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Your Ed Reform To-Do List

November 05, 2013 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

One of the things that confounded me when I first jumped into debates about education reform was how quick people were to dismiss those who disagreed with them as tools of the status quo. I’ve yet to meet a progressive happy with the status quo of education, so where was this assertion coming from? I now think it’s because we each carry our own to-do lists for reform, and if my priorities don’t match with someone else’s, they see me as not caring about “true reform.”

Part of the current drama comes from the fact that our goals have shifted in the past three decades or so. An old to-do list in the U.S. might have included items like this:

  1. Expand access to education to more middle class white boys.
  2. Expand access to education to more middle class white girls.
  3. Expand access to education to poor white children.
  4. Expand access to education to some children of color.
  5. Expand access to education for all children.
  6. Expand education to include high school for all children.
  7. Desegregate education.

In other words, the question has been, “Who gets to go to school for how long, and with whom?” In more recent years, the questions have become, “How do we provide a world-class education to all students?” This has shifted our focus from inputs to outcomes, and led in its first stages to a reform approach focused on changing the rules and incentives of education.

That approach -- the systems change approach -- is based on the hypothesis that the rules and structures of our school system are not appropriate for reaching our new goal of educational equity. This is not an unreasonable hypothesis, seeing as how those rules and structures were built during different times to meet different needs. The systems change approach can come from many different places: faith in the power of markets, distrust of districts or unions, and pursuit of racial or economic equity, to name a few. This is why you can find both conservatives and progressives signing on to many aspects of the systems change approach.

While each systems change reformer will have their own personal to-do list, a typical one might look something like this:

  1. Promote charter schools to give families more choice in where their children go to school.
  2. Change the pay and retention rules for teachers to focus on outputs like test scores rather than inputs like experience.
  3. Give principals more power to hire and fire staff.
  4. Give parents more power in the form of “parent trigger” rules that let them compel a change to charter status.
  5. Give early childhood centers an incentive to improve through the use of rating systems and scholarships.
  6. Promote school vouchers to give families more choice in where their children go to school.
  7. Give individual schools and districts more power to set the length of their school days and years.

Not all systems change reformers support all of these points, but all these ideas come from a similar perspective that the biggest problems in education are its rules and power structure.

There is a different approach, however. It is still rooted in the goals of educational equity, but it starts with the hypothesis that the biggest problems in education stem from a lack of school and community capacity.

A capacity builder’s to-do list might look something like this:

  1. Invest in human capacity by raising teacher salaries and creating mentorship programs to help new teachers thrive and stay in the profession.
  2. Invest in material capacity by ensuring that each school has the tools and facilities it needs to promote student learning.
  3. Invest in skill capacity by creating more supports for educators to take charge of their professional development.
  4. Invest in human capacity by providing each school with enough counselors, nurses, social workers, librarians, and other staff to meet each child’s whole set of needs.
  5. Invest in material and skill capacity by giving educators time and support to truly integrate technology into new curricula in meaningful ways.
  6. Invest in community capacity by supporting parent-teacher partnership programs that help schools and families collaborate.
  7. Invest in community capacity by doing more to guarantee families’ housing, income, and health security.

The thing about to-do lists is that everybody has one of their own. Your list may very well contain priorities from each of the lists above, or that I haven’t brought up yet. There may be little to no overlap between your personal list and mine, and even if we had the same items, we might not prioritize them the same way.

The real point of all this is to be aware that each person has his or her own to-do list, and that the person may have come to it from any number of perspectives. Just because it’s different from yours doesn’t mean it comes from a nefarious place. We should by all means disagree vigorously, but can we please drop the idea that disagreement with one list means support for the status quo?

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  • Arthur Dorman says:

    November 13, 2013 at 10:48 am

    This is a very important point ... there is not one “right” path to education reform.  A corollary could be that the path one advocates for might be strongly influenced by what they see as the goals of education.  Is it primarily to support economic outcomes, is it to help all students grow into self-actualized adults, is it to create an equitable society, is it to safeguard a participatory democracy?  Again, all good aims, and not mutually exclusive .. but we tend to see initiatives focused primarily on one goal.  That may be the practical way of getting something done, but we should be careful not to forget that other goals are also at play.

  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    November 13, 2013 at 11:26 am

    Your first list (typical system change reform) is a blueprint for the weakening of public schools throughout the country.  The “reformers” led by such as Education Secretary Arne Duncan find ways to make teachers and schools seem to be “failing.”  The teachers must be gotten rid of; the schools must be closed and replaced by privately managed but publicly financed charters that may carry an agenda different from that of most parents. 

    If America is to choose between the two lists, the one on capacity building MUST be its choice.