Dangerously Irrelevant & Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky’s most recent blog post deals with the collapse of complex business models. Scott McLeod over at Dangerously Irrelevant reminds today, We ARE the system. I invite you to go read those pieces first before you come back here and read this, but I’ve selected the money quotes I’m planning on using and inserted them here, for those of you on a time-budget.

Clay says,

When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.

Scott says,

Principals, superintendents, curriculum directors, technology coordinators, and educational leadership professors: Are you ready to take responsibility for your own decision-making? Our students and staff deserve better…

Coming back from Washington, DC, as I think I mentioned here, I encountered another school group. The school was being reorganized from being a regular middle school to being a magnet school for STEM students.  Under state and contract rules, that required everyone to apply for their old jobs, and no more than 70% of the faculty could be rehired at the new STEM magnet school. The teachers I spoke with were nervous about this process, but at least they were eager to see their school become a magnet school with major new resources committed to their community.

As we’ve heard, at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, under the “Transformation” plan of reorganization, no more than 50% of the faculty can be rehired, and all must go through some sort of recertification.

In New Jersey, the governor’s budget is causing uproar among teachers, which is spilling out into the larger politics of the state, and into national headlines.

Only two of the fifty states won Phase One funding for their programs in Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Barak Obama’s “Race to the Top” program, which some wags are now calling “48 states’ children left behind.”

Newsweek is saying that we must fire bad teachers, eleven times on just its front cover.  The New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly say we have to train them differently, and prepare them differently, and make sure that students wind up in good classrooms with good teachers at least some of the time.

The Roman Catholic Church is ducking questions about its responsibility in continuing to retain teachers who were responsible for the wholesale torture and sexual abuse of children this week — teachers additionally singled out as called and sanctified by God.

It is in this context that a blog titled Dangerously Irrelevant asks us to consider if we are ready to take responsibility for our own decision-making, and that Clay Shirky reminds us that institutions keep getting more and more complex — until they can’t get any more complex, and get really simple really fast.

As Shirky reminds us, the old media empires are going through this process now, and that it is largely bureaucracy that makes things complex.

I’d ask all of you to consider this.  Who is really essential personnel in your school?  Who is so good at what they do as a teacher, that he or she is still teaching even when there’s no school around them?

I know a guy like that.

His name is Don.  He sits in a local coffee house, making deals, reading the paper.  He’s retired, officially, but don’t bet on in.  Instead of working in a school, he reads the writing of people that come to him, makes suggestions, does some judicious editing, runs book groups for homeschooled kids and adults.  It pays for his coffee habit, keeps him out of the house, buys him lunch, pays a poor wage that he supplements with savvy stock market trades and investments in local businesses.

I know a gal like that.

She’s a retired librarian.  She runs five book groups during the week, and two on Saturdays.  They’re all reading different books.  She runs online forums, and invoices her clients, and kicks them out of her book groups if they don’t pay.  They meet in people’s homes, and sometimes it’s mother-daughter groups and sometimes its old people and sometimes it’s married couples.  It’s rarely children, she tells me, because they’re just not readers like they used to be.

I’ve passed four homes in the last month that have kid-friendly art studios-for-rent in living rooms or garages — two for paint, one for pottery, one for metalwork.  I know places you can go for private music lessons that don’t involve going to school.  Some of these music teachers will even put you in touch with other students to form chamber and jazz and rock groups.

I think there’s a real question here, about what’s essential to school.  Do you need a principal?  Do you need deans?  Do you need classrooms or will a coffee house do?  Can you rent an empty storefront to teach math, history and English?

What would it cost?  Could you pay the bills?  Would your union hound you all the way to the gates of Hell?  Could you convince your best, most effective colleagues to partner with you and go into business together?

How many parents would follow you?

Can your community afford it?

Is it time?

These aren’t questions I ask lightly.  Don’t all rush in at once to answer them (I take that back… so few of you actually comment, I’d be thrilled if you all rushed in to comment, even to condemn the thought).

I can pretty much guarantee that the pay will be lower. The pensions won’t be as good, or even extant.  The health care plan will be … not nothing, thanks to Congress — but certainly worse than it is now.   It will be terribly, awesomely, terrifically frightening.

But the system in which you (and I, though I work in a private school), are currently enmeshed, cannot simultaneously hold onto its existing patterns of pay, compensation, tenure, hierarchy, and duties; and radically innovate in the ways we need to achieve the higher level of student achievement which we say we want.


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  1. I totally agree. If the educational community continues along the path it is currently on, it will slowly implode. Bureaucrats and politicians cannot keep mandating policies that in theory sound good but in practice don’t work. Teachers become teachers because they care. I guarantee that if left to their own devices, there would be a lot more learning going on.

  2. All I know about Clay Shirkey is that his name keeps popping up EVERYWHERE these days and that “Here Comes Everybody” might have one of my favorite title/cover art combinations of the last five years…

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