Alternative Education Reform: Among the Invisible and “Preferably Unheard”

Educators as workers in a profession rendered invisible and “preferably unheard” are increasingly being demonized, marginalized, and challenged as defenders of the status quo and anti-reformers.

The Sisyphean hell of being a teacher includes having almost no autonomy or power in educational policy but receiving the brunt of the blame when the outcomes of those policies do not meet the goals promised.

Yet, throughout the academic and scholarly press as well as the public media and “new” media, such as blogs, educators, researchers and scholars present daily alternatives to the repackaged reform movement committed to the same failed policies that have plagued education for a century—standards, testing, and assorted business models of efficiency forced onto education.

Education is a massive and complex endeavor, and the common sense perception of how to address teaching and learning, how to reform schools that appear to be broken, envisions equally massive and complex solutions (think VAM and merit pay).

And here is where educators may be trapped in our quest to discredit misguided reform and to take ownership of credible reform: Our alternatives appear too simple on the surface but are incredibly complicated, unpredictable, and unwieldy in their implementation. In short, most credible calls for education reform are outside the box thinking when compared to traditional education, business models, and social norms.

For example, Larry Ferlazzo in one sentence dismantles much of the current reform movement and offers alternatives:

“Even though it’s not necessarily an either/or situation, I would suggest that both educators and students would be better served by emphasizing creating the conditions for intrinsic motivation over teaching techniques designed to communicate standards-based content.”

Again, maybe this is too simple, but education reform does not need new standards, new tests, or new accountability and merit pay policies.

Education reform is needed, but should be re-imagined as a few new paradigms:

• Instead of a standards-based education system that places the authority for curriculum in a centralized bureaucracy, teacher autonomy and expertise should be the focus of reform—paralleling the culture of higher education in which professors are hired for field expertise as well as the teaching of their fields. [This change in the midset of reform and the culture of K-12 schools, thus, creates the conditions in which a revised paradigm in accountability can be implemented, see below.]

• Instead of a test-based education system that measures, quantifies, ranks, and evaluates, high-quality and rich feedback for both teachers and students should be the focus of reform; feedback is formative and thus contributes positively to learning and growth.

• Instead of high-stakes accountability focusing on outcomes and that demands compliance as well as blurs causation and correlation (teachers, for example, being held accountable for student outcomes), teacher accountability focusing on the learning conditions provided by the teacher should be embraced. This reform measure should emphasize the equity of opportunity provided all students [1], regardless of the teacher, the school the community, or the home environment.

• Instead of devaluing teacher preparation through alternative programs or ideologies that suggest content knowledge is more valuable than (or even exclusive of) pedagogy and through teacher evaluation policies that label, rank, and seek to fire teachers, teacher preparation and teacher evaluation should honor the complex nature of content knowledge and the pedagogy needed to teach that knowledge (see the first bullet above) while emphasizing mentoring and teaching as constant learning over stack ranking and dismissing a predetermined percentage of teachers.

Educators know what and how to teach. Education is a rich field with a tremendous amount of consensus and enduring debates along the spectrum of subcategories that constitute education—pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, teacher preparation, teacher evaluation, and more.

The great irony of the need to shift away from the historical dependence on bureaucratic efficiency models of education reform and toward a professional and scholarly culture of being a teacher and conducting schooling is that the latter is far more challenging for teachers and students, and as Felazzo explains:

“Let’s look at what some research shows to be necessary to create the conditions for intrinsic motivation to flourish, and how that research can be applied specifically to teaching and learning about reading and writing….Pink argues that there are three key elements required for the development of intrinsic motivation—autonomy, mastery, and purpose…..Helping students to motivate themselves is a far more effective and energizing teaching/learning strategy than the faux magical one of extrinsic motivation.”

Both teachers and students can and will benefit from education reform that focuses on the conditions of learning that honor “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” in ways that allow for failure, revision, and unpredictable outcomes—none of which are fostered in the efficiency model that historically and currently corrupts education reform.

[1] See Wright’s examination of access to equitable early childhood education


7 thoughts on “Alternative Education Reform: Among the Invisible and “Preferably Unheard”

  1. PT—I agree with what you are saying. We have long agreed that serious educational reform should include the input of scholarly teachers and be led by them……as Freire suggested. Teachers long for the autonomy they need to create positive change in the lives of their students. Most effective teachers, in my experience, feel hampered by top-down, bureaucratic initiatives. Effective teachers know that teaching is, more than anything else, a moral act….a moral imperative, if you will. Standards and the accompanying high stakes tests prohibit effective teachers from doing what they know to be best practice in the contexts of their own classrooms and schools. But first, to create a more even playing field in American schools, poverty must be admitted and eliminated.

  2. Pingback: Just Say No to Just Read, Florida, South Carolina | the becoming radical

  3. I agree with almost everything here but would like to suggest that standards, specifically the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (my field), should not be lumped in with authority in a centralized system, a test-based education system, or high-stakes accountability. Personally, I see the CCSSM as outlining a vision for strong, common, school mathematics.

    Your view of shifting teaching “toward a professional and scholarly culture of being a teacher” especially resonates with me. I’d like to add to that by suggesting that we think of teaching in a *disciplinary* way rather than just according to grade band. For example, those of us who teach math depend on, and are connected with, math teaching at all the other levels. Therefore I think we should take collective responsibility for math teaching at all levels and we should work together across the levels to make math teaching a strong and vibrant profession.

    Anyone interested in discussing math teaching at any level is invited to the Mathematics Teaching Community at

  4. I love how they honor teachers in Finland’s education system with trust, autonomy, and higher salaries. Teaching is revered and the teachers obtain Master’s before teaching. All of that’s bound to be good for the students.

    • Yes, Annie, this is true, but what everyone is ignoring is that in Finland there is very limited testing of the Children.
      High standards, but not rigid and repeated tests. And if I understand it correctly, no National Standardized Curriculum.

  5. Pingback: Education Reform: Our Field, Our Voices Simply Do Not Matter | the becoming radical

  6. Pingback: empathyeducates – Education Reform: Our Field, Our Voices Simply Do Not Matter

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