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The Three Stages of Education Reform

December 14, 2011 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

During my reading and writing about education (not to mention my living of it as a teacher), I have developed a hypothesis about the progression of a person or community's interest in improving education. The hypothesis revolves around what I've called, very creatively, the Three Stages of Education Reform.

Stage 1 – The System is Fine

This is the default stage for many communities. It's one that's very comfortable, especially in places like Minnesota where we can be proud of our schools' historical record of achievement. Someone with a pure Stage 1 mindset attributes reports of failing students to poverty, culture, family, or other areas, but they don't look to public policy to address the problem.

The danger of a Stage 1 mindset is that systemic social problems like the achievement gap or declining global competitiveness are ignored or denied. This is not acceptable. In a context where education is closely correlated to income, it is wrong to allow educational gaps to persist. Those educational gaps become income gaps that perpetuate the inequality that continues to damage and weaken our society. To write off these problems as the fault of other people is a distinctly ungenerous attitude, and it is not worthy of progressives.

We have an income-based achievement gap in Minnesota. The children of the poor tend not to do as well as the children of the middle class, and the children of the middle class tend not to do as well as the children of the rich. This is injustice, plain and simple, and if progressives care about one thing, it is justice.

Stage 2 – Blow the System Up

Once the magnitude of the educational injustice in a community becomes clear, a common instinct is to want to do something. This drive to do something is almost instinctual, rooted at a deep emotional and moral level. As such, it is very powerful, but also easily misdirected.

On the one hand, it makes a sort of sense to say, “Well, we have this school system, and we have a bunch of inequality in school outcomes. What we've been doing isn't working, so we should stop what we're doing and try something, anything else.”

All of a sudden, everything about the way we educate our kids is a potential target: districts, administrators, teachers, etc. The rational approach of picking through how the many, many variables of schooling interact with the many, many variables of students' non-school lives in an effort to determine the best way forward can get swamped in anti-establishment fervor.

This drives a lot of the energy for alternative systems in the form of charter schools and voucher programs. It also leads to full-bore attacks on the people currently trying to make the education system work; Exhibit A being Scott Walker's frontal assault on the teachers' unions in Wisconsin.

The problem with this is that the current system isn't failing simply because the people in it don't care or they're trapped by byzantine rules and regulations. The system is failing because it was never designed to produce universal student achievement and because we haven't figured out the best way to target the real origins of the achievement gap.

Stage 3 – Change the System Together

Want to know the biggest problem with Stage 2? It doesn't work. Charter schools and voucher programs produce schools with results that are the same as their public counterparts. Merit pay doesn't carrot-and-stick teachers into producing higher test scores. States with strong unions do better than states with weak unions. We have two decades' worth of experimentation on this front, conducted in communities across the country.

Why doesn't Stage 2 work? Well, in part it doesn't work because it misunderstands the problem, as laid out above. Another reason for its failure is that it pits those currently providing education—all of whom are identified as part of “the System”—against those who want to blow the system up. It turns out you can't force better test results by bludgeoning teachers and administrators into submission.

Instead, something very pernicious happens. People inside “the System,” who are still critical to the success of any efforts to produce change, come to associate any and all “reform” proposals with an attack. Those who should be allies of a change movement are denigrated and isolated from a spirit of improvement.

Stage 3, then, is about trying to repair those bridges. It's about recognizing teachers' interest in improving their performance and about grappling with what schools can do to address poverty outside the usual K-12 classroom setting. It's about navigating the different (not necessarily competing!) interests of education's stakeholders and getting on-the-ground support for real change. That's what progressives need to be building, starting now.

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  • Alec says:

    December 14, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    Stage two:

    Revert two a two hundred year old model of teaching and call it reform. Focusing on the individual teacher, operating as independent contractors in their own classroom kingdom was born in the one room school house of America’s past.

    Almost all policy makers, administrators, and teachers were successful in this mold, but they hardly represent all kids, or even close. This model is comfortable for them because it is what they all know, and it worked for them.

    All RheeForm and market based deform is just a reactionary return to the mythical days when a lone hero could burst into the classroom and save all their kids. Then we can easily say, “Just be like that guy.”

    Real progressive reform realizes we can only get ahead when all teachers take on all kids in a school. No more of this “These are my kids, and I’m the only one who affects them” and “Those are your kids.” With even an instant of deep reflection you can see how silly and dysfunctional that it. But it feels so safe because it is what we know.

    Relying on a two hundred year old paradigm of teaching that has failed most kids is not reform. Teachers getting together to work together against the problems of all children works, but it is not flashy, speedy, or “safe”. It takes courage to get out of your classroom kingdom. RheeForm and market deform makes it even harder by separating us again.

  • Heidi says:

    December 21, 2011 at 11:03 am

    Labeling Michelle Rhee and others like her as the enemy is a mistake, and Michael Diedrich would seem to be making that point in his Stage 3.  We all want to see public education strengthened, and we all know that real reform is messy and difficult.  Let’s not demonize those people trying to tackle the problems that exist.  The assumption that all reformers are anti-teacher and anti-union gets us nowhere.

  • Alec Timmerman says:

    December 21, 2011 at 11:47 am

    Market based reforms put the profit motive ahead of the societal motive of an educated populace. The profit motive corrupts the societal motive. It’s good for making Nikes, not for making kids.

    Secondly, Rhee has left destruction everywhere in her wake. We need to change HOW we teach, not where we teach or how we are compensated. Reforming the classroom is different than reforming the human resources office.

    The market based reform model prioritizes and promotes a 200 year old model of how we teach that worked for folks in position of privilege, but not for most kids. Rhee-form promotes the isolated classroom teacher operating as an independent contractor in their own classroom kingdom.

    Real education reform reforms HOW we teach. It gets teachers out of their classroom isolation and working together, not against each other.

    Finally, after a decade of Rhee-form in D.C., their achievement gap is worst in the nation. I will fight market based reform and Rhee-form because it is bad for kids.

    reform the classroom, not the human resources office.

  • Anthony V. Manzo, PhD. says:

    February 4, 2012 at 4:16 am

    Alex is spot on, especially about Rhee. I have been working on step 2 of his sensible observations for over 40 years. Teacher Education is a myth that can easily be corrected to the benefit of the entire globe, and with an incidental but intentional peace dividend. The solution however is caught and crushed by all current interests since they were conceived and raised in a few hundred years of a misconception that convolutes everything it touches. Please look in on my full explanation and simple stage forward solution at:

    I have recently created a foundation to help us better identify and correct this convoluting force. The problem is that there is no core curriculum in teacher education, and no transparent system for identifying and vetting Best Instructional Practices. Pedagogic science might as well be in the 14th century. The current situation is institutionalized chaos wrapped in intentional ignorance and vested interests. You can look in on the foundation’s evolving effort at: