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February 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 5

Stretched Analogies and School Reform

Parents and leaders from all segments of society want kids to set their sights high—to go for the gold. But what of those who don't make the team?

Last spring, the nation's governors and representatives from 47 corporations met in Palisades, New York, to "grade" public schools and recommend steps to improve them. Comparing students to Olympic athletes, one governor insisted that we must "raise the bar" of expectations. Collectively, participants at this education summit called for higher standards across K–12 education.
The winter before the 1996 summit, my hometown newspaper, the Grand Rapids Press, published an article detailing a plan to disperse money to Michigan school districts on the basis of achievement test scores. The premise was simple: schools that do their jobs get paid; schools that don't, won't.
So what's wrong with raising that high jump bar to world-class levels? Why not punish those "dumb kids" and give less assistance to their schools? As someone who has taught for 25 years, I'll tell you what is at the heart of my own discomfort. It's my belief that the political-business alliance is the wrong group to lead educational reform. These people are not education experts, yet they are convincing the public that there are easy solutions to the problems of public schools.
This process is not unique to education. When nonexperts in any field are asked to make expert decisions, problems surface. Lacking an understanding of the deep structure of the field, they don't know how to talk about and resolve complex issues, and so they tend to simplify them. In education, we have powerful business and political leaders using analogies to business and athletics as a way to simplify and solve complex issues. They use what they know to talk about what they don't know: "It's time we performed as well in the classroom as we do on the Olympic playing field."

Hesse's Theory

In an attempt to make sense of how nonexperts operate when making expert decisions, I have developed the Theory of Stretched Analogies. Good analogies are powerful tools for understanding. In education, they help students see characteristics and structures in ways not readily apparent. For example, comparing the flow of electricity in a circuit to that of water in a hose can help students understand such concepts as current, voltage, and resistance. But analogies have their limits. Too often, they focus only on surface similarities: Water flow is not electric current.
In public affairs, politicians rely on analogies to make their ideas more palatable to voters. In business, advertisers use analogies to sell products. Lately, business analogies have found their way into education. One of the most common is the student-as-consumer analogy. Is a school a business? Well, kind of, but not exactly.
This student-as-customer analogy has a rich history, derived for the most part from the theories of W. Edwards Deming. Deming's Total Quality Management has helped educators answer important questions like: Who are the stakeholders in our educational system? Why are the students here? What services, courses, and information do they want?
Not a bad analogy, but, again, it has its limits. Schools are not shopping malls—or factories of knowledge. And students are not merely customers. True, customers purchase goods or services, and so in a way do students. But, in kind of a Catch-22, if the student does not actively join in the learning process, he or she will find nothing to purchase. Real learning, the kind that produces understanding, requires a commitment and level of participation that are ignored in a customer analogy. Additionally, the classroom environment conducive to real learning is dramatically altered when students enter with a customer mindset.

Silver and Bronze Aren't Bad

The high jump analogy is attractive to many teachers who see themselves as coaches, mentoring young adults. The question is: How high should the caring coach set the bar? The political-business alliance argues that if it is set high, students will rise to the challenge. And if they don't? Tough luck. No medal. No good grade. No good grade; no job; no life.
Only athletes interested in track try out for the track team. Only athletes who are competitive and stand a chance of meeting the challenge win a place on the team. And athletes, being athletes, will keep jumping until they do clear the bar.
In classrooms, by contrast, half the class may not be able to jump over the bar—the bar being language arts, science, or mathematics standards. National and state objectives for science and mathematics are clear: scientific literacy and mathematical power for all! But a teacher must first find out how high a student can jump, then set the bar at a reasonable height. As that student progresses, the teacher raises the bar.
Schools in Grand Rapids have several business-education partnerships. I'm willing to bet that the participants in these western Michigan alliances start from where the students are and take them one step higher. I'll bet they set the bar at a reasonable height.
The best chance for solving the complex issues facing public education is for increased dialogue among public officials, businesspeople, and educators. After all, all three groups include parents—people who have a vested interest in quality education. Businesspeople and political officials can see the big picture and determine what skills and knowledge productive workers and good citizens need. Educators, given their expertise, can best figure out how to fulfill those needs.
Before enacting new standards or tying school funding to test scores, the questions should be, In what ways are schools not like businesses and students not like Olympic athletes? The goal is to help all students succeed, not to reserve our support for the gold medal winners.

Joseph J. Hesse III has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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