Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

The Rhetoric of Reform

September 18, 2013 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

Our education system needs to change. Pretty much everybody agrees on that statement. Why and how does the system need to change? That's where the disagreement occurs.

Oftentimes when I engage on issues of education reform, I do so in terms of policy. Today, though, I'd like to dive into how we discuss reform. The words and frames we use to rally, persuade, and challenge others shape our understanding not just of the issues at stake but of the people we're interacting with.

Here are a few of the frames I see on a regular basis:


This is an affirmative, aspirational frame. You can see it from Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst organization (“Every child, regardless of their zip code, deserves to attend a great school.”) and from the American Federation of Teachers (“...a union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and our communities.”)

The Justice Frame both implies – accurately, in most estimations – that the status quo is unjust. It provides a sense of direction going forward, which is important. Few would argue that we should seek more justice for children, which gives this frame the potential to be both unifying and forward-looking.


Whenever you see a change justified because “our schools have the biggest achievement gap in the country,” you're seeing the Shame frame in action. What distinguishes Shame from Justice? Justice seeks a positive end, while Shame is about avoiding or minimizing failure.

When the National Council on Teacher Quality released a report on teacher preparation programs, its aim was to shame those programs into better performance. The impulse to label schools or teachers as failing often (though not always) originates from the Shame frame. By placing the blame for injustice on a few practitioners, the privileged can absolve ourselves from the Shame of our collective failure to achieve equity for all.

Unfortunately, while Shame can be motivating, it provides even less direction than Justice. Anything that promises to reduce Shame will be seized upon. It also has a tendency to provoke resistance more often than reflection or action. We could do with less Shame-oriented rhetoric in education.


The most common examples of the Fear frame in education policy revolve around how the U.S. ranks in comparison to other countries. This Fear has been with us for a long time. We spent most of the Cold War worrying about how our students measured up to the Soviet Union on math and science. In fact, whenever someone has released standardized test results comparing countries, the U.S. has tended towards the middle of the pack. That's one reason why Fear is an evergreen rationale for why schools need to change. Perhaps the most famous example, of course, is 1983's “A Nation at Risk” report, which framed our educational problems as a national security crisis.

Whether its economics or national security, Fear operates much like Shame; we want to make it go away. Like Shame, it doesn't provide any particular direction, and so it is also susceptible to the same, “I'll try anything to make things different,” tendency.


At it's best, this is the default frame of the technocrat. It's less about increasing justice or reducing shame and fear; it's more about whether or not things “work.” The system we have right now doesn't work according to Measures X, Y, and Z, so it's time to change things with the goal of increasing those measures.

At it's worst, this is a frame of inconsistency and impatience. Change with an end in mind becomes change for change's sake. We can see hints of this from, for example, the aptly named Chiefs for Change, “a coalition of state school chiefs and leaders who share a zeal for education reform. Together, they provide a strong voice for bold reform on the federal, state and local level.” Note that the energy is for “reform” more than for any higher value. When Change becomes an end unto itself, we risk overlooking the slower kinds of progress that come, not from quick patches, but from deep, small-c change.


This is the frame that sets in when education reform stops being about the students and becomes about overthrowing the Powers That Be. Whether it's “the education establishment” (a.k.a. “the blob” or “the status quo”) or the forces of privatization, people who enter education to promote Justice, quash Shame, overcome Fear, or seek Change can get caught up in the romantic cause of Revolution.

The Revolution frame can be an appropriate complement to genuine grassroots action. I'd rather see grassroots action organized in the interest of Justice, though, than in an overly romanticized pursuit of glorious Revolution.

You may have noticed that none of these offer a policy prescription. That's because the rhetoric we use to justify our work – as well as our genuine motivation – rarely implies a particular policy. I offer this analysis so all of us will be a little more cautious about adopting Policy A simply because someone else claims that it is Just, or will reduce our Shame or our Fear, or because we need Change or a Revolution.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Kevin Edberg says:

    September 23, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    This was a useful and needed piece.
    We have way too much blah-blah and yap-yap about change, and too little effort going into mutual understanding of and agreement around the specific approaches to obtain outcomes we desire.

    While I’m at it…
    We have too little discussion and understanding about the roles of parents/families/others in fostering education and mental stimulation outside the school and outside the school day.  We also would all benefit with a reminder of, and perhaps a primer about, the very real dynamics of developmental human psychology. 

    Human brains are fascinating and wonderful things, but they don’t all develop at the same rates or in the same ways.  But they are almost always working, observing the world, acquiring information, and creating meanings. “Learning” goes on 24/7/365, not just during a 6 hour school day in a 172 day school year, and this gets in the way of so much of our discussion about education and public/private investment.  Policies that focus on constant testing and over-measuring achievements (especially at younger ages) are popular as measures of “accountability”, and make nice sound bites in several of the framings described above. But they fail to address the way “learning” takes place. If we all stepped back for a moment and thought about that, we’d have some better conversations about how to discuss policy and frame more reasonable change discussions.