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The Cycle of Education Reform

Jordan Catapano

Those who have been in education for long enough know the familiar trend of reform: “Adopt, Attack, Abandon.”

This pithy phrase captures the cycle of education reform. First, an idea or objective is adopted; then there is confusion and skepticism in the implementation leading to growing naysayers; finally the plan is abandoned and replaced with something new. Education researcher Richard DuFour remarks that after the “inevitable implementation problems” with a new education reform, “The conclusion that the reform has failed to bring about the desired results … and the launch of a new search for the next promising initiative” follows.

But why is this? Why does education reform seem to work in trends and cycles? And does this actually bring about reform, or just the appearance of reform? And what, if anything, can we teachers do about it?

Where Education Reform Originates

Changes in education typically appear from one of four places: The government, the schools/organizations, the community, or the teachers. At any given time, each of these stakeholders possesses the opportunity to make modifications to the way education is conducted. What’s interesting is that during discussions about “Who has the right to make decisions about education,” each of these stakeholders has strong arguments for being at the helm of educational decisions. Conflict arises, however, when views and objectives between these stakeholders fail to align. Thus begins the cycle.

Often the largest reform proposals come from the top down. Well-intended individuals in government at the state or federal level issue mandates or incentives designed to raise standards for students. But – as teachers might easily point out – these politicians and departments are not at the ground level of education where they see how their initiatives are played out. Recent additions to the national battery of initiatives include No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Race to the Top, and the Common Core State Standards. These programs endeavor to bring students from all across the country up to a demanding set of standards and try to hold teachers and schools accountable – but have these worked in a way that schools, teachers, and communities like?

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The government has a vested interest in education – as do we all – for the long-term well-being of our society. As worried politicians examine international test scores, they note that U.S. students lag behind nearly two dozen other nations in math, science, and reading. That’s no laughing matter, and many in government at the state and national levels feel that if they have the power to do something about education, then they must.

Reform does not strictly originate in the hands of idealistic government leaders. Although many of the most ambitious and large-scale initiatives originate at the political level, many reforms occur at the local and organizational level as well. As school and community leaders set new objectives or re-examine their resources and methods, they plot for shifts in how education will be implemented. Teachers, too, can implement change when they take the reins on specific aspects of how they teach. When groups of teachers work together to initiate change, we can have a bottom-up approach to reform.

Why Reforms Break Down or Change

Professors at the Harvard School of Education lament “The press to quickly push good ideas into large-scale use rarely delivers promised outcomes.” They go on to state that we consistently fail to “Appreciate what it actually takes to make some promising idea work” and that our failure to achieve dramatic positive results causes us to cyclically “just move on to the next reform idea.” We see this to be true the longer we stay in the field of education. It takes a serious amount of time to effectively plan the complex logistics of an initiative, get people on board, pilot a program, and then implement it over a larger scale. Unfortunately, as people and positions shift in the tides of education, our patience wanes for effective solutions.

Disagreement on Which Reform to Adopt: One of the largest reasons why reforms fail to reach efficacy is because individuals at each level of education don’t agree on what constitutes for an effective reform. As some individuals push for larger federal incentives, standards, and accountability, others decry such a nationalized approach and prefer state and local control. As some support teacher unions, others vilify them. As some favor value-added measurements for teacher evaluations, detractors see these as unrealistic. As some suggest rolling back the frequency of high-stakes testing, others insist upon the necessity of such methods. Even at smaller levels, the ability to build a consensus on what works is extremely challenging. Where some teachers or school leaders support a particular change, you’ll find just as many who oppose it.

No Opportunity to Make Personal Meaning: Another common problem contributing to reform cycles is that stakeholders have difficulty making personal meaning of the implemented reform. No matter where the reform originates, other parties may not feel a sense of personal ownership and responsibility. If a top-down initiative from the government produces new mandates for schools, those schools will likely feel that this impersonal, one-size-fits-all mandate is something “The boss told us to do” rather than something the school is actually excited about implementing. The same is true with teachers: If the organization institutes a new focus or policy without teachers’ input, then the policy will feel like something they have to do rather than something they want to do. Unless all stakeholders – from government officials to school leadership to teachers to communities to students – all have a chance to contribute to the conversation and make personal meaning out of the reform, it is not a reform that is designed to thrive.

Only those reforms that consist of careful planning, group consensus, and universal personal meaning are the reforms that will last. But is it too idealistic to look for these things?

What Teachers Can Do in the Face of Cyclical Reform

When it comes down to it, a teacher is just one person, just one piece of the puzzle in the enormous picture of education. Education at any level is an ultra-complex system with a diverse array of demands, expectations, objectives, standards, techniques, changes, opportunities, and challenges. What can a teacher realistically do?

Be the Rock: No matter what trends are part of the current cycle of reform, nothing changes the fact that teachers are where the rubber meets the road. Teachers are the boots on the ground in education. Before you get frustrated with the condition of education, take a step back and realize how much power your actually have in the situation. Nothing (nearly) gets to your students except through you. So continue to be your best, so that your students get the most benefit from your presence every day.

Have a Voice: While we teach our students to display confidence, articulation, creativity, and collaboration, we too need to assume these characteristics. We are not mute, but rather have an important voice that needs to be heard in the progress of education. Wherever the conversation on education is taking place – on blogs, at your school board, during elections, or even at your local coffee shop – be a professional advocate for positive change.

Make Meaning: Remember that no matter what the reform is, it won’t be fully realized until teachers make personal meaning out of it. This means that they own it, take personal responsibility for it, and do what it takes to see that it happens. This doesn’t mean you have to love every aspect of change, but as a teacher part of what we do is roll with the changes that do come.

Take Personal Responsibility for Students and Self: It’s easy to get fed up with what we can’t control. But focus on what you can control and double-down your efforts in those areas. If you can improve in some areas of your teaching, then do what it takes to improve. If your students are falling behind in certain areas, do what it takes to help them along. We can’t control the world, and sometimes it feels like we can’t control our classrooms … but at least we can control ourselves, and that’s where we begin.

The cycle of reform will inevitably continue. As much as we might hope for universal consensus, perfect logistics, and personal meaning, we’ll never achieve those things. Answers that elude others might seem obvious to us, and new reforms might seem ideal to some while ludicrous to us. Whatever stage in the cycle we’re at, we have to remember that there are students in our classroom waiting to see what we’ll do for them. So regardless of what is or is not taking shape in the larger education picture, let’s at least roll up our sleeves and do what we can to ensure that those students entrusted to us are given the best of what we have to offer every day.

What do you think about cyclical reform in education? What can we do as teachers in light of it?

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.