Will A Compliance Based System Drive Schools To Extinction?

One night last week I was charged with getting dinner for my boys because my wife would be working late. That morning, when I was informed that dinner was my responsibility, I had grandiose plans.  I was going to cook a healthy meal or maybe I would take the boys out for a “guys night” dinner.  That was until the work day got the better of me and I found myself pulling into the Wendy’s drive-thru, dangerously close to providing food at a later time than my wife deemed acceptable.  I pulled up to the window, my mind racing with the crisis of the day and what was next on my endless “To Do” list.

That’s when I heard a screech.

“DR.FELICELLO! What’s good?!?”  

It was dark and at first I didn’t recognize my former student, but the old motor started churning and the memories flooded back.  She had a good heart, was smart, but didn’t always know how to play the game of school. I had a soft spot for her so sometimes went off script, bending or breaking rules because, at the time, I thought she would be better off for it.  I often wondered if I was really helping her or just enabling her and the others I got “creative” with over the years.  

That’s when she said something that turned out to be the highlight of my month.  

She said, “I am almost done with my degree! I am going to be a nurse.  I guess you were right. I am actually going to make something of my life.”

I got a little tingly with emotion, feeling good to have made a difference, but it also made me reflect on a time when I didn’t make the best decisions. It made me question our obsession with compliance in our school system today.

It was my first month as principal at James A. Farley Middle School and it didn’t take long for my first major controversy to hit.  I had my very own version of “Watergate”.

I am not quite sure how or why I made the decree, but once I had, for some unknown reason, I refused to back down. Well, not some unknown reason.  I was, and some may say still, stubborn (I am working on it). I wanted to avoid flip flopping, which I had seen too many weak leaders do over the years; I wanted to appear strong.  The ironic part is that I now know strong leaders are confident enough to know when they make a mistake and it’s better to fix them rather than digging in like a tick.  

What was it that I had banned in my new school?

It was the ever distracting and dangerous water bottle.  

That’s right water bottles. Stay hydrated so learning can be maximized? Nah, if they are thirsty they can go to the water fountain like we have done in schools for the last hundred years. Nevermind that germs have evolved. Never mind that leaving the classroom means distractions and missed instruction time. This was “that is the way we have done it” logic at its best.  

Compliance leadership at its worst.  

Can you imagine if your boss told you that water wasn’t allowed at work?  That’s exactly what I did. I showed up to my first PTA meeting and found a packed house full of parents who were there not to welcome the new, young, energetic Principal, but rather to see this fool who banned water in school.  

I heard the murmurs: “Who does this guy think he is?” “He won’t last around here too long.”

Did I back down at that point?  Hell no! I calmly pointed out all of the “logical” reasons why water bottles were bad for schools. The kids play with them in class and they are a distraction.  They could put alcohol in them.  They could throw them out of the window of the buses. They could twist the top causing the cap to fly off, possibly shooting someone’s eye out. It didn’t matter that those things hadn’t happen.  Good thing the extremely annoying bottle flipping trend wasn’t around back then or Farley would probably still be a dry campus.  

Luckily for me, my Superintendent at the time was a wise, politically savvy gentleman who was able to bail me out without having me lose face. I still remember when he called me and said “I was thinking I would make it a District rule that students can not have drinks in class except water and they could have water as long as they drink responsibility. Would you be ok with that?” I was so eager to get out of this mess that I missed the joke, and nearly screamed “yes, please!”

Looking back, it seems even more ridiculous, but in fairness it was over 10 years ago.  Even though science had told us the benefits of staying hydrated had on learning, it had not quite hit the mainstream yet.  You didn’t see people carrying around giant water jugs in an effort to stay hydrated as you do today.  

As I reflected on “Watergate”, it made me wonder what types of policies and procedures that we insist on today will be laughed at 10 years from now?  As a society we are often resistant to change. Traditionally, the education system is even slower to embrace change. Some schools still use the phone chain to report snow days for goodness sake.

How different is school today from when we went to school? From when our parents or grandparents for that matter?  Sure, now the blackboards have gotten an upgrade, computers and other devices are readily available, yet still too many classrooms in America have students sitting in rows with the instructors providing them content that can just as easily be found on their phones.

I recently had the pleasure of watching  Thomas Murray deliver a keynote presentation. A picture he showed was troubling, yet thought provoking.  As educators, we often hear how important it is to always get students ready.  Ready for the next grade, the next school, the next step in the education process, always insisting that if they do not conform to our rules, they will not make it at the next level.  If I had a nickel for everytime I heard , and embarrassingly have said “That just won’t fly when you get to….”  That’s why I found Murray’s picture so powerful; it showed how traditional classrooms are so similar to the final level we all eventually reach.

Is our system driven too much by conformity and compliance? Have we not changed enough to reflect a society that is evolving at a breakneck pace?  We no longer need schools to churn out the factory workers that they were initially designed to create during the industrial revolution.  We no longer need a workforce that completes rote tasks, accurately and efficiently with little creative thinking required.  We are facing a new revolution, making it essential to create a workforce that not only solves problems, but as George Curos states in his powerful book The Innovator’s Mindset, “finds problems.”  

If we want to continue to not only survive, but thrive as a nation, we will need the next generation to think differently than we do.  What do we do in schools today that will seem as absurd 10 years from now as banning water in classrooms does today?  What practices do we follow just because that is the way it has always been done?   

Will history be kind to an education system that’s answer to missing class or school is to make students miss more class or school?

Will history be kind on a system that tries to fit all students in the same common core box rather than having them follow their passions and embrace their strengths?

How about a grading system that does not measure how much of the intended goals of the course a student masters, but rather if the student conformed to the path to get there that the school has laid out for them?

Do we really need to suspend the same students over and over with little success in changing their behavior and them caring less and less each time we do?

When students don’t care about our consequences, do we really have power over them?  

Could teaching them the consequences of their actions be a more effective approach?

Maybe more compassion, more teaching, more understanding will result in a better outcome.  Educational leaders like Dominque Smith seem to think restorative discipline is a more effective solution and I tend to agree, but I struggle with how we find that balance while keeping our schools safe institutions where all students can learn.

So much of what we require in schools is based on compliance. It is not done with bad intentions, but rather with fear–fear that if we don’t have our carrots and sticks,kids just won’t do what they need to do. That if one student needs a different path, it is somehow unfair.  Is this the best way to prepare the next generation?  How will the problems of tomorrow that my kids will face be solved if we insist on them doing it “our way”?

These are the thoughts that keep me up at night. Yet, I have hope; we have so many progressive leaders in our field who are becoming more and more connected through amazing collaboration tools like Twitter.  Whether it’s Jimmy Casas progressive approach to school culture, Rick Wormeli’s belief that fair isn’t always equal, Angela Stockman’s practical and innovative thoughts on making writing,  Gary Armida’s brave stance on zeros, Jon Gordon’s belief in a more positive leadership model, or an educators who have been and continue to be ahead of their time, Alfie Kohn’s and Sir Ken Robinson’s thoughts on all of it, these great minds and others are connecting and communicating with each other and others in the field.  

How often in the real world are we required to follow an exact path that is laid out for us?  Imagine if to be good at something or to accomplish a goal you had to follow an exact script.  You like to jog to get your exercise? Sorry today we are swimming. You don’t like swimming? Sorry, it’s not fair to everyone else that you get to go for a jog on a beautiful day. If I let you jog, everyone will want to do it.  You get a zero for exercise today; no, you can not make it up tomorrow.  That wouldn’t be fair to all of the health minded people who actually exercised like they were supposed to today.

I know it is a bit of an extreme example and I do understand that the reality is you need a school that is run efficiently and orderly.  You need rules, safety, expectations and consequences.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t do better, be more practical, take misbehaviors and failed learning opportunities less personal.  There is no road map for how to accomplish this change, no script that must be followed. Life is not a game, but schools too often feel like one.  

Mental health issues are on the rise as are drug abuse and alcoholism.  We no longer know what to believe in the news. We continue to learn of unspeakable  acts by people in power, once seen as our heros, now disgraced. We are living in a world where politicians blatantly lie to us on television and then deny that they even said the falsehood despite the video evidence.  

Is it time to change how we do things in our schools?  Is it not time to teach our children to think for themselves, to make decisions, to allow them to fail so they can learn from their mistakes?  If it’s not us, as educators, to help to create a better society, then who?  It is time we change before we end up like the Blockbusters, Sears, Macy’s, Borscht Belt Hotels, Motor Cities and all of the other great American institutions that were staples in our country forever until one day they weren’t.    

Maybe my views on education have become pie in the sky or too liberal.  Maybe I am losing touch with what it is like to actually be “live” in a school.  It is easy to say let’s empower students and change the gameplan from my perch in central office.  

Yet, I fear that if we don’t adjust, change, improve, and look at things differently the great American education system will become extinct.  I’m afraid that history will look back at some of our practices, like I now look at my decision to ban water.  But I have hope because of all the great minds in education like you!