School reforms unfold less like an auto engine piston pumping up and down within a cylinder and more like a large weather front of uncertain origin moving erratically and unpredictably across a region. Reforms, like weather fronts varying by seasons but similar across years, go through phases that become familiar if observers note historical patterns and, in our speeded-up, multi-tasking culture, record what occurs before their eyes.
Here are phases of school reform in the U.S. that, over five decades, I have noted and recorded as an historian, policymaker, and practitioner in schools. While I offer the phases in order, keep in mind that the pace of each phase varies according to the nature of the proposed reform, when it occurs, where, the power of political coalitions, the caliber of educators implementing reforms and, of equal importance, how much the reform permeates popular and professional media. Keep in mind, however, that natural disasters, wars, political upheavals, and social movements disrupt the sequence. The point is that these phases do not mechanically unfold in step-wise progression; nor do they occur at regular intervals and they often overlap. Given these cautions, here is what I have observed.
*Social, political, economic, and demographic changes create situations that opinion-elites define as problems. Examples are waves of immigration from Latin America and Asia since the 1980s. Or changes in the U.S.’s economic standing in the world community when the German economy and military expanded rapidly in the 1890s, Japanese products seized large sectors of domestic markets in the 1980s, or now China in the early 21st century. These economic changes fueled elite and popular opinion that fundamental changes in commerce and other institutions had to occur.
*Policymakers, academics, and opinion-makers such as corporate officials, civic leaders, and foundation presidents talk to one another and the media about these problems. Commissions issue reports and a consensus–what David Tyack and I have called “policy talk” begins to grow about what the real problems are and which solutions are feasible. Here is where elites frame the problem and point to a solution to be found in better schools (e.g., The Nation at Risk, 1983). This process historically is what David Labaree has called “educationalizing” national problems (e.g., childhood obesity, racial segregation, poverty).
*Groups and individuals (elite entrepreneurs, political officials, foundation leaders, special interest groups, community organizations, unions, etc.) develop policy proposals and programs to solve the problem (e.g.,common curriculum standards, testing and accountability regulations).
*Through various mechanisms (e.g., state and federal legislation, district school board decisions, foundation-funded programs), groups and individuals connected to schools come to be known as reformers. They press state and local school officials, principals and teachers to adopt and implement reforms (e.g., new reading and math programs, charter schools, small high schools, 1:1 laptops).
*Some policies get adopted. Laws (e.g., No Child Left Behind), district school board decisions (e.g., performance pay and anti-obesity programs), foundation-funded projects (e.g., technology integration across academic subjects, non-educator superintendents) become the wallpaper of reform. Superintendents, principals, and teachers attempt to incorporate these new policies, programs and innovations into routine practice in districts, schools, and classrooms.
*Growing criticism of educators’ seemingly slow, halfhearted efforts or in some reformers’ minds, resistance to put reforms into practice appear. Unexpected outcomes (e.g., testing and accountability rules produce narrowed curriculum and teaching to the test) occur. Reform promoters’ enthusiasm gives way to disappointment, annoyance, and even anger toward educators (e.g., uptick in overt hostility to teachers and their unions, higher turnover among superintendents and principals).
*And then social, political, economic, and demographic changes in objectives conditions of life or in ideologies create situations that opinion-elites define as problems…. Here the return of the cycle begins
For readers over the age of 50 who have worked in schools for at least two decades or observed them as students and later as parents may find these phases familiar. If they do, they may also note that these phases have within it certain assumptions: Schools mirror society rather than change it; policy elites mobilize individuals and groups to take action by framing problems, picking solutions, and getting policies adopted; putting policy into practice is utterly dependent upon educators who played no role in framing the problems or selecting the solutions; most policies are partially implemented and produce untoward and unanticipated consequences.
In my opinion, we have been in this cycle for at least for two decades and that we are in phase five of the current market-driven reforms (e.g., expanded parental choice of schools through charters and magnets, testing and accountability, common core curriculum, pay-for-performance, and teacher evaluation based on test scores). Perhaps readers may see the cycle of reform and its phases differently. Let me know, if you do.