From Now On

The Educational Technology Journal

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The Churn Artist Cometh

By Jamie McKenzie

(about author)

© 2003, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.

Beware the guru!

Education is beset by self-proclaimed futurists, gurus, seers and prophets who warn of dire consequences for those who fail to climb aboard the latest educational-management fad or bandwagon.

Not so long ago it was TQM - Total Quality Management. The game has been played for decades. It often leads to virtual change, turbulence, churn and lost headway as schools focus on fads while neglecting their true mission - student learning.

These self appointed visionaries have been saying for several decades now that our society is passing through such rapid change that schools must transform or perish. Dire straits. Dire consequences. But little truth.

According to the annual Gallup Poll of parents sponsored by Kappan, a large majority of public school parents give their children's schools good marks. (Poll)

The authors believe the data support the following general conclusions:

1. The public has high regard for the public schools, wants needed improvement to come through those schools, and has little interest in seeking alternatives. The number assigning an A or a B to schools in their community is 48%, with an additional 31% assigning the grade of C. The number of A's and B's rises to 55% for public school parents and to 68% for parents asked to grade the public school their oldest child attends. The number believing that reform should come through the existing public schools is 73%, up from 69% in 2002, while the number of those seeking an alternative is down to 25%. (See Tables 1 through 4.)

Peter Drucker joked that folks use the word "guru" because "charlatan" is too hard to spell.

Quoting from a Red Herring review of The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus (full article) by Mark Williams
From the February 1997 issue:

Trickster gods
Authors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, editors at The Herring's favorite magazine, The Economist, attribute management theory's fatuousness to its youth, calling it "an immature discipline, which awaits its Keynes, Hayek, or Friedman." For now, management is still in its primitive, witch doctor phase--decked out in voodoo rags, muttering dark, magical phrases.

Leadership is too often portrayed in terms of dramatic forays into the future. Even though we haven't finished working on our 20th Century Skills, a new century spawns an industry around 21st Century Skills, most of which offer little that Socrates would find new or crucial.

Aside from some corporate buzz words and techno-babble unsubstantiated by data, these models may do more to distract teachers than enlighten them. In addition, by constantly telling teachers that they are behind the times or out of fashion, these change efforts sometimes backfire, creating resistance, resentment and intransigence. Few hard working professionals find criticism, disdain and judgment motivating or inspiring.

While many schools with disadvantaged populations face difficult challenges and have been failing to educate large numbers of students (see "A Lost Generation? A Million Left Behind?), this failure will not be reversed because of trendy new packages and fads. Healthy change will require an investment in decent social conditions and sound pedagogy - a commitment to the fundamentals of good instruction and learning.
"Beware of the Visionary!"

Quoting from FNO, April 2002

Sometimes they ride into town on white horses. "Let's become the first laptop school (or state) in the nation!"

Next thing you know, life is full of change and churn - not all for the good.

So many of these people specialize in creating anxiety.

"You're falling behind. Run faster! Close the gap!"

We must remember than CHURN is usually not good change. It has the roar, the foam and the excitement of surf but is often "full of sound and fury signifying nothing." (Macbeth)

Lessons from Wall Street

This month's news is filled with criminal investigations of mutual fund misdeeds even as the New York Stock Exchange is struggling to change its governance structure. (S.E.C.'s Oversight of Mutual Funds Is Said to Be Lax By STEPHEN LABATON in the New York Times. November 16, 2003.)

Misdeeds from several years back are reaching trial as some corporate leaders are already serving jail time. The fantasies and bubbles of the Dotcom era are now history, but lessons embedded in these stories should speak to schools considering changes.

Dramatic, sexy, imaginative new approaches can be risky. We might win better results by concentrating on the fundamentals.

It is worth repeating in bold type: Dramatic, sexy, imaginative new approaches can be risky. We might win better results by concentrating on the fundamentals.

Another way of stating this is to say, "You may lose your shirt if you mess around."


I grew up in a household filled with talk of sound investing, as my Dad was a director for the Fidelity Funds. He stressed the importance of checking out the fundamentals before investing in securities. He warned against speculation. The fundamentals required research and analysis.

  • What was the company's track record?
  • What did it do well?
  • What were its failings?
  • What were its prospects?
  • Did it have a business plan?
  • Was its P/E ratio (Price/Earnings) inflated or reasonable?
  • Was management solid, experienced and skilled?
  • What were some of the main challenges facing its industry?
  • What surprises loomed on the horizon.?

Back then, investors often relied upon stock analysts to help with this research, but some stock analysts betrayed our trust in the last decade, promoting securities that did not merit "BUY" ratings. They ignored the fundamentals.

The past decade of criminal behavior, cooked books, and speculation showed what happens when we ignore fundamentals and swallow the wishful thinking and predictions of entrepreneurs or their overly friendly cheerleaders.

The same could be said about schools.

Dramatic, sexy, imaginative new approaches can be risky. We might win better results by concentrating on the fundamentals.

(This article will conclude with a full explanation of educational fundamentals. Jump ahead.)

Educational Bandwagons and Churn

In the early 1980s there were insistent calls for dramatic change as A Nation at Risk (report) described education in doomsday terms. Meanwhile dozens of management books were proposing transformation of all organizations to meet the demands of the times. There was a fervent sense of urgency as if we were running out of time and the nation might shut down if we did not immediately turn things inside out and upside down.

I recall with chagrin that I joined in the frenzy, offering speeches on the need for organizational agility and rapid change:

"Powershifting and Puzzling to Create New Paradigms and New Possibilities." ASCD National Convention (1992)

In 1987 my first book was published - Making Change in Education: Preparing Your Schools for the Future. At least I argued back then that schools should create "Bandwagon Protection Squads" charged with the responsibility of separating the worthy innovations from the foolish.

Looking back after two decades of frenzy, I wonder if the urgency and the pressured pace of change was healthy and valuable. I note the current frenzy with skepticism and concern. Is this Frenzy Version 6.3? How much real school improvement have we won? Will it amount to sound and fury?

I would hypothesize that the real gains of the past two decades were won by schools that invested heavily and wisely in educational fundamentals. These are schools that "stuck to their knitting" in the sense of Tom Peters (In Search of Excellence,1982). These are schools that chose deep change over quick change. They worried little about fashion and fad. They heeded decades of craft knowledge, honored classically effective methods and blended new strategies judiciously into the mix only as they proved worthy of inclusion.

There is a large difference between "going back to the basics" and honoring the fundamentals. The first is a return to low level learning that emphasizes memory of facts and patterns at the expense of reasoning and problem-solving. Educational fundamentals, as will be outlined in the next section, are the elements that lead to the best learning outcomes and often set quite a challenge for all.

Educational Fundamentals


At the heart of effective practice are the strategies and techniques promoting the best learning. This fundamental goes unfunded and neglected in most places as money flows to equipment and trendy gimmicks. Many of the most effective techniques have been around for decades, if not centuries, but too little attention is devoted to these classic approaches. Many reformers look for teacher-proof materials or heavily scripted, factory-style approaches that actually de-skill teachers and undermine prospects for deep and lasting improvement of student performance. For a full analysis of the central role that pedagogy should play, note "Pedagogy Does Matter" in the September 2003 issue of FNO.



Nurturing schools help to bolster the spirits of teachers and students alike, encouraging them to take risks, struggle with tough challenges and make headway. Cold, bureaucratic institutions that lack a warm sense of community are likely to trap teachers and students both in patterns of failure and defeat. Many of the mechanistic, factory-style change efforts neglect this human aspect of change and many of the personnel policies of large school districts and large schools conspire against the creation of caring school communities. Detachment and distance do not make for dramatic reversals and improvements.



One size does not fit all. Each child has a complex and unique set of issues, potentials and blockages. The process of turning performance around requires intimacy - a thorough knowledge of what each student needs, what each student likes and what each student will find liberating. Changing struggling students into successful students requires a mix of magic, trial-and-error and imagination as the teacher seeks the right experiences to create an avalanche of change. It is less about workbook pages than it is about hunger, courage and confidence, as the teacher intervenes to clear away barriers and add to each student's toolkit of strategies and skills.



Morale, attitude and spirit are crucial elements in school success stories. Fast food and factory approaches to school improvement often destroy morale and undermine the very foundations of school performance as they treat teachers like assembly line workers and heighten the anxiety that surges through a school faced with punitive action and the heavy hands of bureaucrats who have little feeling for the human aspects of learning. The higher the percentage of students in a building who suffer from social and economic disadvantages, the tougher the job of the teacher asked to create miracles and the greater the urgency of providing a hopeful and encouraging atmosphere.



Belief systems are rarely discussed but critically important. If the teachers in a school do not believe they can make huge changes in student performance, they will probably fulfill their low expectations. Conversely, those who know they can provoke young ones into radically better performance will probably fulfill many of their high expectations. In The Fifth Discipline Peter Senge suggests that we uncover the hidden belief systems and examine their meaning for any organization. A school may officially profess to believe in the capacity of all children to learn while teachers go about their work as if the reverse were true.



Perhaps the biggest enemy of school reform is despair, the sense that things will only get worse and never better, that the odds are lined up against improvement and all efforts are doomed. Many of those who work with the biggest challenges are inspired to struggle against seemingly impossible conditions because they have a very strong commitment to young children in dire circumstances. But there are others who become mere wage earners and time card punchers, collecting a pay check without dedicating themselves to the goal of reversing patterns of failure. Too few leaders and two few reform strategies address the issue of how to kindle and maintain hope in such schools.



Schools must offer learning that is broadly defined, deep and rich without too much wandering about or diversionary activity. Perhaps this combination seems contradictory or paradoxical, but the challenges of education are often baffling in their complexity. Those who push for a narrow focus on math and reading scores do our children a disservice, undermining fundamental democratic principles and norms, while those who fritter away the years with a succession of playful, frivolous games and entertainments veer too far to the other extreme. It pays to clarify goals and stick to them without falling for the succession of fads and fashions that sweep through schools on a continual basis. Schools will have the best results if they "stick to their knitting."



When schools are tossed hither and yon by rampant experimentation and threats from the outside it makes it difficult for teachers to concentrate on their real work. Too many current models of leadership praise a style that keeps organizations on the breaking edge of change, as if the measure of worth were somehow related to the amount of noise, spray, discomfort and risk experienced. Protective strategies designed to bring about a sense of calm and security are rarely mentioned, praised or advised, even though Maslow and others have shown how people at risk tend to slip into a defensive crouch. Even though few teachers perform well at the survival level. See review of Michael Fullan's Leadership in a Culture of Change.



Children enter school with a whole mix of prior experiences that can strengthen or weaken their prospects for learning. Born to a silver spoon, a healthy life style, an adequate diet and parents who are well educated, the child has a head start in life without ever attending Head Start. Meanwhile, disadvantaged children find too few openings in Head Start because it has never been fully funded. They often enter schools without the pre-reading experiences that serve as a solid foundation for strong school performance. Most talk of school reform ignores these socioeconomic realities just as Congress has failed to fulfill the promises of the first President Bush who wanted all children entering school ready to learn by the year 2000.



Some schools are so starved for basic supplies and support services that it is difficult to launch effective learning. The physical environment may be in very bad condition. Class sizes may be very large. Text books and learning materials may be out of date and dog-eared. The failure to fund the basic elements of a sound education puts a drag on the system and undermines the chances for success. Many urban schools have no libraries at all or collections that are outdated and incomplete.



Often a school proceeds without collecting data to figure out what is working and what is not. This approach allows denial to flourish as staff and students go about their daily routines without considering alternative strategies. To determine what needs to be weeded and what needs to be emphasized, a school must understand what is actually happening. This understanding can be translated into strategy and action.



Good schools usually reach outside to recruit members of the wider community who might be valuable allies in the campaign for results. Partners will range from parents and grandparents to business people, seniors, public librarians, medical personnel, public servants and a host of adults willing to serve as tutors, mentors and companions. The school day is lengthened so that the building becomes a community center humming with activity.


Organizational Learning

Stagnation and inertia are fed by closed systems - schools that make no provision for ongoing staff development and professional growth. Low investments in adult learning hold many teachers at entry level performance. Instead of expanding and enriching a repertoire of teaching skills, teachers in such schools fall prey to routines that may be more about survival than improvement of instruction.



Vibrant, successful schools make time to chart progress toward clear goals while considering which strategies are working and which need to be abandoned. It is not enough to possess a plan. The plan must be embedded in ways that influence daily practice and guard against those routines that might hinder student progress.