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Posted: Aug 31, 2004 13:23

INNOVATION AND PREDICTABILITY

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By: Lon Woodbury

Ever since Eli Whitney with his cotton gin, and Remington with his rifles, discovered the advantages of interchangeable parts in the early 19th century, Americans have had two opposing tendencies. One is the glorification of the innovative visionary, the person who sees how to improve something; custom designs a new approach and figures out how to do it, often by overcoming considerable opposition. The other tendency is to emphasize predictability, with broadly accepted standards in place and essentially interchangeable parts with few surprises.

The upside of the innovative visionary is the chance of a brilliant performance with new and remarkable breakthroughs, while the downside produces miserable failures at times. The upside of interchangeable parts is the predictability that comes from the regulatory review that can reduce the miserable failures, but the downside is that it also reduces brilliant innovation and new insights. To the regulator, who is instructed to look for variations from the commonly accepted standards rather than looking for the results, a surprise improvement will be rejected about as fast as a surprise deterioration.

This idea of interchangeable parts fueled the industrial revolution and made possible the mass production of inexpensive products that virtually everybody could afford. In the two centuries since, this idea of interchangeable parts has permeated all aspects of our society. For example, the hospitality industry was one of the latest to adopt this idea. When I was a kid, we made frequent trips from North Idaho to California to visit family. On these trips, we stayed in locally owned and operated motels, and we took our chances on the quality. Usually the service was decent, at times outstanding, but there were a few memorable occasions. One time, it was so bad that I had to sleep in the car because the motel was infested with mice, bats and lord knows what else. If I were to make the same trip now, with the centralized quality control of the various motel and restaurant chains, I could make reservations at any one of dozens of motel chains and predict the quality of service I would receive before ever leaving home. In the hospitality industry, predictability has won out for most travelers. However, the innovation, local ownership and control remain in the bed and breakfast establishments that are gaining increasing popularity. Thus, travelers still have a choice between innovation and predictability, and the possibilities of innovation keep the mainstream standards on their toes.

A similar progression happened with schools. In the 19th century, we moved from a wide variety of innovative and individually operated nationwide network of independent schools, to the publicly funded common schools in the latter part of the 19th century, which were then replaced by the present philosophy of public education in the early 20th century. Now, when a parent moves to another part of the country, the new school their children attend looks and acts very much like the old school, except for some variations based on budgetary restraints, community complexion, or some partial innovations such as magnet or charter schools. A major part of the philosophy of modern public education is for management to consider schools, teachers and students as interchangeable; this philosophy allows mass education and predictability. Today, most of the modern innovations are found in private schools, alternative schools or home schooling, which accounts for about 12 percent of student attendance. Thus, here also, parents still have a choice between predictability and innovation.

A similar progression has occurred in the network of parent-choice emotional growth/therapeutic schools and programs. Before the start of any of these schools and programs, in the 1950s, social critics were decrying the sameness that seemed to be permeating most segments of society. Popular scholarly books like “The Organization Man,” made the point that individuality was being lost, as large national corporations seemed to be increasingly dominating everywhere important, and were imposing standards that gave the appearance of sameness nationwide. Predictability had won out over innovation, and by the 1970s parents of struggling teens needing residential placement had for the most part only clinical choices - hospitals or residential treatment centers to choose from.

However, the 1960s and 1970s saw a tremendous surge of innovative ideas and new approaches for these teens. Synanon, Daytop, Elan, DeSisto, EST, boy’s ranches, LifeSpring, the Dallas Salesmanship Club, wilderness adventure, back-to-nature communities and many other innovative approaches proliferated, challenging the system of predictability then in vogue. The founders of those facilities that were focused on struggling teens developed philosophies and approaches they thought would better meet these children’s needs because they felt the standard approach to helping teens who were making poor decisions did not help many of them. One of the most influential approaches to the network of emotional growth/therapeutic schools and programs was Mel Wasserman’s CEDU School, founded in 1967.

Wasserman concluded, like many other innovative founders of the time, that there was nothing available to adequately help teens with problems, so he went into the school business. Since the psychological research of that time focused on abnormal behaviors, Wasserman discarded the mainstream treatment practices as too limiting, and he adapted from many of the other alternative education currents of thought flourishing during the 1960s and 1970s, and from the self-improvement movement. Adding Rocky Mountain Academy in North Idaho in 1982 as a sister school, the schools flourished during the 1980s. Built as a school rather than a treatment center, the philosophy was explained as a whole child education, with an emotional growth curriculum, a physical growth curriculum, an academic curriculum and a wilderness curriculum. This was probably the most successful era of the CEDU schools, both financially and in positive impacts on a student body that were comprised primarily of students who had failed in mainstream treatment. Parents who had been disappointed with the results of predictable mainstream treatment often found success in the innovative approach of CEDU.

The evolution of CEDU reflects the evolution of the network of emotional growth/therapeutic schools and programs. As CEDU’s popularity increased, they came to the attention of the forces favoring predictability. For example, in a dispute with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare over whether they should be regulated by the Department of Education or by Health and Welfare, the Idaho legislature determined that they should be considered some kind of treatment center rather than a school. CEDU bowed to the decision of the state and reversed their long-standing policy of being a school and an alternative to standard treatment for teens making poor decisions. They applied for State Department of Health and Welfare licensure, hired therapists and various other clinicians, and started accepting students with serious mental conditions and those needing psychotropic medications. Prior to the state’s intervention, CEDU insisted they were a school and thus did not qualify for treatment center status, they referred students needing psychotropic medications and clinical services elsewhere, and hired staff based on their effectiveness with students, clinical training or licenses were considered incidental. Over time, this has evolved, and today the staff promoting CEDU, or many of the other schools and programs in the network, brag almost as much about their clinical capabilities as do the mainstream residential treatment centers. Successful innovation is being brought into line with the predictability of mainstream treatment, and innovative schools are forced to provide treatment based on the problems of their students.

Innovation from programs such as CEDU has left its mark in mainstream treatment and schools as well, since it has gone both ways. These innovative ideas of structure, impact of wilderness, ropes courses, climbing walls, the importance of developing a community and relationships, are the elements developed through the innovation of schools and programs in the network of emotional growth/therapeutic schools and programs are now common in quality mainstream treatment centers, schools and community efforts to help teens. Without the innovation from places like CEDU, residential treatment centers might still have the same kind of priorities and practices they did in the 1970s. If that had happened, the children would be the losers.

This brief review of the history of this network as I understand it underscores to me how important it is to keep the door open to the small locally owned and operated schools and programs. These small start-ups are where innovation will primarily come from. Most of the schools and programs in the network of emotional growth/therapeutic schools and programs started with a visionary putting together a small start-up and grew from there. Times change, children’s needs change and society changes. If regulations and expectations expand to where there are major increases in the requirements of conforming to expectations of predictability, start-ups will become impossible, and the required innovation to keep up with societal changes will not occur. We do not want to repeat the conformity of the 1970s. The children deserve better than that.



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