The quest for inspiration and wisdom led me to explore the published lectures of the renowned management and business philosopher, Peter Drucker. While listening to the the Audible version of the Drucker Lectures my attention piqued. Most of his early topics were interesting, but did not speak directly to my professional interests. Topics ranged widely from human existence (1943), how to maintain full employment (1957), the first technological revolution (1965), and organizational management (1967). Then the narrator introduced lecture number seven from 1971. Things suddenly became more relevant and surprising.
Drucker addressed the American College of Life Underwriters in 1971 and shared his thoughts on education. Perhaps it was a sense of nostalgia, but I was thrilled to hear what I imagined would be wild predictions from 45 years ago. I conjured up thoughts of 1950s style flying cars and the kitchens of the future. I should have known better given Drucker’s longstanding reputation as a visionary thinker across multiple disciplines. As each minute passed I sat stunned. I kept replaying sequences to confirm what I was hearing.
Drucker’s description of America’s future educational landscape was nearly perfect. Perhaps he foresaw the expansion of accountability with the introduction of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) just five years earlier. Long before the publication of A Nation at Risk (1983), the passage of Goals 2000: Educate America Act (1994), the No Child Left Behind Act (2002), and the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), Drucker said the following about education:
One way or another, American education today will be held accountable for performance. I do not know how one measures “performance” in education. The reason why I do not know this is that one first has to know what the objectives and goals are before one knows what one should measure. If you tell me that the first job, let us say, of an elementary school is to have the children learn to read, I can measure performance, and very easily. If you then, however, add that you want to socialize children—that is, to make civilized human beings out of them; if you then talk of the development of the whole person; and if you add on to this preparation for employment and making a living, you make it impossible for anyone to measure. In other words, the school will be expected to think through objectives and goals, to get them accepted, and then to hold itself accountable for them. If the school does not take on this responsibility, standards of measurement will be imposed from the outside. The educators will then protest violently that these are the wrong standards and the wrong measurements—and they are most likely to be right. But they will only have themselves to blame. One way or another American education tomorrow will be held accountable and should be held accountable.
Among his other predictions were personalized learning, achievement orientation for schools, the reciprocal nature of school and community integration, eclectic learning environments, and the necessity for life-long learning. So why did it take so long for the educational community to embrace or acknowledge these predictions and take action? The turbulence of the late 1960s and 1970s likely played a role, but the track record of the educational profession suggests other contributing factors. Some impediments are external such as the selection of reform frameworks or policy changes. Despite research driven recommendations for reforms that emphasize professional capital (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012), policy makers and non-educators alike continue to embrace unproven paths.
What concerns me most are internal factors threatening to delay progress, prevent change, or stall innovation. What initiatives should we be investing in and exploring currently as a profession? Has tradition and fear of change, or fear of losing control crowded out our capacity for creativity, collaboration and inquiry? I bet if we listen carefully enough we can hear voices right now that sound strikingly similar to Drucker 45 years ago or John Dewey 90 years ago. Our aversion should be to knowing better and choosing inaction, not to risk-taking. Is there something you have been considering that has an emerging evidence-base, or at a minimum looks to be a promising practice? Something has likely surfaced as you considered Drucker’s remarks or reflected on your experiences with educational reform. Confidently take that first step toward action and be sure bring a colleague along for the journey.
Burdin, J. L. (1974). Forecasting the Educational Future.
Drucker, P. F. (1971). What We Already Know about American Education Tomorrow. American College of Life Underwriters.
Drucker, P. F., & Wartzman, R. (2010). The Drucker lectures: essential lessons on management, society and economy. McGraw Hill Professional.