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Can the Schoolhouse Handle Systemic Reform?

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During the 90's, the United States intends to move its entire educational system to a new level of excellence. The two principal pieces of legislation undergirding this massive task are the Clinton Administration's proposed "goals 2000: educate America act'' and the pending reauthorization of the Hawkins-Stafford Elementary and Secondary School Improvement Amendments of 1988. U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley calls this undertaking "systemic reform.'' By that he means a shake-up in the educational system beginning with the way we teach and assess children, train teachers, involve parents, and integrate health and education at the school site.

Systemic reform may be just what education needs, although we would certainly welcome more discussion about its feasibility before millions of dollars are appropriated to implement it. Take, for instance, one simple but seldom discussed factor: the schoolhouse itself, the place where we intend to house systemic reform. The way things now stand, systemic reform probably is dead on arrival at most schoolhouse doors.

Readers of these pages are no strangers to Jonathan Kozol's book Savage Inequalities. They know that some of our nation's schools are in an intolerable condition. It's hard for any of us to imagine reform taking hold in a school building where the lights flicker and fail, the indoor air is unhealthy, and roofs let the heat out and the rain in. But most of our schools are not in such disrepair. Most are not inhospitable places for children or teachers. The buildings are just old. As such, there are some things they just can't do. Unfortunately, one of them is nurturing systemic reform.

Systemic reform requires a lot of a school building. More than most educators realize. And certainly a lot more than educational-policy wonks acknowledge, judging from the goals 2000 legislation and the recent report of the independent Commission on Chapter 1. Both promote systemic reform. Both anticipate massive changes in the way we educate children. But neither says a word about the capability of schools to house the reforms being advocated.

My colleague at the Southwest Regional Laboratory, Roger O. Scott, took our concerns on the road recently. He visited five California elementary schools. His survey wasn't scientific; he went to districts where we know the superintendents, districts that invite change and look forward to passage of a revamped Chapter 1 program. The average age of the schools visited is 43. That puts them in good company; the bulk of the nation's school buildings are about that age. Two of our five schools are in rural communities; three are city schools. Three of them have significant Chapter 1 enrollments (80 percent, 62 percent, and 36 percent).

Here is what Roger Scott found in his five visits, as viewed through the lens of expectations systemic reform will hold for school facilities:

(1) Systemic reform will introduce new curricula and new instructional methods into the classroom. This will require classrooms to change. They will have to be capable of housing telecommunications, whether that is through telephones, computers, television, or all three. This will require that classrooms have lights that dim, adequate electrical outlets, and telecommunication links with external resources. This will require placing children from time to time in small or large groups for instruction. This will require schools to provide flexible space arrangements for group instruction, both within the classroom and throughout the school.

All five schools visited lack sufficient space to provide large-group instruction or even multimedia presentations. Large-group assemblies tend to be in cafeterias. But those rooms' lighting, seating, acoustical capabilities, and electrical facilities are all inadequate for instructional purposes. Besides that, the "multipurpose room,'' as the cafeteria is often called, is used for a good portion of the day to serve meals. And it smells like it.

All five schools also lack sufficient (a) electrical outlets, (b) dimmers on their lights, and (c) cable access to classrooms. Only one of the five schools has a phone in its classrooms.

(2) Systemic reform will introduce new ways of assessing student performance. This may require that teachers and counselors maintain extensive portfolios for each child and that schools provide space for children to construct and store student projects. A typical elementary school of 600 students would need space for 100 four-drawer file cabinets to hold student portfolios. These files would have to be under lock and key and yet accessible to all staff members. An empty classroom would do nicely; however, none of the schools visited has any.

All five schools, in addition, do without student lockers. Yet students will be building, modeling, and otherwise collecting materials that will need to be stored at school.

(3) Systemic reform will require extensive on-site staff development, which will mean that teachers will be attending small- and large-group instructional sessions; studying in private; and working with colleagues. Yet none of our five schools has the capability for video conferencing. Even with adequate hardware, the schools will still lack sufficient electrical outlets in the space where teachers are expected to conduct staff development.

All the schools "steal'' space designed for other purposes and tell teachers it will have to do for staff development. Teacher lounges, where meals are prepared and consumed, coffee breaks taken, private phone calls made, and lesson planning conducted, are designated as places where staff development occurs. So are student libraries and cafeterias. But none of the five schools has adequate space with the combination of attributes necessary for teachers to study, learn, and plan.

(4) Systemic reform will require schools to provide for extensive parent involvement in instruction and planning for educational improvement. This will require the schools to have a space for parents that has adequate lighting and acoustics as well as the electrical capacity to operate a copying machine, computer, and coffee pot.

Only one of the five schools visited has a parents' lounge. It appears to have been originally a walk-in closet off the teachers' lounge. The space contains one electrical outlet and one small window, sealed shut. Needless to say, parents tend to avoid the room.

Teachers interested in telephone conversations with parents have a difficult time in all five schools. One principal says: "Phones are a headache. The teachers stack up in the office trying to phone parents.''

(5) Systemic reform encourages schools to combine education, health, and social services on site. This will require schools to screen and treat students' vision, hearing, and dental problems, and to increase the access of all students to critical social services such as nutrition and child care.

None of the five schools has the capability to screen and treat students' vision, hearing, and dental problems. None has adequate space for social services. As one rural-school principal reports: "We have no space to house specialists who come to school. They have to work with students out back on the picnic tables.''

The preliminary examination of these five elementary schools of average age convinces us of the following five deficiencies that may hold true for comparable schools elsewhere:

  • Inadequate storage space. Our schools probably never did have enough storage; but now, with the introduction of computers, videos, televisions, and multimedia curriculum, space is even more precious.
  • Inadequate lighting. The lighting industry has made a lot of advances in recent years with illumination. But our older school buildings are still in the dark ages. They provide inadequate lighting in spaces used for instruction. Classroom teachers are unable to dim lights to enhance televised instruction or brighten them enough for seat or computer work.
  • Inability to take advantage of telecommunication options. Every school has a phone; however, only one of the schools visited has a phone in every classroom. Without a telephone line into the classroom, children are not going to be able to receive instruction or curriculum that moves on these lines.
  • Insufficient electrical outlets. When these classrooms were built, nobody dreamed that teachers would have a lot of machines they would want to run simultaneously. But a classroom with only two electrical outlets isn't going to run many computers.
  • Inadequate space for staff development. None of the spaces teachers now gather in--the cafeteria, student library, or teachers' lounge--is designed to enable teachers to work on computers, view televised instruction, or watch a video. Few are large enough for whole-faculty instruction, and most lack the privacy necessary for small-group instruction.

Newer schools probably are much more capable of housing educational reform. Many were built in the era of computers, televised instruction, and proper lighting. We toured a half dozen new schools in Las Vegas earlier this year. Las Vegas is the fastest-growing city in the country. In response, its school system has built 66 new schools in the last five years. Before the end of the decade, it anticipates building 100 more. These new Nevada schools have the physical characteristics to accept anything the reform legislation has to offer ... even adequate storage space.

But we need to remember that 31 percent of our nation's school buildings were built prior to World War II. An additional 43 percent were built during the 50's and 60's. That suggests that 75 percent of our schools are probably incapable of housing systemic reform. We don't have hard figures, but we would guess that fewer than half of the remaining 25 percent are capable either.

Keep in mind we're not talking about broken windows and leaking roofs. We're not saying anything about overcrowding, environmental hazards, unsound structures, or the need for school maintenance and major repairs described by the Education Writers Association in "Wolves at the Schoolhouse Door: An Investigation of the Condition of Public School Buildings.'' We are simply talking about a school's capability to house systemic reform.

Another thought troubles us. Most of the new school construction in the country has occurred in response to growing student populations. For the most part, that means suburban growth. If that's the case, then the schools most likely to embrace systemic reform are in suburban neighborhoods.

Conversely, we believe that most of our older schools are in cities or in rural communities. We also believe that these older schools enroll the bulk of our Chapter 1 students and house most of our Chapter 1 schoolwide programs. If we're correct, then the children Chapter 1 intends to help probably attend those schools least capable of providing it.

The Commission on Chapter 1 members wrote: "To those who need the best our education system has to offer, we give the least. The least well-trained teachers. The lowest-level curriculum. The oldest books. The least instructional time. Our lowest expectations. Less, indeed, of everything that we believe makes a difference.'' Including, we would add, the most inadequate school facilities.

Systemic reform, in other words, could be a boon for those children lucky enough to attend newly constructed schools in fast-growing communities and suburbs. But those children unlucky enough to attend 75 percent of our public schools would benefit little.

Our image of "new school-good education'' versus "old school-poor education'' hasn't been lost on everyone. Certainly not Christopher Whittle of Whittle Communications.

Mr. Whittle, as savvy readers know, intends to create a national network of profit-making schools. His Edison Project, which is designing these new schools, has much in common with the Commission on Chapter 1's proposal. Both want to create comprehensive and exciting new curricula. Both intend to develop exemplary teachers and cultivate new teaching methods. By the same token, each will marshal powerful new learning tools such as computers, videodisks, and television. They will involve parents in creative new ways and they will run programs for children before and after the school day. But at that point the Chapter 1 advocates stop talking and Mr. Whittle keeps on promising.

On a page in his promotional brochure he runs, side-by-side, similar-looking pictures of the inside of a typical public school and a typical high-security prison. Having made his point graphically, he says: "Imagine buildings that are designed and built with spaces that encourage teamwork, as well as private places where every student and teacher may go to think. Imagine buildings that are integral parts of the educational process. Imagine buildings that are environmental showcases, that can be used to teach students about the way things work.'' Finally, he says, "Imagine buildings that double as broadcast centers, sending and receiving reports to and from other schools, or pulling in great lectures and programs from faraway concert halls, universities, or museums.''

Mr. Whittle wants his prospective customers to know that some schools--obviously his--are going to be showcases for systemic reform. What bothers us is that so few of them will be public schools that serve those children private schools don't want.

Before legislation that promises educational improvement via systemic reform is enacted, we would hope for two things: One, that the U.S. Education Department determine, through a national survey, the extent to which our nation's schools have the physical capability to house systemic reform. And, two, that the department insist that a state be able to demonstrate that its school facilities have that capability before the state is eligible to receive Chapter 1 funds.

In other words, before we legislate systemic reform, let's insure that children's opportunity to learn isn't determined by the physical condition of the schools they attend.

Joe Schneider is the deputy executive director of the Southwest Regional Laboratory in Los Alamitos, Calif.

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