by, Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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Reform movements are not a new phenomenon in the realm of education, as they have been in existence since the earliest forms of formalized education. Almost every regular aspect of a modern school and the education system was at one point an educational reform. Reforms are implemented to address the diverse needs of various stakeholders in the education system, as well as to simplify and streamline aspects of the education system. While some reforms have been successful at reshaping education, others have met failure and have been replaced by new reforms, or have been repackaged, renamed, and later returned to schools as ‘new’ reforms.
One of the biggest reasons why reform movements fail is that when a reform works in one school, other schools begin copying the exact reform in their own schools. This cookie-cutter approach to reform fails to take into account the local context of the school’s individuality. Schools are not carbon copies of each other, as they have different student populations with different needs, different resources, different facilities, etc. Thus the cookie-cutter approach to reform cannot be successful in the long run because what works in one school and one student population will not necessarily work in every school and with every student population. So what can be done to ensure that good educational reform movements have the opportunity to succeed and transform teachers’ instructional practices and student learning environments?
Simply put, the paradigm of educational reform must be shifted to address the individualized needs of each school and student population. According to leading educational experts Datnow and Park (2009), the paradigm of educational reform must shift to a focus on co-construction of the reform. Co-construction of reform means “that [educators] at all levels contribute to the policy-making process and that that process is characterized by continuous interactions among [educators] within and between levels of the system” (p. 351). From this perspective, reform is not done to the schools by a higher authority, but rather the reform is done in the schools. Smylie and Denny (1990) would agree with this co-construction reform perspective as they state: “change must be grounded in local discretion and in decision making that involves teachers as participants rather than as targets of the process” (p. 236). Thus the co-construction perspective can take into account all of the educational stakeholders and allow for attention to be paid to contextual situations that are related to the individual school or community.
Thus it is time to throw out the cookie cutters and start understanding that every school and student population is unique. It is impossible to take what works at one school and think it will work equally as well in every other school. The structure of the reform can be kept intact, but it must be flexible enough to change for each school’s individualized needs. The endless cycle of issues and reforms can leave a person dizzy, but with each reform, whether it was a success or a failure, the education system must learn from it. There is a not a single reform in existence that can change education over night, but the accumulation of countless small reforms at the local level can make an impact. So join other successful schools and school leaders in throwing out the cookie-cutters and start implementing unique reforms that can make a difference for stakeholders throughout the education system.
Datnow, A. & Park, V. (2009). Conceptualizing policy implementation: Large-scale reform in an era of complexity. AERA Handbook on Education Policy Research, p. 348 – 361.
Smylie, M.A. & Denny, J.W. (1990). Teacher leadership: Tensions and ambiguities in organizational perspective. Educational Administration Quarterly, 26(3), p. 235-258