After being blocked from entering a school in Washington D.C., only days after her confirmation as Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos told reporters, “Friday’s incident demonstrates just how hostile some people are to change and new ideas.” She then went further saying, “The protesters’ behavior is a reflection of the way some seek to treat our education system – by keeping kids in and new thinking out.”
Instead of dismissing her comments, they made me wonder:
As an educator, am I afraid of change?
I’m I prejudiced against new ideas?
Do I try and keep “new thinking” out of my classroom and by extension out of the hands of my students?
The simple answer to these questions is a resounding, “No!”
However, let’s not be satisfied with the simple answer; we must go deeper to discover the sources of tension which have followed any discussion on education policy in this country for the past forty plus years.
Change is an inevitable and vital part of life and progress, so I don’t believe any educator worth a damn could be against it. Where resistance comes is in matters of “incomplete change” and “stacked change.”
What I mean by “incomplete change” are changes enacted at the federal, state, local, and even school level, which are never given an opportunity to run their courses. So often as teachers, new policies and programs come from every direction, but they never seem to stay around long.
Don’t get me wrong, if a policy or program is obviously not working or detrimental to the parties involved, one simply can’t wait for it to run its course. Be honest though, these detrimental or disastrous changes are the exception and not the rule, and are usually knee-jerk reactions to acute problems or challenges.
What I’m talking about are policies and procedures which are never given a chance to effect the changes they are seeking to make. These are usually the programs, by the way, which come with the most fanfare and enthusiasm in the beginning, but midway through the school year, or by the beginning of the next, enthusiasm dips, and like the wind, the program is gone or policy is forgotten.
This doesn’t mean the program was a failure or unnecessary, perhaps it was never given the attention and support it needed to succeed. Maybe the committee enacting it was frustrated by the lack of buy-in, or no one wanted to step up and empirically chart the impact of the program, or end-users weren’t sufficiently trained leading to confusion over projected outcomes so eventually the change is shelved.
While these are all viable reasons an enacted change might never be given a chance to run its course, educators know most of the time these changes never make it due to the next term introduced above: “stacked change.”
“Stacked change” is exactly what it sounds like. Numerous changes to policies or new programs being enacted at the same time or before other earlier changes are given a chance to run their course.
Let’s use a metaphor on this one to show why this is disastrous:
Tomorrow at lunch I eat three new foods I’ve never eaten before and by three o’clock in the afternoon hives have broken out all over my body.
Now, which food caused the reaction? Or did something else in the environment I didn’t even notice cause the itchy bumps now plaguing me?
There is no way to be certain.
This happens in school systems and schools when numerous changes to the culture are introduced simultaneously.
For example, maybe we see a down-turn in the dropout rate, but as we cannot be sure which program or policy impacted our numbers, we find ourselves unable to be quite certain which one was doing the job.
Then budget cuts come … you know they will … and we must cut several of the new programs as the resources simply aren’t there.
Guess what happens?
So, no, Ms. DeVos, we aren’t afraid of change, but we are worried about “incomplete change” which cannot be sustained and “stacked change” which never allows us an opportunity to discover what truly benefits our students.
Turn and Face the Strange
As far as dealing with “new ideas” and “new thinking,” we can’t be against them as these are the bedrocks of real education.
Whether we are talking about metacognition, asking a student to analyze a poem, or encouraging students to come up with a hypothesis, it is all about thinking. And trust me when I say teachers see a wide variety of “new thinking” in their classrooms each day. Many times, the insights our students come up with bring us to tears as younger eyes can see things our jaded and formed thought patterns are unable to recognize.
I’ve also never met a competent teacher who doesn’t enjoy a well-presented and well-thought out professional development.
You know the one I’m talking about … it recharges our batteries in the beginning or middle of the year as we remember what it feels like to have your own light bulb go on, and then it opens new and exciting paths for both us and our students!
Therefore, I’m going to have to vehemently oppose Ms. DeVos on this point.
What I’ll do though is help her by explaining what we’d like to keep out of our schools and classrooms:
We are against “old thinking” which masquerades as “new.”
We are against “new thinking” which seeks to tip the balance of power toward the “haves” and ignores the “have nots”
And most of all, we will protect our students from “new thinking” which seeks to dumb down things for them, or take from them their voice and their ideas.
And These Children …
Although it may sound trite, in the end it is all about our students.
As teachers, the whole reason we exist is to have a positive impact on the lives of the children entering our schools and classrooms every day. This means we can’t simply sit on opposite sides of a table and argue about who is right and who is wrong.
It can’t be about our winning or losing, it must be about students’ lives being made better through an education system which considers their needs before simply making them guinea pigs for the latest policy change or program, no matter how much money or development is behind it.
And lastly, why not give students a place at the table as we debate these issues, as after all, “They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.”
 Camera, Lauren. “DeVos Fires Back at Protesters.” Usnews.com. U. S. News and World Report L. P. 15 February 2017. Web. 16 February 2017.
 Bowie, David. “Changes.” Hunky Dory. RCA. 1971. Album.