Would the public schools be best characterized as being robust, resilient, or vulnerable?

Sander van der Leeuw during a Slate Magazine interview is asked: So what is resilience, exactly?

He has this to say, among other things, in reply:

“Any system, whether it’s the financial system, the environmental system, or something else, is always subject to all kinds of pressures. If it can withstand those pressures without really changing its behavior, then it’s robust. When a system can’t withstand them anymore but can deal with them by integrating some changes so the pressures fall off and it can keep going, then it’s resilient. If it comes to the point where the only choices are to make fundamental structural changes or to cease existence, then it becomes vulnerable.”

Well, I said to myself, the public schools, that’s a system. What about it, is it robust, resilient, or vulnerable? In answer and at first blush, I would say, well, yes, it’s robust. For in spite of extraordinary and constant pressures, both from within and from without, the system hasn’t really changed in 100 or more years. More kids than ever before may be attending school through high school but the system, all of it, the school buildings, class schedules, classroom sizes, subject matters taught, and all the rest haven’t changed significantly during all those years. Robust it is.

How about resilient? Throughout the 100 years or more there have been constant pressures for change, meaning for school people an endless series of reforms, initiated at one time or the other by one or more of the various players, —the parents, the community, the school administrators, the politicians, and even the teachers and students themselves.

But all these reforms, or attempts at reform, have not so much changed the system as softened or lessened the pressures for change, allowing thereby the system to more or less continue intact. So, yes, also, the system is resilient.

Then we have those moments in the history of our public schools, when loud, well positioned and authoritative voices cry out that unless something is done about the failure of our schools to educate, our country will fail to compete and maintain its now dominant position among the countries of the world.

Although not the first of such moments there was Sputnik, on October 4, 1957, the Soviet launch of the very first artificial satellite in history and representing to the whole world our failure and the Russians success in the space race, implying thereby the failure of our schools, and the success of theirs?

Then in 1983, during the administration of Ronald Reagan, there appeared the “Nation at Risk,” a Reagan commission report that warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.” And of course this meant that our schools (again?) had failed to educate our young people?

Finally, at this very moment we have the report issued by the Council on Foreign Relations and chaired by former Secretary of State Condie Rice and Joel Klein, a former New York City schools chancellor, warning us that “the education crisis is a national security crisis,” Why? Because too many schools are failing to adequately equip students for the work force, and too many schools have even stopped teaching the sort of basic civics that prepare students for citizenship.

So is the public school system no less “vulnerable” than robust and resilient? And could it be, somehow, all three at the same time? Those voices crying out that our nation is at risk because of the failure of the schools, aren’t they saying that the school system is vulnerable and that unless we make structural and substantial changes to the current system it may very well not survive?

Sander van der Leeuw may very well be on to something. Systems do seem to be robust, resilient, and vulnerable. But he doesn’t seem to recognize or realize that most systems are all three and all three all at once. For couldn’t all systems, including those of you and me, our bodily and mental functions, be characterized in this way? Isn’t it the nature of any system to be robust, resilient, and vulnerable, at least as long as it’s alive?

What we may legitimately argue or differ about may only be which of the three terms at any given point in time would best describe the system in question. When, for example, is the system best described by robustness, resilience or vulnerability. The army is vulnerable, the special forces robust? The U.S. Postal Service, and the public schools both vulnerable? These are the arguments we’re having, at least as long as these systems are alive.

For most of us in our own lives all three terms will apply. We begin our day by being robust, impervious to any blows that will inevitably strike us from the environment. But while we take in stride anything and everything that comes along, and don’t fall down or even way from the blows, we do adapt to the punches, witnessing, as it were, a morning robustness becoming an afternoon resilience. By evening we will see ourselves as being less resilient, a bit vulnerable even, and will return to our home base, deriving charge and new courage from food and drink and the company of friends and family, while awaiting the coming of the night and for sleep to restore us again to morning robustness.

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