Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Normal Accident Theory of Education

I just sent the final draft of The Normal Accident Theory of Education to Rowman & Littlefield for publication soon, I hope.  Here is the Preface, which I am allowed to write in first person.  The rest of the book includes chapters on schools as bureaucratic organizations, the standardized tests, technology, markets in education, and more.  I hope you enjoy it....For more information--or more chapters, contact me.  amilton1000@gmail.com

Preface to
The Normal Accident Theory of Education:
Why reform and regulation won’t fix education
forthcoming with Rowman & Littlefield

I have been teaching 8th grade Language Arts (what we called English, when I was in 8th grade) in a public school near Tacoma, WA for 7 years. In that time, I’ve seen a variety of educational reforms (fads, depending on whom you ask, or on how the new idea was presented) come along. Once they’ve come, though, they only go in as much as educators adjust or adapt or disregard them, especially as they fit or not with the next round of the latest and greatest “research-based best practices.” In other words, each round of reform leaves a residual imprint of expectations and guidelines upon which school staff must implement subsequent reform plans. Each time, the slate gets dustier with the remnants of the chalk from the previous ideas and programs. 
This year, for instance, Washington state teachers are spending their second or third year gearing up for the “rollout” (a seemingly ubiquitous word) of the new Common Core State Standards, due to be officially in place by the 2014-15 school year (in Washington state), and, at the same time, learning the details of a completely redesigned teacher evaluation system, on which I and several other district staff members spent nearly 5 days training.
As I write, however, the federal Department of Education has officially notified Washington that this new plan for incorporating student learning into teacher evaluations does not meet federal expectations. With only days until school starts, it remains unclear just what the new teacher evaluation process will actually look like. Never mind, though...teachers will carry on with their work next week. 
In short, education is undergoing nearly constant reform, but in far too many ways the process of change is incomprehensible to many of the people responsible for implementing those changes. As new program piles upon new restructuring, the “system” grows increasingly unwieldy for those who are charged with running a class room every day. 
This persistent change, erratically ordered as it is, tends to generate a hulking and confusing educational “system” and bureaucracy whose mandates, with their attendant quirks, flow downward to class room teachers responsible for implementing them. The machinery gear images below are an astoundingly awkward and comic metaphor for this situation. Further, they illustrate the very logic that underwrites the main argument of this book. 
To think of the comic aspect, try to remember the number of times you’ve heard people complain about how education has become like a machine, cranking out mere workers with which to feed an insatiable economic beast. Even the recent Waiting for Superman uses this visual image when depicting how 50 years ago the less academically-minded students would step straight into good factory jobs. 
One important part of that film’s demands for education reform is based on the fact that this route is so much less available today. Indeed, we are talking about jobs, job skills, economic competitiveness, and so on to 8th graders in my district. In other words, we are alarmed to think of education machinery cranking out the human industrial “parts,” but we teach about work and jobs ever earlier in the educational trajectory.
Another depressingly comedic aspect of the gear metaphor is that many people feel themselves a cog ground down by the gears of an education machine. You don’t have to have seen Modern Times to know and understand the image of Chaplin’s factory worker getting caught in the wheels of a system much bigger and more powerful than he is. Teachers and staff sometimes feel this way, but so, too, do students and parents, who can occasionally feel like they face gears turning in directions opposite to what they prefer or value.
Finally, look closely at each image. In the first, students do not even make an appearance. A crank called the “anchor standards” drives what teachers do in all the sub-disciplinary elements of language arts. But this machine lacks a place for students, so what it produces ultimately remains unclear.

Credit: ReadTennessee.org

The second gear arrangement has its own oddity. It seems that the effective functioning of those gears has no connection to student learning. As the cogs in the machine turn, they have no apparent effect on what we assume to be the primary rationale for creating this machine in the first place. Without gear teeth at “student learning,” this piece of the machinery will sit, inert, even while the rest of the machine hums along.

Credit: Alliance for Education
Students are part of the third machinery, but if relative size indicates anything, they are much less relevant than all the adult staff of the school district. Furthermore, district administrators apparently have a direct impact on students, but not on teachers. Even in small districts, this is hard to imagine. This image is no doubt intended to convey the collaborative nature of the education project, but the teacher has much more significance in the students’ lives than do district administrators, so this image misleads in some degree.

Credit:  Education Northwest
More importantly for this book, without realizing, the creators of these images have provided perfect visual metaphors for the main argument proffered here. Schools, being bureaucratic structures, conceive and execute education in ways shaped and bounded by their organizational realities. One of those realities is that complex and tightly bound systems can be expected to fail--have accidents--as a function of their complexity and tightness. This is most easily seen in technological systems, like a nuclear reactor or an airplane, but we will apply the logic to bureaucratic systems, too.
The key insight of the theory, originating in the work of sociologist Charles Perrow, is that these normal accidents are not caused by design flaw or operator error. Rather, the system’s tightness raises the consequence of small errors or malfunctions, as these pass quickly to other parts of the system. Complexity makes the monitoring, observation and correcting of these malfunctions more difficult, occasionally--but predictably--generating a few “we figured it out too late” failures.
As I told colleagues about the ideas I am trying to use in this book (before discovering the gear images above), I usually summarized normal accidents by talking about systems with gears, while simultaneously making the typical depiction using fingers of both hands, interlocked and “cranking” like a set of gears. Rather than make these goofy and abstruse gestures, now I just send them the images in this preface. 
The potency of the visual metaphor--both my hands and these images--goes halfway to convincing me that “I’m onto something” with these ideas. But education is a multitudinous business, sloppy and repetitive. Machinery gears, drawing on the archetypical image of the mechanical clockworks, evoke a picture of consistent and constant execution of the same action over and over--thus, the expression, “like clock work.” 
To the contrary, education is repetitive--skills and ideas are covered myriad times in a student’s career; but, this is best accomplished when variation is added to presentation, lest students lose interest, and/or learn skills in narrow and specific circumstances. In other words, education is nothing like clock work.
Yet, schools are large bureaucratic organizations, which means they follow certain sets of protocols, and seek to maximize their performance by getting good at a set of procedures which the school effectively repeats with each new batch of students. So, when we face the fact that varied individuals, with disparate and sometime divergent hopes and goals, enter a bureaucratic organization, possessed of far fewer sets of procedures than there are students, to get something we call an education, the preferred content of which is subject to significant debate and disagreement, we must admit of complexity and complication. 
Describing, evaluating and addressing that complexity is the purpose of this book. Obviously, I do not know every situation as thoroughly as I know my own, which means that much of this book is based on my direct experiences, or my analytical response to issues and circumstances about which I read. 
In many ways that is the point of this book--different districts, different schools, even different class room teachers will experience and respond differently to the complex system in which we all work. Like most teachers, I’ve had conversations with teachers from numerous school districts, I’ve read book and articles about other teachers’ experiences, and I’ve even done several informal surveys of teacher attitudes about a variety of issue.
I write, then, with the hope of providing a “teacher’s-eye-view” of schools, teaching and learning. At the same time, I will filter this material through the lens of a social science approach to organizations and bureaucracy. The thoughts, ideas, claims, etc., offered here are something of a hybrid of these, my two professional backgrounds--academic social scientist and education professional. Likely, “specialists” from both areas will find inadequate the work based on that element wherein lies their own experience. And so it probably is, but all the better, as I suspect that neither side--even in its academic “depth”--by itself gets as rich a picture as the hybrid rendered here.
If you are a parent reading this book, I hope you will gain a more supple understanding of some of the vagaries of your local school, and feel more competent and confident to speak with your school staff about your children’s education. If you are a teacher, I hope you will feel some encouragement that while the “system” is daunting and even vexing, you can still do good work with your students. Finally, if you are an education bureaucrat or reformer, I hope you will take heed that schools are idiosyncratic, so local insight and wisdom can add significant value to the  process of changing education. For whatever reason you are reading this, I hope you enjoy it.