Reform Clutter, Part II: Why does it occur?

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Why does reform clutter exist in our schools?  There are two ways to approach this question, one substantially more productive than the other.

The Unproductive Approach: Why are so many reforms introduced?

The more skeptical among us might point to a new leader’s desire to make his/her mark on a school or financial motives (like a contract with a particular vender of educational products).  The less skeptical among us might argue that the preponderance of reforms comes from an honest effort to improve student learning through system-level changes.  Different opinions about why reforms are introduced are probably best left under the “let’s agree to disagree” heading.

The Productive Approach: Why do reforms accumulate?

It requires real work on the part of teachers to adapt to or adopt a systematic, comprehensive reform.  Teachers develop long-term, classroom-level structures, procedures, and norms that allow students to learn with minimal interruption.  Kennedy notes that “reforms can require teachers to make substantial adaptations in their annual, unit, and lesson plans; participate in additional training programs or additional staff meetings; fill out new forms; test their students more often; write longer and more complex lesson plans; post assignments online; and so forth” (p. 596).  That is to say, adopting a new “standard operating procedure” is not as simple as changing a bulletin board or switching out one curriculum binder for another.

Significant changes in practice require an investment of time and energy from teachers.   Furthermore, it often takes a few years to “get to know” a new initiative.  As teachers become more familiar with the reform, they are able to take real ownership of it, personalize it, adjust it to best suit the distinct needs of their students.  And after having put in the time and hard work required to implement a new reform with fidelity, teachers (and their students) begin to reap the rewards of the innovation and are understandably reluctant to start the process anew with the next great idea, regardless of how great that idea may be.  It makes sense, then, that “ghosts of reforms past” continue to linger in schools long after the leaders who championed them have moved on.

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