Why don’t people and systems change — even when the writing is on the wall?

I recently read a book that has caused me to look deeper at the actions of some educators I have come into contact with over the past few years in multiple contexts – both as a McREL consultant and a parent. The book is called Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, Ori and Rom Brafman (2008) and as the title indicates, it focuses on looking deeply at the “why” of irrational human behavior. Now, before you start to characterize me as somebody who views the glass as being half empty, please know that I see much more that is positive in my roles, but I am still troubled by this notion of rational and intelligent people engaging in irrational decisions.

Here is a real-life example I will apply to the concepts in the book. For obvious reasons, this has to be anonymous since I am highlighting irrational behavior:

Over the past three years, I have watched a school district fall from being one of the best district’s in a particular state to one that is now below average as measured by student achievement, property values, community support, employee satisfaction, and compensation. I know what you are thinking now is probably the usual “suspects” that we often believe as educators cause such rapid declines in school systems – demographic changes, budget cuts, mass teacher turnover or retirements, etc. This example, however, does not include these “suspects” except for the economic downturn that is currently affecting all school systems in the US.

This example follows the characteristics illustrated in Sway:

  1. Loss Aversion – some of us are so afraid of loss that we simply will do anything necessary to keep things the same. In the school district example, the school board, superintendent, principals, teachers, and parents were not able to understand that “losses” were necessary in order to stay current and relevant. This district continued to build schools and new facilities, even when enrollment projections were in decline. Rather than close or re-utilize schools that were under-enrolled, this district built more schools and continued to expand capacity in the face of declining enrollment.
  2. Commitment – this characteristic goes closely with the first one. When we are afraid of loss and so committed to one way of doing business, we cannot let go or see the writing on the wall when changes need to be made. In the district example, once a commitment was made to expansion and building more schools, it was almost etched in stone. This made perfect sense in a different time when there was exponential growth and a robust tax base. This district was not able or willing to look long-term at the reality of over-building, nor were they able to sustain it. They were so “committed to their commitment” that changing the focus in light of leading indicators was not an option. This led to a reaction that was quite predictable – closing and consolidating schools to save money and more effectively use facilities which led to upheaval in the community.
  3. Value Attribution – by placing value on certain ideas or ways of doing business, we can be blinded by the amount of value we place on a single idea or group of ideas. In the district example, building and maintaining new schools was truly a core value of the district culture. The entire community came to know this district largely because of their shiny and new school facilities and the fact that schools were minimally populated or utilized by students. This was largely touted as a characteristic that set the district apart from others in the area and used widely by realtors, city council, businesses, and others to draw homebuyers and new residents  to this geographic area.
  4. Diagnosis Bias – in concept, bias exists when we view our world through a certain lens and close our minds to other explanations. A good example of this is the emergency room doctor who spends his day diagnosing and treating a relatively predictable array of injuries and ailments including flesh wounds, broken bones, heart attacks, stomach flu, etc. Not to be taken lightly for certain, these diagnoses become so common that the ER doctor (or any doctor) can easily mis-diagnose a patient by incorrectly focusing on the most obvious symptom. On the rare occasion that a patient shows up with an atypical ailment, the doctor is likely to mis-diagnose if the symptoms are similar to common ailments because of Diagnosis Bias. Now to the school district example where Diagnosis Bias is found in a history where funds are spent to build new schools on a priority basis. In this example, the diagnosis is incorrect – new schools with small student populations are needed to effectively educate students in this community. While this diagnosis may have never been correct, it is a core value of the community and very difficult to challenge or change. It has become an expectation.
  5. Procedural Justice and Fairness – as a culture, Americans value justice, fairness, and procedures that ensure fair treatment. This value is found at the core of our justice system and is embedded in modern society – actually nested in the concept of the “American Dream”. The problem occurs when procedures and protocols based on the idea of fairness cloud perceptions. In the district example, we have a community that values new school facilities with few students enrolled. The question becomes: How does this cycle get broken when money gets tight? The expectation of fairness means that an older school building with a large student population would not fit in this district. In the interest of fairness, it is easier to stick with an old value that is not economically feasible or sustainable and not think long term about what happens when resources are limited.

How does this story end? It is difficult to tell currently, but based on this model, we can be fairly sure that the district will continue to suffer through many of the phases of a difficult change process as they grieve for inevitable losses. Blame will be placed on many and school board and staff turnover has already begun, but it will be hard to see this problem through any other realistic lenses. The school board and leadership, whether new in the district or veteran will have to look at the obvious problem with few solutions to keep the status quo. Schools will have to be closed, consolidated, and re-utilized in order to stay within budget. The community will be forced to shift their value system out of economic necessity.

One Comment

  • This is a very informative piece. I think that loss aversion is a good concept. Fear of the unknown usually paralyzes a person.
    Also, commitment to things is another fear. Once a commitment is made, then action is needed.

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