Why Some Education Reforms Stick and Others Don't

Picture of light bulbs signifying idea generation

New research by Eleanor Anderson addresses a vexing question in education: Why is it that some education reforms stick around, while so many others fall by the wayside? 

September 15, 2021

Gregory M. Latshaw

Eleanor Anderson headshot photoEleanor R. Anderson, an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, has observed a recurring problem with reform measures introduced at K-12 schools and other educational settings.

"There is a problem of churn when it comes to reform," says Anderson.

Frequently, a promising, new initiative is introduced in schools to better support teaching and learning activities. However, the initiative does not last. Soon it is replaced by another new and promising initiative. And not long after that, the cycle repeats.

"That process is exhausting for teachers and administrators. And we don't really get anywhere because the initiatives don't last long enough to have an impact," says Anderson.

Meanwhile, other educational practices remain entrenched.

Consider school accountability policies. First introduced in the 1980s, initiatives associated with high stakes standardized test scores have continued through the present, despite being increasingly unpopular and frequently challenged. 

To explain this phenomenon, Anderson has created a theoretical framework. Known as the MoRe Institutional Framework, it centers around identifying the specific mechanisms of reproduction (or MoRe) that sustain or destabilize an institutionalized structure in organizations. 

In other words, what makes some education reforms persist while others fall by the wayside?

The findings are the basis of a new paper "What Sticks and Why? A MoRe Institutional Framework for Education Research," which was published in Teachers College Record in July 2021. Anderson wrote the paper with Jeannette A. Colyvas, associate professor at the Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy.

“This tells us where we should look to understand what makes things stick and, on the flip side, what makes things change,” says Anderson.

The Ingredients of Staying Power

According to the paper, the education initiatives that stick around for the long term have a common feature: they have become institutionalized.

As such, they are perceived as legitimate, taken-for-granted, widespread, and are difficult to challenge. 

Most important: institutionalized initiatives are “self-activating.”

“Once they become institutionalized, practices come to be largely self-sustaining,” says Anderson. “It becomes something that keeps itself going without special energy or resources directed to maintaining it.” 

Contrast that with the churn of so much education reform.

“Many times we have seen a new initiative that has a lot of potential, but it goes away because the grant ends or because the champion leaves or because district priorities shift or for whatever reason it gets dropped,” says Anderson. 

The MoRe Institutional Framework outlines seven types of structures that new initiatives can connect to in order to create favorable conditions to become institutionalized in the educational realm.

The seven structures are as follows: 

  • formal policies and regulations

  • perceptions of self-interest by stakeholder groups

  • organizational routines, either formal or informal

  • performance metrics used for assessments of students, teachers, schools, or districts

  • students’ chosen or assigned identities

  • professional norms, roles, and identities of educators

  • resonant frames or logics of an organization, community, or sector

Implications for Equity Work

Katie Todd, director of learning and research at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, has witnessed many of the themes addressed in Anderson’s research paper.

Todd is a student in the Doctor of Education (EdD) program at Pitt Education in the Out-of-School Learning area of specialization. 

In the EdD program, she is completing a project focused on the emotional labor and burnout experienced by employees who conduct antiracism work. Specifically, she is exploring what would happen if structures could change to allow employees to feel comfortable and supported in displaying their emotions.

From the MoRe Institutional Framework, Todd is assessing the impact of changes made to two structures that can support the institutionalization of initiatives: organizational routines and the professional norms, roles, and identities of educators. 

“I think this theoretical lens has a lot of potential to make real change on the ground,” says Todd.

According to Anderson, the research can be useful to educators working to create change through equity-oriented initiatives.

Since these educators will inevitably face pushback, it’s important for them to be strategic in their approach, she says.

“We should think about institutionalizing new practices in a very similar way to how we think about deinstitutionalizing old ones,” says Anderson. “Continuity and change are two sides of the same coin. If we look at that in the same way, it can help us strategize in both of those directions.”

Ultimately, Anderson wants the MoRe Institutional Framework to be a tool  for educators and community members working to support, sustain, and strengthen equity-based initiatives in their own school or context. 

“There are no magic bullets. There is no substitute for organizing, for working collectively over many years together,” says Anderson.

Dr. Anderson is interested in speaking with other people about strategizing for long-term  equitable change in their  organizations. Contact her at eand@pitt.edu

About the Faculty

Eleanor R. Anderson

Eleanor R. Anderson

Dr. Eleanor Anderson’s research is motivated by a perennial problem of practice: how to make promising equity-oriented educational practices “stick.” She addresses this question from multiple perspectives, drawing on conceptual tools from the learning sciences, policy implementation, and organization science--especially institutional theory.

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