Reformer’s Disease

I think I’ve discovered a new medical disorder that I call Reformer’s Disease.  Good and smart people involved in education reform can easily be stricken with this disorder in which they visualize a desirable reform policy and then imagine that they can simply impose that policy on our education system and that it will come out as they want.

In particular, I’ve noticed instances of Reformer’s Disease in discussions with folks over national standards as well as in Mike Petrilli’s recent post about teacher tenure reform. Advocates for national standards tend to imagine that the national standards that will be adopted are the ones they prefer.  And they further imagine that people whose vision of national standards they oppose will never take control of the standards in the future.  National standards advocates don’t seem to have any theory about how political systems operate, what kinds of standards those systems are likely to adopt, or how those systems are likely to alter standards in the future.  Instead, these victims of Reformer’s Disease have grown tired of politics and simply imagine that they will be the puppeteers who will get the educational system to do the right things without having to think about how the incentives and structure of that system may well thwart or pervert their efforts.

Similarly, Mike Petrilli shows signs of Reformer’s Disease in his post on teacher tenure reform.  He asks, “Rather than use choice to set in motion a chain reaction that ends with the removal of bad teachers from the classroom, why not go right at the bad teachers themselves?”  Why focus on structures, incentives, and politics when we can just get schools to do the right thing — remove bad teachers, adopt the right standards and curricula, etc…?

Perhaps Mike’s question can best be answered by transplanting this discussion to a different industry.  Why should we bother with all of this choice and competition among restaurants when we can just get right at ensuring that bad chefs are removed?  Why have all of these different restaurants with their varying style and quality when we can just ensure quality through national restaurant standards?

Of course, when we transplant the discussion to restaurants the answer to Mike’s question seems obvious.  We need choice and competition because it helps impose the proper incentives on decision-makers within the educational system to make the right choices.  With stronger choice and competition bad teachers are more likely to be removed because keeping bad teachers would harm the interests of their bosses by causing schools to lose students and revenue.  The main barrier to removing bad teachers is not tenure, per se; it is the lack of incentives to remove bad teachers that allows the tenure system to be adopted and continue.  Just removing tenure would not rid the system of bad teachers because principals, superintendents, and others up the chain have little to no incentive to fire bad teachers.

Yes, schools need to get rid of bad teachers and the tenure that protects them.  Yes, schools need solid standards and curricula.  But people need to avoid Reformer’s Disease and remember that they can’t simply impose solutions on an unwilling system governed by perverse incentives.  Choice and competition are not at odds with tenure reform or standards reform.  Competition is a necessary part of how one actually accomplishes and sustains those other reforms.

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