Change in education is celebrated these days, especially if it is disruptive. Being Americans, we generally assume that change is a good thing. We associate it with dynamism, action and the long trajectory of improvement in the human condition.
In the language of British political history, this makes us Whigs. The Whigs were what we today here in the United States would think of as the liberal or progressive wing of the upper class that ran the country in the 18th century. In England at the time, steady advances in science and technology had led to dramatic improvements in the human condition in one realm after another. People were healthier. They lived longer. They were better educated and more civilized. It looked to almost everyone as though this wondrous trajectory, never before seen in human history, might go on forever. Change was synonymous with progress.
Edmund Burke, whom we would probably think of as a conservative, was, unlike many conservative Americans today, interested in conserving what was best about traditional ways of doing things. In those days, being a conservative was the antithesis of being a radical. Burke, frightened by what had happened in the wake of the French Revolution, thought that what some might think of as transformative change—much celebrated today—could easily turn into mayhem. He would not have been a fan of “disruptive change.” For Burke, change was not synonymous with progress.
Burke was a creature of the 18th century, Charles Darwin of the 19th. He, too, was concerned about change, but of a very different kind. He spent his life researching and thinking about how plants and animals had evolved in response to changes in their environments. In this telling, the vast variety and incredible complexity of life on earth was not the result of any intention, human or spiritual. It simply emerged from the interplay of the forces in the universe after the big bang. Plants and animals that succeeded in adapting to the changes in their environment persisted and those that did not perished. A ceaseless process of random changes in species brought about by radiation altering their genes in different ways to different degrees made it possible for species to evolve in all kinds of directions, some adaptive, some maladaptive. Life, as they say, went on. Change was the only constant, ability to adapt the only arbiter of continued existence on the planet.
But there was still another model of change, the model embraced by the engineer. Engineers are essentially designers of systems, aggregations of parts and pieces so designed that, when they are combined as intended, they will perform the operation or function intended by the designer. As the spinning, whirling world of industry, powered by electricity and petroleum, began to transform the human condition in previously unimaginable ways, highly educated people decided that the engineering principles that had been used to recreate our physical world to such great effect could be used to transform—read “change”—our social relations as well. And that included education. It’s called social engineering if you don’t like it and policy development if you do.
In the period from the end of the civil war to the 1940’s and 50’s, the United States developed the public education system we have today: school finance heavily reliant on local taxes; a governance structure fractionated at the state level, almost non-existent at the national level, and heavily reliant on volunteers serving on school boards at the local level; teachers who at first had little more education than the students they would teach and then, later, who were among the first in their family to go to college; and expectations for student achievement for most largely limited to basic literacy and “life adjustment.”
The education reformers who fought for these features of our education system thought of themselves as champions of change, and so they were. They produced a design that was, in my view, brilliantly adapted to the environment they faced at the time. The nation did not have very many college-educated adults and so a system that drew on less well educated adults for its teachers made perfect sense. Since they did not have much education, it made sense to have big central offices full of people who would tell them what to do. Relying on local finance and governance of schools made it possible for communities ambitious for their children to move ahead quickly to create schools that did just that. The fact that there were big differences in local property wealth were not a problem, either, because it made it possible for rich communities to attract the best teachers and build the best physical facilities and thereby educate the students with the greatest advantages very efficiently (not at all fair, but very efficient). This design produced, I will argue, a system better adapted to the needs of an advanced industrial society in about, say, 1910, than that of any other public education system in the world.
And that gets us to the problem we face today. To explain what I mean by that, I need to take another detour, by way of Darwin. Richard Nelson, a Yale economist, and Sidney Winter, a University of Pennsylvania economist, wrote a book, An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change, that came out in 1982. As the title suggests, they took the Darwinian view of change as the random and unintended consequences of fundamental forces and applied it to the realm of economic change. Specifically, they took issue with a mountain of management literature devoted to the analysis of the strategies used by the CEOs who have headed up the most successful firms over the years. Imagine, they said, that firms are like the individuals in any species, exhibiting the normal range of variation, this time with respect to the strategies they are pursuing. Imagine, too, that the environment in which they are operating is changing all the time. Some variations will be well matched to the changing environment and some will not. Just as is true in the natural environment, whether they are well matched to the demands of the changing environment is just as likely to be an accident as the result of the brilliance of any particular CEO. After all, they point out, today’s business hero, lauded for his foresight today, often leads his company to disaster tomorrow.
How could the education system that worked so well in the early 19th century be responsible for the problems we face today if it was so successful then and is, in its essentials, unchanged? The answer, of course, is that the environment has changed. The countries that are now so far ahead of us never embraced our education model as fervently as we did. The system they ended up developing was designed later. It was different, better adapted to the then-emerging economic system. They financed their system centrally and gave more resources to schools serving low-income and minority students, which they could do because they had more resources for their schools. Without local financing, they could centralize governance, which meant that more decisions were made by education professionals and fewer by amateurs. They could hire more capable teachers, because there were more educated people to meet all their countries’ needs for professional people, so they did not need large central office staffs. If you believe Nelson and Winter, today’s top performers were not smarter than we were. They were just luckier. In a way, it was like those developing countries today that are skipping over landline phones and going straight to cell towers and phones. It’s a matter of timing.
But we are not at the mercy of stray sprays of radio waves and the changes they make in our DNA. The evolutionary metaphor is just that: a metaphor. We are sentient beings and we can alter the outcome. We can act like engineers. We can redesign our education system if we choose to do so. We can, if we want to, leap ahead of those who leaped ahead of us. The environment is changing at breakneck speed. The countries with the best education systems are adapting constantly…and deliberately. We need to do that, too.
Burke was right. Change for the sake of change is a really bad idea. He was especially right about disruptive change. Burke was the apostle of unintended consequences and knew that disruptive change often eats its advocates alive. But the Whigs were right, too. Things change and the society that does not adapt will be left behind. We have to be prepared to leave behind features of our education system that we cherish if they do not work anymore. The secret lies in understanding which kinds of adaptations are likely to give us the society we want, and which will not.