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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
November 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 3

Special Topic / Unleashing the Kraken: The Perils of Ignoring Community Values

Springing changes on unsuspecting and unprepared teachers and townsfolk is a surefire way to lose friends and alienate people.

There is an ancient superstition about a fearsome sea monster called the Kraken, who could be called upon to avenge those who were wronged. The Kraken, unfortunately, was not a precision instrument, but an instrument of total destruction. The Kraken lived so far from land, however, that those who prayed for revenge didn't fully fathom its power; they failed to understand that once the monster was released, the innocent and guilty alike would pay the price of its devastation.
Today, at many public schools, community controversies rage that are as destructive as the Kraken's revenge. Each side is wedded to a rigid viewpoint, unwilling to understand other philosophies. As a result (to continue the Kraken analogy), the education process—which is to say the children—bear the brunt of the damage.
I learned this lesson the hard way in my first year as a superintendent. I had been recruited by the board of directors of a school corporation in a small rural community in the Midwest. The board had conducted a community survey and found that the residents wanted a leader who was strong in curriculum development. I was their candidate. And so my family and I made the move.
We received a warm reception and soon became involved in a variety of church and community activities. But the educational seas there had begun to boil even before my arrival. It seems there had been open warfare between the board and my predecessor, who, like me, had been brought in from another city. So I was the second outsider in the post, and for the second time, the board had bypassed candidates who were a part of the town's good ol' boy network.

The Kraken Unleashed

To make matters worse, I, too, bypassed several local candidates in favor of teachers from other cities. I was simply using a more empirical process for personnel selection—a decision for which I would be vilified the most. Also at the outset of my tenure, I sought ways to give teachers more opportunities. I introduced building-based decision-making models, encouraged teachers to visit other school corporations, and dramatically changed expectations for building principals. I also expanded the use of technology in classrooms. All the while, I flung around unfamiliar but suspect terms: vision, brainstorming, task force, goal setting, community investment, inverted pyramid decision making.
I also offered teachers thinking skills sessions as part of a comprehensive, but optional, staff development program. All of the above were red flags to those watching for “New Age” infiltration in the school system, but the thinking skills sessions set off an avalanche of fears. Staff members were already uncomfortable with the changes; we were making decisions daily that didn't conform to the old paradigms. And although some teachers were excited about the new opportunities, the gap between those who took advantage of them and those who didn't became much more noticeable, causing friction among faculty members. The thinking skills program, however, was the spark that united the discontented staff. All that remained was for a group of self-appointed citizen censors of New Age to rally the community and the battle was joined. The Kraken had been released.

Too Far, Too Fast

At packed school board meetings, the public questioned the corporation's every action and eventually demanded release of all official records. Petitions were circulated and anonymous fliers distributed. Teachers debated teachers. Even churches joined in the fray and finally split over the issues. Community members brought in representatives of national organizations, who offered advice about fighting this New Age evil. The community began to link virtually every initiative to the dreaded disease called New Age.
Efforts to stem the tide of discontent were unsuccessful. Two prominent educators spoke at a packed board meeting and appealed to the community to suspend judgment until they carefully considered the evidence against the thinking skills program. But no one cared to look at the program's real strengths and weaknesses. Then, the battle got personal.
I found myself accused of every conceivable sin. Even people who had lived in the community all their lives were not immune from vicious attacks. By the end of the ordeal, there was little left of my reputation and my belief that I could make a difference for children. I left defeated, and neither the town nor my family has fully recovered from the experience.
Why such intensity and vindictiveness? So-called New Age issues obviously strike so deep a chord in many people that they bring a furor to the debate that leaves one breathless. The school becomes part of the battleground of perceived good against perceived evil. Further, in this comfortable community environment, residents rarely compared their schools to those elsewhere.
In retrospect, however, both the community and I had our blind spots. In my naivet;é I was insensitive to the effect the new concepts and policies might have on the teachers, parents, and community at large. I simply went too far, too fast.

How to Keep the Kraken at Bay

  1. We must understand and respect the history of the community in which we work. We need to accept the fact that some communities have always found change difficult, and always will. As Tennyson wrote, “That which we are, we are.” By studying the history of change within a community, we can more sensitively pace our introduction of new approaches.
  2. We must apply lessons we've learned in the classroom to our relationships with students' parents. Just as we need to motivate, involve, and engross students in the learning process, we must do the same for parents. And, for that matter, administrators must do the same for teachers. I made the mistake of offering teachers a development program when they were not ready for it. I had not discussed with the staff why I thought professional growth opportunities were necessary, or what they would get out of them.
  3. We must involve the community in education in a meaningful way. To do this, we must admit that we can't do it alone. Although we often invite parents, students, and patrons to share in school improvement, we too often only pay lip service to this involvement.
  4. We must recognize that to some, there is a danger in New Age philosophy. If we simply label everyone with concerns about this world view as reactionary, we will never listen to their views and pause to rationally evaluate these ideas ourselves. As educators, we should also be aware that we routinely use a laundry list of dirty words—paradigm, for example—that zealots associate with New Age (and which, in any case, turn off many people). Elliot Miller (1989) offers four criteria for determining whether to label someone as a proponent of New Age. Ironically, he then cautions against labeling people simply because they use certain words. All of us would be well advised to dispense with labeling people for any reason; I know all too well the effect labeling has.
  5. We must understand that many American families today live in fear of an onslaught on their values. Because the family unit is in serious trouble and values are eroding, state and federal governments insist on turning to public schools as the only vehicle to slow the dissolution of values. Government officials require schools to implement certain programs, but in so doing, make them community battlegrounds. As long as government expects schools to solve society's problems, no one will look elsewhere for ways to strengthen family values.Then, too, we must not allow a few groups to claim the title of protector of family values. Everybody should be sharing in this responsibility.
  6. As educators, we must carry on more mature dialogues with one another. (As Ivan Fitzwater is fond of saying in his speeches, “If educators were asked to form a firing squad, they would make a circle.”) The old labor-management paradigm—to use one of those dirty words—is no longer valid in education. The damage we do to ourselves when we argue publicly weakens our position within the community. Ultimately, we are all responsible for public education's image.
In sum, let's learn to listen to the voices of concern while they are still whispers. Once unleashed, community controversy, like the Kraken, can consume everything. There will be no winners in this fight. Caring about children is a shared responsibility, best accomplished when we all work together.

Carnes, W. J. (Winter 1992). “The Effective Schools Model: Learning to Listen.” Contemporary Education 63, 2.

Ferguson, M. (1980). The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980s. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher.

Miller, E. (1989). A Crash Course on the New Age Movement. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.

William J. Carnes has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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