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Hard Truths: Uncovering the Deep Structures of Schooling

Hard Truths by Dr. Barbara Tye was published in March of 2000, yet the issues she raised about school reforms arguably persist today. The entry below is a brief response to this thought-provoking text, followed by key questions to consider.


No two schools are the same. Across the country, schools have their own “unique personality”. Structures of schools will differ depending on the adult interpersonal dynamics, as well as the involvement of parents in the school. Deep structure reforms are based more on what society thinks a “real school” should look like, while unique personality reforms focus on other characteristics within school life.

The constant changes that schools encounter are based upon multiple factors. Ultimately, changes in schools evolve through the “unique personality” level mentioned above. One may suggest that reforming a school relies on the actions of teachers; however, this cannot happen in isolation from the community in which it resides. Reform can only begin with the faculty. From here, projects should be used to connect the school with the community, or even become full service (somewhat of a community center). Tye may call this a “substantive goal”. Examples of “process goals” are as follows: 1) any improvements in problem solving, 2) open communication, 3) conflict resolution, 4) shared decision making, 5) goal setting, and 6) shared leadership.

The selection of goals at the unique personality level should require a focus on very specific goals. New ideas can change as quickly as the weather, so it is important to remain focused no matter how long it may take to implement a given goal. We also have to keep in mind that what works for one school may not work for another, and we should try to avoid the typical language used to define school environments. Although we have often utilized terms like “good” and “bad” when describing schools, is there a clear understanding of what defines a school as “good” or “bad”? We simply cannot apply that term (fairly) with shifting school cultures and climates. “We tend to see schools as being either “good” or “bad” and this limited viewpoint lends itself to simplistic prescriptions: ‘only do these things and your “bad” school too can become a “good” one.’” (pg. 161). Using the terms “good” and “bad” remind me of the ineffective one-size-fits-all approach that is over-utilized in educational reform efforts.

Additional Quotes that may resonate are as follows: “Some schools started here, others there- and that the schools that seemed to be making the clearest progress were ones hat didn’t try to tackle everything at once but ‘aimed for more modest goals and allowed for changes to take place on a longer time line than other schools.’ This absence of a clear recipe for how to proceed suggests not only that idiosyncratic adaptation will take place at individual school sites but that it does so because each school has a unique personality. And that means that each school must find its own way of achieving its improvement goals.” (Pg. 162). “Schools in which self-reliance was highly valued tended to be places in which there was little sense of community or mutual support among the teachers and little sense of collective ability to solve school problems.” (pg.166). “Part of the necessary activism of teachers who want to make some unique-personality-level changes at their school involves finding ways to gain the support of those external agencies that might otherwise erect barriers to their efforts. In this, enthusiastic parents can play a pivotal role.” (pg. 175).

Questions #1 – Have you discovered or encountered any successful undertakings for changing the characteristics of schools?

Questions #2 - Teacher quality is one subject debated today, with solutions proposed ranging from merit pay to getting rid of tenure. What is your position regarding teacher quality and/or possible solutions?

Questions #3 – Considering a one-size-fits-all approache, do you think it is important for states to maintain unified educational standards? How will this potentially contribute to progress (reform or change) in the educational system?

Question #4 – What new challenges do we face in addressing deep structures?

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