The Aqueduct

There’s a point in Monty Python’s Life of Brian when a group of rebels are discussing plans against the Roman Empire. “What have the Romans ever done for us?” the rebel leader snarls. The group nods and shakes their fists before one masked conspirator quietly raises his hand and says “the aqueduct?”


The men nod begrudgingly and another adds “…and the sanitation.”

By the end of the scene, when the litany has grown to include “sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order,” the Python’s satire is complete. They never mock the passion of the rebels, just the narrow mindedness. It’s a scene I come back to as a principal when I hear people around me ask variations on the question “what has centralized education reform ever done to help us?”

I’m by no means the usual man in the gray flannel suit; by nature I’m more iconoclastic than some, willing to let students and teachers have the freedom they need to innovate and take chances. I’m comfortable with the fact that some of those chances will flop. If you can’t fail, why bother?

That said, when I hear folks start to be single mindedly critical of the notion of testing students, national initiatives, and state standards (as flawed as any of these three things may be), when I hear the “what have they done for us” question, I feel like timidly raising my hand and whispering “equity?”

“Recognizing the achievement gap?”

“Trying to close it?”

I suppose there are other rebels around me who might add other benefits to the list, “a new focus on data to inform decisions,” “supporting English Learners,” and “providing all students with equal opportunities.”

This isn’t to give credit for everything on that list to centralized education reform; any true growth happens at school sites, but the climate of accountability that has come from national initiatives and state by state standards has prompted a heated and valuable discussion about what we do at schools.

I celebrate less testing happening now than it did just a few years ago in my state of California, and at the same time I recognize that the discussion of the achievement gap and the scramble to develop ways to close that gap owes a debt to the data collected in those testing heavy years, data that provided evidence of the depth of the problem.

We won’t test our way out of the achievement gap, but the pressure we feel from the state and federal governments will keep a spotlight on the issue and prompt us to show evidence of the work we’re doing with and for kids.

As much as I loved the freedom I had when I taught, and in the 1990s I had lots of individual freedom, the way to make education all that it can be is not for individual teachers to do great work, but for teachers to connect, share, and do great work together. The reform of the past decade has done much to promote this collaboration and focus on improving education for all students.

It helps me to think of this business of education as a band, with state standards and national initiatives as the drums and bass that provide the steady beat that we individual sites can riff around. We’re the blazing guitars, the acrobatic horns, and the soaring vocals. Teachers and schools are what generate the magic and the magic of change.

With this mindset I accept the reform that I’ve seen in my two decades in education and strive to pay attention to the issues that reform raises. I believe that freedom and responsibility share space in our profession, and that the powerful work done by creative and passionate educators can happen within a system that guides the course of our work.

We are not slaves to reform, but at our best informed rebels working to improve a system that is better today than it was before the Romans.

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