Differentiating “Reform” and “Revolution” in Education

Angela Engel

Education has become the hottest battleground for political and economic interests. Two divisions are predominant in the current struggle for media attention, money and control. The debate over how to improve public education is best analyzed and distinguished between the two distinct paradigms – “reformers” and “revolutionaries” which I prefer to call Innovators.

Reformers tend to accept the traditional methodologies and underlying assumptions of education, and advocate for change that supports knowledge and skills imposed on students. They commonly assume that what can be measured has the most value. Their agenda includes high-stakes testing, performance pay, and a nationalized curriculum. The leaders include foundations such as Gates, Walton, and Broad: funders of Common Core; Michelle Rhee, CEO of Students First and proponent of teacher pay based on test scores; Wendy Kopp, CEO of Teach for America – a for-profit six week teacher training program, George W. Bush Jr. and No Child Left Behind; Pearson and McGraw Hill – top publishers of state standardized tests, curriculum and consulting services; and President Obama’s administration with the Race to the Top initiative.

Innovators – true educational revolutionaries – tend to question the purposes and underlying assumptions of education that drive the current system. They seek answers to promoting all levels of diversity including diversity of ideas. They work to address the inequities and create equality in opportunity; they champion educator autonomy, student empowerment, and parent engagement; they promote learner-driven education and the un-measurable qualities of determination, creativity, imagination, and collaboration.

Innovators represent a varied assortment of perspectives, and while some have created alternatives in education, others have worked to reducing childhood poverty. The long history of innovation includes those well-known leaders recognized in the education world. They include Rudolf Steiner founder of Waldorf Education, Maria Montessori, founder of Montessori Schools; Lyndon B. Johnson led the War on Poverty and the original Elementary Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965; Sir Ken Robinson author and lecturer on creativity and innovation; Deborah Meier known for her leadership in democratically run public urban schools, Howard Gardner, for his theory of multiple intelligences, and Daniel Goleman and his work on Emotional Intelligence .

In examining these differences, this analysis compares reformers and innovators across the following categories:

Purpose – Central motivation

Values – Underlying common beliefs

Goals – The desired result that validates their values and purpose

Policies – Legislative actions taken to achieve those goals

Practices – The application of the values, goals, and policies

The education of our children shapes society today and well into the future. Our responsibility as parents, teachers and citizens requires that we explore who is doing the shaping, for what purpose, and through what means. Education can lead a person in many paths and can transform a society in many directions.

Education Purpose



Educate to shape students to the world

Educate students to shape the world

Education Values



  • The desire to direct people’s ideas and behavior

  • Centralized – authority is concentrated

  • Hierarchical – power and responsibility is ranked and increases at the top

  • Conformity to (predetermined) expectations

  • Standardization

  • Market oriented perspective – institutional approach
  • The desire to ensure freedom of thought and ideas

  • Decentralized – authority is dispersed

  • Egalitarian – power and responsibility is shared

  • Liberation from political, social, and economic constructs

  • Diversity

  • Human perspective – personalized (cognitive, psychomotor, social/emotional)


Education Goals



  • Create punishments and incentives that enforce compliance throughout the system, manage teachers, students, and parents

  • Expand Federal involvement, grow U.S and state departments, grant Mayoral control; federal and state grant monies conditioned on adherence to federal and state requirements

  • Reinforce predetermined common definitions of performance and growth, impose those criteria from policy to practice, adjust variables and demand equality in outcomes regardless of inequalities in resources and opportunities

  • Narrow objectives to completely align instruction, curriculum, and assessments to the prescribed standards and common performance objectives of students and teachers in all subjects from preschool through college

  • Identify deficits in achievement and address those gaps through expectations, uniform curriculum, standardized tests, performance evaluation tools, and punishments and incentives

  • Capitalize on education market opportunities, create new product lines, expand new business, and increase revenues and profit margins for corporations and revenue generating non-profits
  • Expand student and parental rights, promote diversity, and engender personal reflection and responsibility

  • Rely on proven scientifically valid research, reduce standardized testing, engage local communities, model critical thinking and create safe, trusting cultures for learners and professionals to experiment and take risks

  • Think beyond the standard parameters–promote wonder, question norms, imagine possibilities, experiment, solve problems, debate ideas, challenge solutions, create, reflect and refine

  • Broad mission to expand and enrich the learning and educational opportunities of each child. Student learners are complex and unique: to optimize capabilities, education is personalized rather than standardized

  • Build on student strengths. Mitigate barriers to advancement such as poverty by targeting state and federal resources towards prevention and early intervention

  • Balance political, economic, and social trends with the rights of the individual and the interests of the community. Ensure public education dollars are spent for the benefit of the public

Education Policies



  • Direct outcomes – Increase tools for monitoring, scoring, rewarding, and punishing

  • Centralized – Education guided by politicians, evaluated by test publishers, enforced through government agencies and for the benefit of private corporations. (2002 NCLB, Race to the Top, Common Core)

  • Hierarchical – Top down decision making where accountability is imposed and responsibility assigned without authority. (Adequate Yearly Progress, (AYP), conditional waivers for NCLB, performance pay/merit pay for teachers, retention and exit exams for students. Hedge Fund charters and private Education Management Organizations (EMOs) takeover schools that serve low-income students.) Under the model of reform, students, educators and schools serve test corporations, and state and federal mandates

  • Conformity – Compliance is rewarded and non-conformity punished.Achievement objectives are prescribed, knowledge is defined, measurable indicators determined, and matters of consequence enforced. (High-stakes include turnaround, firing, pay freezes, lower learning tracks for students of color and low-income and higher learning tracks for students of privilege)

  • Standardization and uniformity – Impose a nationalized curriculum (Common Core) and mass standardized testing: state tests, MAPS, PISA, TIMMS, NAEP, SMARTER and PARCC.Revise standards, re-align curriculum and re-write the measurement and curriculum tools creating an education monopoly for corporate publishers. Utilize virtual and online products to educate a faster and cheaper monoculture

  • Market oriented perspective – Free market principles such as privatization and profit models are expected to improve the system. Examples include revenue generating alternative teacher training programs (TFA), for- profit online education, virtual learning, text book and testing monopolies, and consulting industries

  • Promote Freedom – Expand opportunities and resources with multiple pathways to success

  • Decentralized – Education guided by the individual student, their parents, and professional educators(1965, ESEA, staff development, library and media services, targeted resources to children at-risk.)

  • Egalitarian – Accountability is derived from within and carries both responsibility and authority. (Schools reflect a democratic system of governance, real-world assessments, family partnerships, citizen elected school boards/ community based decision making, accreditation, and individualized school improvement plans specific to their strengths and needs.) Under the model of innovation, state and federal agencies serve the individual student diverse communities and the public education trust

  • Liberation – Remove barriers to learning and advancement. Strong voice of parents, teachers, and students. (Desegregation, IDEA, Civil Rights Act of 1964, GI Bill, Pell Grant, Equal Protection Act, Increased access to higher education, scholarships, free and reduced lunch programs, public libraries, civic engagement, and counseling services)

  • Diversity – Protection of the differences of individuals and communities. Innovators work to eliminate practices of discrimination and exploitation and remove system inequities. Critically-thinking citizens engaged in leading, questioning, investigating, filtering and challenging systems ensure a vast culture of ideas, values, expression, experience, leadership, and innovation

  • Human perspective - Allows each student an opportunity to realize his or her talents, interests, and dreams. Social/emotional development, art, music, PE, vocational experiences, apprenticeships, and mentoring. Educational investments ensure public dollars remain in public schools with public oversight for the benefit of students

Education Practices



  • Power and control is concentrated on those with current power and control – government and corporations

  • Knowledge is prescribed and intended outcomes are pre-determined. Districts, schools and administrators align curriculum, instruction, tests, report cards, parent communication and school policies to meet federal, state and district reporting and accountability mandates. Reformers define education in terms of “what students know”

  • Standards-based: rigid and uniform approach to instruction. Content is divided into subjects and learning activities are tied to short term measured outcomes. Students are sorted by age and address. Students develop in the same way at the same time along grade level tracks

  • One-size fits all – Every school, classroom, teacher and student designed to look the same: school ratings/labels, compulsory testing, exit exams, educators evaluated and compensated based on test performance


  • Choice, opportunity, and decision-making are directed by educators, families, and students collaboratively

  • Knowledge is expanded – students are constantly introduced to real world experiences, scrutinizing information, altering beliefs, refining behaviors, and creating new knowledge. Innovators define education in terms of what students become” and recognize wisdom cannot be prescribed and real learning is not pre-determined

  • Learner-centered: personalized, eclectic, flexible, intuitive, integrated and multi-sensory approach to instruction, curriculum and assessment – borrowing the best from a variety rather than being limited under one model. Students develop independently and uniquely

  • Many sizes for many students – Increase opportunities and expand resources. Varied education alternatives create multiple pathways for individual triumph and social advancement beyond existing institutional barriers. Special attention given to addressing poverty and system inequities

One thought on “Differentiating “Reform” and “Revolution” in Education

  1. This is one of the most intelligent piece of revolutionary insights I have seen since the concept of educating for human greatness…well it is in perfect alignment with it as a matter of fact! Please order the book, FIXING PUBLIC EDUCATION, from this site and read more from Ms. Engel. Book is being released in paperback form on September 1, 2014. And in eBook format at Amazon.com.

    We ARE in a war of ideas in education. There is no clear leadership. As my friend, Lynn Stoddard (also in the book along with Ms. Engel and 8 other authors) says, “Sitting at desks for 12 years does not make you an expert on education.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>