Six Degrees of Insanity: "Reforming" Education

The push for "accountability" in education reform is eroding public education. It's time to try something different.

Photo Credit: Sergii Figurnyi via

Popular culture's six degrees of separation (a claim that each person is separated from any other person by six connections) spawned a film of that name and a trivia game, six degrees of Kevin Bacon.

The current education reform movement, hell-bent on accountability, has recently moved into a phase that has not been recognized nearly as well as its pop-culture cousins: Six Degrees of Insanity.

Starting in the early 1980s, this accountability movement began by focusing accountability mandates (built on standards and standardized tests) on schools and students. Over the next thirty years (despite abundant evidence that the accountability-standards-testing paradigm does not work), that momentum has more recently turned the same accountability mantra on teachers and then teacher educators.

The consequences of that insanity was highlighted for me recently when I received an email from a new teacher who certified in the program where I am a teacher educator (I taught high school English in rural SC for 18 years before entering teacher certification, where I have been for a decade). That email told me that she was being trained to implement the Common Core State Standards, adopted by SC.

Let me pause briefly to note that this new teacher holds a content degree from our university as well as certification, was highly regarded by her content professors, was overwhelmingly identified as an outstanding new teacher by our education department as well as her co-teacher during her field placement, and was a prized candidate for a position among several schools after graduating.

This new teacher came across the following guideline while being trained:

Deemphasize These
Making text to self connections
Exploring personal responses to a text
Accessing prior knowledge
This new teacher was quick to note that this recommendation contrasted significantly the best practice she was taught by me and others in her program as well as the best practice she has embraced as a young educator.
And it is at this example I present the Six Degrees of Insanity now poised to erode further public education in the U.S. Consider these degrees of separation in the process involved to hold teacher educators accountable for the test scores of their teacher candidates:
(1) Certification program and teacher educators teach candidates best practice, pedagogy grounded in decades of research
(2) Teacher candidates study, consider, and implement best practice in field experiences, embracing that best practice
(3) National and state officials embrace and impose curriculum and testing policies that contradict best practice
(4) School-level administration adopt and require practices of teachers that address federal/state mandates (national/state standards and testing) that contradict best practice
(5) Students receive standards/test-based lessons while also living lives burdened by poverty, language barriers, and special needs
(6) Low test scores
And the outcome of this disaster-in-the-making?
Politicians and the public declare public schools, public school teachers, and public school students are the exact failures they claimed they were (See Diane Ravitch's recent experience with CNN, a media outlet often demonized as "liberal," which reveals the political, public, and media bias toward painting public education negatively).
Six Degrees of Insanity is upon us and growing.
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. It is far past time to do something different.


Paul L. Thomas is an associate professor of education at Furman University.