Why Reforms Go Awry

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Sitting in my classroom, I sometimes ponder the least serious problem posed by the Basic Skills First Program--the most recent nightmare to be visited upon Tennessee teachers in the name of education reform. That is: Where will I keep my seven reading and mathematics guides? Their 1,124 pages take up too much space to fit in the book rack on my desk.

I try not to ponder the most serious problem posed by the program: If all five components of the new state-mandated K-8 curriculum are implemented, and if each segment involves the amount of recordkeeping for me that the math segment did last year, the time will come when I have to thumb through 3,360 pages of teachers' guides to plan my lessons, administer 280 tests each year, and maintain 450 individual student charts and 75 pages of class record sheets. Moreover, if I ever learn how to operate the computer down the hall, I will have to enter the test results on five floppy disks.

In my saner moments, I ponder the truly basic question: Why is it that almost all education reforms become impracticable when translated to the classroom? Modern math, individualized instruction, open classrooms, and the various current reform efforts have all suffered from this flaw.

I would like to suggest that the reason for these repeated disasters is the failure of educational leaders first to determine and then to establish the infrastructure necessary to support their reforms. The result of such omissions has been a succession of ordeals for those who must work out the daily implications of all new programs: teachers and principals.

The development and implementation of the Basic Skills First Program (better known as BSF) provides a beautiful case in point.

The BSF program was devised by people who have little contact with typical Tennessee classrooms. For example, 60 percent of the members of the mathematics committee were either education professors or employees of the state department of education. Ten local school systems were represented. However, although two-thirds of Tennessee's systems are rural, 8 of the 10 local representatives came from cities. Moreover, 9 of the 10 came from systems that rank in the top 14 percent of Tennessee systems in local per-pupil expenditures.

Perhaps as a result, the committee wrote a program that is excellent in structure, sequence, and task analysis--but virtually impossible to implement in a state in which the majority of elementary-school teachers have no aides, no planning periods, and little or no money for supplementary materials.

BSF began as a pilot program in 115 schools from 96 of the state's 146 systems. This stage in the program's development could have provided an opportunity for the ideals of the committee to come into creative conflict with the realities of Tennessee classrooms.

The pilot schools, however, were "volunteers," leading to a biased sample. In my system, for instance, the central office "volunteers" schools for such honors. Since local administrators wish to make a favorable impression on state officials, they tend to select their "better" schools--schools located in "better" neighborhoods, where active PTA's provide extra funding and where parent-volunteer programs are feasible. Moreover, the teachers in pilot programs understand that they are on display and that their principals and supervisors will not appreciate "negativism" about the new project.

As a result, BSF was three years old and had been mandated for virtually all Tennessee schools before it was presented to the mass of teachers in the state--and the weakness of the existing infrastructure became painfully apparent.

In my system, the BSF math component was unveiled by a cheery woman from the state education department one snowy day in January 1984. She chatted gaily about "strands," tests, and charts, charts, charts to an increasingly stony-faced audience. At last, a bearded man asked the question on everyone's mind: "Is the state planning to hire a secretary to do my recordkeeping?"

"You know," the department representative replied, "people are asking that in all my districts! I'll report your concern to Nashville." It was rather late for this point to be considered.

The BSF reading component was unveiled at a second meeting, held one hot August day in 1985. This time, two cheery women presented the charts. This time, the teachers were not stony-faced; they were openly mutinous.

"Who is going to do the recordkeeping?" they demanded. "Your aides" was the answer. "What aides?" "Well, your better students can fill out charts during their P.E. time." "They're required to go to P.E.," came the teachers' response. "You could fill out charts during your lunch period," one of the cheery women suggested. "Somehow, I'd planned to eat lunch then," one teacher commented.

Then came the bottom line--and we had known all along what the bottom line was. "There just isn't enough time in education," said one of the women, no longer cheery. "You will have to make time."

We understood. We could make time by giving our students busywork to do while we filled out charts. We could make time by doing our recordkeeping before or after school. The problem was ours to solve.

According to Jack Roberts, director of the BSF program for the Tennessee Department of Education, computers are the solution to the problem. I believe he is correct. I know of a school that has computer-trained aides who do the recordkeeping. According to the principal, this system works beautifully. According to numerous teachers from across the state, however, the computer part of the program is a failure.

The reason? Again it is the failure to establish the necessary infrastructure before implementing the program. The math component of BSF became obligatory in August 1984. In late January 1985, a computer arrived in my school. The education department held a two-hour computer course; one representative from each school in the district attended. There were not enough computers for all the representatives. And even those lucky enough to have one to use found the course lacking. Among the skills the instructor failed to teach were how to turn the computer on, how to insert the disks, and how to erase errors. The next day, all those who had attended the training session were supposed to teach the teachers in their schools how to use the computers.

Even if all K-8 teachers in Tennessee were skilled computer operators, an additional problem would remain: The state provides no preparation time for elementary-school teachers. Thus, the mere scheduling of computer time is a problem.

Meanwhile, the frustration of Tennessee's teachers is increasing. The resentment against the BSF program is enormous.

The tragedy is that BSF is fundamentally a good program. The guides are well-designed and pedagogically sound. The proficiency tests emphasize the seriousness of education to students and parents. And a statewide curriculum was long overdue. Yet I predict that within a few years BSF will be swept into oblivion by the rebellion of those who have lived through the nightmare of implementing it.

In my 12 years of public-school teaching, I have had many nightmares. It is the nightmares that have helped me delineate the outlines of a dream: the dream of workable education reform. Meaningful reform can come about only if the reformers operate on the basis of three important premises.

First, every would-be reformer should have the following motto emblazoned on his or her wall: "Education reform depends on the cooperation of teachers." Teachers have developed survival skills; one of the most important of these is the ability to appear to be implementing an unworkable program while actually sabotaging it. Most teachers, however, will gladly implement any program that improves their effectiveness without adding to their workload.

The reformers also need to adopt a second motto: "Meaningful reforms work in real schools." Education professors and administrators have a wealth of knowledge, but they lack information about the existing school infrastructure. Perhaps someday the inhabitants of the ivory towers will invite the experts on the infrastructure--teachers and principals--to work with them to develop new programs. A collaboration between the theoretical experts and the practical ones would lead to genuine reform.

A final motto is this: "In reforming education, lay the foundation before you raise the walls." The BSF program could have worked; it could have been enthusiastically greeted by teachers--if the state had hired and trained aides to do the recordkeeping; if the state had funded a daily planning period for every teacher; if--above all--these steps had been taken before any Tennessee teacher ever saw a BSF management chart.

Many would see disadvantages in adhering to my three premises. Changes would take a long time. New structures permitting real cooperation between theoreticians and practitioners would have to be devised. The resulting programs probably would not fit neatly into the trendiest patterns of educational thought. Such projects certainly would not mesh well with the campaign plans of politicians who want to boast about their reform initiatives.

But there would be one great advantage to an education-reform movement based on these premises: It would work.

Vol. 5, Issue 10, Page 24, 17

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