Stein column: Change happens one school and community at a time
Almost 40 years ago, I came across a grainy, black-and-white photograph originally published in the New York Times in 1928. It shows how the marvels of technology can revolutionize the classroom by holding a geography lesson inside an actual airplane. What it really shows, however, is how, in spite of modern technology, our education system has hardly changed at all.
In the photograph, a teacher stands in front of a class of students whose old-fashioned desks are facing frontwards. The teacher, at the focal point, points to a globe. One would think that, holding a geography class in an airplane, the teacher would rather have students looking out the window. But the pervasive structure of teaching, with all eyes forward, the teacher as the focus of attention, all working in unison, has endured as the norm through countless waves of innovation.
I encountered that photo early in my teaching career. For a young teacher, it captured the enigma of trying to improve schooling at a systemic level: for every effort to make change, the status quo prevailed. Consider, for example, the almost comic technological evolution from the blackboard to the smartboard.
Slate blackboards, introduced at scale in the 19th century, offered a cheap, reusable, visible means for teachers to illustrate ideas to students. Blackboards gave way to greenboards in the early 20th century, to whiteboards in the early 21st century, and there is a trend now toward smartboards — projectors connected to computers.
In spite of endless access to ideas and information through computers, the newest technology does more to replicate than depart from previous technologies, and the fundamental activity of teaching looks just the same. The teacher stands and talks, the students listen and watch in unison, then try it on their own. Rinse, repeat.
Consider the more tragic evolution of school integration. American schools for the first half of the 20th century were racially segregated, reinforced by law until the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954. Over the next half century, policies went into effect around the country to integrate schools. But by the turn of the current century, most of those efforts had been abandoned, and today’s schools are more racially segregated than they were before Brown v. Board of Education deemed segregation unconstitutional. The forces of the status quo prevailed.
There are sociological reasons why teaching tends more toward constancy than change. Since nearly everybody went to school, everybody is an expert, and parents expect their children to have a similar experience to their own. Teacher education is a weak intervention compared to other professional training.
Consider, by contrast, the high bar to entry and more rigorous training of a doctor, lawyer or engineer. Studies show that the two biggest influences on teachers’ practice are, first, their own schooling, and second, their colleagues; training ranks third, so innovative practices they learned in college are canceled out by other influences. Schools are intended to pass down culture, not change it, and they are resilient in perpetuating their own cultural norms.
Even the fault lines about which we debate have remained constant over the past century. One, mentioned above, is around equity and inclusion versus privilege and dominance. Another is around a nationally standardized system versus local control. Another is about whether our education system should be in service to the economy or to the developing child. Others are about whether teaching is fundamentally a science or an art, teaching content or teaching skills, teaching academics or teaching the whole child. I have taken sides in most of these debates, even while striving to find common ground. But in none of these debates has either side prevailed nor have we broken through to a national consensus.
For me, teaching was a calling. I used to think that education was the single most important lever for moving the world and changing outcomes for children, and I went into education to try to build a better world. Years of experience have taught me that structural, societal barriers must be addressed for discrepancies in schools to be erased. And those societal forces, such as structural racism and the perpetuation of privilege and caste, are the same forces pushing to reinforce the status quo in education.
Does it feel discouraging to have worked so hard for so long and seen so little progress? Not at all. Though the education system remains largely unchanged, I count progress in individual schools and lives improved. I have learned that change is possible one school and community at a time.
The Roaring Fork Schools are uniquely positioned in a diverse, tight-knit community with ample resources and strong institutional leadership. Our teachers have shown selflessness, persistence and resiliency. I hope the school district will continue to listen to marginalized voices; authentically engage students, families and teachers in decision-making; and deeply collaborate with other institutions to strengthen the community while providing better opportunities for kids.
As for me, this is my last column as superintendent of the Roaring Fork Schools. I’ll be looking at things from another vantage point — not just looking out the window but from off the plane — but continuing to work for a better future for our children.
Rob Stein has been the head superintendent for Roaring Fork District Schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt for the past six years.
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