Dr. Larry Myatt has over three decades of experience in education and will be the Honorary Conference Chair of the upcoming conference INSPIRE 2013. The founder and President of the Education Resources Consortium, and the co-founder of Boston’s Center for Collaborative Education, Dr. Myatt was also the founder of Fenway High School in Boston, a model small school for the nation, and its head of school for 20 years before accepting an assignment to advise Boston’s High School Renewal Initiative.
We appreciate his reflections on the state of education in this country drawn through a recent interview with him. This is a three-part interview in which Dr. Myatt reflects on the founding of Fenway in the first section; the second part of the interview reflects his concerns over current barriers to creating meaningful and effective education; and in the third segment he lends his thoughts on School for Children’s innovative work under the banner of the National Institute for Student-Centered Education (NISCE).
You’ve worked in a wide variety of educational settings. What barriers are you seeing that work against implementing the types of schools and educational programs that will be most effective with today’s young people?
Not to sound bitter, but the greatest disappointments for me over the past 20 years have been the unsound ideas that have come from the policy people at every level, their general detachment from the real world of teachers and kids, and the accompanying hubris, thinking that their big ideas, being smarter and speaking from a higher perch would begin to get at the changes needed. Policy leaders, along with the business community, the “captains of industry,” without whose support the policy ideas could not have overwhelmed good schooling as they have, have conflated poor accountability thinking, a mistaken set of incentives and disincentives, and a mania for measurements that are cheap, easy to conduct and uniform. So many better ideas and initiatives have been foreclosed on or distorted by the call to “scale up,” to “fix ‘em all and fast,” which has been incredibly frustrating to watch from the inside, especially when there is so much brain power that could be brought to bear, so much new knowledge about organizational development, precious little of which is ever heeded by policy makers and funders. They prefer logic maps, roll-out strategies, SMART goals and threats of sanction or lost funding.
That sums up for me the past 15 years of leadership from those at the top. The business community, of course, has a legitimate interest in their workforce pipeline, but they, along with many of the most significant philanthropies, the governors, too many NGO’s, etc., swallowed the reasoning that we could produce better workers with a diet of standards and testing. When I meet and speak with business leaders I like to ask them if they think they are better off after fifteen years of these policies. Generally, they admit they are not, but they’re not sure where and how to move forward and the policy makers have showed that they offer few, if any answers, beyond “charters and competition,” a new Common Core, more teacher supervision statutes, “STEM” initiatives—the same old menu.
It’s also critical to acknowledge that the darker side of that policy equation was a mistrust of front-line educators to address the problems of schooling, the infantilization of the teaching corps, and the notion that assessments of educational quality needed to come from remote sources, the test-makers with their promise of “scientific” performance veracity. Lingering, unaddressed cases of poor schools and teachers made it easy to paint all schools and their teachers leaders as the major problem.
A core issue, as I see it, is that the fundamental design of most American schools, in particular the high schools, is hopelessly anachronistic, yet we cling to that outdated architecture in order to perpetuate deeply-embedded social and economic ideas, even when we understand the obvious calculus – that for the vast majority of students, high school is a mediocre, if not a forgettable or even toxic experience.
Tell me more about what led you to create Educational Resources Consortium and what excites you most about the work going on under that umbrella.
Well, you’ve just gotten a heavy dose of what I think is wrong in much of today’s educational landscape. I have had good fortune, a great career as a school-based leader, many amazing opportunities to grow and connect with fabulous people, ideas and initiatives and so when I finished my public education career, I wanted to keep some of those big ideas alive and to be able to offer resources, but to do so without perpetuating the problems that exist. So, ERC has become an ever-growing band—loosely associated, but tightly bound by beliefs. I’d characterize us as experienced people whose thinking about helping schools rests on bringing out the best in people, listening to them, proceeding in a constructivist orientation, using good tools, routines and habits of mind and work that move people forward. I love Deborah Meier’s paradigm of using trust as a tool and a goal.
And what’s exciting is that we are all deeply committed to new ways of thinking, going beyond tradition, and doing so forensically, as I call it. We are a wide-ranging group, geographically and in terms of our skills, knowledge and experience. We are involved in a lot of very different places and projects, from new school design to “turn-around’s,” from work with teachers to work with boards and business partners, from leadership coaching to scenario development. We can help rebuild systems, use tools and protocols, use research that matters, re-visit practices that are not paying off and help folks get through crises without making the wrong decisions. We know a lot about starting new schools and improving others, about the components of excellent school communities—a resilience platform, instructional leadership, public engagement, student voice, co-teaching, the incredible promise of technology. None of our people work in silos. If we consult on technology, for example, it’s done in service to good lesson design, to activating student passions, to connecting with the world, to addressing issues of performance accountability, to streamlining teacher work flow and curating in ways that make their craft more productive and gratifying. We take that approach in all of our work–it’s really complicated and important stuff, so let’s treat it that way, not be scouring for, or promising, more “silver bullets.” Maybe above all, we can give our clients hope, encouragement, solid thought partnership and new ways forward.