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The Rise and Fall of CHIP

After only two years of operation, CHIP was terminated despite it having met the needs of students in some rather impressive ways. A look at some of the conditions that created it, and then ended it may help others to keep their programs alive.

Put as simply as possible it was the pivotal role of the school principal that determined the fate of CHIP. Michael Fullan, an educator who has studied the role of the principal as a change agent, wrote the following over 30 years ago in The Meaning of Educational Change and it still holds true today.

“If change is everywhere in the air, we would think that the greatest pressure a principal feels is to bring about some major transformation of the school. But the air is not the ground, and on the ground many principals experience (and some people may say too easily accept) precisely the opposite – pressures to maintain stability.”

From all the evidence Fullan had at his disposal, he concluded that those principals “who do become involved have a strong influence on how well the change progresses; those who don’t show an interest have an equally powerful influence on how poorly it goes.” This in effect describes what happened to CHIP. A principal who got involved gave it life and it died under one who showed little interest in it.

It began with two teachers who wanted to provide students with a more democratic education. Their principal and a vice-principal actively supported them and the CHIP program began the following school year. It ran for two years, but during that time the principal and vice-principal were transferred to other schools, and neither of their replacements had the same interest in the program.

One way this lack of interest plays out is found in the words of William Glasser. In his book The Quality School he wrote, “I am aware of the difficulty of trying to run two separate schools under one roof. Competitiveness and jealousy between both the staffs and students of the two schools is inevitable to the point where, in petty ways, each may try to sabotage the other.”

The competitiveness to which Glasser refers is not just attitudinal. It is very concrete. Programs compete for sections. A section is like the currency of secondary school scheduling. School boards determine a finite number of sections for each school based on enrolment and special needs. Many of the sections provided to a school automatically go to providing for compulsory courses, and there is little dispute over them. The remaining sections, however, can be seen as up-for-grabs with department heads fighting to get extra sections to offer special interest courses on topics related to their departments. CHIP required four sections to run for one semester and that put it in competition with many other interests.

In that situation a principal can be quite influential. He can impress upon the department heads that a certain number of sections need to be invested in the exploration of new avenues for education, and this is essentially what the supportive principal and vice-principal did for CHIP. They obtained the needed sections. In the absence of an administrator committed to obtaining the sections for CHIP to run a third year, the two teachers tried to secure them, but other interests won out.

This problem of acquiring sections is only part of the story. There were also problems with enrolment. Change is not embraced by everybody. Denis Waitley in a set of lectures titled The Psychology of Winning dealt with this fact by defining people’s modes of thinking. He presented them this way:

Mode 1 – 30%: People who in their own minds are victims of a system. They are inactive and wait for someone to save them, or they wait for the next catastrophe.

Mode 2 – 50%: People who are survivors or sustainers. They take one day at a time with no real goal. They are reactive and wait for a trend, a problem, or a change to occur before they react.

Mode 3 – 10%: People who are dreamers and active but they never really take action on their ideas.

Mode 4 – 10%: People who are the proactive innovators who anticipate and welcome change and who ride the front end of the wave of change.

Some people will argue about the accuracy of his percentages, but most agree with his basic message that the vast majority of people are not inclined to do anything more than to just keep doing what they have been doing. A question arising from Waitley’s work is whether or not his modes reflect a natural human phenomenon. Is the mass of humanity just stumbling through life because that is the nature of the beast, or are we seeing the effects of a school system that is designed to produce obedient, docile people? That is a question that can be answered in time with the help of numerous studies of democratic learning, but for CHIP the modes as described by Waitley were a reality. Only a small percentage of the students comprising the 800 or so enrolled at the school housing CHIP would consider riding a new wave, and that percentage is further reduced in that proactive people don’t hop every wave that comes along. It needs to be a wave they want to ride.

Recruiting 25 students for a new program from a population of 800 is therefore not a sure thing, but in the case of CHIP it was made even more difficult. The parent school served students from grades 7 to 13, but grades 7 to 9 were not permitted to participate in CHIP because of a government reform that was being implemented for them. This consequently cut in half the students eligible to take CHIP.

Adding to this was a limitation on the credits students could obtain through CHIP. The program was approved to run with students working on credits in the four subject areas of math, English, art, and computers, but this was soon found to be problematic. There were students who wanted to enroll in CHIP, but they didn’t because they couldn’t get the credits through it that they needed to graduate or to get accepted to their preferred post-secondary study programs.

This problem showed itself the first year, but it was not until the second year that its was having a serious impact. Students who had enrolled in the program the first year and who wanted to stay in it had to withdraw to get the credits they needed, and recruiting replacements for them was not easy. By the third year the problem was even more pronounced and the number of students opting for the program entered the debatable zone. It became arguable that CHIP did not have sufficient enrollment to run.

Increasing efforts were made by the two teachers to have more courses offered through CHIP, but the principal didn’t support them. There were more than enough students in grades 10 to 13 who wanted to be in CHIP that it could have run a third year fully enrolled. Some students only needed to be able to take one course from outside the four subject areas offered, but the principal was not open to making any exceptions. The enrollment that third year therefore made the program vulnerable and this allowed the department heads to compete harder for what they wanted.

Fullan in his writing about principals described most principals as trying to run an orderly school where everything is kept relatively quiet. Containing problems is their primary concern, but the problem with that, said Fullan quoting from Survival in the Classroom by House and Lapan (1978), is that “The principal cannot be a change agent or leader under these conditions.” The new principal wanted to keep his school quiet and the way to do that in a secondary school is to keep the department heads happy. It consequently happened that CHIP was not given the sections it needed to run a third year.

Another factor that lowered enrolment in the program was the sabotage that Glasser spoke of. There were teachers who, feeling CHIP threatened their programs or their credibility, discouraged students who were contemplating taking it with comments like, “It isn’t for you. You need structure,” or, “It’s for students who can’t handle the regular program.” Normally teachers wouldn’t misrepresent a program in this way if they knew the principal was firmly behind it.

Supportive principals will recognize the potential for conflict between competing programs and they will provide the kind of leadership that most serves the interests of the students. By being involved and talking to teachers about the potential benefits in doing things differently, by watching for signs of tension and resolving differences, and by looking for ways that two competing schools can help each other, a principal can make it quite possible for the two schools to have a healthy co-existence under the same roof.

The fight for CHIP went to the school board level, but by then it was no longer a fight for better education. It had been turned into a personal battle between the new principal and one of the teachers who originated CHIP. Those battles are rarely decided in favor of the teacher. As has happened in so many cases, the authorities found it more important to maintain the chain-of-command than to keep exploring a promising new direction for public education. It’s an orientation that robs the profession of vitality and threatens the existence of public education by stifling efforts that could renew it.

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