Thought Leadership

The Root Causes of Fragmentation in Public Education

Joselin Padron-Rasines, Consultant, Education First, & Sophie L. Ferrer, Principal, Education First

The following blog synthesizes information first published in Education First’s report,  Addressing Fragmentation in Public Education, which is the foundation of the Coherence Lab. 

Fragmentation in education is the lack of integration, coordination and collaboration that occurs within and across education organizations and systems. When policy designers and implementers fail to consider the implications of independently developed policies, programs and directives to schools, it’s left up to teachers and principals to somehow make sense of the disparate reforms and connect the dots between multiple expectations. Unable to see how the initiatives are related, beneficial or even feasible, many educators disengage, saying “this too shall pass.” The result? Confusion, alienation, inefficiency and ultimately disappointing results that continue to exacerbate the inequities in our education system. Without intentional efforts to disrupt the status quo or a new approach to fostering integration across state and local education systems, change initiatives will continue to be designed and implemented in isolation, disconnected from one another and the realities of practitioners in the field.

What causes fragmentation?

Root cause #1: Organizational capabilities and incentives for effective cross-agency integration and collaboration are lacking. [The Build Focus and Coordination element addresses root cause #1]

Many of the troubling disconnects and fragmentation that school leaders and teachers experience are a byproduct of the disconnected structures within and across state education agencies (SEAs) and local education agencies (LEAs). These structures and lack of individual capacity in turn cause the disconnected design and rollout of policy initiatives and programs. Our work with SEA and LEA leaders has shown, however, that most education agency leaders have never been taught how to detect and address these barriers or put in place the right culture and structures. In the leadership book Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Build Common Ground, and Reap Big Results, Morten Hansen highlights common barriers to inter- and intra-organizational collaboration (Hansen, 2009). Most large organizations attempt to operate with some form of decentralization, driving responsibility down to the field level (in our case, schools), and holding those who work there (teachers and principals) accountable for results. Unfortunately, in this model, the whole organizational system (in our case, the interconnectivity of SEAs, LEAs and schools) produces siloed behavior rather than collaboration. When we look at the capacity of SEAs and LEAs, there exist few incentives or resources earmarked for collaboration—let alone structures to support it within or across these agencies, or with teachers and principals on the front lines.

Root cause #2: Failure to consider motivating factors for change or frequently engage educators in the design and roll out of policies and programs. [The Cultivate Trusting Relationships element addresses root cause #2]

By definition, “reform” asks some groups of stakeholders to do something different—for example, change the way they operate. Multiple reforms implemented at the same time—such as teaching with new high-quality instructional materials, shifting technology integration in classrooms, participating in new student assessment systems and supports—requires teachers and principals to develop new understandings, skills and mindsets, change many existing practices and, in some cases, make radical behavior changes. 

Reform also must address inertia in schools. There is a culture within schools that promotes skepticism about reform, whether it comes from the district, legislature or federal government, due to the disillusionment with previous attempts at reform. Our experience has shown us that SEAs and LEAs are not doing enough to overcome that inertia and foster the development of new skills, mindsets and behaviors that would better support educators. The absence of sound educator engagement and motivation practices are foundational causes of the field’s failure to integrate reforms. Out-of-sector research supports the notion that it is important to engage practitioners early and often in the actual design of policies, in understanding how the policies are working or not in practice, and in continually improving the policies based on feedback.  

Furthermore, educators, like professionals in other fields, need to be motivated to make changes to their practice. Engagement helps, but it is not enough. Leaders must also tend to some of the basics of motivation for change. Chip and Dan Heath’s widely recognized book on change management, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, codifies a substantial body of change management research into a single framework: rider and elephant (Heath, 2011). The framework suggests that sustainable individual behavior change will occur only when two contrasting and competing systems—the rational mind (“the rider”) and the emotional mind (“the elephant”)—are addressed both individually and together.

Engaging educators and broader stakeholders is only the first step to motivating and embracing implementation of new policies. Designing education reform also demands that we address causes of racial inequity. In equityXdesign, Caroline Hill, Michelle Molitor and Christine Ortiz emphasize the need for weighing historical context and acknowledging issues of power and bias when engaging in problem-solving. They also underscore the need for bringing together diverse stakeholders through radical inclusion. This goes beyond one-off stakeholder engagement, and addresses head on the barriers that exclude voices and invites everyone to bring their full selves to the innovation conversation.

Root cause #3: Failure to utilize the right professional and social networks, and understand adult learning styles. [The Changing Behaviors at Scale element addresses root cause #3]

Our experience has taught us that implementation of a single reform, let alone the integration of multiple reforms, cannot be successful unless SEAs and LEAs understand how adults learn and create or tap into professional and social networks that inspire learning. Yet the implementation of reform efforts often flies in the face of adult learning research. Too often SEAs and LEAs design professional learning materials and related supports for teachers and principals that inadvertently create new layers of work, instead of taking advantage of existing networks that educators already know, trust and tap into regularly.  

Malcolm Knowles, considered the leading expert on andragogy, suggests four principles for effective adult learning (Knowles, 1984). Adults need:  

  1. Direct involvement in the planning and evaluation of their instruction. 
  2. Experience-based learning activities (including making mistakes). 
  3. Subject matter with immediate relevance and impact to their professional or personal life. 
  4. Problem-centered rather than content-oriented instruction. 

Much has been made of how often adult learning is delivered in the opposite of these principles—instead, it’s “sit-and-get” or “spray-and-pray”—and therefore has little effect. Academic research in public education and in other sectors also shows that social relationships and networks have significant influence on the direction, speed and depth of change. In Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More without Settling for Less, authors Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao take the concept farther to describe how tapping into social networks can cascade excellence. By connecting diverse groups of people through organizational structures or teams, leaders are creating links between individuals that support information flow or change management.


Fragmented and inequitable education systems are a product of design. They can be redesigned. We created the Coherence Framework in 2017 to help leaders pursue coherence and solve for the key drivers of fragmentation found from our research. We have since used emerging research—and our experience facilitating activities and implementing our Framework-aligned curriculum on the ground with state and district leaders—to refine the Framework, which is the foundation for all of our Coherence Lab programs.