Redefine The Roles, Not The Whole System

McIver Institute

Education Reform: Is It Necessary?

Does our educational system need to be reformed? While I think many people would answer a resounding YES, I am a bit more skeptical, cautious and honestly, uncertain. While the word reform speaks to making changes to improve a specific institution, when it comes to education, it seems to be synonymous with a complete overhaul; an implosion of the current system and a entire rebuild. While that may be necessary, that is an awesome task that would require a coordinated effort behind a clear vision and goal in the best interest of all learners. An effort that would be dedicated to providing all learners a meaningful academic experience (not to only be defined by the adults) regardless of SES, geographical location or race; in the end, the reform effort would be about equity for all learners. Unfortunately, in my opinion, I don’t think those clear goals and vision exist at this time and that is one of the major stumbling blocks impacting the reform movement. 

Those involved in driving the reform movement are not deeply connected to what is happening in classrooms today; they are not seeking input from students, families and educators; they are not trying to change the behaviors and philosophy of those directly involved in learning and teaching; instead, they are trying to overhaul the whole system, from a macro level, and the results have been inconsistent, at best. 

Do things in our schools need to change? Yes, they do but not just because the system is “broken” but because the world around us is constantly changing, iterating and evolving. I have been immersed in discussions, readings and debates about the reform movement over the last five years and what I have come to realize is that there is no silver bullet to change the whole system. The charter school system is flawed; the school voucher movement is questionable at best; and the privatization of our public schools has literally polarized our nation. What we know today is that none of the major reform movements have proven to be effective in a sustainable way. Yes, there are pockets of success but in the end, no singular reform movement has been the silver bullet because the task is too awesome to happen in a vacuum without changing the behaviors of those responsible for the change… our kids and educators.  

Redefine The Roles, Don’t Focus on Reforming The Whole System

If we want our kids to be able to navigate the world around them then we need to meet them where they are and change the way we do things in school. I don’t mean by implementing a scripted curriculum or buying a bunch of stuff to throw into the classrooms; I mean by investing in the people within the organization (kids, families & educators) and make a concerted effort to redefine the roles in education as the starting point for improving our schools and reform our practice. If we want reform to be pervasive and sustainable on a greater scale than the current “pockets of success” then we need to make the following happen…

1. Change behaviors and actions of the students, educators and families, which lead to a… 

2. Change in thinking and philosophy within the students, educators and families (according to Dr. Stangor), which lead to…

3. The development of a shared vision and common goals through intentional work, which are…

4. The beginnings of positive change… aka, REFORM!


Redefining The Roles: What Should We Do?

When thinking about the major roles in education, we find ourselves thinking about the children, their respective families and the educators (including teachers, support staff and educational leaders). For the purposes of this post, I am going to focus on ways we could redefine the roles of teachers and building/district administration but also offer some possibilities for children and families. Here we go:

Children (if your schools permit)… 

1. Drive the learning in your classroom by asking questions, offering ideas and collaborating with those around you.

2. Find your passion and pursue it… but not just on a surface level, instead, immerse yourself in the subject and learn everything you can so you become an expert.

Families (if your schools permit)… 

1. Be actively engaged in what your child is learning in school; this doesn’t mean do their HW or enable them but instead just be aware of what your children are learning and why they are learning the content. 

2. Communicate with your child’s teacher or building leader for both positive reasons and with any questions and concerns; educating our children is collaborative effort and a strong home/school partnership is critical.


1. Engage families in the learning that is unfolding in the classroom in a current, dynamic and relevant way (blog about it, tweet about it, post pictures about it).

2. Don’t focus solely on covering content and curriculum; instead, teach the learners before you. Teach the readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, etc. sitting before you because if you focus on teaching the reading, writing, math, science, etc. you are going to miss an opportunity to empower kids to take ownership of their learning because you will end up simply “covering” the curriculum.

3. Focus on the journey of learning and give your learners opportunities to be immersed in the inquiry process. Encourage your student to drive the learning in your shared learning space (classroom is so 1971). No, this doesn’t mean the teacher isn’t necessary; in fact, it means the teacher is even more necessary because they frame the parameters, they facilitate/support the learning and they meet each child at their readiness level and help them grow. It is not easy work.

4. Give rise to agency in your shared learning space so children can act with some level of independence and make decisions about their learning.

5. Talk to kids to find out how things are going and how your teaching is impacting them and their thinking; don’t be afraid of this feedback because our kids are our most important “customers”.

Edu Administrators/Leaders…

1. Be a lead learner, which means model being a learner first and empower those around you to take ownership of their learning. Being a learner is step one but then you should share your learning in a public way (possibly through a blog or through tweets) because you want people in the organization to know you are a learner first and that you value learning.  

2. Be present and engaged because you cannot effectively lead people, systems or change from your office. As a central office administrator this year, I made it my goal to spend at least 40% of my time in classrooms (apparently this is not the norm for central/district office leaders). While it meant staying up late to get caught up on the administrative work, it informed my practice in ways that I never could have imagined. Not only did I nurture relationships with those around me, but I came to see, with my own eyes, what learning and instruction looked like in our district. These new found understandings, rooted in people, came to inform decisions about everything from professional development to furniture purchases. 

3. Communicate with those around you and be transparent in what you are doing and why you are doing it. Instead of having administrative meetings behind closed doors in an office somewhere, make them a walking meeting and 

4. Make feedback a norm because one of the best ways to reflect, change behaviors and shape philosophy is through objective feedback on practices based on observations. Feedback doesn’t just become a norm by saying it is a new norm – there must be practice and professional development around the work of giving and receiving feedback. In the end, we must always be mindful of the intent of our feedback and the actual impact it has on those around us because they may not always align.

5. Don’t look at data in a vacuum and don’t use said data to purchase stuff to address student needs or fix perceived problems. Want to fix a problem? Invest in the people affected by, and possibly affecting, the problem. Yes, research based programs are valuable but research based instructional approaches and techniques carried out by our teachers, who we should support through meaningful personal and professional development, trumps every program, resource or curriculum.

What Does It All Mean?

Yes, the lists above could go on and on (feel free to add to them in the comments section below) but, in the end, if we want to see sustainable change in our schools, we have to focus on shaping and changing the behaviors of the people within the organization. That is the first step to meaningful reform.