When my neighbors brought Lucy home years ago, they decided to invest in an Invisible Fence® to ensure that the new puppy would not wander into the street. It worked as advertised. The dog learned quickly that any attempt to breach the barrier would result in a soft warning signal followed by “a gentle static correction” (to quote the company’s website). The “fence” was subtle but effective reinforcement of the established boundaries.
As time went by, this system to protect the dog somehow became inoperable — possibly because a shovel cut the underground cable, or perhaps because water had damaged it. Whatever the reason, there no longer were any warning sounds or static corrections. If Lucy had decided to walk onto the sidewalk and visit a nearby park, there wasn’t anything to stop her. But, she didn’t. By now well acclimated to the rules set for her when she was young, she dutifully stayed in the yard, watching people and cars go by. The neighbors recognized that the fence was not working, but then thought: Why fix something that seems to be as effective when it is broken as when it was first installed?
We might have a small laugh at Lucy’s expense, for staying put when there really was no reason to do so other than habit. Besides, she seemed happy where she was; the lack of freedom hardly affected her quality of life. Before we do, however, we might want to look at our own world. Even quick self-reflection reveals that we can be as place-bound as she is — maybe more so.
Education is a highly regulated enterprise, the subject of countless laws and rules promulgated by state and federal legislative bodies and regulatory agencies. One might feel imprisoned by the constant assault on local decision-making. This is understandable, but some of the limitations that constrain us can be of our own making.
Over the course of my career, I often have run into situations where local school officials believed their actions were tightly restricted by some agency of government when, in fact, they had broad discretion to act. The “regulations” they cited as a reason to do (or not do) something were simply guidelines or recommendations. The case law they understood to be controlling may have been overturned in subsequent litigation. Or perhaps, it was just a matter of being more comfortable maintaining past practice — and blaming federal and state bureaucrats for their over-reach—than testing the barriers to see if they were still in place.
When Congress enacted the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, one of the bipartisan objectives was to strengthen the authority of local officials to govern their schools. This is not to say that all federal rules were rescinded; in truth, public education is still highly controlled. Yet, a key motivation for the law was to encourage school boards and administrators to try new approaches, to be creative in addressing local issues. As one observer commented, Congress was encouraging school systems to ask forgiveness rather than permission — that is, to stretch the limits. This is happening in many places, yet not nearly often enough. A system built over many years on compliance and the avoidance of errors is not easily converted to one that celebrates the risk-taking, and potential for failure, inherent in innovation.
Like Lucy, we can be comfortable where we are. Or, we can recognize that some barriers have been removed and take advantage of the opportunity to explore options. Dogs aren’t the only ones who need to learn new tricks.