The big problem is that we never, ever have a low cost of failure. When schools fail, kids lose. Shirky writes in Chapter 10 about how in a traditional business infrastructure, there is a natural disincentive to innovate because "more people will remember you saying yes to a failure than no to a radical but promising idea." (p. 246) I'd argue this is more true in education than in traditional businesses, again because the stakes are so high. So the educational establishment sticks to safe ideas and traditional schooling because we know that while the outcomes may not be amazing, they are predictably mediocre at worst.
Here are a couple of examples of what it looks like when things go pear-shaped in a permissive, progressive school:
- My first year of teaching I was working in a sort of 70's holdover, a permissive alternative program. The district had just acquired a dynamic new superintendent who began her tenure by visiting every school in the district to get a first-hand impression. The afternoon she came to visit, about 95 out of 100 students decided not to come back from lunch. In the traditional schools, the kids may not have been learning any more, or less, but at least enough were trained to show up to maintain some pretense of an educational process.
- A friend of mine was recruited to work at an internationally known progressive high school. He's a street-wise poet and English teacher who grew up in the neighborhood. In his first year, one of the 15 kids he advised and worked with every day stole his car. Obviously, your car can be stolen under other circumstances as well, but the point is intense, student-centered programs can have the side effect of drawing you too deeply into the drama and trauma of the kids lives, and the net losses may outweigh the gains.
- An student uses the opportunity to read her poetry on the Brown student radio station to call out her neighborhood rival. In a regular school, the same incident would probably just happened in the hallways, not over the airwaves.
These kind of incidents are not some kind of counter-proof against school reform, but they're important to understand when you're considering why school change is hard. And yes Pollyanna, they are "teachable moments," but costly ones.
Traditional schools fail gracefully (as institutions). It is one of their primary features.
One final thought -- stories like this have a huge impact locally, which is the level that actually matters in running a school. People being people, these are the stories that circulate and determine how the local community responds to its schools.