Years ago, a new board member from a beleaguered school district was explaining to me what it was like for someone in his influential position to try to get something done in what he quickly discovered was a pervasively dysfunctional bureaucracy.
“It’s like pushing as hard as you can against a giant marshmallow,” he said. “If you get everybody pushing in the same direction, you can make somewhat of a dent, but the second you stop pushing, everything goes back to the way it was.”
I always remember that description around this time of year when I’m called upon to write about the major issues and trends that schools and universities will have to confront in the coming months. The problems that education institutions are facing as 2014 is about to begin—inadequate funding, maintenance backlogs, deteriorating facilities, to name a few—would have been key elements in stories written 10 or 20 years ago, or longer.
In other words, the marshmallow is winning.
More than 20 years ago, I wrote numerous newspaper articles about school finance lawsuits pending in Kansas and Texas that sought to overhaul funding formulas and distribute state aid more equitably to school systems. As I gathered information for articles in this month’s magazine issue, I found that little has changed—litigants are awaiting a ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court on a challenge to the state’s funding formula, and a judge in Texas has declared that state’s school funding unconstitutional and is preparing to hold more hearings on the case.
As someone reporting from the sidelines, I find that lack of progress frustrating, so I can only imagine how exasperating it is for the educators and administrators who keep pushing the marshmallow day after day, year after year. It’s no surprise that many burned- out teachers and administrators abandon the education field. That was the fate of the board member who offered the marshmallow metaphor. He fought the good fight for several years, but the ordeal left him sapped of energy and optimism, so he relinquished his seat and moved out of town.
But as maddening as it can be to address these same challenges repeatedly, what would be worse is if nobody was left to push the marshmallow.