Of Big ‘R’ and Little ‘r’ School Reform

If you’ve spent more than five minutes around schooling, you probably have a strong reaction to the term “school reformer.” The very phrase tends to spark cheers or catcalls. I’m sure you’ve seen effusive profiles of wondrous charter school leaders, filled with stirring quotes about saving lives and closing “achievement gaps.” And you’ve probably seen the bitter blogs and vitriolic tweets attacking those same leaders as “deformers” bent on destroying public education.


For all the passion, though, I’m not sure that we actually have all that clear an idea of what it means to be a “reformer.” A few years ago, the education advocacy group Students First leaked a strategy memo that tallied their Election Day wins. The memo’s big takeaway was: “A pro-education reform message resonates strongly with voters and moves voter sentiment significantly in favor of pro-reform candidates.” To this day, I still don’t know what they meant by “pro-reform message” or “pro-reform” candidate. I don’t think they did either.

Does a “reformer” have to support charter schools, the Common Core, and using test scores in teacher evaluation? Are you a “reformer” if you went through Teach For America or work for an advocacy group with “children,” “students,” or “new” in its name? Are you “anti-reform” if you have concerns about mayoral control, requiring charter schools to backfill, or test-based accountability, or if you think that some ambitious change efforts do more harm than good?

Today, I’ll offer my two cents on this score. I tend to think about “reform” along two dimensions. The first is scope of “reform.” To my mind, “school reform” is about policy and system change. It involves changes to state or federal policy, school district behaviors, or routines and practices on a sweeping scale. It is not one teacher introducing a new curricular unit or one school changing its bell schedule. Those are isolated changes to practice. Now, I am in no way, shape, or form saying that school reform is more important than isolated changes to practice. I am saying that it’s different.

The second, more interesting dimension is the substance of reform. Here, I find it useful to think in terms of two types of reform: big “R” Reform and little “r” reform. Over time, for convenience, we’ve adopted the habit of branding a very particular bundle of policies as “Reform” (with a capital “R”). In the past decade, this kind of big “R” Reform has generally meant test-based accountability, charter schooling, the Common Core, overhauling teacher tenure, new teacher evaluation systems, and prescribed school improvement strategies. During the Obama administration, it has also come to mean an expansive federal role in schooling.

Unlike big “R” Reform, little “r” reform is more a set of precepts than policy prescriptions. Those who embrace little “r” reform agree that schools and school systems can do a far better job of teaching key skills, stimulating learners, cultivating great teaching, addressing mediocrity, and rewarding excellence. They believe that schooling needs to be reimagined and that this means remaking or removing many old systems and policies. They believe that educators should be accountable and that excellence should be rewarded, but they believe there are many different ways to do these things.

To me, reform is about fighting to open up systems and policies in ways that give educators, entrepreneurs, parents, and communities more freedom to reinvent schooling, and every child a chance to flourish. I’m more interested in stripping away outdated strictures, downsizing bureaucracy, and empowering new providers than imposing my favorite new practices and programs. I see reform less as a roster of agreed-upon solutions than an ongoing push to challenge routines, opening the door to problem-solvers, and supporting the educators and entrepreneurs who walk through that door. Little “r” reform is a big-tent and small “d” democratic vision of reform. If that’s too broad for your taste, so be it.

Though I think much of the big “R” reform agenda has real promise, its value ultimately depends infinitely more on how they’re executed rather than whether they’re adopted. The top-down, dogmatic modus operandi of the big “R” Reformer has too often neglected the “how” and has left me uncertain whether all the fuss and furor has done more good than harm. Now, if you think Washington needs to impose prescriptive school improvement models or states should adopt one-size-fits-all teacher evaluation systems because you think these mandates are a better bet than trusting in the foibles of educators, communities, or parents, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

I get what big “R” Reformers are trying to do. I believe that we share many of the same goals. But I’m a little “r” reformer. So, when Reformers accuse me of going “soft” or abandoning their cause, all I can do is shrug. After all, their cause isn’t mine.

—Rick Hess

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