The McDonald’s effect among school leaders

As parents, and with rather hectic work and travel schedules, there are days where both our families forgo trying to cook a meal for the family and resort to fast-food measures. McDonalds, Italian, Greek, Chinese, Japanese, the options are endless. Despite the added cost and questionable health impacts, it’s the convenience that leads us, and so many, to flock to drive-thru windows or to pick up our phones for quick and easy delivery.

The opposite is true when it comes to homework time in our houses. When one of our children comes with a difficult homework question, we want to show them how to answer the question. They, however, just want the answer. They too have succumbed to the McDonaldization of education, a term coined by George Ritzer in 1993 and expanded into education over the past decade. In one description, high school educator Shelley Wright, expanded to suggest that “education continues to rapidly adopt short-cuts.”

But short-cuts don’t instill students with lifelong skills. Short-cuts don’t help institutions overcome decades of following the “status quo” to bring about meaningful change – change which is accompanied by actual results-focused on learners. Short-cuts are merely a small bandage on a broken limb, that don’t come close to getting to the heart of the problem and working to overcome those challenges. In fact, those short cuts have created drastic negative results across the board.  The leaders responsible for those decisions have skirted their moral imperative to serve their learners and community.  They should be held accountable.  Indeed, some of them have.

Take a recent situation. We’ve removed all reference to the school system to protect the guilty. But the responses from this school system mirror that of so many fellow districts around the country and so many country-wide initiatives happening around the world, especially when it comes to major attempted transformations through technology adoptions.

The school district, governments or ministry leadership are unwilling to do their homework AND the complex components of a high quality implementation. Instead, they want a fast-food approach…a fill-in-the-blanks template done over 1-2 days, or episodic, drive-by, ‘talking head’ professional development or a multi-million/billion dollar bond issue-suggesting that these will bring about meaningful change.  They will not.

In a recent example, the superintendent of an urban district was told about an extensive 1,500-step planning process developed by Project RED. This could take the school system a few weeks or a few months to do the necessary research, review and plan, but the superintendent set a clock. If it couldn’t be done within 24 hours, they would not create such a plan. In essence, the superintendent wasn’t looking for assistance with their homework….he/she was looking for someone to do it for them….and in an unreasonable time frame.

The day the key leaders and teachers came together to begin this important work, the superintendent announced, interrupting the team’s focused session, “Just tell us what to do and give us a template. We don’t have time for this.”  One could see and feel the wind escaping the sails of all who were present and engaged in the process.

When we see such short-cuts being taken at the highest levels of education, we’re disappointed. We’re disappointed because we know that the resources of budget and staff commitment will likely yield little to no impact. We’re sad because we know the very students meant to benefit from these added resources will be shortchanged as their school leaders opt for short-cuts rather than meaningful strategic change. We’re also a little angry, that this district, as have so many others, advocated to their communities to fund such initiatives. While their taxpayers are standing behind them and funding this initiative, the leaders are blatantly ignoring research based processes and best practices.  Their short-cuts will severely undermine the results, the return on investment and the overall likelihood that the community will make such important funding efforts in the future. Worse yet, students will not reach their potential that would otherwise be realized with thoughtful, focused, albeit, hard work.

Most leaders don’t think they’ll be the next big technology disaster, making headlines across the country. But they do feel complacent enough to allow their latest initiative be based on little more than buying some new devices and hoping for the best. And 3-4 years later, as school leaders change roles, the new administration looks at the past efforts and tries to put a positive spin on an otherwise wasted initiative. Without a model of comparison (such as established benchmarks agreed by stakeholders in advance), the only option is to compare test scores — comparing standardized test scores before and after the technology initiative and seeing no meaningful impact.

This is happening today in countless school systems. This is malpractice.

So if your district, state or country is speaking about some new initiative, ask if they’re prepared to do their homework and then the tough, complex tactical work, or if they will choose the short-cuts at the expense of the children and community.

Elliott Levine is Americas Education Strategist for Hewlett Packard. There he works with schools and universities to support major educational technology initiatives and was co-inventor of the HP Personal Learning Engine (US PTO PCT/US2013/062777), an effort that has him featured as one of three employees at http://www.hp.com/go/jobs. A former K-12 official and regular public speaker, he has worked for and launched startups in the education and marketing industries. You can learn more about him at www.linkedin.com/in/elliottlevine/.

Leslie Wilson is CEO of the One-to-One Institute and co-founder of Project RED. She created and implemented the programs and services model based on Michigan’s Freedom to Learn Program. Ms. Wilson served public education for 31 years in seven school districts. She was recruited to co-lead Michigan’s one-to-one teaching and learning initiative, Freedom to Learn (FTL), in 2003. As co-chair of the National Steering Committee of One to One Directors, She has extensively authored and presented around 21st century teaching/learning/leadership, one-to-one best practices and research, and co-authored the book A Guidebook for Change. You can learn more about her at www.one-to-oneinstitute.org.

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