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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings, School Stories

Images of Reform: If a Picture Paints a Thousand Words

This is the second of three reflections written after reading the recently released McKinsey report, How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better. The first of these reflections can be found on my personal blogsite, Teaching Out Loud, and the final excerpt will be posted on the Canadian Education Association website later this week.

This week I caught a glimpse  of what some people have in mind for our children when they talk about school improvement and, in particular, school reform. I took part of my Spring Break to read the McKinsey & Company Report, How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better”. Actually, I read the report twice. During my first time through the 126 page analysis of strategies and interventions used by some twenty school systems around the world, I paid close attention to the words, the graphs and the data presented. My second reading, however, focused on the pictures–the 13 full-colour images that provide a different image of the effect that our reform efforts could have.

The words and data presented in the report tell the story of how entire school systems around the world have improved using a set of timed, performance-based intervention strategies. This is a story of well-managed, data-driven reform—a story with which many of us who ae intimately connected with schools are all too familiar.

The pictures, however, present a much more sobering narrative, one that might leave the reader questioning the value of the improvements lauded in the report.

All but two of the photos used depict images of children playing, ironic in that play is something that is becoming scarce in many schools these days. The angles and fields of vision used in the playground shots are, themselves, disturbing. We’re never permitted to look the children in the eyes. In some cases, we only see their feet, the backs of their heads or an unfocused glimpse of who they really are. In one rather disturbing picture, a young girl sits atop a wooden play structure, her face somewhat strained, gazing off into the distance. These are not peaceful, relaxed images of childhood. For me, they are scenes filled with tension and with questions. For me, they are images that, when placed in the context of the McKinsey report’s  excitement about improvement, also presents the question, “At what cost?”

The narrative presented through the photographs outlines that cost with clarity and with power—the currency is our children and the price to pay is childhood itself!

Sound a little too dramatic? Take a look at the final three images used in the report. One is of a playground, sometime in mid to late autumn. The tree in the distance has lost its leaves and the air is filled with an eerie fog. In the foreground is are images of a wooden swing set and a metal rocking horse. You would expect to find children here, but the playground is empty. Where are they?

The penultimate photo used in the report is a close up of 3 pieces of coloured sidewalk chalk lying beside a freshly drawn, yet uncompleted, hopscotch board. The pavement beneath is cracked and rough. Again, this is a place where children have recently been, but none appear here now.

The final picture also depicts a hopscotch game, this one fully complete and professionally drawn. In the top right hand corner, we notice the image of a single child running out of the picture. He is obviously the last one left on the playground, and has remained here longer than he should have. Playtime is over and it is time to return to school.

I’m confident that the McKinsey report’s design team did not intend to run two narratives against one another. And, in a sense, that’s one of the most disturbing aspects of this. Is it possible that we’re already OK with the loss of childhood in the name of better test scores? Is it possible that the report’s authors intended for this to be the message?

This week I caught of glimpse of what some people have in mind for our children when they talk about school improvement—and it makes me wonder, once again, whether we are aware of the price that will be paid.

About Stephen Hurley

After working for over 30 years in Ontario's public education system, I continue to work passionately throughout Canada, still very committed to the idea of effective, powerful learning experiences for all participants. A musician, technology-watcher, father, husband, I find life in the world of education, even when the conversations get a little contentious. If I were to be doing anything else right now, it would be hosting my own syndicated radio program on--you guessed it--education. I blog in a few spots. My personal blog can be found at I can also be found hanging around and, most recently, I can be found on twitter as @stephen_hurley


10 thoughts on “Images of Reform: If a Picture Paints a Thousand Words

  1. Wow Stephen, It’s great to be back at the COOP! (I’ve been away in Italy, in a region where school children go home for lunch at 11:30 and everyone seems to understand that living life well, and relatively simply, is key to a an existence with meaning and pleasure…)

    This is an inspiring post. I had a similar reaction to the McKinsey report, but didn’t “read” the photos with the care that you’ve outlined here, or see the important counter-narrative they offer. At the center of the report (as I recall) was the extraordinarily confident assumption that education is a commodifiable product–at the center of national growth and expansion and one in which improvement can be (also with great confidence) reduced to several identifiable policy moves, assumptions, and programs. While I often say (and believe) that the incoherence of our national policies puts America in the place that it is at the moment in terms of improvement of the sector–you bring a beautiful subtext to this argument.

    So how do you hold both coherence of policy (at the national level) with care of the soul (at the individual and collective level)–if we believe education to be about “soul crafting?”


    Posted by Kirsten | March 21, 2011, 10:00 am
  2. Kirsten, it’s always nice to hear from you, and to receiver your comments and feedback. You’re right, the report is grounded in a great deal of confidence, bordering on arrogance.

    As someone that lives and works in one of the jurisdictions identified by the report as “being great”, I know first-hand some of the casualties that the “deliverology” described by Sir Michael Barber in the report.

    In addition to the effect that it has had on our children, the improvement machine operating here in Ontario has run roughshod over the professionalism of teachers…and this is something from which it will be difficult to recover.

    Welcome home, Kirsten!


    Posted by Stephen Hurley | March 22, 2011, 5:31 am
  3. Thank you this glimpse into and analysis of the McKinsey Report. I doubt many will read it with such careful attention to the narratives being intoned here. And, I do think that from the perspective of the report’s writers the narrative of the desolation and isolation you described in the photographs is not a problem but a picture of the seriousness from which they view this “achievement”. And, we must also ask not only “at what price” but improvement in what? Better test scores? That should not be what we’re aiming for.

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | March 22, 2011, 7:45 am
  4. Hey Stephen,

    I believe you will find this TEDx talk resonating with your words


    Posted by kima | March 23, 2011, 2:51 am
    • Thanks Kima for the reference! Yes, that did resonate well with some of what I’ve been thinking about of late. I was amazed at the effect that the initial “game playing” with the audience had on the entire room!


      Posted by Stephen Hurley | March 23, 2011, 4:52 am
  5. Thanks for the heads-up on the report, Stephen –

    Kirsten, I love the phrase, “incoherence of our national policies.” What a wonderful diagnosis.

    I feel the competition of these counternarratives daily as our arts-infused charter schools gets down to the brass tacks of Spring testing. Time to revisit and work on the coherence of our classroom policies.

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 23, 2011, 6:11 am
    • It’s really a type of institutional integrity, isn’t it?

      Posted by Stephen Hurley | March 23, 2011, 6:13 am
      • Individual, as well. As much as the system incentivizes conformity, we each have choices to make. I’m most interested in a professional organization that supports teachers in making individual decisions to abandon the status quo in favor of democratic education and teaching and learning that acknowledges humanity and the workings of human brains. That work is of such obvious value when witnessed that if we undertook it the other issues with which our unions concern themselves would largely be moot. It will be a fight to get to teaching and learning democratically and humanely inside public schools, but we need leadership to help get us there and get obstacles out of our way so it’s easier for people who need teaching work to do the right thing.

        Until we have such leadership, we’ll have what we have, but with fewer students, as those that can take advantage of learning opportunities outside public school do so.

        Our systems-thinking problem is the system, not its results. It’s a failure of leadership to provide no other option for teachers to protest the system concretely than insubordination.


        Posted by Chad Sansing | March 23, 2011, 8:26 am
  6. Yes, you’re right…individual integrity as well. I was thinking about that on my 2 hour snow-influenced drive this morning.

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | March 23, 2011, 9:09 am

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