The Case for Calling Them “Reformers”

How to Stop Mass Incarceration The New Yorker
Screenshot from the New Yorker article “How to Stop Mass Incarceration.”

I learned from a recent New Yorker article that in criminal justice circles “reformers” are the ones who are pushing back against accountability and narrow measures of public safety in favor of softer, more nuanced approaches.

This is the the opposite of the dominant naming conventions in education, in which reformers are generally identified with accountability, student achievement data, and the other law-and-order approaches to improving public schools.

What does this mean for education, if anything?

Well, it’s long been debated in education circles whether the term “reformer” was appropriate for the pro-choice, pro-accountability folks who generally get the label. Questions that have been raised include (a) Is the term (and its counterpart, “reform critics”) fair and neutral, and (b) shouldn’t the labels be reversed since reform is the dominant model and those current labeled reform critics are pushing against?

These are all legitimate questions, to some extent. I must confess not having done much to broaden or deepen the discussion. I did give up on my original favorite term for reform critics, which was PovRacers, but that’s not saying much. And my attempt to popularize “reformy” as a way of mocking the term and approach failed to gain much traction and was also silly.

Others — some newspaper outlets, for example — have gone further, banning the word or suggesting alternatives. This past fall, the Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn urged for an end to the use of the term (in education and other areas) on the grounds that it’s simplistic and unfair. I’m told that reporters at Education Week are banned from using it. Some educators identified as “reformers” such as former LA superintendent John Deasy spoke out against the term, feeling that it had become polarized and toxic.

Reading the New Yorker article, however, I think I finally understand how and why so-called “reformers” might continue to warrant that term despite the existence of so many pro-reform laws and initiatives such as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core.

Here it is: For all their success passing legislation and winning over centrist Democrats and some percentage of the public, reformers still haven’t reshaped the fundamental building blocks of K-12 education: neighborhood-based school assignment, local control by 15,000 autonomous school districts, and traditional teacher preparation, placement and evaluation procedures.

Reform ideas and organizations are increasingly powerful, to be sure. And in some places like DC, New Orleans, and mayoral control districts like Chicago and New York City they’re obviously a dominant player. But reformers and reform ideas are still on the whole working outside in rather than the other way around. However, much support they’ve won or foundation funding (or media coverage) they’ve received, they’re still an insurgency compared to the larger $600 billion a year K-12 education system. They and their ideas are still the exception rather than the rule in the vast majority of places, in terms of actual practice.

For those reasons I think they’re rightly referred to as reformers. They’re trying to change a long-standing system of funding, organizing, staffing, and and providing education to students. In many cases, they’re failing to make much of a dent.

This argument won’t be at all convincing to reform critics, who many of them identify as underdogs nipping at the heels of well-funded corporate privatizers. And news outlets who seek inoffensive accuracy could certainly do better. But I think it’s a fair representation of the realities on the ground in schools across the country. And unless and until things change quite a bit more than they have thus far, I think the term “reformer” fits just fine.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.