Why Does More Disruptive Education Reform Come from Outside of the System?

A common critique of the education reform movement (as some refer to it), is that many of the people involved with education reform are not inside the system. What most people mean by this is that it is not the teachers and principals who are doing much of the reforming. Instead, we see community members, policymakers, philanthropists, directors of foundation portfolios, people in the corporate world, and others who sometimes drive the conversation, fund the initiatives, and set the agenda. First, I want to note that I am not convinced that this is an accurate picture. I’ve interviewed countless new and alternative school founders who were educators. In addition, I’ve met many parents and students who helped drive significant reforms and new models, and I would hardly consider parents and students outside of the system (if we do, then that points to a larger and even more serious problem).

Nonetheless, the concern about people outside of the system tends to be related to one or more of the following.

  1. People outside of the system do not really know the intricacies and complexities of the system. As such, their ideas risk being ill-informed or maybe even harmful in the big picture.
  2. People outside of the system sometimes have ulterior motives, even financial ones.
  3. People outside of the system lack the professional position or expertise of trained educational professionals.

There are other reasons, but these are three of the most common.

There are also some good reasons why some of the more innovative reforms come from outside of the system.

  1. People inside the system somethings get so used to it that they have trouble seeing the problem, limitations, or promising alternatives.
  2. People inside the system often have competing interests and, even while some might strive to be altruistic when it comes to matters of school structure and design, self-preservation is often a factor.
  3. People trained in the ways of the current system do not necessarily have expertise in creating alternatives.
  4. They are limited by the policies and procedures within, making it hard to try something new unless they were to leave the system, only they then become labeled as people outside of the system.

Did you notice anything interesting about the first list and the second list? Many of the items are same, but from a different angle. The truth is that good education reform can come from inside or outside of the system. There are benefits and limitations to all reforms, regardless of the origin. There are competing interests with each approach. Yet, when it comes to more disruptive innovations in education, this simple reflection indicates why more seems to happen on the outside. As one who has spent his formative years inside the system, followed by his adult years working in that system, it is apparent to me that we need those external innovators.

At the same time, the most significant lever for change is actually within the system, and that is the student. Students today find themselves in a peculiar position. They are within the schools but often have limited voice or influence. Yet, as K-12 and higher education institutions continue to lose more of their monopoly as the exclusive source of formal learning, that voice will be heard and that influence will grow.

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