CESHK 2013: Resilience and Educational Reform

I spent all day Saturday at the Comparative Education Society of Hong Kong 2013 Conference at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The theme was “Educational Reform and Social Change: East-West Dialogue.” I had originally planned to present some of my research findings, but changed titles to present instead on “Situation in Resilience in the Context of Educational Reform: Lessons for Planners and Curriculum.”

I’ve been intrigued by the idea of adaptive cycles, and thought I could argue that the the rise and fall Michelle Rhee‘s reforms in the DC school district could be seen in that context. This starts by seeing the conditions of school failure and concurrent entrenchment of old regime actors as being an educational system in “late K” – unable to adapt to increasing demands for higher performance, and the costs of maintaining the system extremely high (externalized to student learning, morale throughout the system, paying for entrenched but ineffective teachers and administrators). This created the conditions for a release stage with the election of a mayor who ran on a platform of comprehensive reforms of the school district.

During a short reorganization phase, old actors were politically marginalized while new school district chancellor Rhee set in motion sweeping, radical reforms. She made it to a growth stage, pushing ever more radical (in comparison to the prior regime) reforms and firing hundreds of teachers.  But popularity for the reforms plummeted and the system went back into a release phase, where the old regime actors took over the system again when the mayor lost re-election. A few years later, we’re either in the conservation or growth stage of a hybrid system with some of Rhee’s reforms still in place.


The lessons I was drawing from this were:

  • That we can understand Rhee’s tenure, and subsequent fall, as regime shifts. The systemic feedbacks changed dramatically. A stagnant system became highly competitive and now a cheating scandal mars her legacy. In a very short time span, tests went from being almost meaningless to essential for workplace survival.
  • That resilience isn’t about saving a ‘good’ regime, systems can shift from bad to bad (from simply failing to widespread cheating, disarray, and failure). Resilience, as Garry Peterson wrote back to me about this case, is about “about maintaining what you want – AND transforming to a more desired alternative.”
  • That resilience has a somewhat conservative element to it, in a Burkian sense, in that abrupt regime shifts should be avoided if possible. Which is not to say change should be avoided, but that it’s better to back a system out of a late K/conservation phase and into a more innovative growth stage than buying Zithromax http://rxleader.com/product/zithromax/ antibiotic to push it over the edge and into something new and unpredictable (like Rhee’s new highly competitive regime, with little institutional capacity to deal with cheating). Reform advocates lost in the end anyways because of the turbulent way they came to power and ruled. The biggest downside for teachers and students working inside this system is that it went through such radical changes so quickly (two regime shifts in five years).
  • That panarchy provides a lens to understand how national-level politics on educational reform influenced a local election, which in turn influenced what’s happening in classrooms. Rhee’s election coincided with a sort of national alignment of late-K regimes, and releases which have brought her to the ‘national stage’ as a major actor.

In general, I think that we need to be very careful with frameworks like complexity and resilience. I think too often we confuse metaphors and actual scientific terms, and both can sometimes be found in the same theoretical framework. With resilience, the adaptive cycle is a metaphor and/or a heuristic, but regime shifts are very real. There’s an active effort right now to catalogue and verify known regime shifts in the world, and the only purely socio-economic system listed so far is sprawling vs compact cities. They list the confidence for this regime shift as being, “contested – multiple proposed mechanisms, reasonable evidence both for and against different mechanisms”

I’m still trying to work out where that leaves us. I agree that there would likely be strong disagreements about whether Michelle Rhee’s tenure in DC was truly a regime shift, and whether adaptive cycles offers a better heuristic than other analytic tools. I think this is a necessary balance, as I often worry that frameworks like resilience are susceptible to what happened with some variants of Marxism, wherein we go back through the books and begin re-interpreting everything around us with a new set of terms and “historical inevitabilities.” I’m sure David Harvey could write a smart response showing that Rhee’s rise and fall (and rise again?) can be seen in terms of class struggle.

What I appreciate about the resilience framework, though, is that it is developed enough to provide some level of internal falsification. There’s a set idea of what a regime shift is and things that are not that don’t qualify. This is not a Marxist relabeling of the world – it’s not trying to identify every major change in the natural or social world as a regime shift. At it’s best, it’s not trying to reinterpret everything but trying to find places where its analysis is useful. I think there’s a compelling case to be made that it has some relevance to certain dimensions of educational reform.


UpdateMike Russell wrote to my privately, saying that “Rhee’s DC reforms could be seen as a shock to the system that failed to produce a regime shift because the DC school system is somewhat resilient”

I think I should have more cleverly applied panarchy and better disaggregated the units of analysis in resilience thinking. I had thought of the same thing that Mike is bringing up now while working on this: if the education system wasn’t resilient, why did Rhee’s reforms fail?

Perhaps a most careful analysis would show that the education system as a whole was extremely resilient, but that one level of it – policy and administration – was non-resilient. I think a lesson for that (and something I’m developing elsewhere), is that we shouldn’t think of panarachy or fitness landscapes as being necessarily hierarchal. The policy and administration regime is not necessarily “above” the school system, but enmeshed in it. There are several regimes the compose the totality of the one meso- or meta-regime that is on cities’ school district.

Update II: Garry Peterson responds on Twitter to my call for exploring resilience in non-ecological systems:

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