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Four Lessons for Better Ed Reform

March 18, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

As I’ve been watching education reform for the past few years, I’ve seen a few common mistakes repeated over and over again. Here, I’ve identified four connected lessons we’d do well to keep at the front of our mind when thinking about reform.

The Indicator Is Not the Problem

Let’s take as an example the frequent racial disparities in how schools enforce discipline. The major indicator that gets used to describe this is the suspension rate. Specifically, students of color -- especially African-American boys -- are suspended at much higher rates than white students. There is a good pile of evidence indicating that the actual differences in misbehavior are not nearly as intense as the differences in response.

Too often, districts respond by trying to make the indicator go away rather than fix the actual problem. In this case, it’s pretty simple: Ban suspensions. No suspensions means no racial disparities in suspension rates. Problem solved, right?

Nope. The suspension rate gap isn’t the real problem. The real problem is the difference in how students are treated. That difference, in turn, is driven by a variety of factors -- ambiguous discipline language, cultural differences that lead to misinterpretation of student conduct, inadequate proactive supports (and insufficient support staff) to help students before personal issues metastasize into misbehavior, and in some cases unchecked privilege or unconscious racism -- that need to be identified and addressed for the problem to be truly solved.

The More Weight Put on the Indicator, the Less It Represents the Problem

Misidentifying the indicator as the problem often leads to significant weight being attached to that indicator. Banning suspensions or offering bonus pay to principals that keep suspensions low are examples of weighting the indicator, not the problem. The more we weight the indicator, however, the less well it represents the problem. A system hasn’t fixed the problem if students are still subjected to differential treatment, even if no one is suspended.

Remembering Campbell’s Law is useful here. Articulated in 1976 by the social scientist Donald Campbell, it states, “The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” You can keep using the indicator, but it won’t mean what you think it means.

Successfully Address the Problem and the Indicator Will Reflect It

The flip side of this is that addressing the problem without corrupting the indicator will produce an authentic change in what the indicator shows. In the case of racial disparities for suspensions, a great example is Garfield High School in Los Angeles. There, not only were suspension rules clarified to address ambiguous language that opened the door for racially disparate treatment, but those changes were accompanied by teacher-inclusive schoolwide engagement on the issue. The results are striking. An occasional suspension still occurs, but at a much lower rate than before.

There’s also the case of Finland, which addressed its mediocre educational performance by increasing its teacher preparation quality, targeting a wide range of social and economic conditions that hurt student learning, and guaranteeing significant teacher autonomy. Notably absent was any significant weight attached to standardized tests. Finland’s performance on international tests rose dramatically. Other assessments, gauging the knowledge and skill of adult workers, also reflect a meaningful difference between the generations educated under the old system and those educated under the new one. The key was addressing the real problem, not obsessing about the indicator.

Model and Educate, Don’t Shame

When addressing problems of equity, it is vitally important that reforms not attempt to shame people into compliance. This is not driven by a concern for people’s sensitive feelings, but rather by an understanding of what will provide meaningful change. Consider the response of Harvard Business School to gender disparities in academic performance. Instead of hectoring professors to be less sexist, the school put trackers in classrooms to record professors’ patterns of calling on students. Professors were often surprised by how much more frequently they called on men than on women, and that judgment-free awareness led to changed behavior.

The inverse of this effect is also instructive. Research into the K-12 system has found that the teachers most concerned about appearing racist tend to grade students of color more leniently. By depriving students of accurate feedback, they wind up contributing to learning gaps. More shame won’t fix that problem. Instead, teachers need models and feedback of their own to help them keep improving. Most teachers are committed to improving their professional craft, but they need time and support to do so.


Too often, our attempts at education reform confuse indicators for problems. Overweighting the indicators makes them less useful, when a more direct focus on the real problem would produce an authentic change in the indicators. That direct focus needs to emphasize modeling and support rather than shame and punishment. All of this suggests we need to adjust our approach to education reform.

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  • Larry Walker says:

    May 29, 2014 at 12:50 pm

    A wonderfully thoughtful article that provides useful insight into effective change actions.