Management-Speak Disguises a Short-Sighted Vision of School

In decades of trying to improve schools, things aren’t working out. Maybe, we should apply a lesson of life to our approach to elementary school: Do the present right, and the future will take care of itself.

On the surface much of the lingo of school improvement seems full of confident commitment to excellence and success for all. Language like accountability for measurable outcomes, high standards, data driven decision-making, racing to the top, leaving no children behind, and so on is seductive. Hearing this language in a school system one imagines thousands of children working hard to produce results that will someday make thousands of adults proud of their collective commitment to success.

But the vision does not materialize. Look at the data that data-driven managers keep collecting from the workers. Are we getting those “results?” If one were as rigorous as that word “data” pretends to be, one might hypothesize that our approach is wrong. It is. Children don’t learn best this way. No one does.

Compare the behaviors that result from management-speak with the behaviors one sees in Joan’s first grade class.

Joan, a teacher in a Midwest school, treats her students as scientists. When they study penguins, for instance, they take expeditions to Antarctica as researchers. Each group of scientists is challenged to travel by boat, disembark, camp, observe conditions and penguins, record findings, return home and present results. Students are measuring height, depth, temperature, decoding nautical signal flag messages, weighing, keeping a log, observing and tallying penguin behaviors or playing math games on board ship to pass the time. One day some children slip into oversized black T-shirts to become their studied penguins, flapping flippers, collecting rocks or huddling together. Other children use binoculars from icebergs across the room to tally observed behaviors. When the scientists return home they graph the results and present to the class.

I visit the class at story time and see 24 faces fixed on Joan in rapt attention as she reads a story related to their recent experiences. At the end of the unit the students present their adventures and discoveries to older classes and to parents on Antarctica Day.

Joan’s students take responsibility for their own learning because they own it; they feel that their teacher is trying to give them opportunities to shine.!


Learning the conventions of academics in this context, their performance on standardized tests skyrockets right along with self-worth. We all learn better when we take on challenges that are meaningful to us.

Management-speak hides a fear of long-term consequences that distracts from the real work of education. This, paradoxically, results in shortsighted action. Lessons become tests of worthiness, indicators of which students are likely to make it and which are at risk. A child challenged in the moment is seen as at risk at some point the future. Teachers are held accountable for “covering the material” toward some vision of future success. But this vision is a mirage, of course.

By contrast, Joan’s students live in the present thus preparing them for a future of enthusiastic learning. Focusing on children’s natural love of learning in the moment builds a love of challenge, resilience through failure and better long-term results. Measuring-up clouds may hover over Joan’s head, but there is no mirage of success on the horizon. She and her students are exploring the planet, not trudging through an empty desert.

Doing the present right builds on an important truth: first graders are whole people whose detective brains have already spent about 52,560 hours researching the world in which they find themselves. They are natural-born scientists still needing lots of experience and training in the disciplines of being scientists.

No one is at fault that education is not happening in most school systems. Systems tend to be insensitive to the active ingredients of education: internal motivation, individual decision-making, unique characters, useful data, specificity and love.

Many could, however, take responsibility. System leaders could hold teachers accountable for what really matters. Teachers could be true to their calling. We, the people, could expect educators to educate rather than simply follow directions and sort children.

It may seem like a management nightmare, but that is the leadership challenge.


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8 thoughts on “Management-Speak Disguises a Short-Sighted Vision of School

  1. Yes. Ken Robinson’s analysis is the best I have seen, too. I focused on the language this time, because it is seductive. Everyone seems to be falling for it. Even reformers end up with management-speak, and so the wheels keep spinning in the sand. That’s why Sir Ken is right. We need revolution, not reform.

  2. Just reading “The Good School”. At one point when he is talking about teaching to the test he talks about an education and testing specialist who compares it to studying for the eye exam at the DMV by memorizing the letters that are on the board. It means they will probably past the test, but it means that you can’t measure if the person can actually see well enough to drive, just as when kids are drilled to pass standardized tests they may not actually understand the material (let alone be exercising critical thinking etc.). I thought it was an apt comparison.

  3. Yes, Corey, it is heartbreaking, and teaching to the test is only a piece of it. I have met enough adults who are illiterate to see a pattern. It goes like this: by second grade, those who are below the norm according to the timetable prescribed by the curriculum prescribed by the test prescribed by the grade level “standards” are (often with some anxiety) are labeled as such and this label becomes self-fulling. By fourth grade all kids know how promising or un they are. Often for face-saving sake, many are passed on and even graduate from high school, with a diploma, illiterate. As Gary says, the problem is systemic. The system is actually a system of social sorting not education.

  4. Thanks, Rick! For years, I’ve said that schools can’t fix the problem because they are the problem. But schools are made up of people who could “fix” things if they had the vision, passion and commitment to do so. One of the best chapters I read in graduate school the second time around was called, “The Iatrogenic Effects of Dispositional Illness” and as I recall it had to do with the negative effects of labeling. There’s a lot more on that topic for later but you get it. Call someone obsessive-compulsive and they’re sure to behave that way. Same with “learning-differenced” and for heavens sakes we’re all different! I agree with you wholeheartedly about the social sorting and now we’re struggling with the economic sorting as well!

  5. thanks Gary. Sometimes I like to define education as “transcending the generalizations you make about yourself.” Unemployment? Our archaic school system got us into this mess, and only education can get us out of it. Furthermore, without our schools becoming an education, we will not get out of it. I see so many human being who have learned that they are not worth much–Really? 75% of Americans aren’t worth much? Really?

  6. Thank you Dad. there are many little gems in this piece that you wrote that I think would really get the average person to stop and think. like me… 🙂 I really like the very last sentence. and also the girl hanging upside down with the caption under it “that is not how children learn, now is it.” also the image of the antarctic scientists is one that I think the majority of people never even imagined possible in a classroom. so I vote that this article is polished to find its way to get these precious words and ideas into the New Yorker, or Newsweek, or your local newspaper. I will spread the word around here too, in’sha Allah. We are grateful for your speaking out and for your writing.

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