Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 09 2012

#34: Transformational v. Incremental Change

I’ve been mulling over in my brain all year an idea TFA bombarded us with at Induction and Institute.  The buzzword “transformational change” was bandied about more times than I care to think about.  I don’t have all the literature in front of me, but the basics of transformational change were that we have two years minimum in this teaching thing, so we need to urgently affect as much radical change(1) as possible while we are here.  In order to do that, you pretty much gotta burn at 150% capacity and live in a constant cycle of reflection/improvement and only come up for air if you feel like you’re going to pass out(2).

I wonder if this philosophy is diametrically opposed to my own feelings on how to improve schools.  I’ve yet to see any established precedent of any institution reforming itself with any permanence due to the herculean efforts of a few in a short window of time (only to be replaced by another small number of short-term would-be leviathans two years later).  I’m definitely more in the camp for incremental change, that real lasting impact comes from systemic tweaks and years-long efforts.

I wonder, too, if the two ideas can be compatible, perhaps complementary.  That perhaps a band of highly-motivated radicals can inch the greater institution in the right direction.

For the record, I don’t think these ideas are complementary right now.   No, instead I see lawmakers and policymakers exacting draconian measures against schools and educators when their hare-brained top-down accountability approach fails to bring about the immediate results they desire, and then follow up with even “tougher”(3) accountability measures(4).

I think for a problem as multifaceted as “schools in low-income communities under-perform in comparison to wealthier schools”, you cannot afford to be impetuous nor impatient.  Because, really, where do you even start?  Prenatal care? Childhood nutrition? Parenting skills education? The parents’ own education level? Constant, low-level violence in the community? Food insecurity?  Time reading versus time watching TV?  Lack of instruction in and development of a native language? Access to preschool?

These are all things that can effect life outcomes before a child even sets foot in Kindergarten!  What business does a lawmaker have dictating the effectiveness of my practice against the backdrop of their own children’s privileged experiences when they are doing very little to address the structural deficits(5) that are contributing the most to the “achievement gap”(6)?

I guess I’m weary and leery of the climate of “CHANGE CHANGE GOTTA CHANGE NOW HURRY HURRY” because it justifies all kinds of untested, unproven, potentially damaging “reforms”(7) that are often enacted for political reasons as opposed to being sound policy.  I think if a long-term view is adopted and we understand what might cause a system to fail, we might get better policy that can better gauge our success or failure in turning not just schools around, but entire communities.

Or we can live in a state of perpetual crisis and dress up as superheroes and hope the power of our youthful exuberance and inspirational John Legend songs will save the day(8).


(1) Nebulous.

(2) Exaggerated (slightly).

(3) Piggish.

(4) See: “Boo hoo hoo, our thoughtless and utterly uninformed beliefs about education didn’t get us improved schools, I GUESS WE WERE BEING TOO NICE.” *lays off a million teachers in a rageful fit of impotence*

(5) If anything, our champions of austerity in all levels of government are actively working against the very institutions that would seek to redress some of these problems, but y’all knew that already.

(6) By the way, I have come to loathe the term “achievement gap”.  “Hey kid, haven’t you heard about your achievement gap?  Yeah, guess you haven’t DONE enough stuff, your life STINKS.”  Can we come up with another thing to say?  “Academic skills gap” maybe?  I don’t know, sorry to be Language Police, but our kids have achieved a lot of things in their lives, just not always (or often enough) in the classroom.

(7) See: Charters.

(8) The sad part about this is that, rather than committing to improving public schools, TFA’s biggest corporate donors are literally banking millions of dollars on the youthful exuberance and John Legend song superpowers to undermine teachers unions improve schools.  May you live in interesting times.

One Response

  1. Yes to all of this, but especially the part about the term “achievement gap.”

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