January 30, 2023

Public school educators are facing a monumental challenge in today’s world. There is a major political party in the United States that will weaponize everything we do in further of their own political interests…facts be damned! On top of these outside forces pressuring public school educators, there is a more insidious internal system that is limiting the possibilities for schools and children.

It's called the Stockholm Syndrome in education.

Encyclopedia Britannica defines the Stockholm Syndrome as a “psychological response wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands.” The idea of the Stockholm Syndrome came from a bank robbery in Stockholm in the 1970s where the hostages refused to testify against their abductors…in effect, they took the side of the hostage takers. Now, there is some controversy about even if the Stockholm Syndrome actually exists, but for our purposes, the idea of the Stockholm Syndrome is what is important.

I have been thinking hard about this topic as I try to make sense of what we do and think as educators as we work in the milieu of “education reform.”

“Education Reform”

Let’s define “education reform” as we know it in the United States right now. We can trace different ideas of how public education is operated since the inception of compulsory attendance laws in the early 20th century. But I am not going to go back that far.

I am going to start with the publication of The Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform in 1983. The report resulted from a commission established based on the assumption that the United States education system was failing to meet the national need for a competitive workforce. It was NOT an attempt to study whether that assumption was true (a key point to remember) but to confirm the committee's predetermined concerns. 

The most famous quote from the report was by the author James J. Harvey who said: 

"The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a People... If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." 


So we have a commission who was looking to confirm their own biases, making recommendations for the entire education system once those biases were “confirmed.” 

The DNA of “education reform,” as we know it in 2023, is polluted with the assumption that our education system is broken.

Sounds like a great way to talk about and make recommendations for our school system. (I say with sarcasm dripping from my words!)

The Challenge for Educators Today

In the world of education, the DNA of “education reform” is that as a failing system permeates the national zeitgeist to such an extent that educators are not even aware that there are other possibilities for education reform. Educators agree with the philosophical foundation of “education reform” that public education (and by extension, educators) are not doing their job.

How do “education reformers” make educators think there is so much wrong with education? 

Test scores

“Education reformers” bludgeon the public and educators over the head with “statistics” about how this test or that test “proves” the assumption built into “education reform” DNA that public education is not doing its job.

The sad part is that educators have heard this false refrain so much that they believe it.

No, they do more than believe it…

They welcome the criticism and the associated policy proposals.

Educators have fallen victim to the Stockholm Syndrome wherein they identify with the policy proposals and other garbage spewed by modern-day “education reformers”…or at least the “reformers” associated with The Nation At Risk DNA strand of education reform.

Adopting the Stockholm Syndrome in public education limits the possibilities educators consider when thinking about how to improve their own practice and of the schools in which they work.

A graphic explaining a thought experiment will help explain what I mean.

Let’s assume that we are the small rectangle in the above graphic. Furthermore, let’s assume that we can only “see” what is immediate to the right of the rectangle. We can’t see anything above, below, or to the sides of where we are. 

The top graphic represents the small area that we can see. This represents our world as we know it. We can’t see anything other than that small corridor to the right of our rectangular existence. This is our world.

The bottom graphic is what happens when an object comes along and “sits” in our field of vision. We can only see the part that is in our field of vision. We, therefore, believe that the new “object” is totally represented by what we can see. But, as the graphic shows, there is much more to the new object than what we can see. 

This creates problems for our perception because we only see a small part of the object.

Now, let me get more specific.


If we overlay the idea of education reform with all of its different variations, from Mass Customized Learning, Montessori schools, Community schools, etc., we find that educators only “see” a small portion of what is possible in education reform…and that is the testing-centric version of shame and blame accountability policies.

The Stockholm Syndrome has limited what educators see as possibilities in the world of education reform. (That is why I put quotation marks around education reform when it only refers to the reforms centered on the testing-centric shame and blame policies with the polluted The Nation At Risk DNA in it.)

Breaking the Stockholm Syndrome

Breaking the Stockholm Syndrome will not be easy for educators. After all, the public education culture celebrates the results that come from the polluted DNA of “education reform.”

But we can do it!

Rather, we MUST do it!

Here is how to start.

1.    Talk with your colleagues. The only way to break this spell is to talk with your colleagues about our work. Stretch your mind with book studies from authors critical of the testing-centric “education reforms” that dominate our culture right now.

2.    Read critically. I recently read an Op-ed in The Washington Post where the assumption was that charter schools and vouchers are great for kids. This is simply not true. We know that charter schools don’t do any better on the metric that “education reformers” like the most (test scores) than their compatriots in regular public schools.

3.    Confront the crazy. We know there is always room for improvement in what we do in public education. We also know that we can’t throw the baby out with the bath water! When a politician, “education reformer,” colleague, or your boss, starts spouting off about the testing-centric education reform, challenge them. 

As Rip told Beth in Yellowstone, “I don’t have time for crazy today.” That needs to be our attitude as we confront and deal with The Stockholm Syndrome in public education.

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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