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.