One educator’s opinion: Why educational reforms fail

The educational research community is not doing its job, charges Stanley Pogrow, University of Arizona/Tucson. It’s not that there aren’t lots of innovative ideas developing from research communities, but that researchers do not follow through, translating these ideas into workable methods for teachers.

Educational researchers produce general theories but fail to develop detailed methods that have been tested on a large scale, in diverse classrooms. Pogrow believes that the primary role of teachers is to teach, not to develop new techniques. Failed reforms are most often blamed on teachers, but reforms fail because ideas don’t have the necessary methodological specifics to ensure that they will be implemented effectively.

Initiatives not designed for large-scale implementation

Researchers often come up with valuable ideas that have proved effective in a particular classroom or in a small research study. But, according to Pogrow, these promising ideas aren’t developed in a form that is effective for large-scale implementation. The fact that something works in a few classrooms says almost nothing about whether or how it will work on a large scale. In education, there are very few examples of researchers studying an innovative practice on a large scale over an extended period of time.

Pogrow believes that ideas that have not been tested thoroughly should not be promoted in schools or to the public. Time and money should be spent on development and testing, rather than on teacher training for innovations that have not been thoroughly tested. Pogrow asserts that most current reform efforts are innovative ideas rather than tested methodologies.

Rush to implementation

In the absence of substantive methodologies, Pogrow says, reforms are implemented through simplistic strategies that lead to failure. This repeated failure, in his opinion, is responsible for the lack of public confidence in education as well as for a massive waste of resources.

Pogrow also criticizes the use of meta-analysis. He asserts that when you pool the results of lots of small studies to pretend you have a large study, the variability in quality of the different studies is not taken into account. Weak programs are given the same weight as more effective ones, which deemphasizes the importance of the effective programs.

The education community, Pogrow says, continues to try undeveloped new ideas because it desperately wants to improve schools for students. Pogrow calls on educators to stop asserting that we know what works when there is so little proof – even on a small scale. Many new ideas have great potential, but appropriate methodology needs to be developed.

Creating well-developed and thoroughly tested innovations from promising ideas requires increasing investment in development, slowing the rush to implementation, and rethinking the role and structure of colleges of education. We need organizations that can integrate research and philosophy with the development and large-scale testing of new methodologies.

We need more joint-development ventures between universities, businesses and schools. Pogrow concludes that education can no longer afford an academic research community that is detached from the real processes that take place in schools and from the large-scale consequences of the ideas that it proposes.

“Reforming the Wannabe Reformers — Why Education Reforms Almost Always End Up Making Things Worse” Phi Delta Kappan Volume 77, Number 10, June 1996 pp. 656-663

Published in ERN September/October 1996 Volume 9 Number 4


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