In Search of a Better Education Policy Taxonomy

One small but not insignificant problem plaguing education policy is that we lack language that’s capable of handling the nuance of the issues. There is basically one word — “reform” — to describe every hypothetical policy that deviates from the standard union line (“not reform.”) This lack of idiomatic creativity is a problem in national politics too, but at least there is some meaningful variety there. Libertarian, Conservative, Democrat, Evangelical, Technocrat, and Tea-Partier are all words with connotations that reveal a unique set of policy preferences.

Education policy has nothing except the vacuous term, “reformer.” As a result, if somebody decides not to engage with all the gory details of a person’s policy positions, there are no shortcuts for geting the gist of what that person believes. This leads to a lot of mood affiliation and faulty heuristics because without the clarifying abilities of descriptive terms, people’s biases and emotions lead them to attribute to others whatever beliefs they feel like the other people have. An improved taxonomy won’t solve every problem, but it may make it easier to understand what people really think. For example, it may turn out that somebody now labelled a “reformer” is a big supporter of technology but has no opinion on school choice or teacher compensation.

Below is my initial effort to create a better taxonomy of education policy positions. These are by no means meant to be definitive. My main hope is that it will encourage others to begin using their own concrete descriptors, and that at some point a wider variety of terms will organically sprout up. I apologize in advance if I misrepresent anybody’s position. Admittedly, this is a rough draft based on impressions that were too hastily formed. And yes, the names are terrible. It’s the distinctions that matter.

Labor Traditionalists

Their platform is best described as the views of local unions (e.g. the CTA). The group tends to include many generic safe-seat Democrats (e.g. Barbara Mikulski), and their left flank is held down by Diane Ravitch and people who used the phrase “corpreform.” In general, the Labor Traditionalist beef with the status quo is that teachers deserve more money, better working conditions, and freedom from quantitative measures of accountability. They are opposed to more charter schools, and they tend to be skeptical of any stakeholders who aren’t teachers or parents.

Committed Reconstructionists

Their general position is that of the Obama administration, and the group includes the Gates Foundation, centrist wonks like Andrew Rotherham, upstart Democratic politicians like Michael Bennet, and less controversial “reform” organizations like 50 CAN, SFER, and E4E. Committed Reconstructionists believe the evidence for charter schools, value-added models, and computer-based instruction is strong enough to continue the expansion of all three initiatives. They firmly believe in an objective system of accountability, but at the same time they believe teachers are an important part of the process and should have input. They also stop short of endorsing more radical changes like vouchers and unregulated cyber schools.

Skeptical Reconstructionists

To the right of Labor Traditionalists but to the left of the Committed Reconstructionists, the views of Skeptical Reconstructionists are best embodied by the Shanker Institute’s Matthew Di Carlo. Unlike Labor Traditionalists, Skeptical Reconstructionists are not philosophically opposed to charter schools or value-added scores, and they are more likely to believe the status quo is untenable. However, unlike Committed Reconstructionists, they have a desire to move more slowly and a stronger belief in the possibility that we could end up a situation far worse than the status quo. Skeptical Reconstructionists don’t believe there’s a reason to stop current reforms, but they want to improve them and see more evidence before they’re willing to commit to scaling up. In other words, they want to pump the breaks rather than jam them or release them. Skeptical Reconstructionists are relatively rare — I think the Labor Traditionalists and Committed Reconstructionists tend to do a good job capturing people in their vicinity — but it’s an important group because it will likely include many of the 2016 Democratic presidential candidates. The primary will push candidates to the left of Obama, but many of them will want to maintain an image of progressivity and change.

Red-Meat Reformers

Epitomized by Jeb Bush and most Conservative governors, this group is essentially the Committed Reconstructionists on steroids. They want a faster expansion of charter schools and value-added teacher evaluations. They also support vouchers and strict accountability (e.g. school closures) based on relatively primitive an untested metrics, they tend to see unions as an obstacle rather than a partner, and they have more of a rhetorical focus on the “money should follow the student” view of school funding.


Led by academics Rick Hess and Jay Greene, this group often appears similar to the Red-Meat Reformers, but their positions are all based around doing away with centralized rules and regulations. The result is that unlike Red-Meat Reformers, De-Regulators are firmly against the statewide mandates that form the backbone of things like Common Core and value-added teacher evaluations. This is basically the tea-party equivalent in education policy. And I mean that in a strictly ideological way that has has nothing to do with the intellectual merit of their ideas. The De-Regulators simply want the government (but not its money) out of their schools.

Independence Absolutists (Relinquishers)

This group is similar to the De-Regulators, but their focus is in the broader ecosystem of school management. While they will tend to prefer that schools have independence on issues like Common Core and teacher evaluations, their true core belief is that a network of 1,000 independent schools will always be better than 1,000 schools run by a single entity. The result is that relative to the De-Regulators, the don’t focus on budgetary issues and they are more likely to support something like state-mandated teacher evaluation guidelines as long as schools have room to conform to them in their own ways. I would put Andy Smarick and Neerav Kingsland (who coined the term “relinquisher” and could easily be labeled a De-Regulator) in this category.


Led by Tom Vander Ark and the Innosight Institute’s Michael B. Horn, this group believes that schools should be using technology to give students personalized learning experiences and instant feedback. They don’t really care about most of the big-ticket reform issues in of themselves, they’re only interested in them in terms of how they impact the use technology. At the margin this probably makes them pro-charter and anti-union, but there’s no real alignment.


The most radical and least ideological of all groups, they simply believe that nothing resembling our education system in its current form will come close to maximizing our ability to turn youth into productive adults. Razers include those affiliated with the “free school” movement, those who believe high school should essentially be a work-study program, those who want to drastically alter curricular boundaries (e.g. dedicate a large part of the day to teaching decision making and emotional management.)

Labor Reconstructionists

This is perhaps the most vague group, but it essentially consists of a hodgepodge of people who don’t quite fit into the Labor Traditionalists because they have a much stronger belief that the status quo is untenable. Labor Reconstructionists might support giving parents and communities significantly more power over how schools are run, to the the degree that they would surely support something like the parent trigger if it were associated with people on their side of the ideological spectrum. In addition, the Labor Reocnstructionists might include certain single issue activists, such people who are adamant about smaller class sizes or who want to do away with standardized testing. I would also put certain sections of charter school parents into this group. They probably hate testing and are politically very liberal, but they love their kids’ charter school and will fight for its existence.


Hopefully these distinctions make it easier to learn about and communicate policy views. For example, I would describe myself as 2/7 Committed Reconstructionist, 2/7 Skeptical Reconstructionist, 1/7 Independence Absolutist, 1/7 Techno-futurist, and 1/7 Razer. I think that’s a lot more informative than saying I support most generic “reform” ideas, but remain skeptical of their effectiveness and think we should consider more drastic changes to the design of schools. In the latter situation you could believe almost anything about me depending on how you size me up. In the former situation I think it’s relatively clear where I stand.

Ok, this my feeble first effort at a new taxonomy. How could it be improved? Who’s going to take the reigns and create a better one? Education policy wonks are counting on you.


Update: 3/9

More Thoughtful decided to run with Elizabeth’s comment and create a good taxonomy of some of the deeper philosophical dimensions on which there’s disagreement. (Update: He objects to my of the term “philosophical dimensions.”)

I also want to clarify that this taxonomy was mostly meant to improve a specific kind of superficial debate. For example, if somebody is writing an article and is going to dedicate 1-3 words to characterize somebody they’ve just introduced, we can do a lot better than “reformer.” I agree with others that in an ideal world our debates will focus mostly on the philosophical issues that lie underneath policy disputes. I think it would be great if politicians, union leaders, and bigwigs at non-profits spent a little less time on specific policies and more time debating things like present costs/benefits vs. future costs/benefits (something I touch on here), serving individual students vs. serving the public, equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcomes, and equality of opportunity with the entire student population vs. equality of opportunity within a subgroup of the student population (a core issue in the debate over charter schools, which can equalize opportunity between low-income and wealthy students while doing the opposite among a specific subgroup of low-income students.)

All in all, the fact that the post generated some debate means I’m ready to declare it a success. Thanks to everybody who took the time to give feedback.

16 Responses to In Search of a Better Education Policy Taxonomy

  1. Pingback: Remainders: Multi-state Common Core tests to take 8-10 hours | GothamSchools

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Really well done! It’d be fun to see how many people would attach themselves to one of these camps and how many would prefer a multidimensional typology where you could identify one way on say accountability but another on political theory of change. I think something to add is a dimension about the relationship between education and social change: do you care about equalizing opportunities? Outcomes? Redistribution of wealth? Intellectualization of the citizenry? And how do you think education can accomplish the specific social goal that most interests you? Through galvanizing a new political and economic sensibility among youth against capitalism? By empowering a more competitive workforce? Etc. it could be a questionnaire that many people could fill out…

    • Eric Horowitz says:

      Agreed! The point of this was mostly to help people talk about things, but I think it would be interesting to create series of matrices where people could rate themselves on various scales, or even something like the MBTI for education. People could go around saying “I’m an LOI (Local rather than state or federal control, equalizing Opportunity rather than outcomes, Intellectual development rather than skill development.)”

  3. ceolaf says:

    This is virtually all about issues of governance and/or centralization. There is almost nothing here related to the central task of schools — education.

    What am I? Where would I fit? I don’t see any of my core principles reflected in here.

    Classroom Concerned: I believe that the goal of all ed reform should be to improve what happens where the kids are (i.e. in the classroom, in the cafeteria and on the playground). I am skeptical of any education reforms whose theory of action does not link to where the students are, or whose link depends numerous missing steps (i.e. underwear gnome thinking) and/or a lack of understanding of how districts, schools, classrooms and the folks who work there function.

    Research Aware: There is a long history of practice and of research. While we have to be careful about how we read the research and history, we should learn from it and not repeat the mistakes of the past. I am beyond skeptical of ideas that have long been shown ineffective, but keep coming back because they fit some powerful person/group’s ideological outlook. We should be moving forward, building on what we’ve learned and trying to figure out what will work even better.

    Glass Half Full: I object to the term “crisis,” as the issues we are trying to address are quite old. I know that when we control for level of child poverty, our public schools are among the very best in the world. I know that scores of every subgroups have been going up for decades, but that the changing composition of American society has hidden those increases when examined in the aggregate. Our schools are not good enough, not in the poor inner city and not in the rich suburbs. We have a moral obligation to improve the schools, but we the false bluster about failing schools and our nation’s slipping economic competitiveness actually gets in the way of recognizing our successes and find a way to build upon them.

    Yeah, I know those are not the nouns you are looking for.

    But the big point is what I started with. You are entirely focused on things that are not really related to the core technology of education. There is almost nothing here that actually will impact children. Yes, you mentioned Common Core. OK. But what happens in classrooms and schools? What needs to be done there? The less you talk about reform that will clearly impact that, the less you are talking about *education* policy (and instead are talking about generic policy stuff).

    There is nowhere in your typology for people who have knowledge and experience with schooling, critically examine it and thoughtfully try to figure out what we need to do to improve what we do for children. The fact that this did not occur to you is not surprising because debates in education policy rarely are about education stuff. They are about economics and politics. They are not field-specific. They are rarely informed about what matters most — which is the impact on children. Instead, we get people claiming that the interests of the children justify the imposition of their ideology in the absence of evidence that their such impositions are good for children.

    • Eric Horowitz says:

      I think your comment illustrates why we need a better way of talking about things. All of the various groups I mentioned believe their primary mission is to improve what happens where the kids are. All of them “have knowledge and experience with schooling, critically examine it and thoughtfully try to figure out what we need to do to improve what we do for children.” All of them believe they are basing their ideas on existing research. So in practice, saying that you’re concerned with these things doesn’t reveal anything about what you believe should be done.

      • ceolaf says:

        I fundamentally disagree.

        1) Based on existing research?

        For example, the research on merit pay for teachers is solid, and has a 80+ year history. The claims of so many policy advocates go against research. They do no ground their claims or proposals in good knowledge of the research, but rather try to cherry pick (or generate) research that supports their preconceived notions.

        Charter schools? The advocates were for them far in advance of any research that showed they might work better than traditional public schools. Value-added? There’s no research that shows it’ll help students. Class size? The research does NOT show that it is cost-effective or even scalable (regardless of the cost). Tech folks? It’s all dreams, that might or might not prove true. I could go on and on.

        2) You write: “All of the various groups I mentioned believe their primary mission is to improve what happens where the kids are. All of them ‘have knowledge and experience with schooling, critically examine it and thoughtfully try to figure out what we need to do to improve what we do for children.'”

        No. I do not think that you understand their theories of action. Many (most?) of them believe that if you change the conditions, incentives, structures the stuff around the classrooms, then the classroom stuff will take of itself. They view the classroom, teaching, learning and all that as a black box that they don’t need to address themselves because that’s not where the expertise lies.

        In fact, the particulars of what children need and the actual mechanisms and processes by which we deliver them are far from primary in their concerns. (Some of the Razors do think about this, even if I disagree with their conclusions.)


        Yes, all of them would like to think that their ideas are well grounded in existing research, but that doesn’t make it true — and they’ve not done the work to discover whether or they are because the possibility that they are not is never seriously entertained.

        Yes, all of them would like to think that what happens where the kids are is their primary mission, but theories of action make it an indirect effect of their work. Perhaps they can claim that improving the educational experience for children is the ultimate goal of their work, but it is not their primary concern. If it were they would seek to understand what it means in the first place.


        Let’s look at charter schools.

        Why would someone be in favor of charter schools? Because districts are bad? Why? What about district schools is bad? What does chaterness give students that TPS does not? How does charterness impact teaching and learning?

        If charterness is not the goal, how does charterness help us to reach the goal? Which freedoms that charters have help? What is it that charters do with those freedom that makes a difference? How does charterness help students?

        Rhee’s organization is anti-teacher pension. OK. Why? Because they prevent teacher mobility and cost too much. OK. How does greater teacher mobility help students? How should be the money be spent instead of on pensions? What are they proposing that actually impacts student learning? It looks like some form of merit-pay, right? Well, how does merit pay help students (as oppose to somehow just being more fair)? There’s a lot of research on this.

        Tom Vander Ark. We have him to thank for the small schools stuff. What has his thought process? Ever heard him talk about it and his mea culpa? He looked at scores and saw that small schools were disproportionately in the top scoring and most improved groups. He did not ask why or how school size impacted students, classrooms, teaching or learning. So, he leveraged the Gates money to really push the small schools movement.

        Theories of action that do not go all the way to students because they treat classrooms, teaching and learning as a black box.

        • Eric Horowitz says:


          It’s hard to take your accusations of cherry-picking at face value when you yourself are cherry-picking. There’s a lot of research on things like charter schools, value-added measures, merit pay, and class sizes, and there are numerous findings in favor of both sides of the issues. So to declare that these things definitively don’t work is just as bad as declaring that they clearly do work. If one side is cherry-picking then both sides are cherry picking.

          I also don’t understand your belief that none of these people care what goes on in the classroom. For example, many charter schools have longer school days, a focus on emotional development, or a specific instructional method (e.g. Uncommon Schools.) How do they help students? They provide them with more time in a constructive educational environment, a skill they believe will lead to improved learning, or an improved instructional dialogue with a teacher. Yes, saying “charter schools” are good doesn’t directly speak to the classroom, but within that statement is the belief that by opening the system of school management you allow people in who have newer and better theories of action.

          • ceolaf says:

            * I did not say that charter schools don’t work or that there is not research showing that they do. I said that charter advocates were ahead of the research.

            * Where is the research that shows that value-added models improve student outcomes? The research all shows that value-added models are not ready for prime-time. Everyone (perhaps literally everyone) who has designed such systems says that they should not be used for high- or medium- stakes decision-making.

            * There is a ton of research on merit pay for teachers. We know it doesn’t work. The research has been clear and unambigious for scores of years.

            * There have been a tiny number of studies that show that class size is effective, and nothing done at scales has worked. There are huge volumes of research on the impacts when CA tried to bring to scale, and I can’t even being to figure how many volumes of work on the lack of cost-effectiveness. Yes, there is research — high quality — research that it works in pilot programs. But as a policy? The research there goes the other way.

            * So, you are one-for-four on claiming that I said policies definitely won’t work. Merit pay doesn’t work. Class size is not cost effective (and there’s a lack of evidence that it works in the middle or upper grades, though my own personal experience suggests strongly that it makes a big difference). Research supporting charterness as better than TPS is just starting to come in (and still looks like robbing peter to pay paul). And there is absolutely nothing that shows that value-added supports anything other than value-added — and even that is weak or non-existant most of the time.

            * Chartnerness is not a longer school day. Charterness is not a focus on emotional development. Charterness is not specific instructional method. Very few prominent charter advocate advocate any one of these. Most are for charters, for the sake of charters, for the sake of the freedom that charterness allows. By definition, chaterness is that freedom. That’s what Shanker envisioned, that’s what the laws are designed to do, and that’s what the theory of action is about.

            * You don’t seem to understand what a theory of action is. It is the whole chain. How does THIS reform lead to improved outcomes. What is the entire chain of events and causality that go from the specific change or program advocated to the desired outcome. Specifically, specifically, specifically.

            * You explain part of the theory of action for charter schools. The idea is the districts and states have hampered innovation in TPS and that charterness opens up innovation in a multitude of ways. The theory is that this freedom to innovate and do things differently will allow better approaches and techniques to be developed. The original theory of action — and it was prominently discussed until recently — said then that the lessons from the little experiments would then be transferred to the TPS schools, but research has found that transfer to be too rare and so that elements is rarely included anymore. Instead, the current most common theory of action is that chaterness allows better schools (and some people think it automatically means better schools), a worthy goal of it’s own right. The lack of transfer has shifted the charter theory of action to now require more and more and more charter schools, because the charter schools themselves are better — rather than somewhere to innovate and learn from — pushing a lifting of charter school caps. A new value has also been picked up widely among the charter movement: choice. Thus, charter schools do not even need to be better, because providing families choice is a good unto itself.

            * Note that different folks have quite different ideas about how to use the freedom that chartneress provides. KIPP has one theory, AF has another, Uncommon Schools another. But the charter movement itself? It is agnotistic on this stuff, to allow these different groups to work together a bit more. But lifting charter caps is not about a longer school days. Allowing more charter authorizers is not about focusing on emotional development. Issues around funding charter schools are not about a specific instructional model. There are plenty of charter schools without longer school days and school years — it’s really the vast majority of them. There are plenty of charter schools that do not focus particuarlly on emotional development — probably the vast majority of them. There are plenty of charter school that take a conventional approach to instruction — it’s really the vast majority of them.

            * I am not picking on charter schools or those who work in them. I am not even quite picking on those who advocate for more charters and more charterness. My preferred reforms have less research backing that charterness (though a more developed theory of action). Individual charter operators, leaders and teachers do not need to account for the whole movement. They can have their own theory of action — as the Mike and Dave clearly did with KIPP.

            * I am picking on the simplicity with which you are viewing this stuff. Some people fight for more charters. Let’s acknowledge what they are actually doing. Some people advocate for a longer day and/year. And there’s overlap there. But they are not the same thing. In fact, as I said, a minority of charter advocates are advocating for longer school days and years. You want a more nuanced way to look at this stuff? Well, then don’t ignore the real differences. Don’t stop you critical anaysis at the limits of their blackboxes.

  4. ceolaf says:

    I won’t fisk this whole thing for problems, but I want to comment on your characterization the techno-futurists.

    You have raised their message of the moment to one of their defining concerns. We’ve had techno-futurists for a long time. They have long believed that high tech advancements — particularly computers — will revolutionize schooling and learning. This goes back to at least 30 years. As the technology has advanced, their visions have advanced.

    You’ve left out that they often point to the integration of technology into the work and private lives of adults, therefore the the need for schools to prepare students for this through integrating technology into schooling/education. That’s been there all along. They are usually quite strongly linked to those who believe that preparing students for the world of work is a highly important part of schooling.

  5. ceolaf says:

    This is not to say that teachers have got all the answers.

    Teachers do not visit other teachers classrooms enough. They do not visit other schools enough. They almost never have the perspective to know what they are doing that works well, or to be able to recognize what is not working and why.

    Ridiculous ideas about how professionalism means autonomy and freedom from supervision or organizational policy hampers both organizational and individual professional growth. Teacher almost never think about scalability or other contexts. Like everyone else, they are grounded in their own practices and experiences and know far too little about the research, too.

    There are problems all over the place. Those who know the research tend not to understand the levers available in policy. Silos all over the place, too few people crossing silos and too little awareness of the need to bring teams together from all the silos.

    But we should recognize the common problems with most of the policy types.

  6. Mike G says:

    This is good. I agree. We need a better taxonomy.

    I was trying to think of 4 or so axes.

    1. Bigger Bolder versus Education Equality Project. Darling Hammond versus Schnur.

    2. Choice/de-reg vs. Big District Reform. Greene versus Rhee.

    3. Progressive vs. Traditional Curriculum. Calkins v. Hirsch.

    4. Progressive vs. Traditional Pedagogy/School culture. Meier v. Lemov.

    I lean: b, a, b, b.

    TFA is: b, split, mostly b, mostly b.

    High Tech High is: b, a, a, split.

  7. ceolaf says:

    I do not think that there is any reason to think that KIPP (the example you cited in your comment on my blog) “equalizes opportunities between low-income and wealthy students.”

    Show me the the school populated by the children of wealthy families that runs like a KIPP school, has the discipline policies of KIPP school, the curriculum of KIPP school or the pedagogy of a KIPP school.

    KIPP obviously does NOT attempt to provide the same — or even vaguely similar — opportunities. It has an entirely different model to address students with different backgrounds and needs.

    I can buy that KIPP tries to equalize outcomes, but the basic model is about providing an entirely different kind of opportunity.

    • Eric Horowitz says:

      Well I was thinking more in terms of complaints about more per-pupil funding or the peer effects of being surrounded by higher achievers. Obviously KIPP has their own way of running things that doesn’t line up with some non-existent standard of high-income schools.

  8. ceolaf says:

    I do not appreciate your dismissing my substantive examination of the thinking of a wide range of people as merely “philosophical issues.”

    In fact, barely any of them touch on philosophical issue. Instead, I examined the THINKING, the PRINCIPALS, and the REASONING of people. Clearly you prefer opaque — and at times downright misleading — labels that do nothing to contribute to understanding or facilitating discussion.

    I do spend time thinking about the philosophical bases that inform and underly people’s thinking and conclusion. I do think about WHY the they think what they think. But in that post I just tried to help to break down WHAT they think in a systemic way.

    You want to break “reformers” down into camps (they they might or might not agree with)? Fine. Obviously, you can do that. But really don’t think you help anything by doing so.

    • Eric Horowitz says:

      I apologize if you think I was playing fast and loose with a term that’s very broad and vague, but I think it’s fair to say that questions about relying more on sociology or psychology, or viewing schools as a private or public good are “philosophical issues.”

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