Sunday, August 3, 2014

School Reform and the Pathology of Domination
by Gary K. Clabaugh

Present school “reforms” involve non-consultative top-down changes that are force-fed to gagging teachers. Research reveals that this approach not only doesn’t work, it is counterproductive. Successful innovation requires voluntary, highly motivated participants.[1] Forced change, on the other hand, produces frustration and anxiety while it increases resistance to change.[2]
Unfortunately, this imperious style of school reform is bipartisan. It characterizes both conservatives and liberals. William Bennett, the blowhard Clown Prince of Education in Reagan’s day, gave top-down school reform a distinct right wing edge. But these days the left wing Arne Duncan, President Obama’s conspicuously unqualified Secretary of Education, is up to the same tricks.

Since teachers must implement classroom change, their resistance to strong-arm tactics can be quite effective. They have numerous opportunities to suffocate imposed change, ranging from half-hearted, foot dragging to outright sabotage. And, when they close their classroom door, some of them do resist. Too often, though, they just stew silently or even blame themselves.

Autocratic Reform and Teacher Morale

The condescending style of school reform dates way back to the days when classroom teachers were long-suffering females and the power holders were self-satisfied males. Today’s “reformers” are far less chauvinistic but every bit as patronizing.

Sometimes it does seem that teachers, or at least teacher’s unions, reflexively oppose change. And the widespread perception that teachers stand in the way of needed reform is a major motivation for imposed change. But resistance is a common response to any major change in any organization.[3] And if those changes are being pushed on you by people who are disrespectful and don’t even ask for your opinion, resistance is sensible. But the would-be “reformer’s” react to the resistance they themselves provoke by becoming even more controlling, autocratic and disrespectful.

To neutralize teacher resistance they design straightjacket policies, dramatically reduce teacher authority, and ratchet up coercion via so-called “accountability” measures. And they do these things with complete disregard for its impact on teacher morale. They seem incapable of imagining the negative state of mind their actions promote. In fact, the most authoritarian reformers have lost all concern for the actual consequences of their “reforms” on those who must carry them out.

The Myopic View from Olympus

One reason policy makers fail to appreciate that they need teacher cooperation is how far removed they are far from classroom realities. Many top-down “reforms” seem plausible when viewed from the Olympus of Capital Hill or the White House. They also seem reasonable in the think tanks of plutocrats. They even seem credible in the rarified atmosphere of a state capital. But on the ground, at the classroom level, non-consultative, out of touch, top-down change fuels resentment and mistrust, lowers teacher morale, and decreases teacher effectiveness.

Sure teachers must be held accountable for being informed, caring and doing their best with the resources they command. But contemporary reformers go way beyond that. They demand that teachers be miracle workers who can somehow nullify anything that impacts school achievement. Never mind what goes on in the home, on the street, in the community, the economy, and so forth. There are “no excuses.” In other words, if a child fails in school it is ultimately attributable to some teacher’s failure! What humbug!

The “Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations”

Teachers know from bitter experience that what the boss calls “excuses” are often well-founded explanations. And researchers have found that a major source of employee resistance to change is fear of failure in a new environment.[4] So what are the reformers doing? They are demanding change that literally allows no room for failure no matter what intrudes. Who wouldn’t be fearful of that craziness? And who, with any guts, would fail to resist?

Reformers say they simply are requiring teachers to outgrow “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” Common sense says this is rubbish. And, because it trivializes the misery, hardship and suffering that many children daily endure; it’s heartless rubbish as well. Push aside the privacy concealing what goes on at home can be horrifying and inexpressibly sad. Do these horrific situations influence what the child learns at school? Of course they do. Can teachers change these situations? Generally they cannot. In fact they often remain totally hidden.

Adding to out-of-school difficulties are the many in school things that influence educational outcomes yet are beyond teacher control. If those in authority build inhumanly large schools, if penny-pinching results in overcrowded classrooms and inadequate support, if school boards wrangle while school buildings fall apart, if school managers select wretched textbooks or badly constructed instructional packages, if school administrators fail to curb bullying and/or tolerate chaos, teachers must live with the results.

Accountability Without Authority

Teachers endure all of these limitations, yet in today’s “no excuses” environment they still are held to account when kids get “left behind.” In fact, if President Obama were to get his way on incentive pay, teachers will take a hit in the wallet if the kids score poorly on those misbegotten high stakes tests.

Research reveals us that accountability without authority fuels frustration, generates feelings of futility, feeds resentment, causes anxiety, worry, depression, aggression and, if the stress continues, a decline in performance.[5] It eventually leads to resignation and learned helplessness.[6]

Moreover, those unfairly held accountable hold back information, refuse cooperation and suppress dissent within their ranks — all in self-defense. Researcher Kenwyn Smith describes this sort of reaction formation as “the pathology of domination.” Pray tell, how is inflicting this on teachers going to improve our schools?

[1] Paul Berman and Milbrey Wallin McLaughlin, Federal Programs Supporting Educational Change, Vol. VIII, Implementing and Sustaining Innovations, R-1589/8รข€”HEW (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, May 1978).
[2] Piderit, S.K. (2000, Oct). Rethinking resistance and recognizing ambivalence: a multidimensional view of attitudes toward an organizational change. Academy of Management -794. A, 783
[3] Albert Bolognese, Employee Resistance to Organizational Change, 2002 (
[4] Kotter, J. P., & Schlesinger, L.A. (1979). Choosing strategies for change. Harvard Business Review 106 - 114.
[5] Stress, Shared Resource,
[6] Kenwyn K. Smith, Groups in Conflict: Prisons in Disguise (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall-Hunt, 1982).

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