Education Reform’s Most Urgent Task

As Gadfly readers know—from his “farewell address,” if not before—the irreplaceable Checker Finn stepped down as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s president last week, handing me the reins and the opportunity of a lifetime. As Checker made clear, he’s not retiring, disappearing, or giving up the fight—just letting go of the day-to-day responsibilities of managing an increasingly complex organization. He will, as he wrote, have more time than ever for troublemaking. American education will be the better for it.

So what does this mean for Fordham? Let me assure friends and foes alike that “evolution” is the apt term. Don’t expect any abrupt changes. Checker has been delegating a lot of decisions to our seasoned, superb senior staff for years; that talented team, along with our top-notch board of trustees, will continue to steer a steady course in the years to come, both with our national work and our efforts in Ohio.


That’s not to say, however, that “abrupt change” isn’t needed in the education-reform movement. Let’s begin with that great, late philosopher Michael Jackson:

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change

Those of us lucky enough to work every day at improving our schools need to start by looking in the mirror and making sure we have our own house in order. We need to ask: Are the policies we’re promoting likely to work in the real world? Do our various reforms fit well together? Do they create the space for excellent educators to do great work, while putting pressure on dysfunctional systems to change?

Some of my friends in the reform movement think this stance leaves us in a defensive posture, apologizing for the imperfections of the policies we’re pushing, which gives a pass to defenders of the status quo. They want to bring the fight to the system—to the unions (and their job protections); to the ed schools (and their unwillingness to stoop to “vocational training”); and to the school boards (especially ones that refuse to address vast inequities in their systems).

I understand this line of thinking, and for advocacy organizations, it probably makes sense. But not for think tanks, and certainly not for the Fordham Institute. (Keeping our think tank from morphing into an advocacy organization is a top priority—and the current Common Core fight certainly makes that hard at times.) We have the responsibility, and the luxury, to take the long view, to not obsess about the daily legislative or messaging fights, to follow the evidence wherever it leads. We seek to hold up a vision of effective school reform, even if at times that means criticizing reform efforts themselves. And heaven knows that our reforms, while well meaning, are far from perfect.

Those imperfections come in many shapes and sizes. We’ve studied and opined on them over the years, and we will continue to do so. They are rooted in confusion about the goals of education reform (College for all? Closing achievement gaps? Helping every child achieve his or her potential? Ending poverty?); disputes over who should do what (What’s the appropriate federal role? Can state education agencies handle all the tasks we’ve given them? Should we give up on districts?); and debates over the diagnosis of the problem itself (Teachers who can’t be fired? Too little competition? Too little autonomy? Too little support?).

What’s on my mind right now, though, is another elusive element: coherence. How can we make sure that the major elements of the policy agenda fit well together and are not working at cross-purposes? How can we enable educators to create coherent learning environments in their schools?

I fear that we’re failing the coherence test, and that’s putting all of our efforts (and progress) at risk.

What makes our policies incoherent? Simply put, there are a number of reform strands that are competing with one another:

Autonomous and accountable schools: Adherents hold that schools—and especially their principals—are the key units of change, but that they need the right incentives and autonomy to succeed. Those incentives come mainly in the form of external accountability but also via competition. This approach is best illustrated by the charter schools movement as well as charter-like schools, via portfolio management and the like. It pulls in standards-based reformers (most of them supporters of the Common Core) and “Reinventing Government” types. In the real world, this group has arguably been much more successful at introducing accountability than meaningful autonomy, especially for schools in the district sector. These reformers resist prescriptive, formulaic teacher evaluations as a violation on principals’ autonomy; accountability hawks in this crowd tend to look askew at arguments that school quality should be determined by parents alone.

Capacity building comes in many forms, but its fans generally argue that schools are doing about as well as can be expected, given what they have to work with. To be more effective, they need more know-how, resources, training, talent, and help. Popular remedies include investments in professional development, stronger teacher preparation, data-based decision making, and curricular reform. Folks in this camp tend to worry that “high pressure, low support” policies like test-based accountability will inevitably lead schools to take ineffective or unethical actions—like implementing drill-and-kill teaching strategies or simply cheating.

Personalized learning focuses on customizing education for every student. The “unit of change” is the individual child. Key policies include Course Access, Education Savings Accounts, and the larger push for choice in education. Proponents of this reform tend to trust parents to make good decisions, though some are willing to concede the need for external accountability, too (at least transparency around outcomes so parents have good consumer information). Teachers don’t play a big role in the “theory of action” of this reform, other than as providers of educational services. Even “schools” are seen, by some in this camp, as anachronistic creatures of an earlier era. Students might get some of their personalized learning at a school, but they will also get it online, at community colleges, on the job, etc.

Teacher effectiveness stresses the role of the classroom instructor, who is the key unit of change. It sees schools as mere bundles of teachers; to the extent that principals matter, it’s because of their role in recruiting and retaining great teachers and removing bad ones. Key policies include tenure reform, alternate routes to licensure, rigorous teacher evaluations, and differential pay systems. These folks may or may not support school choice or school accountability regimes, but they tend to be impatient with calls to merely hold principals accountable and let them handle the rest. And they give little attention to what “teacher effectiveness” means in delivery systems that don’t rely on a “teacher.”

Some of the items on this menu complement each other better than others, and most reformers support some combination of all of the above. But a few of these reforms are clearly in conflict.

There’s the classic confrontation between choice and standards—or, in this lexicon, “personalized learning” and “autonomous and accountable schools.” Plenty of supporters of school choice believe that any external accountability system amounts to second-guessing the decisions of parents, which is paternalistic at best and coercive at worst. Follow the anti–Common Core musings of Glenn Beck and his followers on Twitter and you’ll notice this “power to the parents” sentiment coming through strong.

Even wonks wrestle with whether there’s a role for “quality control” in the “personalized learning” paradigm. When it comes to Course Access, for instance, who determines whether a course is good enough or whether a student deserves credit? And when it comes to voucher and tax-credit programs that are supported with public dollars, is there a role for external accountability? (I believe we’ve come to a reasonable compromise on that.)

The sharpest conflict, though—and the one creating the most incoherence in our policies and in our schools today—is between the “teacher effectiveness” movement and efforts around “personalized learning” and “autonomous and accountable schools.” And though Common Core may be everyone’s favorite whipping boy, it’s my view that it’s the teacher-effectiveness reforms—particularly formulaic teacher-evaluation systems—that are causing the most trouble.

Let me clarify: I support efforts to improve teacher preparation; to create high-quality “alternate routes” into the classroom; to eliminate “last in, first out” policies; to reform tenure; to provide principals with training and models for how to evaluate teachers rigorously; and to empower those principals to terminate ineffective teachers. But taking the next step and prescribing formulaic evaluation systems—those that dictate precisely how principals must evaluate their instructors, including the exact role that student achievement must play—is a bridge too far.

That’s because these systems assume “one best model” of teaching; thus, they fly in the face of “personalized learning” and “autonomous and accountable schools.”

Regarding personalized learning: It’s one thing to tell schools (public, private, charter) that they will be evaluated against a common standard like the Common Core—which they are free to ignore if they don’t care much about their test scores or school grades. If you are an uber-progressive school or one that focuses on “competency-based education,” and if you are willing to explain your so-so test scores to your parents, then you have little to fear from standards, testing, and school accountability.

But it’s quite another thing to tell teachers that if they ignore the standardized tests and their students don’t make enough progress, their jobs could be in jeopardy. Suddenly, the square-peg/round-hole school faces a Hobson’s Choice: give up on its unique mission and adhere to the standards or risk serious consequences for its teachers. As a result, formulaic teacher evaluations have increased the stakes on the standards tremendously—which, by the way, makes them all the more politically unpalatable.

And regarding principal autonomy: how can reformers claim that prescriptive evaluation systems are anything but efforts to “principal-proof” our schools? Some are ready to admit this and to argue that it’s a smart strategy because so many principals are weak and unwilling or unable to distinguish among their teachers and act on the results. That may be so—but how are we ever going to recruit better leaders to our schools if we continue to diminish the role and authority of the principal? We should arm them with better evaluation models and then let them decide how best to apply them, holding them accountable for their schools’ results.


So how can we untangle this pretzel? How can we give educators room to chart their own course to improvement?

My preference is to ditch the formulaic teacher evaluations and keep the rest. But for friends and colleagues not willing to embrace that step, at the least we need to allow schools and school systems to choose from the menu rather than be forced to accept it all as a prix fix.

Superintendents should be able to tell state education agencies, “The teacher evaluation system you developed is messing with my other reform efforts. Here’s how I want to make these pieces fit together—without giving up on accountability for adults but in a way that’s going to get much better results.” Or districts that have embarked on the teacher-accountability effort and don’t want to give up momentum should be allowed to delay Common Core implementation, if that would help. And schools with a focus on personalized learning should be giving special freedoms to try new ways of quality control.

In other words, if “we,” at the policy level, can’t cut the Gordian Knot, we should hand the scissors over to educators so they can do it themselves.

That calls for humility, flexibility, and trust—qualities in short supply lately, especially in Washington.


The incoherence problem isn’t the only challenge we face in the reform movement. But fixing it is a good place to start—and an indication of the kind of pragmatic, constructive work you can expect from the Fordham Institute in the years to come. We have always been and will always be the Education Gadfly—eager to ask the tough questions, follow the evidence, raise the alarm, and resist any dogma, whether from defenders of the status quo or from our fellow reformers. Our job, now more than ever, is to hold up a mirror to the reform movement and ask whether we need to “make a change.” When the answer is yes, let us have the courage to do so expeditiously. Will you join us?

-Michael Petrilli

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College