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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The 3 R's

The 3 R’s

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Education is probably not unlike other professions in its interchangeability of terms whose definitions are, in fact, dissimilar.  In other words, we’re sometimes unintentionally careless with our words.

Take for instance school climate and culture.  A surprising number of us employ these terms interchangeably.  An inconsequential slip most of the time, it nevertheless can create miscommunication regarding the processes and products of our hard-earned efforts in organizational management. 

Certainly, it’s not optimal to pay for professional development in one and expect outcomes in the other.

A few that I am highlighting this week are used interchangeably in school improvement circles:  “The 3 R’s” – School Reform, School Redesign, and School Reimagination. 

Under high-stakes pressures to improve schools, the careless use of these terms could have an adverse impact on how we communicate our work and what results folks actually expect from us.  Parsing our terms would be a wise move.

I’ll attempt to distinguish these three in this week’s 5-minute read, borrowing directly from my own language used in an organizational report and conference paper that I authored recently. 

Do any of the following “R’s” sound like the way you’re conducting the business of improving your schools?

School Reform is defined as using effective schools research to create a more successful learning environment for students and heightened levels of achievement.  Calls for school reform date back decades and have revolved around concerns of responsiveness to the changing needs of students, accountability for performance, and competitiveness in a global economy (Louis, 1998). School reformists call for better rigor, relevance, and relationships in schools (Daggett, 2004).  The notions of school reform also involve collaborative leadership and professional learning communities, personalizing the school experience, and improvements to curriculum, instruction, and assessment (NASSP, 2004) …

[Inserted from another section of the drafts, just because it is interesting]: It is interesting to note that the term “school reform” in the United States has been synonymous with centralization of the federal government’s role in education and an increased emphasis on standardized testing (Kessinger, 2011, Laguardia & Pearl, 2009, Preus, 2007), whereas overseas, the term “school reform” has been synonymous with decentralization of education and a focus on quality over that of testing (Preus, 2007).

… School Redesign includes principles of school reform, yet also a vision to reconfigure the structures, functions, or operations of schools. It involves reallocating resources in a way that better facilitates what staff, students, and stakeholders DO to accomplish results.  It involves job reallocation, disruptive change, business process reconfiguration, re-engineering of systems, and general change management (Barrett, 2012). Much discussion of school redesign in American education has taken place in the context of the high school redesign movement, which has called for high expectations, student engagement and options, teaching and leadership, and accelerated transitions (USDOE, 2003).

School Reimagination begins with our asking ourselves, “Why are we doing school the way we have done school?” and operationalizing this question by moving progressively into new areas of educational delivery that transcend and enhance what has been discovered through research and best practice.  It pushes the boundaries to what is conceivable. School reimagination can build upon concepts and operations from the school reform and school redesign movement, but it does not have to do so. At its crux, it allows us to ask questions about the nature of knowledge and learning, as well as that of our society.  It forces us to examine why we think about school and schooling the way we do, as the idea of truly improving or fixing education requires a tougher task of rethinking the ideas we have inherited from ancient times and modern Europe (Egan, 2008) …

… Of the three constructs, I propose that school reform is the most conservative of approaches in working to improve schools; school reimagination is the most progressive, and school redesign falls somewhere in the middle.  All three exist on a continuum from modest innovation to more ambitious or even radical change; however, no evidence that I present will suggest that one is of higher quality or impact than the other. This, I would hypothesize, varies by local context and need.  (Donlan, 2013, pp. 2-3; Donlan, 2013, April 10, pp. 3-5)

As we look at what we’re doing to make a positive difference on behalf of our children and community, are we using these terms consistently?  Are we parsing our words?

Where might our schools be on the continuum of the 3 R’s?

And more importantly … are we even on it?


Barrett, S. (2012). Redesigning schools to reach every student with excellent teachers: Change management: Key theories to consider when extending reach. Chapel Hill, NC: Public Impact.

Daggett, W. (2004). American’s most successful high schools: What makes them work.  Paper presented at the 2004 Model Schools Conference Proceedings, Washington, DC.

Donlan, R. (2013). Indiana Charter Schools and Legislative Autonomy. Report on charter school legislative autonomy submitted to the Indiana Public Charter School Association, April 4, 2013.

Donlan, R. (2013, April 10). School reimagination in Indiana: The charter influence and future possibilities.  Paper presented at the 38th annual Law Day on Campus at Indiana State University, Terre Haute, IN.

Egan, K. (2008). The future of education: Reimagining our schools from the ground up. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kessinger, T. A. (2011). Efforts toward educational reform in the United States since 1958: A review of seven major initiatives. American Education History Journal, 38(2), 263-276.

Laguardia, A., & Pearl, A. (2008). Necessary educational reform for the 21st century: The future of public schools in our democracy. Urban Review, 41, 352-368.

Louis, K. S. (1998, Fall). “A light feeling of chaos”: Educational reform and policy in the United States. Daedalus, 127(4), 13-39.

National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). (2004). Breaking Ranks II: Strategies for leading high school reform. Reston, VA: National Association for Secondary School Principals.

Preus, B. (2007). Educational trends in China and the United States: Proverbial pendulum or potential for balance? Phi Delta Kappan, 89(2), 115-118.

United States Department of Education (USDOE). (2003). Preparing America’s future: The high school symposium, October 2003. Washington, DC: USDOE Office of Vocational and Adult Education.


For an excellent resource on school reimagination, Dr. Ryan Donlan recommends Kieran Egan’s book listed above as standing out among a number he has read.  Please feel free to contact him at (812) 237-8624 or at for further conversation on the 3 R’s, or whatever you have going on that’s exciting in your schools in terms of either reform, redesign, or reimagination.

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