Friday, December 11, 2009

A Good Enough Schematic of US School Reform

This is pretty much the universe as I see it. The upper left needs a better name or representative organization. I considered "no excuses" but I don't think that's quite it.

One thing about this graph is that each quadrant tends to be ambivalent toward the ones they share a border with and save their attacks for the ones diagonally across from them. Also the top tends to ignore or try to avoid fights with the bottom.


Claus von Zastrow said...

I wonder where some of the education management organization schools would be in that graph. They're not all traditional in their pedagogical approach, but they're not formally part of the 21st-century skills movement....

It is a very interesting way to look at the current reform universe and can reveal a lot about the intersection of values and practice.

Tom Hoffman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Hoffman said...

I'd say the current high profile EMO's are scattered across the top.

Big Picture schools are tough to fit in here... they need a line going from top to bottom on the far right.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I found it hard to place myself, and then I found your comments interesting.

It's as if my largeview and my mathview don't quite fall in the same place. The best I could do was, follow this, on the segment connecting the 2 in 21st with the C in Culture and on the segment joining the C in Coalition with the D in Democracy. For math, I was playing with the reflection across the y-axis.

But then I realized, those arrows are really misleading. Where would the people we talk about fall? I think it is designed so that most would fall near the edge of the graph (not necessarily on a corner, but near the edge).

Why, then, am I struggling to find a good space for me? It's a reform graph, and to one degree or another, I am hostile to all four corners. Forget the top half altogether.

The Ed-vision universe includes anti-reform elements. They are missing.

Tom Hoffman said...


Yeah, there can be a little discontinuity between educational philosophy writ large and math pedagogy.

e.g., the goal of K-12 math shouldn't be getting all kids ready to be mechanical engineers, but it should be for some kids.

I don't agree that most people are on the edges though... your average good suburban high school would be right in the middle. You'd probably be a little below, on the y-axis.

Anonymous said...

Does that make the origin "no reform?"

(also, pointing "progressive" rightwards? Hm.)

But we seem to agree, roughly, about where my dot would go.


Tom Hoffman said...

Perhaps labeling this as a "reform" schematic is wrong.

Sherman Dorn said...

My historian's sense is telling me this may be useful, but it's inherently a distortion, in part because "progressive" is such a problematic term, as is "traditional." How long does an idea need to be around to be called "traditional"? If 200 years counts, then anything based on Johann Pestalozzi should be in that camp. I could go on (cf. Peter Filene and Daniel Rodgers), but while I think this is interesting, it may be more confusing than not.

Tom Hoffman said...


I'd use these terms as Larry Cuban does, e.g.,

The terms themselves are imperfect, basically because they do imply some kind of temporal order which isn't relevant. But they're pretty much the best vocabulary we've got.

But obviously, if someone doesn't take for granted that a progressive/traditional dichotomy is fundamental to describing American schooling, they aren't going to like this diagram.

r. r. vlorbik said...

great post.

the "no excuses" school
if i understand you correctly
has a pretty good representative
in rafe esquith in my opinion.

the "attack the diagonal" principle
and the "ignore the bottom" fallacy
i'll probably cite before much time
passes. this has the makings of
a classic.

Robert Pondiscio said...

I started to respond to this then I realized my reply had a familiar ring to it. I realized that Nancy Flanagan had said it all before in a post on her blog called "Let's Go Camping."

I suppose some people can't begin to process ideas until they know what box (or quadrant) to put them in. But such exercises tend to become approval matrices that stratify rather than encourage discussion.

Tom Hoffman said...


Rafe Esquith isn't really "corporate." Conversely, KIPP, say, is corporate, but it isn't clear where they lie on the x axis (I'd say only slightly to the right).

The clearest manifestation of what goes in the corporate/traditional quadrant is probably the Common Core standards.

Tom Hoffman said...


How would you describe the difference between Core Knowledge and the Coalition of Essential Schools approach? I think it is fair to say that they have similar goals, but differences in philosophy and pedagogy.

I think it is fair to say CK and Commmon Core are especially hostile to P21 (e.g., "Why we disagree with P21..." at the top right of every page on is that you disagree over both ends and means.

And I'd argue that the differences between what CK/CC want and NCLB encourages is not fundamentally just "process v. content" but over the purpose of education.

Don't most Core Knowledge supporters consider themselves in opposition to "progressive education" as it is generally defined? Don't Core Knowledge supporters focus on the inherent value of the liberal arts, democracy and western civilization over commerce?

I don't get your beef.

Robert Pondiscio said...

I don't have a beef, Tom. But Core Knowledge is as good an example as I know of an education meme that has suffered from what people think they know about it, as opposed to what it actually is. To pick the one most obvious example, it's widely interpreted as (depending on your degree of rabidness) attempt to impose a particular view of what's worth learning or outright cultural hegemony. At it's heart, however, it's a technical argument that reading comprehension is a function of background knowledge. Comprehension is not a transferable skill, so if you want kids (especially low-SES kids) to become capable readers, Job One is to give them access to as much of the background knowledge as possible that speakers and writers assume they know. In short, it's intended to directly address issues of educational equity. That meets my test for "progressive."

Common Core and Core Knowledge are separate organizations. That said, I think they've done a valuable service by pointing out glaring shortcomings in P21s view, most notably their stubborn belief in the idea that critical thinking, problem solving etc. are transferable skills, which is the educational equivalent of a belief in fairies.

So my point about false dichotomies and insisting on defining ideas--the better to attack them and encourage knee-jerk responses as opposed to grappling with the ideas themselves--stands. You ask if Core Knowledge is opposed to "progressive education as it is generally defined?"

Depends on who's doing the general defining, clearly. Speaking personally, the cause in education that gets me out of bed every morning is that of ensuring that low-income, urban children can get a first-rate education. That's what got me into teaching and that strikes me as a solidly "progressive" goal.
Based on my experience and my understanding of cognitive science, a broad and content-rich curriculum is the best way to achieve that goal. If you want to suggest that one can't be a progressive and favor such a curriculum, well, that's your problem, not mine.

Label away, my friend. Go nuts. But meanwhile, I've got work to do.

Tom Hoffman said...


You seem to be conflating progressive education with broader progressive political goals. They don't necessarily coincide. Do you have a preferred term for "progressive education" a la Dewey?

Bill Kerr said...

compare with sylvia martinez:
creating successful change

I guess I ran around in all of your quadrants - and try to end up in the best one

Tom Hoffman said...

Just to be clear, your typical high-perfomring, upper-income, sends-its-kids-onto-successful-and-prosperous-lives school would end up at or near the middle of this graph. Trying to describe the differences between various philosophies does not mean that one of them is "the right one."

You cannot meaningfully say "the best schools combine several approaches" if you don't also define what you're combining.

Bill Kerr said...

another way to look at it:
there is a difference b/w on the one hand, looking at an educational setting through different windows and on the other hand, claiming that the windows themselves are the educational setting

for instance, the liping ma book shows that the surface distinction b/w traditional and progressive can be deceptive - I'm not denying that a distinction exists at some level but so too does a duality

to modify what I said earlier, too, ending up in the middle would not be the same as continuing to run around all four quadrants, although perhaps spending less time in some of them - it all depends of the needs of student, teacher and the system