“The Little House” and School Improvement

There’s a book from the 1940s called “The Little House” by Virginia Lee.  It’s a good metaphor for the problem with our zeitgeist thinking about school improvement

A quick synopsis: The book opens with a little pink house sitting on a grassy green meadow covered with flowers- it is well cared for and happy. But each turn of the page brings change for the little house, spread over many seasons and decades: an asphalt road, passers-by, more houses. At first the house doesn’t mind too much, but as the countryside gives way to a bustling urban center, smog belching industry, and subways, the house begins to worry, thinking “oh here I am, surrounded by progress,” and—eventually when the house is squished between skyscrapers—falls into ruin and despair. One day, when it seems like all hope is lost, a descendent of the man who built the little house comes to claim ownership. She prefers the country to the city and so has the house lifted from its footings and returned to a wide open hillside, where it gets a fresh coat of paint and finds happiness once more.

Just as this children’s book gives this little house a personality, a will and a perception, so it is with how we view schools. We anthropomorphize them, often seeing them as afraid of progress, unable to keep pace with modernity. In our language and taken-for-granted beliefs we treat schools as actors that should be aware of and responsive to changes in the environment.

Perhaps it is stating the obvious to say that schools cannot think, talk or act, but policy missed the obvious. Federal school improvement policy works on the assumption that a school building attached to a legal name is the problem that needs changing. It assumes that whatever is happening inside the school is somehow becoming built into the school itself.

But inside schools there are many different people, all of whom are acting on policies, materials and conversations that were created and started outside the school. In many school communities these things change all the time. And these days, people working on the inside of schools do not have much say about the policies or materials that cross their doorstep. When the policies, people, materials and conversations aren’t working to produce gains in student achievement, we say the building needs to be closed.

The Little House is saved when it is picked up and moved back to the country. This kind of physical change won’t save or improve schools. Real change is not a matter of pretending to make a fresh start by opening or closing a building, or giving it a different name. Nor can we avoid the demands of change by harking back to a bygone era. Real change is a problem of dealing with the institutional regularities of school. Like the little pink house’s studs, joints and frames, the structural and institutional regularities of school remain both untouched by and unresponsive to the demands of progress. Low wages for teachers,  time schedules, gross funding disparities between states, disagreement about the value and purpose of schooling, Carnegie Units, grades– these things have remained mostly untouched for more than 100 years. This is as true now as it was when Seymour Sarason wrote The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change in 1971.

Reform/improvement will happen when we look at and change the actual things that matter for teaching and learning. It would help if we stopped writing/thinking/talking about schools as if they were people.

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