Lateral thinking for the Chicago situation

September 19, 2012 • Ted Kolderie

“I had come to see that it was often useless to make a frontal attack on problems, since they have not arisen by themselves, but are the product of circumstances. Only by modifying the circumstances — “lateral thinking” — can one disperse the difficulties they create. So I had become accustomed to seeking out and trying to change whatever was causing the blockage.”

It might help with problems like “the Chicago strike” if this wise counsel — from a superb negotiator who succeeded with some seemingly intractable public problems — were taken to heart; if some ‘lateral thinking’ were applied.

As usual, everyone involved, commenting and advising focuses on the visible problems: the issues in the dispute, the politics inside the union, the political difficulties of the Democratic elected officials who have bought into the new and now-popular concept of ‘education reform.’

But these problems have not arisen by themselves. They are the product of the ‘circumstances’, of the way things are conventionally framed:

  • School is a boss/worker, management/labor, model.
  • Evaluation is something managers do.
  • ‘Teaching’ is whole-class instruction.

These ‘givens’ make conflict inevitable.

  • When authority and accountability are divided, management wants to tell the teachers what to do, and wants to hold the teachers accountable. Teachers, like most reasonable people, are unenthusiastic about accepting accountability for decisions made by others.
  • For teachers presented with a group of students whose levels of attainment range from the 5th to the 95th percentile, the job is basically hopeless. If they teach to grade-level they lose the students at the low end and bore the students at the upper end. The age-graded school locks in the gaps in achievement students bring when they enroll.

It requires ‘lateral thinking’ . . . “getting outside the box”, as the old phrase has it . . . to resolve these problems. Not to settle the strike — that has now been done — but to avoid in a constructive and lasting way the conflict that will continue, everywhere, to plague a K-12 system built on the traditional ‘givens’.

To get out of that box, “Modify the ‘circumstances’!”

  • Test alternate forms of school-organization. Lots of white-collar professional work is organized in the partnership rather than in the boss/worker model.
  • Bring together authority and accountability; giving the teachers the professional authority they need for student and school success.
  • Let the teachers individualize the learning; eliminate the age-grading that locks in the gaps in achievement that students bring to school.

The fact that this can’t be done everywhere, immediately, is no reason not to make a start.

Probably this country is never going to transform its K-12 education in one great act of political engineering.

The new system will evolve, change gradually, the way successfully-innovating systems do.