Friday, August 19, 2011

The Paradox of Education Reform

by Jeff Gregg & Diana Underwood-Gregg — July 22, 2011

The “standards-based” K-12 educational reform movement began in the late 1980s and continues today. The original goals of most sets of content standards included an altered form of classroom practice. Educational researchers devoted great effort to developing inquiry-oriented instructional materials and professional development models to support the reform efforts. Although there have been pockets of reform success in some schools and districts, large-scale evaluations of reform efforts indicate that the influence of these efforts on classroom practice and student achievement have been uneven at best. It is our contention that reformers’ focus on changing classroom practice is misguided. The standards movement has been hijacked by a “business-scientific” view of schooling that assumes the purpose of education is to prepare students to compete in the global economy. The concepts of assessment and accountability associated with this purpose in the business-scientific view inhibit reform. Researchers committed to reform need to recognize the inherently political nature of reform and work toward a renegotiation of the overarching purpose of education. This also means attending to the consequences of that purpose for school governance, assessment, and accountability.

Education reform has never been far from the national agenda in the United States going back at least as far as the late 1950s. Recently, each incoming president has claimed to be an “education president” and has asserted that reforming the education system is crucial to the United States maintaining its privileged standing in the world.

What impact have these reform efforts had? They have introduced new educational jargon—“new math,” “discovery learning,” “critical thinking,” “whole language,” “back-to-basics,” “standards-based practice.” Textbooks have changed to keep current with the reform efforts, although sometimes this amounts to no more than pasting a sheet that demonstrates alignment inside the front cover, while the content and approach of the text remains unchanged. In spite of these cosmetic changes, there is ample evidence to suggest that what occurs inside classrooms has changed very little over the past one hundred years.

Many researchers have offered explanations for the failure of earlier reform efforts to significantly affect classroom practice. To name a few, these explanations include: 1) individual teacher characteristics (e.g., lack of pedagogical content knowledge, traditional beliefs about the nature of subject matter knowledge, how it should be taught, and how children learn); 2) the structural and organizational features of schools, and the myriad of students, activities, and often conflicting goals with which teachers must cope; 3) state and national policies that emphasize high-stakes testing at the expense of substantive learning; and 4) societal beliefs and values about the nature of schooling and the purpose of education that may contribute to political resistance.

In the late 1980s, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Standards documents were developed with the goals of changing the notion of what school mathematics is and how it might be taught. There was an underlying constructivist emphasis on helping students make sense out of mathematics, rather than memorizing different procedures for solving different types of problems. We have been in elementary school math classrooms where, as a result of grassroots reform efforts compatible with the Standards, students asked each other questions, did not rely on their teacher to tell them if their answers were right or wrong, took responsibility for explaining and justifying their thinking, and used thinking strategies to construct sophisticated mathematical relationships. Such classrooms are truly inspiring. It is natural for reformers to pursue a goal of replicating a vision of these classrooms on a large scale.

Perhaps in an effort to increase their apparent significance, the NCTM Standards piggybacked on economic concerns to suggest that the learning that they would promote would equip students for jobs in a high-tech, global economy. The initial impact of the Standards was limited in terms of influencing school mathematics, but they did help to initiate a standards movement that saw the development of academic standards in most K-12 subject matter areas. Standards quickly became a political object, with states competing to have the highest-ranked standards and hiring standards-writing consultants. The goal of helping students make sense out of mathematics was subsumed by the top-down goal of developing rigorous, “world-class” standards that would produce students who would secure their own, the states’, and the nation’s economic future.

We have come to believe that a primary focus on transforming classroom practice is misguided. Regarding the promise of school reform, Sarason (1995) wrote:

My present point of view is suffused with pessimism if only because for the past thirty years I have seen no signs that reformers (and, therefore, the public) have started with a reexamination of the purposes for schooling. More correctly, they start with the present structure and seek to make it do what it patently cannot do and has never done. (p. 125)

Both bottom-up and top-down approaches to reform have taken the existing structure of the educational system for granted. Thus, the reform efforts amount to no more than tinkering (Tyack & Cuban, 1997). Even the systemic reform efforts supported by the National Science Foundation were tinkering—they simply tried to tinker with all parts of the system at once, but they did not question the overall system or its organization. Sarason suggested that reform begin with a renegotiation of the overarching purpose of schooling and a corresponding change in school governance structure. This should also include a corresponding change in approach to assessment and accountability.

The largely taken-for-granted belief that the purpose of schooling is to prepare students for college and the workforce, thereby enabling the U.S. to maintain a dominant world position economically and militarily, stems from what we call a “business-scientific” view of schooling.  This business-scientific view supports the development of “rigorous” standards of production and statistical quality control (via standardized tests). This view underlies state and national policies on standards, testing, and adequate yearly progress. Aside from the grouping of students into classes and allotment of time to different subjects and activities (i.e., structural regularities), school and district policies related to covering the standards and preparing for standardized tests are those that most impact teachers.

The economic purpose is driving policymakers’ attempts to reform schools. It is our contention that any reform effort based on the premise that “the purpose of education is to prepare students to compete in a global economy” has already started on a path destined to repeat the failures of previous reforms. A purpose stated in this way suggests that policymakers have, to borrow Nicholls and Hazzard’s (1993) metaphor, already determined the destination and will soon be specifying the travel schedule—an approach that has characterized education for many years.

The business-scientific view of schooling generally does not consider ethical issues related to decisions about curricula and pedagogy. What are the ethical dimensions of role relationships between teachers and students, between teachers and parents, between teachers and administrators, between school personnel and politicians and business leaders? In our opinion, it is unethical to base educational decisions on reductionist assessment strategies that “prove” one method of instruction is better than another or that one school or teacher has done a better job than another. By employing such strategies, the business-scientific view reduces learning to a technical exercise and suppresses inquisitiveness, creativity, and an appreciation of what one has learned.

Recently, Hess, Manno, and Meeks (2011) have acknowledged the possibility of structural changes to enable reform. Unfortunately, they accept the economic purpose of education without question—education in their view is equated with job training—and they appear to rely on traditional methods of assessment and fail to consider how alterations in structure may affect accountability relationships. Thus, their framework may open markets for educational entrepreneurs, broaden the array of educational “services” offered, and support the privatization of education, but it will not affect teacher-student role relationships (e.g., promote students’ intellectual autonomy), students’ motivation for learning (e.g., task-involvement vs. ego-involvement), or students’ conception of a discipline (e.g., a set of facts, rules, and procedures vs. a way of thinking about and making sense of the world).

We must ask why do many educational researchers ignore the political context that frames their work? By doing so, their work remains largely an academic exercise in futility. That may be too strong. In many cases, their work may reach several thousand teachers and students. But in terms of large-scale reform, the impact is minimal. The response will be that politics is not the domain of educational researchers. But no one else is fighting on their behalf. Politicians typically hold a dim view of educational researchers, believing their research is “mumbo jumbo” as one current governor recently described it (Howey, 2009) or believing that educational research is biased. Or, true to the business-scientific mindset, they will only accept “objective” results provided by randomized comparative experiments.

Why are organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics so willing to get behind the Common Core State Standards as if this “improved” set of standards will somehow make a difference? From the business-scientific perspective, the recommendations for action to support the Common Core State Standards (NCTM, 2011) seem reasonable. However, from a different perspective, it is difficult to understand how educational leaders could commit to an enterprise that accepts that the purpose of schooling is to prepare students to compete in a global economy, that accepts the current governance structure of schools, that accepts traditional notions of accountability and assessment, and whose impact, therefore, will be minimal.

Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. He might as well have been talking about our ongoing attempts to reform K-12 education.

Paradoxically, if reformers want to affect classroom practice, they must give up trying to affect classroom practice. Instead, they must engage in political struggle to challenge existing ideas about the purpose of education and work toward a reconceptualization of this purpose. They must address the consequences of a reconceptualized purpose for school governance, assessment, and accountability. This will not be an easy task. The defining power rests with business leaders and politicians and the business-scientific view of schooling is increasingly accepted without question.


Hess, F., Manno, B., & Meeks, O. (2011, April 28). From whole school solutions to customized services: Shifting the focus from supply to demand in K-12 reform. Teachers College Record. Retrieved June 20, 2011 from

Howey, B. (2009, July). Daniels’ education “revolution” next week [Blog post]. Retrieved July 14, 2011 from

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2011). Report of priorities identified and actions taken in response to the recommendations of the joint task force on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) commissioned by AMTE, ASSM, NCSM and NCTM. Retrieved July 8, 2011 from

Nicholls, J. G., & Hazzard, S. P. (1993). Education as adventure: Lessons from the second grade. New York: Teachers College Press.

Sarason, S. B. (1995). School change: The personal development of a point of view. New York: Teachers College Press.

Tyack, D., & Cuban, L. (1997). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.


  • Jeff Gregg
    Purdue University Calumet
    E-mail Author
    JEFF GREGG is an Associate Professor of Mathematics Education at Purdue University Calumet. He teaches mathematics and mathematics education courses. He is interested in the historical, social, and political contexts of education reform. His recent work focuses on identifying tensions and contradictions that characterize mathematics education reform efforts.
  • Diana Underwood-Gregg
    Purdue University Calumet
    E-mail Author
    DIANA UNDERWOOD-GREGG is an Associate Professor of Mathematics Education at Purdue University Calumet. She teaches mathematics education content and methods courses. She is interested in instructional activity design and teacher professional development. She is the Director of the Purdue Calumet Center for Mathematics Teaching and Learning.

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