Why Reform Produces No Changes

Educational reform tends to follow a cycle that is familiar to many: First, an initiative (supported with little or dubious evidence from the learning sciences) is introduced and implemented (with little or dubious support and rationale). Second, problems with the initiative appear. These can originate from poor or incomplete implementation or support, discrepancies between the practices and human nature, or other difficulties. Third, the initiative is recognized as failing, but remains in place (or is replaced with previously used methods under the vocabulary of the initiative). Fourth, a new initiative replaced the old and the cycle repeats. Frequently the choice of next initiative and the time devoted to any initiative depends on the availability of grants to support the work. Following this model of reform, educators can appear to be working to improve curriculum and instruction while avoiding implementing any new practices. This also allows educators to abandon any initiatives that force them to resolve any challenges to their existing practice.

The result is what can be called horizontal reform. Schools are perpetually beginning new practices, and none is ever allowed to have deep influences on pedagogy and student experiences. A colleague who is a known cynic commented on my version of horizontal reform and observed, “It is probably best that none of these horizontal reforms ever gain traction. I have never seen any that is as effective as they claim.”