Reforming for “all” or for “some”: Misalignment in the discourses of education reformers and implementers

Sarah Winchell Lenhoff, Jasmine B. Ulmer


The ways in which the language of reformers intersects with and informs reform implementation is important to our understanding of how education policy impacts practice. To explore this issue, we employed critical discourse analysis (CDA) to analyze the language used by a 21st century skills-focused reform organization to promote its program alongside the language that local actors used to explain its implementation. We examined source materials, field notes, interview data, and publicly available organizational data collected over a five-year period to critically examine how discourse 1) illustrated alignment between the stated and implicit audience for the school reform program and 2) shaped subsequent implementation. Analyses suggest the reform organization promoted itself through a discourse that all students in all reform schools were being prepared for college, career, and civic life. There was a significant misalignment, however, in the discourses regarding the appropriate student audience for the reform. Local actors questioned whether the reform program 1) was suitable for all students and 2) provided necessary supports for all students in all schools. This misalignment led to uneven implementation and resulted in some educators dismissing the goals of the program as unrealistic. Given that educational agencies have considerable freedom to choose among diverse reform programs, our analysis suggests it is important to understand the discourses through which reform organizations advertise models, implementers justify adoption, and educators respond.



educational policy; reform; implementation; critical discourse analysis

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Copyright (c) 2019 Sarah Winchell Lenhoff, Jasmine B. Ulmer


Contact EPAA//AAPE at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College