Tag Archives: School change

A Century of the Standard Model of Schooling

Mal Lee

2020 marked a century’s use of the standard model of schooling.

Standardised across the developed world from around 1920 the core elements of the model adopted by schools then remain largely unchanged a 100 plus years on –  it long being accepted as the norm globally.

It is very easy to forget how long the model, and its core attributes have been in place and universally employed by the world.

Schooling is one of the few common concerted experiences shared by most of the world’s people, with near 7.5 billion having a working understanding  and expectations of the standard approach.

Indeed it is that universal acceptance that makes it so important that all educators better understand schooling’s heritage, the evolution of standard model, the concerted, on-going but largely ineffectual efforts to sustain significant change, and the lessons to be borne in mind by all contemplating major change.

Suddaby and Foster (2017) in their research on sustained organisational change underscore the imperative of all organisations, public and private sector factoring a historical perspective into the change process. 

That need is ever greater in those organisations lacking corporate memory; a reality in many schools, and particularly education authorities, where career public servants are invariably the decision makers. 

The history of schooling in the last century has seen billions spent on major school organisational change. Remarkably few of the structural changes have been sustained. Most rarely survived the change of head, or government. Those that sustained the change for more than 25 years remain a rarity. Look and you’ll find that virtually all the often considerable structural changes made post Sputnik in the 1960’s and 1970s have disappeared and the schools returned to the standard mode.

Notwithstanding the quest for school change continues unabated, at every level. Governments, education authorities, education reviews, individual schools, the idealists and the futurists all continue the quest. Invariably newly appointed ministers of education and superintendents seek to make their make their mark with substantial investment in a ‘revolutionary change’. Seemingly every new head must begin tenure with a set of organisational changes, even if it is only a return to old ways.

Teachers globally rightly complain of continual change but as Fullan and Stiegebauer (1991) rightly noted

The more things change the more they remain the same…(Fullan and Stiegebauer, 1991 p345)

The COVID-19 pandemic spawned a fresh batch of calls for major structural change.  The shift to a near fully digital operational base was seen to open the way to a host of new modes of schooling.

What most of the calls failed to do, including the more recent, was understand schooling’s heritage and appreciate why the standard model had weathered a 100 plus years obsession with change. 

History provides four key lessons;

  1. Major school structural change is incredibly difficult to achieve, and then sustain
  1. The standard school model has stood the test of time for very good reasons – despite its significant shortcomings
  1. That model, embedded as it is within contemporary society and modern economies, will remain the norm for many generations to come
  1. Major sustained school development and evolution can, and likely will only occur within the existing school structures. 

It is time to drop the obsession with structural change. History and experience says very strongly that far too much time, effort and money has been wasted on that quest. 

The existing structures are a given to work within. 

100 years says very strongly – before embarking on any quest for structural change adjudge the likelihood of achieving sustained enhancement and the degree of disruption of teaching that will occur, possibly needlessly if the change is implemented. 

In brief cease tilting at windmills and concentrate on where the likelihood of sustained enhancement is achievable.

History of standardisation

History informs us that the current model of schooling was standardised in the western world around 1920.

While the model had been existent for years it took until the 1920’s to standardise the approach.

The political skirmishes of the previous 50 odd years, the recognition of the need to better educate the young, the growing influence of a burgeoning middle class, the lessons of the Great War and the concerted efforts by a body of ‘educational experts’ combined to see developed nations like the USA, England, Scotland, Australia and Canada adopt a remarkably similar model of schooling (Campbell and Proctor, 2014) (Curtis and Boultwood, 1962), (McClure, 1971) (Tyack and Cuban, 1995). 

The ‘education experts’ within the new education bureaucracies – aided by the emerging education faculties – took charge of the schooling, deciding the mission, the structure of the schools, their location, organisation, curriculum, testing regime, staffing and operations (Tyler, 1971), (Tyack and Cuban, 1995.

They also took charge of teacher training, and teacher remuneration and working conditions.

The previous stakeholders, the community, parents and invariably the church, were eased out of the decision making.

The schools the experts created are those you know well.

The students attended a physical place called school, at set times, within state determined term dates, with the students organised into age cohorts and taught in class groups, invariably by a solitary teacher.

They moved in a lock step manner through their years at school, all taught using a common curriculum prepared by the ‘experts’, all assessed by paper based exams, with the major exams externally set.

The focus was strongly academic. Success equated with academic performance.

They were schools where the socially economically advantaged families of the society were further advantaged, and the marginalised, the labourers, indigenous, coloureds and migrants further disadvantaged. 

Core to the model was the sorting and sifting of the students, the schools charged with identifying the perceived future leaders while filtering out the lower quality and non-compliant students. 

The nature of the school buildings, with their corridors of teaching rooms, was much the same as today. Indeed, most schools built in the 1920s remain in operation today. Think of the schools in the older parts of the cities and the country towns, and note how many were built around the 1920s or earlier.

Structurally the schools were linear, strongly hierarchical organisations, that drew heavily upon Industrial Age manufacturing thinking and processes. The high/secondary schools particularly were segmented, loosely coupled (Weick, 1976), with a strong division of labour, where the subject teachers taught their speciality to students moving along the ‘production line’.

The principal was all powerful, using ‘his’ position and the hierarchy to unilaterally control every facet of the school’s operation. Teachers of that period were part of the educated elite, their word carrying immense weight in a poorly educated societies.

A century on most of these features still hold – now globally.

In 1995 Tyack and Cuban, in an aptly titled history of US schooling, Tilting at Utopia commented on what they termed the ‘grammar of schooling’.

The basic grammar of schooling, like the shape of classrooms, has remained remarkably stable over the decades. Little has changed in the ways schools divide time and space, classify students and allocate them to classrooms, splinter knowledge into ‘subjects’ and award grades and ‘credits’ as evidence of learning (Tyack and Cuban, 1995, p85).

……Established institutional forms come to be understood by educators, student and the public as necessary features of ‘real’ school. They become fixed in place by everyday custom in schools and by outside forces, by legal mandates and cultural beliefs, until they are barely noticed. They become just the way schools are (Tyack and Cuban, 1995, p86).

25 years later those observations still hold true of most all schools worldwide.

Indeed if anything the COVID – 19 experience has reinforced the standard model. The world has had underscored the critical social, economic and educational importance of the nation’s young physically attending a place called school most working days of the year. While significant strides have been made in the use of the digital, and opportunities with it abound, parents globally likely more than ever expect to send their children off to school in the morning safe in the knowledge that they can get on with their life and work.

It is time to better understand that reality.

Revealingly there are remarkably few publications that address that reality, which provide the historical perspective, and give school leaders the macro understanding of the evolution of school organisational structures needed to shape an effective change strategy.

There are thousands, likely millions of publications on the theory and practise of school change, and all manner of courses and post graduate programs which purport to provide the elixir to sustained change but few that address why a century on the standard model that emerged around 1920 remains the norm in near every country in the world.

Much of that research and analysis has yet to be done but the stress testing of the standard model occasioned by the pandemic already provides important insights.

Strengths and expectations

Unwittingly the pandemic has heightened our understanding of the models strengths – and shortcomings, what society expects of its schools and the opportunities the emerging digital technologies provide to enhance the model’s workings in the contemporary world.

The great and enduring strengths of the traditional model relate in the main to its facility to simultaneously develop and care for most of the nation’s young in a secure, safe physical site, for much of the year. The importance of face to face teaching and social interaction became increasingly apparent as the studies were undertaken, particularly for the very young and the already disadvantaged.

It frees young parents to work, to make a significant contribution to the national productively, while also providing families the monies to live their lives.

The importance of the latter was highlighted when economies worldwide were obliged to operate in a holding pattern until the physical places called school could re-open.

Tellingly the model performs that role relatively efficiently, combining as it does educational development, care, social growth and increasingly personal well-being.

The related strength is that the model continues to give society what it expects of schools. It is a politically and socially acceptable model. It is the model, with all its practises, rituals, ceremonies and traditions that generations have come to know, 

and importantly expect.

While the core structures might be difficult, if not impossible to change what occurs within them can, and does, in often significant ways. Some of the change will be a natural response to an evolving society but other can be readily school or system initiated. 

Today it would be impossible to move away from the northern and southern hemispheres school holidays or the expectation that the kids can be dropped off and picked up at set times most days of the year. That said schools can if they desire readily change such things as the learning environment and the culture, the nature of the teaching and the relationships with the students within the existing structures.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought to the fore  globally those schools which had been moving to a digital operational base. With all the staff and students ‘schooled’ in the art of using the digital astutely those admittedly exceptional schools were able to thrive and grow in full and part lockdown, and sustain the collaborative, all pervasive use of the technology on return to normal operations.

The key was that those schools understood they had to work with their parent expectations and the structures of the standard model.

Conclusion.

Understand the standard model is not about to change, and will continue to be used by the world for many generations to come.

Despite a century plus of crystal ball gazing and ‘futurists’ proclaiming dramatic change most schools will remain remarkably similar to that which you and your parents attended.  

That said it is possible to make and sustain significant changes within the existing structures if approached astutely.

One of the great, unheralded strengths of today’s digital technology is the facility to use it in teaching anywhere, anytime, be it in a heritage listed Victorian era building, an aged outback two teacher establishment, a school without walls or a modern flexible space complex.

  • Campbell, C and Proctor, H (2014) A History of Australian Schooling. Sydney. Allen and Unwin
  • Curtis, S.J and Boultwood, M.E.A (1962) An Introductory History of English Education Since 1800. London. University Tutorial Press
  • Fullan. M and Stiegebauer, S (1991) The New Meaning of Educational Change. London. Cassell. Second edition.
  • McClure, R.M (1971) The Curriculum: Retrospect and Prospect. The Seventieth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Chicago. University of Chicago Press 1971.
  • Suddaby, R and Foster, W.M, (2017) ‘History and Organizational Change’. Journal of Management.Vol.43. No. I 2017
  • Tyack, D and Cuban, L (1995). Tinkering Toward Utopia. Cambridge. Massachusetts. Harvard University Press.
  • Tyler, R.W (1971) ‘Curriculum Development in the Twenties and Thirties’. In McClure, R.M (1971) The Curriculum: Retrospect and Prospect. The Seventieth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Chicago. University of Chicago Press 1971.

The Uniqueness of Sustained School Organisational Change

Greg McKay

Mal Lee and Roger Broadie

The art of sustaining, and in time revitalising core organisational change in schools, and school systems is unique; markedly different to that in other organisations.

It is an emerging reality all interested in school development should consider. 

While there are many similarities to all other organisations in the sustaining of the change it is critical to understand what sets schools apart, and not perpetuate the mistake many have made trying to apply in toto the tenets or models of organisational change in business, and indeed the public service, to schools.

Schools, and school systems are unique organisational forms, requiring apt sustaining and revitalisation strategies.

The school organisational change literature not only doesn’t recognise the marked difference between making the initial organisational change and its sustaining (Lee and Broadie, 2019) but also doesn’t acknowledge schools organisationally differ in at least six fundamental aspects to all other organisations, private and public sector.

Their remit, the societal dependence on them, the time spent developing the nation’s young, school’s perpetual existence, government’s political control, and invariably ownership, and their need to balance ‘normalisation’ with evolution combine to set them apart.

No school can be independent of the education system they are part of, be it local, parochial, provincial, national or international. All must work within the established parameters, address the set targets and meet an array of obligations.

The same combination of factors, plus the many others that impact organisational change make core school, and system change, and the sustaining of that change very challenging, with history revealing the odds strongly favour the retention of, and invariably the return to, the traditional organisational form.

  • Remit

Businesses exist to make money, schools to educate, and to care for the nation’s young, within a physical place called school.

The young, their parents, the wider community, and vitally the electorate expect those schools to play those roles day after day, year after year.

While accepting schools will be efficiently and effectively managed, and make good use of the funding provided schools are not perceived to be profit making enterprises.  

  • Societal dependence

Rather they exist to serve their society, they been given the prime responsibility for educating the nation’s young, and caring for and nurturing them while the parents work.

They are moreover expected to play that role in the contemporary world in a consistent manner, on a specified number of days each year, within given hours, and break for holidays on approximately the same dates year after year – advertising the school term dates several years in advance.

Globally modern societies, and indeed economies build their lives and workings around those school operating times and term dates, with there been virtually no likelihood of ever varying the term dates. Life in the northern hemisphere is for example still profoundly impacted hundreds of years on by a pattern of school holidays that emerged out of the agrarian year.

Societies’ dependence is invariably strengthened by governments’ mandating that all the nation’s young attend school for X years of their lives.

150 plus years on society has also come to expect – rightly or wrongly – schools to ready compliant citizens, ensure the ‘right’ material is taught, sort and sift the students, and certificate the student’s ability. 

  • Time spent developing the young

Schools must factor into any strategy that seeks to sustain change, and particularly to revitalise that change the responsibility they have for educating each age cohort of students over a long, invariably twelve plus year period, and doing so in a lockstep, linear manner.

While most organisations, private and public sector have only a brief interaction with the clients, schools work with them every day, for years, each year taking in a new cohort of students, while exiting another. To create a significant change in the learning behaviour of say nine year olds, it may be necessary to start that change with the children when they are only five.

Approximately 20% of the nation’s young’s learning time annually will be spent at school.

Core organisational change invariably has thus to be phased in, and the change continued with until the last student cohort departs the school.

Schools can’t like most other organisations make, and even markedly refine a core change the moment it thinks apt. They have work with the givens. 

  • Perpetual organisations

Schools as organisations will continue their operations while ever there is a community for which to cater; an electorate to satisfy. While non-government schools might come, and go governments must ensure communities have a school

Schools have literally existed for hundreds of years, and are on track do so for many more.

In marked contrast to business that must operate at the cutting-edge to remain viable, the viability of most schools is seldom under threat.

While it is highly desirable schools provide a quality apt contemporary education in many respects it matters not how poorly run or how dated and irrelevant is the teaching. The government schools will continue while ever there are students wanting to attend.

The demand on their ‘child care’ role, particularly at a point in history where both parents work, will see most average, and even poor schools continue to operate.

It is difficult to imagine any democratic government, wanting to stay in office opting to take up Perelman’s (1992) suggestion of closing the schools, and teaching solely online.

The perpetuity of the organisation, its longevity means staff appointed to schools will, likely unwittingly, play a custodial role in preserving and growing the history of the school, for what invariably will only be a relatively short time in the organisation’s operations. They will play their role and leave it to others to continue and hopefully grow their work. It is not unusual for there to be a 20% plus turnover of staff annually, and only rarely will the teachers stay in a K-12 school the same length as the students.

The same holds at the system level, probably even more so, particularly in those organisations that staff the central office with limited term contracts. 

Interestingly, aside from staff in schools with a long history, the authors’ strong impression is that most teachers, administrators and even politicians don’t see schools operating in perpetuity, or the staff being custodians of but a period in the organisation’s history. While greater research is needed, the authors combined 80 year plus association with schools and systems points to a focus on the now, and the immediate future, that combined with a lack of corporate memory and documented history likely sees few staff regarding themselves as custodians of a heritage. The contrast with role played by staff in a museum, or even the police or fire services is likely marked, with the shortcoming needing to be factored into any change sustaining or revitalisation strategy. 

Schools linked to religious organisations are also invariably limited in the degree of change they can implement by the usually conservative tenets of their governing bodies.

  • Government control, ownership and politics

Another great difference between sustaining, and particularly revitalising organisational change in business and in schools is that schooling is controlled by government, in most instances the schools are owned by the government, and any core change will always depend on its electoral, political and government acceptance.

Globally governments, be they local, provincial or national control the operations of the nation’s schools – even if not directly owning them. While the nature and degree of sway varies the control of such variables as the overarching legislation, working conditions, pay rates, the funding, the curriculum authority, the examination’s board/s, teacher registration, school accreditation and teacher training ensures the government of the day will always have a powerful voice.

The power is amplified many fold when they own the schools.

With government control/ownership there will always be the continuing, often very quick turnover of the senior decision makers. Governments only have limited tenure, the ministers of education even shorter and system chief executive will on experience rarely stay more than six years.

The limited tenure, the electoral imperative to impress in the short time and the constant jockeying for power strongly inclines governments, ministers of education and their bureaucrats to favour shorter term initiatives, and to shy away from change likely to alienate the electorate.

School systems in contrast to business, invariably have senior decision makers who aren’t versed in the business at hand. Contemporary educational administration is highly likely to have a minister, political advisers and heads of the administration with no training in or experience in high level educational change. Most moreover will have little or no corporate memory.

Their expertise is politics and providing the electorate what it finds acceptable.

Sustained change must be electorally acceptable, preferably owned by the community to the extent that successive governments will be wary of intervening other than to enrich the change.

Any major revitalisation of the original core organisational change, such as shifting from a paper to digitally based operational construct will need to be electorally attractive, be embraced by the teachers and school leadership and vitally provide wins for most of the senior decision makers, the political advisers, the minister, the system executive, and in many situations also the union/s. 

While accepting small ‘p’ politics is important in all sustained organisational change with schools the facility to play the small and capital ‘P’ political game is paramount.

  • Accommodating ‘normalisation’ and evolution

Schooling has the immense, and growing challenge of ‘normalising’ the everyday school experience while simultaneously evolving its form to ensure the schools continue to provide an apt contemporary education, and meet their society’s rising expectations.

Much of the business literature regards normalisation as an anathema to sustained organisational change, Lewin as far back as 1947 commented on the necessity of ‘unfreezing’ the organisation. Normalisation is considered by the many of the change theorists to be a sign of failure, an indicator that the organisation had ossified and moved to a state of evolutionary equilibrium.

Those theorists reveal they don’t understand the unique nature of sustaining organisational change in schools.

Swift acceptance and ‘normalisation’ of the change by the students, staff, parents and the wider community is imperative in schooling if the core change is to succeed and be sustained over the decades. In keeping with the above mentioned factors the change needs to be perceived to be successful, and accepted by the electorate for it to have any hope of being sustained as governments and senior executive come and go.

That normalisation needs to be astutely engineered, with the electorate, as well as the staff, students and particularly the parents being educated on the merits of the core change. 

But in so doing the community needs also to understand that in a time of accelerating digital evolution and organisational transformation ‘normalisation’ should be viewed as a continually evolving – not static – concept, a phenomenon where the ‘old normal’ is regularly replaced by the ‘new normal’. This is particularly apparent in the daily use of rapidly evolving digital technologies where the old ways are continually being superseded by the new, without a moment’s thought. It is however apparent in near every facet of life, work and learning where what was normal ten years ago has been supplanted.

This iterative normalisation is particularly important to the evolution of schooling, where a host of often seemingly small enhancements can combine to ensure apt adjustments are made for the evolving context; refinements readily accepted by the students, staff, electorate and government.

We’ve identified six attributes that set schooling apart for other sustained organisational change. There might well be others.

Conclusion

The point remains schools are unique organisations.

That uniqueness needs to be better recognised in shaping the strategies to sustain core school and system wide organisational change, and when appropriate to build upon and revitalise the core change.

While schooling should draw upon the general thinking and research on general organisational change it is imperative the decision makers contextualise their thinking and appreciate schooling is unique.