The Reductionism of Education Reform

If you have been a teacher any time in the last twenty years, since No Child Left Behind, you have heard  – or possibly even heard yourself saying, “Oh – Sarah can’t be in ____ (honors, AVID, Advanced, AP, IB… take your pick) because she’s a 2.” Or “Deandre will be fine in an advanced class – he’s a 5.” Ever since standardized testing took over schools and low-scoring students became burdens that dragged down school grades, it has become common to refer to students as test scores, as if a young person full of hopes and fears, life experiences both terrifying and terrific, talents and interests and frustrations, coming from an entire echo-system of religious, educational, familial and cultural influences can be defined by a single number or set of numbers. “Eddie is a 1 in Math and 3 in Reading.” “Suzie is a 5 in Math but a 2 in Reading.” 

Reductionism is, according to one definition at, the practice of simplifying a complex idea, issue, condition, or the like, especially to the point of minimizing, obscuring, or distorting it. I would include people – students and teachers alike – under the “or the like.” Students become test scores; teachers become VAM scores. But that is only the beginning of the ways in which the education reform movement is reductionist. Reductionism oversimplified complexity, and there are few things more complex than teaching and learning. How have we reduced education? Let me count the ways. 

I’ve already touched on the fact that students and teachers are reduced to scores. That may be the most egregious example. But reductionism reigns supreme in education. 

We reduce reading to skimming texts students didn’t choose to read and answering questions – mostly multiple choice questions – about them. We reduce writing to reading three texts and plugging text evidence into a formulaic essay with a formal tone. 

We reduce the world all its wonders to four core subjects and a series of electives, and this arrangement has been around so long no one questions it. We take these subjects – vast, expansive field of human knowledge – and reduce them to a set of standards. A list created by a committee can now encompass the entire field of science in all its complexity, controversy, history, and wonder. The subject of English – which should be about the use of words and how they shape our thoughts, our cultures, our definitions, our institutions, the laws we live by, our sense of our selves both as collectives and as individuals – is reduced to a series of skills to master. “Use a semicolon (and perhaps a conjunctive adverb) to link two or more closely related independent clauses.” 

We reduce learning to performing well on a series of assessments. We reduce these assessments to letter grades. We reduce all the learning done over an arbitrary period of time – 9 weeks or so – into yet another letter grade. We turn letter grades into numerical equivalents and then turn all those numbers into a single number, a Grade Point Average (which we reduce to a GPA) that determines who was the best student in a school by the end of a four year competition. 

We reduce learning into a competition to see who can get the highest number. We reduce learning into getting a credential – a diploma or certificate – that says we have… what? Learned enough to go on to college or a career? 

And of course, the only reason to go to college is to get a better career than you would have had without the higher credential. And a better career is defined as one that makes you more money. Education has the potential to make people better citizens in a democracy, aware of history and able to see patterns repeating themselves. Education can make us better family members, friends, spouses, and parents, and more reflective people with a deeper sense of their own lives unfolding, a deeper sense of the connectedness of all things. But we reduce education, and life, to college and careers. Hidden behind this reductionism is the idea that the real reason we have schools is so that students will make good employees and consumers. Education creates effective human capital. 

Looking at it from the teacher side of this scenario, things get no better. Teachers are reduced to not only VAM (Value Added Measure) scores based on their students’ standardized test scores. I can only assume that the “value added” to students is the value added to their potential as human capital one day. But teachers are reduced in several ways. Teaching can be many things rolled into one, but it can be the creative act of finding and developing resources to engage students and expand their skill sets, their  thinking, their ability to question and ponder and follow their curiosities. But we reduce it in several ways that are not compatible with each other. In terms of results, we reduce teachers to Quantifiable Learning Gains Facilitators (a term I created for my comic strip). In terms of what teachers are supposed to teach, we reduce them to Curriculum Dispensers who use textbooks to follow curriculum maps that tell them exactly what to cover. If you as the teacher have any specialized knowledge, any particular passion for your subject, any specific insight about teaching, it is not required or needed by the system. We have done the thinking for you. In terms of how you teach, the system will tell you what Best Practices are (hint: practices that will raise test scores). Also addressing the How of teaching are teacher “frameworks” – mega-rubrics that use meta-research to reduce teaching to a series of components that can each be conveniently rated on scientifically valid four-point scale. Check of enough boxes in the “Distinguished” end of the spectrum, and you’ll get a good rating – a numerical score to be combined with your VAM score. 

If education should be about honing and developing complex, nuanced thinking – and I for one think it should – how can a system that reduces everything related to education to its most simplistic, least thoughtful, least nuanced form help anyone, administration, teachers, or students, develop complex, nuanced thinking? 

It can’t if we want real thinking, we must stop reducing it to check boxes, rubrics, and standards. If we want real intellectual work to be done, we must stop reducing the people and subjects that populate our schools to simple numbers and letters. The world sends us complexity and we reduce it to simplistic, easy to measure simplicities. The world sends us complicated, maddening, entrancing, frustrating, and delightful children, and we reduce them to stick figures with blank stares and numbers affixed to them. 

We are starting to realize what we’ve done, I hope. The fact that there are halting, sometimes inept attempts at addressing social-emotional learning is a step in the right direction. But that is only the start. 

By example we are teaching students to view the world in simplistic ways that reduce all of us to cogs in a machine. The antonym for reductionism is holism – understanding things as a whole. We need to develop a holistic system of education that treats everyone – students, teachers, and administrators alike – as whole people, not numbers or mere human capital. We need a system that views the things to be learned in all their wholeness – including their mystery, their wonder, and their ambiguity. 

I sometimes wonder if the Dirths of this world aren’t buying what schools are selling not just because they are ornery and insolent, but because they sense themselves shrinking in the face of a system that seems dead set on making them less than they are.