What in the Name of Reform

by Peter Block on August 8, 2011

Tagged as: Gifts / Association / Raising Children / Local Economy / Food / Safety / Health / Land/Environment / Care of People on the Margin

I would like to whisper a quiet caution to those of us who are investing in institutional or structural reform efforts. There is an intensifying stream of efforts to reform our institutions. In theUSthere is government reform, education reform, healthcare reform, economic reform, food reform and environmental reform efforts. A growth industry to be sure.

Unfortunately, most of these reform efforts will change very little of consequence. Reform means to change the nature or order of things, to end something that is not working and replace it with something that does.  Most of our current efforts have little to do with reform. They are at best efforts to make things a little better, a little less expensive, and at worst they are punitive strategies masquerading under the banner of reform.
 

The Meaning of Serious Reform

If we were serious about reform, there are four conditions that need to exist:

1. Serious reform means that there is a fundamental shift in the nature of relationships among the players. For example there would be a change in the relationship between teacher and student in education, doctor and patient in health care, politician and citizen in government, farmer and family in the food world.      

2. This shift in relationship begins with a shift in who is authorized to speak, whose voice counts. If the voice of the educator, medical professional or elected official drives the reform and the voice of the student, patient or citizen is not amplified, then nothing has really changed.

3. When we re-authorize whose voice counts, there is a shift in where control resides. This means that real transformation calls forth from the student and patient and citizen more power than they had before, whether they want it or not. Power is distributed, not centralized. Consistency and efficiency are sacrificed for local ownership.  

4. Shifting control leads to new forms of engagement. The players whom the system is designed to serve (students, patients and citizens) are now the center of the action. We pay close attention to how they come together. They meet to create relationships with one another. They value one another’s speaking. They realize they have the real power to create the future they have in mind for themselves. These effects are determined by the way we come together, not by new policy, program or expert design.
   

What Education Reform Lacks, for Example

To make this concrete, let’s look at education reform in theUSand how it is missing these elements:

1. The politicians and academic establishment dominate current efforts. Look at what this has produced. We sustain high-stakes testing in schools despite evidence it does not increase student performance. The testing is sold on the platform of more accountability, but has the effect of publicly punishing certain classes of schools, basically schools in poorer neighborhoods with poorer students.

2. We hear increasing calls for standardization across the board, which is code for centralizing control. This means a further industrialization of our schools. Rather than distributing power close to the student, it aggregates power mostly at the state and federal level. It is the socialization of education. As if we can deliver in the state capital what a community cannot do for itself.    

3. We now rank all the schools in the city from top to bottom. This is a form of public pillory. It isolates relationships, it does not build them. No organization would for a minute consider publishing its lowest-performing departments as a form of public shame. Yet we do it with schools and call it reform.

4. So-called school reform focuses on moving low-performing teachers out. As if the teachers are the problem. This is not reform, for teacher performance has been in the conversation for decades. It does not build relatedness or engagement, it creates competition and isolation.
    

Serious Education Reform

All of these efforts, in the name of reform, extract our humanity and put us at odds with each other. Reform that will improve people’s lives will only occur when it comes in a re-humanizing context, which is all about relatedness, voice, control and engagement.

Staying with the education example, here is what serious reform in education would contain:

1. It begins by building a stronger relationship between a school and its neighborhood. This takes the pressure off the school professionals to raise our children. Serious reform will be about the relationships between adults and children, looking for the gifts of the child and figuring out what they are good at. It will bring the whole neighborhood into contact with one another about our children.   

2. Real reform will occur when we re-authorize the voice of students and parents. No reform can occur when all we listen to are the professional and the expert. We now have experts redesigning the role of experts, which leads to the discussion of more consistent curriculum, more technology and getting rid of certain teachers. We need the voice of neighbors and families in a conversation about how we are raising our children, not how we are managing our schools.

3. Serious reform will put more control over raising our children in very local hands. More specifically, giving voice to families and neighbors will shift control to our neighborhoods. Our children need to feel safe on the street, they need to be known where they live. We need citizens teaching our children in places and ways that schools cannot. Our children need to be more than school achievers. They need to feel useful and have a contribution to make where they live.   

4. The shift in relationship, authorization and control will only happen through a process of high engagement. This means a slow, persistent, high-touch, face-to-face series of conversations ––  among students, parents, neighbors and citizens. They will be local conversations about what we all can do to raise a child. Period.

The essential reform is to break the dependency we have on professionals, experts and consumption to provide satisfaction.

What is briefly noted for education reform applies to the other reform movements afoot.

Serious economic reform will create ways to build a stronger relationship among local businesses, home-based entrepreneurs, citizens buying less and buying local.

Serious health care reform will recognize that health is dependent on the network of relationships around us. We now know how to be healthy, we just need support from each other.

Government reform will have all of us deciding that we are citizens producing a good life for ourselves, not consumers wanting more services. Politicians will lose power and redefine their role as super-conveners of the process described above.      

What this calls us to remember is that it is in the nature of students, parents, neighbors and citizens to lead the fundamental shifts that we all seek. The essential reform is to break the dependency we have on professionals, experts and consumption to provide satisfaction. As this occurs, our gift to the professionals is to give them and their systems something to follow.

~ Peter ~

Home page photo: Alex Grant