Change as External Intervention

David Wiles, Eaps 760


    How do we achieve persistent change in educational practice? From mid l960's through the l970's the assumption was called external intervention. The idea was that the school setting to be changed" would have the change "treatment introduced upon from some external source. The external source could be legal mandate, fiscal inducement to comply or normative persuasion, but the change model assumed an initiation from the outside.

    In the mid l970's separate studies documented the futility and "wrongheadedness" of the external intervention approach to making lasting changes. The RAND Corporation study(l975) and the analysis by Timpane and Rivlin(l978) concluded that change efforts must consider the internal context of the organization first and, further, that change intentions would be subject to "partisan mutual adjustments."

    Challenging the idea of planned change as external intervention was important for several reasons. First, the studies were done to assess the "impact" of federally subsidized efforts begun in the Great Society initiative. Although the federal government was not to intervene in public education directly, the purpose of compensating for disadvantaged conditions of "targeted" audiences ( e.g., inner city) was assumed legitimate and worthy. The mid l970's studies concluded, in effect, that "add-on" money per se will not guarantee improved school practices and the positive changes that were seen were only temporary and due to a "halo" condition. There were other concerns about the meaning of participation of those affected by the proposed changes and the "input-black box-output" methodology used determine progress.

    Second, the studies implied that the real change dynamic in complex organizations is a "negotiated order" between outside interests with expectations and insiders who must live with the consequences of change efforts. There was concession that the "unfreezing-refreezing" process was more than a technical manipulation of mechanical parts. Herbert Kaufman (Shafritz & Hyde) described the dynamic over time as a balancing act of competing desires; decentralization and community control, centralization and executive control and, coupled to the second, demonstration of neutral competence in administration. Like a pendulum, the emphasis on decentralization and "people politics" would push toward over balance and trigger countervailing expectations for a swing back toward centralization and impressions of "apolitical" neutrality.

    Third, there was a growing recognition that the assessment and evaluation procedures to research efforts at deliberate changes in schools was not going to fit the classic experimental mode. The largest problem was the assumption of a controlled research environment where those searching for evidence of systematic variation could say "all other things being equal" with a straight face. Certainly, few classrooms or schools stayed stable/static enough between the pretest and the post test to make sense of "treatment effects" in a classic way. Methods to determine change had to be modified toward the qualitative descriptors and "backward mapped" perspective. Another alternative, as Aaron Wildavsky (Shafritz and Hyde) argues is to concede self evaluating organizations.

    Fourth, the attempted implementation of external intervention change efforts went hand-in-glove with the "top down, ratchet down" assumptions of bureaucratic authority and the implicit suggested that educators were not to be trusted in self governance (e.g., "teacher proof" intervention strategies). When we compare the emphasis on "in-house" professional development for building up the local capability of schools today, it is hard to remember the other mentality was dominant less than twenty years ago.

    Readings