Parsing School Reform–Fundamental Change (Part 2)*

Fundamental changes aim to transform—alter permanently—those very same structures and cultures described in the April 3 post. The idea behind fundamental change is that the basic school structures and cultures are irretrievably flawed at their core and need a complete overhaul or replacement, not incremental improvements. That old car is a jalopy far beyond repair. We need to get a new car or consider other forms of transportation.

If new courses, more staff, extended day and school year, and higher salaries for teachers are examples of incremental changes in the structures and cultures of schooling, then the late-19th century innovation of the kindergarten is an instance of fundamental change. Other examples would be broadening the school’s social role in the early 20th century to intervene in the lives of children and their families by offering school-based social and medical services and for advocates of public schooling to see the institution as an agent of social reform in the larger society (e.g., ending alcohol and drug abuse, desegregation). Advocates of charter schools want more parental choice and competition through altering the fundamental structure of funding. Other reformers wish to replace the age-graded school with ungraded schools that eliminate promotion and retention, the sliced-up curriculum, and self-contained classrooms. Again, designs for fundamental changes are proposed solutions to deep-seated problems or intractable dilemmas.

Applied to the classroom, advocates of fundamental change would transform the teacher’s role from transmitter of information to one who guides students to their own decisions, who helps children find meaning in their experiences, and urges them to learn from one another. These reformers seek to upend traditional teaching where the teacher talks, students mostly listen, use a textbook for the main source of knowledge, and pass tests that determine how much has been remembered. They want classrooms where teachers organize activities that help students learn from subject matter, one another, and the community. Assessment is less taking multiple-choice tests and more working on real world tasks. Such changes would mean substantial alterations in the ways that teachers think about content, pedagogy, and learning.

For now, then, think of fundamental and incremental changes as arrayed along a continuum. Then think of individual teachers, principals, superintendents, parents, and reformers arraying themselves along that continuum. Where would you put yourself?


In examining the last century of these two different kinds of planned changes in schools and classrooms, I have learned certain lessons about incremental and fundamental changes.

Most fundamental changes initially come from outside the schools. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, prodded public officials and educators to deal with inequities that protesters identified such as poor facilities, unequal treatment in schools, and low academic achievement. Heavy corporate involvement in public schools since the early 1980s sought to align schools more closely to the economy, prompting educators to copy business practices, new technologies, and other private sector innovations.

Many changes intended to be fundamental become incrementalized. Often the rhetoric of a planned change clearly intend to make profound shifts in the current school. Recall the words surrounding charter schools, 1:1 laptops, and small high schools in past decades. Promoted by corporate leaders and public officials these innovations sought fundamental changes. Yet once they left the designers’ hands and entered schools and classrooms theses changes were either piecemeal ones where certain portions of the design were implemented and other parts were not.

Because so much work is involved in mobilizing support and resources for fundamental changes there is far more success in talking about major reforms than in adopting the planned changes. And there is even more of a gap between officials’ actions and what principals and teachers actually put into practice. Because of these gaps between talk, action, and implementation, intended fundamental changes get incrementalized and become just another spoke in the organizational wheel.

Far more incremental than fundamental changes get institutionalized in schools. It is simply easier organizationally and psychologically to add to a system than to go a different direction. Increasing requirements for high school graduation is easier than dropping the Carnegie unit which is the very basis for counting credits toward graduation and school accreditation. Shipping computers to schools and buying software is far easier than altering dominant teaching practices.

The next post will deal with reformers’ angst over both incremental and fundamental changes.

* I have adapted these distinctions about change from How Can I Fix It? Finding Solutions and Managing Dilemmas–An Educator’s Road Map (New York: Teachers College Press, 2001).

1 Comment

Filed under school reform policies

One response to “Parsing School Reform–Fundamental Change (Part 2)*

  1. As you indicate, your continuum exposes one of the most difficult and little understood issues underpinning the success, or otherwise, of schools in the public consciousness: the proper role of the teacher.

    I suspect if asked, even very young children would place all great teachers at the extreme “incremental” end of the scale, and all the ineffective ones at the “fundamental” end, because the former are confident in their knowledge and their ability to teach: while the latter’s minimal interest in knowledge is overwhelmed by an overt desire to engineer change.

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