I’ve been bothered lately by the use of the term “so-called reformers.” Who decided that it was necessary to police the use of the word “reform,” and why and how do some people get legitimate claim while others are “fake”?
My decision to jump in the fray stems from NYU’s Dr. Pedro Noguera, who has replaced Diane Ravitch on the popular Education Week blog Bridging Differences. I had the pleasure of being taught by Dr. Noguera in 2000, when he first came to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the opportunity to serve as his teaching assistant for a couple of semesters after that. I always aspire to integrate theory, knowledge, and common sense like he can into my own public presentations. But his use of the term “so-called reformers” during an appearance on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show landed like a terrible insult. I worried that the term might somehow apply to me, but I wasn’t sure how my credibility or that of others was being called into question.
Dr. Noguera repeated the term in his recent post “A Call to Reclaim the Banner of Reform.” The title speaks volumes. It leads me to assume that he believes current reforms are wrongheaded and not reforms at all. But reform is not about a specific, definitive agenda. The content of reform often shifts—which is why we talk about it as coming in waves and associate it with different generations. Reform agendas may clash, but reform itself is ever-changing.
The reality is that reform is a dynamic process. It’s always about rebirth and change, new ideas and innovation. Very few would argue that our education system is working so well that there’s no need for all of this.
Michael Fullan’s take on education reform is the backdrop to my understanding—his short pithy book Change Forces argued that innovation was sorely lacking in the education sector and encouraged educators to make plan-ful change to improve the core business of schools and school systems. I entered the education sector at a time when standards and accountability were the newest direction of reform. A little book named Tinkering Toward Utopia recommended bold action, rather than slow, measured steps, in the face of a system steeled against change of any kind.
The truth is that education reform is still a relatively new phenomenon, and any of us brave enough to venture towards something really new should be given room to at least pilot innovation. There something about the emergence of the modifier “so-called” that suggests a strategic message: language that’s aimed like an arrow across the bow.
I’ve never been one to love innovation for innovation’s sake. And I’m not arguing for any one reform agenda, but I do have to take issue with any attempt to de-legitimize some of us working to improve schools. We are ALL reformers in our intentions. We should debate the ideas, not who gets to participate in the debate.