Reform Lessons from Skeptical But Not Cynical Veterans

Eleven years ago, Jane David and I  wrote “Cutting Through the Hype: A Taxpayer’s Guide to School Reforms.” A short book inventorying 20 popular reforms (many are still around now), sliced away the “truthful hyperbole” and parsed them in ways that teachers, administrators, policymakers, and academics could easily understand. Still in print with Harvard Education Press, I looked at the final chapter summing up what we learned from our brief journey through the school reform world and found the advice we offered then relevant to the current generation of over-caffeinated entrepreneurial policymakers, donors, and ardent practitioners pushing their visions of better schooling.  Here are the lessons we had learned about school reforms circa 2006.

Don’t swallow the hype. If a reform sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Programs peddled as miracle cures nearly always fail to deliver desired results, and therefore disappoint. Disappointment, in turn, breeds cynicism and helplessness. Policymakers and advocates need to shrink their their overpromising on what reforms can deliver and lower the volume of attacks on what is wrong with our public schools. At the same time,educators and citizens need to be skeptical of the hype and press for more truth in advertising to support reform claims and the conditions essential for success.

Kick the tires. Do the logic and assumptions of the reform hold up? Reforms aim to increase student achievement, yet most are targeted at a point many steps removed from the classroom. Reconfiguring grade levels, ending social promotion, and merit pay, for example, are all promoted as ways to improve teaching and learning, but the path from each to better teaching and higher test scores is far from clear. Policymakers and reform advocates should provide solid arguments and evidence linking their proposals to promised outcomes.

It’s the implementation, stupid. Policymakers neither administer schools nor teach students; they make policy for both from afar. Whether the policy is a new program or a new way of operating, the ideas are only as good as those who put them into practice. In fact, how well a program is implemented can matter more than what the program is. A famous evaluation, called the “Follow Through Planned Variation” experiment tested a number of  different early elementary programs by getting several schools across the country to try each one. One of the key findings, too often ignored today, was that the differences in results from one school to the next using the same program were bigger than the differences in results between the programs being compared.

Certainly, some programs  are better or worse than others. Yet even in better programs, the specifics are even less important than what teachers do daily to put activities into practice. At one extreme, teachers can ignore a program, which they may do if it does not make sense to them. At the other extreme, teachers can be excited enough by a program to put extra energy and resources into tailoring it to fit their students. Investments in professional development designed to meet teachers’ needs can increase the likelihood that they will give a program a good try.

Policymakers can acknowledge these lessons from the past and turn to educators to identify what is needed for the reform to work. The result should be policies that provide an appropriate mix of incentives, guidance, and help that leaves room for differences from one place to the next and among teachers.

Reject extremes. Education reform has long been characterized as a pendulum incapable of stopping in the middle. For decades, debates over teaching reading (phonics vs. whole language). math (computation vs. concepts), and writing (grammar vs. content) have polarized policymakers, practitioners, and parents. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that these “wars” are fought largely with words in speeches, articles, and at conferences, not in actual classroom practices.

More often than not, research shows, teachers reject extremist positions and find the best solution to be a balance between polar opposites.

Extreme positions are also staked out around “scripted curriculum” and “teacher-invented curriculum.” At one extreme,advocates assume that teachers are unable to exercise any judgment, and therefore need textbooks that specify word for word what they should say to their students. At the other extreme, teachers are viewed as creative inventors, who can design their own curriculum with minimal tools and materials. Most educators reject both extremes, yet they find little support for the middle ground from textbook publishers and district leaders.

Policies that insist on extreme positions invite resistance. To increase the likelihood that programs will lead to desired results, policymakers and the public must seek a middle ground. One such option is to provide choices in reading programs, for example, or provide flexibility to educators for adapting approaches to their circumstances.

Deja vu all over again. Time and again, policies that promote curricular change or rely on tests to determine students’ futures have been tried, yet few policymakers ever looked in the rearview mirror for help in shaping policies. Only with evidence about why policies did or did not work out as intended will reformers be spared predictable failures. evaluations of earlier reforms don’t provide ready answers to today’s questions, but they do provide considerable guidance on what it takes to increase a reform’s likelihood of success. Policymakers and citizens can ask more questions about what happened when similar reforms were tried in the past.

Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Policies can at best be only hunches about what will work in schools, and even the best guesses, grounded in all available evidence, are no guarantee of success. Policymakers and citizens need to keep an eye on what happens to reforms,and an ear out for the reactions of teachers and students. Negative reactions and problems are not necessarily signs that a reform should be abandoned, but they likely point to needed adjustments. Figuring out the right adjustments may require more systematic information gathering. Neither abandoning a reform prematurely nor steadfastedly sticking with something that isn’t working even if it is politically popular will contribute to improving schools.

Treating reforms policies as ideas to be improved upon–or rejected–is a sensible (and morally responsible) way of dealing with policies that have important consequences for both adults and children.

Ready or not. Policymakers are typically too far removed from the classroom to fully appreciate what teachers and principals need to have in place to make reforms work. In the absence of discussions with teachers and principals during their creation, school reform policies are likely to ignore the minimal conditions and resources needed for a reform to have a chance of success. Many reforms assume, for example, that practitioners have what they need to do a better job, including not only the know-how but also the necessary materials. In fact, the conditions present in the poorest and lowest-performing schools are often the opposite of what is needed for improvement. Without dealing directly with issues of distrust and racism, as well as poor training, among other problems, efforts to change instruction will fall flat.

Citizens must call attention to the real conditions for teaching and learning in the schools and ensure that policymakers hear directly from educators.

An ounce of prevention. Waiting until students reach kindergarten to beginto “close the achievement gap” makes both the challenge and the costs extraordinary. For school reforms to succeed, measures directed at closing gaps in learning at a much earlier age are essential. Prenatal care is the starting point for many later learning problems.

It is indisputable that gaps in achievement are closely related to income–poor children start school significantly behind their more affluent peers. Attention to gaps, most of which can be traced to poverty, means attention to known problems before children reach school age.

High dropout rates for poor and minority students exact huge costs on society. Those who drop out are far more likely to end up unemployed and in jail, both of which cost society considerably more than public schooling. If the goals of school reform are to be realized it’s going to mean reaching beyond the bounds of school reform policies.


None of these guidelines will be seen as groundbreaking for anyone who follows school reform. Yet together they raise a set of questions worth asking of any reform to help its journey from policy to practice.

Reformers and policymakers of all stripes must try to understand what motivates and helps teachers and students do more,and what does not. This is especially true for efforts targeting the nation’s most challenging schools. If those who champion good ideas keep their eyes on the classroom, they can keep school reforms on track.





Filed under school reform policies

5 responses to “Reform Lessons from Skeptical But Not Cynical Veterans

  1. Pingback: Billionaires, here’s how to fund education — Joanne Jacobs

  2. Charlie Brown seemed to always let Lucy hold the football for him. Maybe we’ll just never learn.

  3. I might add, please STOP over-complicating the teaching/learning process.
    Most reform initiatives ignore the simple fact that learning happens best when students are motivated, actively engaged in interesting and meaningful work, and are intellectually ready for the level ideas, concepts, and skills being presented. Reformers have also ignored the real reasons why students struggle to learn: poor attendance, accumulated knowledge and skill deficits, parental neglect/abuse, food insecurity, homelessness, cognitive impairments, mental illness, substance abuse, and social distractions. The problem is they can’t sell the quick fix for the real reasons kids do not succeed in school.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s