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The Fatal Flaw Of Education Reform

In the most simplistic portrayal of the education policy landscape, one of the “sides” is a group of people who are referred to as “reformers." Though far from monolithic, these people tend to advocate for test-based accountability, charters/choice, overhauling teacher personnel rules, and other related policies, with a particular focus on high expectations, competition and measurement. They also frequently see themselves as in opposition to teachers’ unions.

Most of the “reformers” I have met and spoken with are not quite so easy to categorize. They are also thoughtful and open to dialogue, even when we disagree. And, at least in my experience, there is far more common ground than one might expect.

Nevertheless, I believe that this “movement” (to whatever degree you can characterize it in those terms) may be doomed to stall out in the long run, not because their ideas are all bad, and certainly not because they lack the political skills and resources to get their policies enacted. Rather, they risk failure for a simple reason: They too often make promises that they cannot keep.

I acknowledge that I am generalizing here, as there are countless exceptions, but one needn't look very far to notice a tendency in “reformer” circles to sell their policy prescriptions by promising the kind of short- and medium-term results that most education policies, no matter how well-designed and implemented, simply cannot deliver. School quality is important, it can be improved, and even small improvements can make a big difference. But it is critical to maintain a level head regarding the magnitude and speed of impacts. We as a nation must be prepared for the long haul, and there is a thin line between ambitious goals and unrealistic promises.

Sometimes, the inflated expectations are stated explicitly. For example, in 2010, then-Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Michelle Rhee predicted that her district would be the highest performing in the nation within five years. Several years ago, the U.S. Education Department (USED) announced a plan to "turn around" 1,000 schools every year for five consecutive years, thus giving rise to entities such as the Achievement School District in Tennessee, which promises to “move the bottom 5% of schools to the top 25% within five years." USED is now reaping what it has sown.

Alas, these are not isolated incidents. The public is peppered with unrealistic promises or plans to “close the achievement gap” within ridiculously short periods of time, slogans such as “college for all," and talking points, such as the ubiquitous “fire the bottom teachers” illustration, that imply the potential for huge short-term improvements.

And, of course, there was the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which included a provision by which the vast majority of students were required/expected to score above proficiency cutoffs in math and reading within just over a decade, barely enough time for a cohort of students to cycle through the K-12 system. Although this goal is now generally viewed as having been a fantasy, there are still several states banking on near-universal proficiency, and any state that attempts to be more grounded in setting new benchmarks risks criticism.

(Making things worse, the manner in which performance and improvement are measured is usually inappropriate.)

Often, however, the unrealistic promises are more implicit, and their impact more insidious (and threatening to the policymaking process). Policies are hastily adopted and implemented, without proper time for planning and piloting, based on the incredibly short-sighted argument that "we cannot wait." Interventions are frequently criticized or even terminated if they don't show test-based results within a few short years. The bar for schools’ and districts’ increases in aggregate student performance is often set so high that even meaningful but moderate improvements fail to receive attention. Superintendents (and principals) in large urban districts are to no small extent judged based not on how well they do their complex jobs, but rather on whether there are massive increases in testing outcomes during their (often rather short) tenures.

I can appreciate the need to avoid complacency. I also understand that over-promising is common among advocates who wish to enact policy change - it's difficult to get people excited about modest, gradual improvement. And it takes courage even to try.

However, as unfortunate as this may be, real progress at the aggregate level is slow and measured. It occurs over decades, not years. Furthermore, large-scale education policies often take many years to show effects. Much of the impact of successful education reforms is intergenerational.

Every time advocates promise the sprint rather than the marathon, they are doing a disservice not only to their cause, but also to the public. Encouraging people to expect the impossible is really not that much better than telling them to expect nothing.

- Matt Di Carlo


I'm reminded of the parent trigger promises here in California. When the idea was introduced, Parent Revolution had a YouTube video that promised a high-performing charter school could turn around any school that gathered signatures of the majority of parents in a low-performing school. They pulled or revised that video early on. There was debate about how many schools would be eligible for parent trigger efforts and the limit was eventually set at 75 schools; to date, I think about six schools have been affected, and fewer that went all the way through the process. And in one case, parents "triggered" the firing of a principal, only to see nearly every teacher transfer out in protest. Parent triggers may someday turn out to be significant in education policy writ large. I think the backers of the movement overestimate parents' desire to play hardball with their kids' schools; they likely would have been surprised if, at the time the CA law passed, we could forecast that parents would use the "trigger" at a rate under two schools per school year.

Matt, I would only add this: there is another "group", probably as loosely defined as you note are the "reformers", and these are what we might call the 'innovators". They do not believe the answer lies in more tests, but a flip back to the progressive ideas of Dewey et al, aligning the critical skills and habits our students will need in their futures with curriculum, pedagogy, and practice in schools. What I have found in my work (just published in #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education) is that schools that move aggressively and intentionally into innovation mode can make some remarkable progress in a very short period of time. Does this progress show up on bubble tests? Maybe so, but that is not the point. There is certainly no evidence that students learn less well when they are allowed to pursue their passions, and they are certainly more likely to evidence those critical "21st Century" skills if we actually emphasize them in school.

1. Good post. Well said. And I say that as someone who'd at least partially fit into your ed reform definition. Would be better to under-promise and over-deliver. 2. However... Though far from monolithic, ed reform opponents tend to advocate for universal pre-K, class size reduction, higher teacher salaries, "solving poverty," neighborhood schools, etc. I suspect it wouldn't take too much energy to make a list of prominent advocates mentioning these things which are "peppered with unrealistic promises." 3. The most obvious middle -- both sides trying to generate real breakthroughs with their approaches, giving the "other side" some room to try to improve theirs -- is politically impossible at this moment. Which is too bad. There's more than enough "Achievement Gap" to go around.

You are right, reformers aren't monolithic. I talk with a lot of them from all perspectives. You are also right, "reform" is headed for a fall and it can't keep either its extreme promises or many or most of their other promises. In my conversations, most individual reformers reject policies like value-added evaluations, and the big majority admit that testing is out of control. But, few believe that their organizations are ready to listen or change. So, given the diversity of individual reformers, why is it that reform organizations still seem unwilling to budge? My hypothesis is that accountability-driven reform has morphed into corporate reform. They can't break ranks until the Billionaires Boys Club blinks. As has often been said, you can't implement Common Core, value-added evals, and their other highstakes testing policies at the same time. So, their trainwreck is coming. Its so sad. If they would agree to stop attaching stakes to standardized tests, we could come together for the next, completely different,era of reform. Job #1 must be driving a stake through the heart of the testing vampire. We can't ease up on our opposition until they concede that point. I honestly hate to say this. Reform is on the ropes. I'd like to move on to a collaborative set of win win solutions. But, they don't believe they can back off from the punish side of their reward and punish policies. So, the best way to help students is to go for the K.O. Only then, can a new generation of reforms create more humane and engaging schools.

Mike G, I appreciate your argument but I think you're wrong. I pay close attention to the ed reform debate and, while many reform opponents advocate certain approaches for improvement, I can't think of a single instance of them advocating their preferred policies by overpromising miraculous results. In fact I perceive the opposite: measured assurances that insist upon realistic goals. You might be able to point to concrete examples that prove me wrong, but I actually believe much of the readon an "anti-reform" movement even exists is because practitioners are actively trying to protect themselves from being labeled as failures over their inability to meet impossible demands. It is largely imo a standoff between smooth-talking salespeople, politicians, and ideas people versus the boots on the ground. The teachers have little interest in setting themselves up to fail.

John K, A. Appreciate your comment. Hmm. I suppose we could both Google away and compare lists. I tend to see a lot of stuff like this. "What would it 'really' take to close Achievement Gap?" B. In fairness, I've noticed 2 things about Matt's larger point of over-promising. 1. Sometimes the reporters make the larger claim, not the scholar or advocate. 2. In the phrase "X will close the Achievement Gap"...the word "close" can be reasonably interpreted 2 ways: One would be "Fully close the gap." The other would be "Narrow the gap." Sometimes this lack of precision contributes to the sense of over-promising.

I understand your concern with unrealistic promises. But I don't understand what you are suggesting as an alternative. You seem to be in favor of implementation of practices that might bring modest, gradual improvement in education outcomes. That sounds reasonable. But just how gradual? How would we tell? If there is a group of people called "reformers" then I would argue that there is another group of people called "the establishment". These people tend to advocate for changes that involve large increases in government spending on existing institutions that follow historic practices, with no commitment to any change in outcomes at all, and no penalties for any failures. A marathon is a better analogy for K-12 education than a sprint. But a marathon where there are no performance targets and neither rewards nor penalties is no way to improve things at all.

I often wonder if some of these so called "reformers" are really concerned about improving public education or seeing it fail so that private sources may profit. Just a thought! Has anyone ever studied the connection between Bill Gates and Arne Duncan?

These kind of promises cannot be kept if there is no buy in from the adults in a child's life. Normally called parents. Parents are significant factor in the quality of schools and yet we refuse to engage many of them.

Good post, but a few points to add: 1) It is, in fact, possible to deliver the results they've promised - on a limited scale. The selection and attrition policies at charters allow them to show results. That's why they are doing it. But they won't admit it, and neither will people who hold up those charters as an example. So it's hard to engage in the next discussion - whether it's better to save some poor kids' education now, or wait until that hopeful future day when we're willing to address the poverty and inequality for all kids. 2) Which begs the questions of the implications of all this, as others have suggested. What do we do? Gradual adjustments from the status quo are not going to get results. Telling families with more support for their kids that they can't have charters, because we need to solve poverty and inequality first, isn't a fair response. Yes, it would be a fine day if we could have the resources to address the challenges that kids living with poverty bring into their classrooms. That's not happening anytime soon. Let's discuss our real options, not the pie in the sky. And let's discuss what's really going on.


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