Education Opinion

The Education Reform Dichotomy: Big Choices Ahead

By Anthony Cody — January 01, 2013 4 min read
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In recent weeks, some commenters on my blog have suggested that there is a “false dichotomy” at work in the debate over education reform. We are told we should “tone down” our views in order that we be might be better heard.

I am a firm believer in civil discourse, and believe we ought to seek common ground with others. But I think we have a very real debate featuring different approaches to solving some real problems in our society. Debates such as these are not settled because people simply split the difference between their positions. We need to widen this discussion, and clarify the consequences of the solutions now being pursued by our political and economic leaders.

Last fall, scholar Paul Thomas offered a powerful framework for understanding the two camps of reformers currently contending for public support.

He names one group the “No Excuses Reformers,” writing:

No excuses" has a specific meaning and context in 2012, one associated with corporate education reform endorsed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and a long list of self-proclaimed reformers who have little or no experience as educators or scholars. Nonetheless, these reformers drive their agendas with slogans such as "poverty is not destiny."

The other group, to which he and I belong, he terms “Social Context Reformers.” He explains:

While often discredited by No Excuses Reform narratives as embracing the status quo or, most inaccurately, suggesting children in poverty cannot learn, Social Context Reformers are primarily educators and education scholars who call for a combination of social and education reforms committed to addressing equity: Poverty is destiny, in society and schools, but poverty should not be destiny, argue Social Context Reformers.

Dr. Thomas offered a table which described public school problems and the policy solutions offered by No Excuses Reformers. Below I have built on and expanded his table, including a column that states the Social Context Reform policy solutions as well.

Update: Some have suggested it would be more accurate to term some of the consequences of No Excuses Reform policies “side effects,” since they are not necessarily the goals that were in mind. I have revised the column headings accordingly.



“No Excuses” Reform solution or side effect

Social Context reform solution

Low income children lag in educational success, compared to children with higher socioeconomic backgrounds.

Three decades of standards-based testing and corporate-controlled, data-driven accountability to close the test-based achievement gap

Legislated, top-down reform policies that blame teachers of low-income children.

Narrow test prep-focused curriculum, especially for students in high poverty schools.

Actively recognize inequities in society and work to reverse them systematically.

Teacher preparation closely linked to practice, and opportunities to work alongside experienced teachers, who work closely with parents and community leaders to improve education.

Rich curriculum, and authentic assessment of student learning.

Public schools in lower income communities produce much worse outcomes, and in the poorest areas, outcomes are tragic.

Reward affluent and middle-class schools in affluent and middle-class neighborhoods and punish schools in impoverished neighborhood.

Close down the public schools in low income communities.

Desegregation programs, with an emphasis on high quality schools for all.

Support struggling schools, building stability and enhancing the resources they offer.

Urban and rural communities and school systems are struggling under the weight of escalating child poverty among all ethnic groups.

Children arrive at school lacking vision, dental and health care.


Provide adequate and equitable funding for all schools, including nurses, social workers, and support services where needed.

Universal healthcare (including eye care, dental care) for children and families with children

Increasing segregation, as the most economically needy children are trapped together by residency requirements in desperately dysfunctional, under-resourced schools, in physically dangerous environments where the problems of violence and social disconnectedness impact all the children in a school.

Drain public school funding for parental choice policies that reinforce stratification found in those parental choices.

Privately operated charter schools, segregated by race and socioeconomic status

Rigid school environment, zero tolerance policies

Pursue “mass localism,” with educators, parents and community engaging in place-based education, rooted in community history and needs.

The accumulated public and individual wealth of this generation was somehow “lost” in the financial collapse, so we have insufficient funds available to educate our children

Strip elected local school boards of authority, so corporate leaders appointed by mayors and governors can allocate resources.

Turn whole public districts over to for-profit management companies.

Mandate “cost-saving”, privately operated online education for children in low-income districts.

Vouchers replace right to equitable public education.

Mobilize communities to regain control of our public education system.

Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students assigned disproportionately inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers.

Ignore the conditions that promote high turnover, and instead recruit TFA or other alternatively certified teachers for these students.

Address conditions that promote high turnover. Develop teaching talent from the local community, reflecting the ethnic and cultural composition of the students. Create residency programs to train and retain teachers. Honor experience to retain teachers.

We have a very real debate on our hands. There are big differences in the solutions being proposed. We do not need to be uncivil or rude, but we need to be crystal clear about what is happening to our public schools, before they are completely destroyed by the policies now being pursued. And we need to be equally clear about the positive alternatives to these policies, so we can push for them in every community in the nation. Let us make 2013 the year these issues are fully discussed and debated, and let us make this the year we decide to embrace and actively support our public schools.

Update: The discussion below has been revealing -- I have excerpted some of the sharpest comments in a followup post, Revealing Debate Over the Education Reform Dichotomy, which show the implications of the solutions being pursued by the two sides described above.

What do you think of the framework offered here? Is this a genuine dichotomy or a false one?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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