Education Reform Guide

In her “Diving into the Wreck,” the speaker of Adrienne Rich’s poem explains, “the sea is another story/the sea is not a question of power.” Critical response to this poem often includes some ambiguity about just what the wreck constitutes in the poem, but the speaker is clear about her purpose:

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done

The education reform debate, however, should be classified as a question of power, and that debate is not ambiguous about the wreck—U.S. public education. To understand the education reform debate in the twenty-first century, a guide appears necessary in order to provide foundational differences among competing narratives about the failures of public education and the policies recommended for overcoming those failures.

First, all reformers are driven by ideology, and thus, those ideologies color what evidence is highlighted, how that evidence is interpreted, and what role evidence plays in claims public education has failed and arguments about which policies are needed for reform.

Second, essentially no camp exists calling for no reform. If the history of education shows us anything, it is that education is a field characterized by both debate and the perpetual tension created by calls for reform (see Kliebard for a really fine examination of this perpetual tension).

Education reform camps fall into two broad categories—Mainstream and Radical—with two divisions within each broad category: Mainstream Reform includes bureaucratic reformers and technocratic reformers; Radical Reform includes libertarian reformers and critical reformers.

Historically and currently, Mainstream Reformers have most, if not all, of the power, and Radical Reformers (although the two divisions are diametrically opposite) share being at the margins. Finally, before detailing each of the four divisions of reformers, this guide is not intended to suggest any individual reformer is solely committed to any one division. In fact, many reformers either shift between camps or simply stand with a foot in each of two camps—notably within the broad Mainstream Reform category.

Mainstream Reform includes the following overlapping and dominant divisions:

Bureaucratic Reformers: Ideologically, bureaucratic reformers tend to self-identify as progressive and support public education as a civic and economic good. Bureaucratic reformers often claim public education’s failures are related to a lack or poor quality of structure: accreditation, certification, standards, and other organizing mechanisms must be reformed in order to improve education (and likely such reforms must always be conducted as the world always changes). Evidence for claims of failure tend to be measurable, quantitative data. Bureaucratic reformers embrace a bureaucratic ideal, borrowing both from government and corporate bureaucracy models to guide reform policy.

Technocratic Reformers: Ideologically, technocratic reformers tend to self-identify as conservative or traditional; they support public education as one but not as the sole mechanism for achieving an educated citizenry (and workforce) that drives a vibrant economy. Skeptical of “big” government, technocratic reformers draw on business models, free market ideology, and competition as larger policy commitments reinforced by technocratic structures such as institutional hierarchies, uniform standards, and perpetual measurement. Evidence for claims of public education failure is drawn from state-to-state and international rankings of test scores—as well as ideological skepticism of government monopolies—but the overriding concern about educational quality remains with how all educational options in the U.S. insure economic competitiveness.

Radical Reform includes the following overlapping and marginalized divisions:

Libertarian Reformers: Ideologically (and obviously), libertarian reformers self-identify as libertarian, or independent; they may tolerate public education if it remains within local control, but some hardline reformers seek to replace public education with a private system. For libertarian reformers public education fails de facto as a bureaucratic institution, a government entity. Evidence of that failure is often more strongly grounded in anti-government sentiment than empirical data, but libertarian reformers do seek evidence that public education outcomes support their distrust in government.

Critical Reformers*: Ideologically, critical reformers self-identify as critical, often avoiding the social stigma in the U.S. of identifying as Leftists or Marxists. Public education is cherished as a foundational commitment to democracy, community, and individual liberty. Skeptical of free market ideology and bureaucratic policy, critical reformers seek to change public education dramatically as a subset of wider social change—both driven by commitments to equity. Public education failures, then, are identified as reflecting and perpetuating inequity found in society. Evidence of those failures tend toward quantitative and qualitative data highlighting inequity among classes, races, and genders.

On an ideological/political scale, then, these four divisions run the spectrum from Left to Right as follows:

Critical ••• Bureaucratic ••• Technocratic ••• Libertarian

This guide, then, should serve practical purposes for navigating claims of educational failure and advocacy of reform policy. First, in order to assess the credibility of claims of public education failure and offers of educational reform, we should evaluate the internal consistency of the reformer: Does the reform address a valid claim of failure? And how is all of that shaded by the ideological grounding?

Next, recognizing in a somewhat dispassionate way that all reform comes from an ideological grounding helps distinguish how we determine the credibility of the reformer and the reform policies: Are we rejecting/embracing the ideology or the policy efficacy?

Regardless, then, of how accurate anyone believes this guide is, I would maintain that step one is to acknowledge that “educational reformer” is insufficient alone as an identifier and that ideology drives all claims of educational failure and calls for reform. As a result, for example, support or criticism of Common Core must be examined first upon the ideological basis of the support or criticism. Understanding ideological grounding helps us confront that CC criticism tends be among critical and libertarian reformers who disagree strongly with each other about the reasons for rejecting CC.

This guide seeks to raise the debate above simple claims of “reform” or even basic stances of “for” or “against” X policy.

And like the speaker in Rich’s poem, acknowledging these ideological tensions may help us all look more closely at the wreck and not as much at each other:

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth


Please see How to Make Sense out of Educational Reform, Jack Hassard‘s expansion on this post.

* Full disclosure, while I have sought to make a fair and clear attempt at identifying these four categories, as a critical reformer myself, I concede and even embrace my ideology, which is a foundational characteristic of being critical. I am neither being objective nor able to do so. Instead, I have tried to be careful and accurate—and transparent.

11 thoughts on “Education Reform Guide”

    1. You jumble “reformers” and “reform.” All reformers (the people themselves) are ideological in their motivations, their perceptions of evidence, their perception of solutions—that is a fact and an unavoidable condition of being human. My point is we must acknowledge those ideological groundings when determining the quality of claims of school failure and calls for reform. No hasty generalizations there.

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