David Cohen, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Edward Pauley, Sarason asserts that schools can be no more productive as learning environments for students than they are for teachers. ‘Schools exist coequally for the education of students and educational personnel” (p. 145). The same conditions that create and sustain students’ engagement and active learning also create and sustain the professional engagement and growth of their teachers—strong community, active and reflective practice, safety to take risks, stimulation and challenge. Sarason argues that “whatever factors, variables, and ambiance are conducive for the growth, development, and self-regard of a school’s staff are precisely those that are crucial to obtaining the same consequences for students in the classroom. To focus on the latter and ignore . . . the former is an invitation to disillusionment” (p. 152).

Sarason extends this essential point in Predictable Failure. The book challenges a conception of education that underlies many of the current reform efforts and enforces traditional power relations in the classroom and throughout the system: namely, that teachers and schools are in the business of transmitting specific bodies and kinds of knowledge targeted for student consumption. This view of education and the powerless positions it assigns both teachers and students squelches student learning, resulting in “at best a kind of passionless conformity and at worst a rejection of learning” (p. 83). Sarason calls for education that is rooted more in the student as person/knower than in subject matter and in which teacher-student relations are more collaborative than hierarchical or discipline-driven. Our own research in urban high schools over the past three years suggests that more personalized school and classroom environments are essential to -engaging adolescents in school and learning, particularly in schools with “nontraditional” student populations.3 Further, we have found that teachers-who adhere to a transmission model of teaching in such school settings feel enormous frustration and often conclude that the students in their classes are not capable of learning the material they should be teaching them.4

The point that schools need to be places where teachers as well as students learn is difficult because it requires policymakers and reformers to confront the fact that change takes place classroom by classroom, and that “change ultimately is a problem of the smallest unit.”5 This conception of the problem is messy and more difficult. But to see the problem of change otherwise is to reinforce what Sarason calls the “intractability” of educational reform, intractability that is the trademark of wrong assumptions and unsupportable principles. Sarason’s analysis of both the problems for change and the problems of change is radical, but right.

The problem of change, in Sarason’s view, is not what but how to think about it. Any effort to change schools entails existing order, rhythm, understandings, and complexities. These necessarily local realities—the culture of the school—cannot be overlooked. Any effort to change schools requires the involvement and commitment of the teachers who will be responsible for that change. Their voice, perspective, and engagement cannot be overlooked.

In 1971, Sarason was a lonely voice in a “operatic” education policy landscape dominated by “teacher proof’ packages and color-coded curricula. He now has some good company, and current reform strategies that breach the traditional, encapsulated boundaries of school to engage business leaders and general government in the problem of change accord with Sarason’s insistence that schools be considered as part of a larger social system. But for all their attention to localism, new strategies for educational reform often exclude teachers from the conversation and thus miss the fundamental point of Predictable Failure. The outcome is predictable.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 94 Number 2, 1992, p. 422-425 ID Number: 213, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 5:54:52 PM

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