Education Opinion

Examining ‘Faddism’ in School Reform

By Edward A. Wynne — November 15, 1989 8 min read

It is commonplace for educators and academics to decry the faddism that often afflicts educational change.

In this context, faddism means holding exaggerated expectations for the effects of particular changes, implementing innovations with undue haste and insufficient testing, and prematurely abandoning new programs.

Such patterns lead to dichotomous results: Many ill-conceived changes are tried, and few real reforms take hold, since the proposed innovations are selected and carried out in superficial ways.

We might explain these phenomena as the outcome of intellectual deficits on the part of educators--they may not be smart enough to make wise choices or develop sound plans for implementation. But this explanation is too simplistic. In fact, several overlapping factors underlie educational faddism.

The first of these considerations, the impatience of parents and other concerned adults, stems from education’s very focus on children. To their parents, children represent one of the great projects of their lives. Parents do not necessarily always know or do what is best for their children. But whether they act rightly or wrongly, or even know how to express their love, they attach enormous importance to what happens to their children.

Even adults who do not have youngsters in school are extraordinarily sensitive to what happens to schoolchildren. For some, their own children’s education lies ahead; others have close relatives who are in school. In addition, most adults are concerned with the longterm future of their nation, either from self-interest or from affection for their descendants. And they know that future will be largely determined by a posterity whose character they--and the schools--help form.

Citizens who are anxious about children’s welfare often find it intolerable that many valid forms of school improvement must be highly incremental. As a result, faddism prevails.

For instance, schools commonly introduce staff-support programs without creating appropriate infrastructures; they fail to provide necessary training, salary incentives, or systems for fostering staff stability. Consequently, the innovations gradually lose momentum.

Before launching such programs, districts should probably put in place more rational personnel and incentive systems. But carrying out these kinds of changes may take years. Such gradualism cannot proceed fast enough to “help” the children of parents who are dissatisfied today.

The problem is that, to stimulate innovation, proponents of change must provoke public dissatisfaction with existing arrangements. This dissatisfaction, in turn, triggers a pervasive anxiety that leads to demands for fast, clean answers--fads.

A second factor is the emphasis on “equality” in American education. In fact, schooling is identified by many with the encouragement of equality.

But, as the researcher James S. Coleman and others have noted, that powerful word has different meanings. And there is no definitive evidence that providing increasing amounts of education automatically raises the level of equality in society. Indeed, in some countries and in some eras, education has been deliberately designed to heighten class differences.

Even in American history, well into the 20th century, the assumption was that free school and college should be made available only on the basis of demonstrable student and family competence and commitment.

In the comparatively recent past, the definition of equality has, for many people, changed: Some now believe that schools are responsible for producing roughly equivalent learning for students from all social classes and family situations. As proposals for change are measured against this complex and problematic criterion, some serious innovations are rejected, and the essential thrust of others is distorted.

For example, many recent court decisions about education, in such areas as discipline, special education, desegregation, and students’ free speech, have been strongly motivated by egalitarian considerations. Educators have spent a great deal of energy handling the reverberations of these rulings. Most commentators agree that we are now seeing something of a rollback of this trend--partly because the premises underlying it were quite unrealistic. The decisions were legal fads.

It is particularly interesting to contrast the non-faddish issue of court-enforced desegregation and the more faddish concept of integration. The nation has many years’ experience, including state-level legislative and judicial actions dating back to the 19th century, with desegregation--removing legal barriers separating whites and blacks in public education. Judicial decisions in this area have been relatively successful. But we have had only about 30 years’ experimentation with integration--compelling whites and blacks to attend school together. It is not surprising that this innovation has been relatively unsuccessful.

The current relationship between democratic principles and public-school management is a third element making schools more vulnerable to faddism.

Tension related to democratic governance and public education often arises in our large cities. Urban schools have been responsive to electoral forces for more than 100 years. For much of that time, however, the preponderant force was upper- and upper-middle-class business and community leaders, who often combined to moderate the efforts of immigrant groups to control the schools. The elites feared that such lower-class influence would open the schools to patronage and distort educational programs for political, ethnic, and anti-intellectual purposes. These groups characterized themselves as reformers and progressives.

In most of our large cities, such elites have lost influence. Urban schools remain responsive to democratic forces, but the electorate’s composition has changed; many cities are increasingly populated by an “underclass.” Perhaps the fears of those elites were well founded, for urban schools have more and more become the prisoners of shortsighted ethnic, political, and economic interest groups, including teachers’ unions.

Such captivity frustrates well-conceived reforms. So many interest groups are involved that the electorate’s sophistication and patience are overwhelmed. For example, the Illinois legislature recently developed elaborate reforms affecting Chicago’s public schools. Part of the legislation was aimed at strengthening the power of principals to refuse the transfer to their schools of tenured teachers they saw as incompetent. This proposal, intended to increase the accountability of local schools and principals, was a logical effort at reform on behalf of city parents.

But the plan was strenuously resisted, according to the press, by the Chicago teachers’ union, with a black, woman president speaking on behalf of many black--and white--members. The union contended that marginal teachers whose schools might be shut down should have absolute transfer rights--regardless of the resistance of the “receiving” schools and principals. (No question of racial discrimination affected this issue; all concerned knew that the principals rejecting the transfer applications could as well be black as white.)

The black, Democratic state legislators from Chicago, who are very vulnerable to union suasion, supported the union’s plea--despite recurrent complaints from the black community about incompetent teachers. Conversely, the white, Republican governor and many white, down-state legislators backed the effort to increase principals’ authority. Eventually, after enormous pressure was placed on the union and black legislators, a compromise was reached.

The Machiavellian politics involved in this episode are mind-boggling: Almost all blacks in Chicago vote Democratic; they elect black legislators; and those legislators support the teachers’ union and its black president against plausible education reforms favored by white, suburban Republicans. Theoretically, one could urge Chicago blacks to vote Republican to countervail excessive union influence, but that shift is probably not in the cards.

In effect, urban-school managers are under great pressure to generate dramatic improvements without deeply offending any important group. Such “improvements” are only fads.

Americans have exaggerated expectations about the benefits that can come from education. As the anthropologists Robert A. Le Vine and Merry L. White put it, our ideas about education are too “sentimental.”

It would be preposterous to bar “sentiment” from education. But “sentimentality” means adopting unrealistic proposals to create transient good feelings.

To help reduce faddism, policymakers should support a shift from emphasis on formal parent or electoral input in the democratic management of schools. The structure of governance should provide instead for indirect parent control through the exercise of choice--by means of either voucher or public-school choice plans.

It is crude sentimentalism to imagine that parents, or parent representatives, should have significant direct input on the complex issues affecting school management. Indeed, our society is pervaded with institutions that respond to marketplace demands and satisfy users’ needs without formal consumer controls--from purveyors of housing and medical services to fast-food restaurants. The urban poor often get better service from their neighborhood McDonald’s than they do from their schools.

If particular schools are indifferent to them, then parents, as “consumers,” should be allowed to choose others. Under these circumstances, schools would become more responsive--or expire.

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 1989 edition of Education Week