Review of Evans’ The Human Side of School Change for the GS Adaptability Project

The Adaptability Project is comprised of a group of George School faculty members who will come together over a two-year period to study the new landscape of secondary education. We will share readings, discuss vision and strategy, and engage the community in a larger conversation about how the school can adapt as we strive to remain vital and relevant.

The first reading for the Adaptability Project, The Human Side of School Change by Robert Evans (original copyright 1996), won me over with its emphasis on realism and its convincing understanding of the obstacles that face those who seek educational reform. By focusing on issues of school culture, process, and authentic leadership, it is a worthwhile primer if one hopes to avoid repeating the mistakes made by school reformers in the past. Although I admire the book, I found that much of it was dated, more relevant for public schools, or aimed at problems that we don’t have.

The Adaptability Project was at one time intended as a vehicle for midcareer teachers, and Chapter 6 (Staff: Understanding Reluctant Faculty) makes one good point after another with a very astute characterization of that demographic. Much of this strikes me as common sense, but Evans articulates the position of people in the middle of their teaching careers with great accuracy. He writes, “All professionals in midcareer are prone to two kinds of tendencies that limit their readiness to innovate: demotivation (boredom, a loss of enthusiasm, diminished job interest) and a leveling off of growth and performance[.]” (p. 103) I find that these words hit home with me, and I’ve been fighting hard against these tendencies through the embrace of a permanent beta mindset.

But Evans is now out of date when he explains in Chapter 6 that the graying of the faculty is going to be a challenge for school change. The graying he described 18 years ago was very real, and now it’s coming to an end. Instead of scanning the horizon and seeing two decades that will be defined by an aging Baby Boomer cohort, we are facing the opposite situation. The Boomers are retiring rapidly, and the mean age/experience/tenure of our faculty will plummet like a stone in the next few years. The book makes no mention of Generation Y or Millennials; they weren’t on anyone’s mind in 1996. This younger cohort brings with it greater inherent adaptability and openness to new things. They grew up in a world shaped by the lionization of Silicon Valley and the tech industry, not the culture of the 1960s.

Evans rightly targets school culture itself early in the book as an important element of school change. He cautions that, “Culture [. . .] serves as an enormous conservative force, the collective expression of the conservative impulse within individuals.” (p. 44) Indeed, I have witnessed this collective conservatism in our faculty’s response to proposals for change, but our school culture is far more balanced and vital than the stereotypical public school districts that Evans describes. In fact, it is this point that makes me think that much of the book is beside the point for GS. More than anything, we are trying to preserve our outstanding school culture in the face of a wave of retirements and rapid technological change in our field. Whereas many schools or districts may be quietly counting the days until their change-resistant veteran teachers leave, we are trying to figure out how to maintain institutional memory and retain our cultural DNA. This is consistent with a focus on midcareer faculty: We are the ones who have spent five to fifteen years working alongside our long-tenured veterans.

Much of the final half of the book is taken up with the issue of authentic leadership. Here we see why Earl Ball chooses to use this book with the Penn GSE students. The author recommends consensus-based decision-making, servant-leaders, “followership,” binary leadership, etc. Explaining the latter, Evans writes, “[T]rue participatory leadership is “binary” (Thompson, 1991, p.26); it enables ideas to move up and down the organization.” I think we already do a satisfactory job in permitting ideas to come from both the bottom up and the top down, but the Adaptability Project represents an opportunity to do more brainstorming from the bottom up.

The T-chart on p. 7 of The Human Side of School Change interests me because it reminds me of a similar T-chart on p. 19-20 of The End of Competitive Advantage by Rita Gunther McGrath (2013). Evans’ chart contrasts the Rational-Structural paradigm of change (bad) on the left with the Strategic-Systemic paradigm (good) on the right. McGrath’s chart contrasts the sustainable competitive advantage strategy style (bad) on the left with the transient advantage strategy style (good) on the right. Both T-charts serve as outlines for the material that each book will cover. There are interesting similarities, as Evans contrasts the stable environment (bad) with the turbulent one (good). He contrasts objective, linear planning (bad) with pragmatic, adaptable planning (good). These ideas anticipate McGrath’s worldview of transient advantage quite well. However, Evans’ book is rooted firmly in the world of schools and their change-resistant, cynical faculty cultures. As a result, his book, while trying to be explicitly hopeful, is ultimately cautious and grim. McGrath, focusing instead on a model group of ten large, for-profit corporations which have surfed the waves of transient advantage most successfully, delivers a book that is visionary and inspirational. I hope my fellow members of the Adaptability Project will read The End of Competitive Advantage to see where I’m coming from. (There is a copy to be borrowed in Nancy’s office.)

We were asked to provide a star rating for The Human Side of School Change. Were I reading it in 1996, I would give it four-and-a-half stars (dinging it half a star for its outline-y “four subcategories for every major heading” format). Reading it as a GS faculty member in 2014, I can only give it two stars. Too many of the problems it addresses are not relevant to the landscape we face today or to the superb school culture we are lucky to possess.

 

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