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Fed Up With Tinkering, Reformers Touting Systemic Approach

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CINCINNATI--Vexed by the lack of success of school-reform efforts of the past decade, a growing group of scholars and lawmakers is arguing that the incoherent and fragmented nature of the initiatives may be part of the problem.

What is needed, they say, is "systemic reform.''

Advocates of the new way of thinking note that education is funded and regulated by multiple layers of government and that there is little coordination among the numerous players who shape education policy at each level.

In retrospect, say the proponents--including policymakers and politicians at meetings this summer of the Education Commission of the States here and the National Governors' Association--the huge volume of programs and policies adopted during the 1980's exacerbated the fragmentation.

The solution, they say, is to rethink teaching, learning, and governance all at the same time. States need to develop learning goals for students, based on a broad public consensus, and then adopt policies on student assessments, instructional materials, teacher training and licensure, and funding that are aligned and coordinated.

Within such a framework, the advocates say, states would free individual schools to design their own curricula, pedagogy, and organizational structures.

"Really, what you're trying to do,'' said Marshall S. Smith, the dean of the school of education at Stanford University and a leading proponent of systemic reform, "is develop the system so it can support really serious local creativity in the context of a common vision.''

But the notion of systemic reform is not without its detractors, who argue that such thinking still underestimates the complexity of the education system and that it will lead to a further erosion of local control and flexibility.

In addition to guiding the work of the E.C.S. and the NGA, the concept of systemic reform undergirds a host of national initiatives.

The Business Roundtable's nine-point agenda, the National Science Foundation's Statewide Systemic Initiative for improving mathematics and science instruction, and the omnibus school-reform bills now pending on Capitol Hill, S 2 and HR 4323, are all based on encouraging what the roundtable describes as "systemic change in our schools.''

Several states, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Maine, and Vermont, have also launched what they describe as systemic-reform initiatives.

'A Lot of Conflict'

The appeal of the new philosophy stems from, among other reasons, frustration with the current, incoherent approach to policy.

"Policymakers and educators are aware of a lot of conflict that was created by so-called reforms, all well-intentioned, but that were not necessarily created in a cohesive manner,'' said Rep. Ronald Cowell, the chairman of the House Education Committee in Pennsylvania.

The new orthodoxy is also being spurred on by a recognition that many other nations have a much more cohesive system of educational standards-setting than exists here.

But the commonalities in language and thinking generally reflect the influence of a small circle of educational scholars, including Mr. Smith and his colleagues at the Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

These analysts--including David W. Hornbeck, the former state superintendent of education in Maryland; Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy; and Lauren B. Resnick, the co-director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh--have served as consultants to a range of national groups and individuals whose rhetoric is becoming increasingly indistinguishable.

Over the past year, U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander has also convened representatives of the Education Department, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the roundtable, the ECS, and the governors to chat regularly about their areas of conceptual agreement.

'Lack of Clarity'

Pinning down just what advocates mean when they speak of "systemic reform'' is difficult, however.

"There's a lot of talk,'' said Commissioner of Education Lionel R. Meno of Texas, "but a lot of lack of clarity as to what it really means.''

Agreed Dick Clark, a retired superintendent of the Bellevue, Wash., public schools and a consultant to several national reform efforts, "My guess is 85 percent of the people who use the word have no more meaning for it than for radical change.''

When policymakers attempt to define the term, they frequently invoke words like "coherent,'' "coordinated,'' and "comprehensive.''

"The purpose of using this 'systemic change'--and we're using it in Florida now,'' said Commissioner of Education Betty Castor of Florida, "is to differentiate it from individual, piecemeal efforts at educational improvement.''

Eve Bither, a former superintendent of education in Maine, said systemic reform "is a reaction to the lack of success that we have found to be associated with specific projects.''

"People used to think if you just reformed the curriculum, then that would fix everything, or if you just fixed assessment or governance or finance,'' she argued. "That hasn't worked.''

"So now,'' Ms. Bither added, "people realize what is really needed is a reshaping of the system itself.''

Nothing But Chaos'

Advocates of the new ideology emphasize, however, that thinking about such changes in a strategic fashion does not mean altering everything at once.

Many of the comprehensive school-reform packages of the 1980's did just that, instituting policy changes on everything from high school graduation requirements to teacher certification.

But policymakers paid little attention to whether these reforms were compatible with each other, seldom set priorities among competing initiatives, and rarely challenged the underlying rules and traditions of the system.

One southeastern state, for example, mandated a challenging core curriculum for students, but then evaluated teachers on the basis of generic teaching skills that had nothing to do with the curriculum.

The result, according to Robert Palaich, the director of policy studies at the ECS, was that when researchers asked educators how they would evaluate reforms, "They said: 'There's nothing but chaos. Our best strategy is to ignore them and close our doors and go about our business.'''

Greater 'Sensitivity'

Despite widespread agreement that a more holistic approach to education policy is needed, few agree on where to begin.

Some states--such as California, Delaware, Maine, and Vermont--are starting by developing challenging learning goals for students in the core subject areas.

These curriculum guidelines will be the basis for redesigning student assessments, teacher training and licensure, textbook adoption, and rewards and sanctions for performance.

Other states--including Connecticut--have started with changes in assessment, arguing that such revisions will provide the greatest lever for forcing reforms elsewhere in the system.

Pennsylvania officials last year completed a policymaking "audit.''

After determining what they wanted students to know and be able to do, lawmakers reviewed all existing statutes to identify potential conflicts.

"There is a great deal of sensitivity to how this all fits together,'' said Representative Cowell, "one thousand times more so than was the case in the mid-1980's.''

'So Much We Don't Know'

States and national initiatives also vary in the list of policies and programs that they would include in a systemic-reform initiative.

The roundtable's nine-point agenda includes improvements in health and social services to reduce barriers to learning, the creation of rewards for success and penalties for failure at the school level, and giving school-based staff members a major role in instructional decisionmaking.

A draft document on systemic reform by the E.C.S. cites the need to engage the public in school improvement, involve higher education, and reshape school finance "to support both equity and improved performance.''

"There's so much we don't know, it's incredible,'' said Mr. Smith of Stanford. "We're imagining a system where we're changing the content, we're changing the pedagogy, we're changing what teachers need to know.''

"We're changing an awful lot of things at once,'' he cautioned. "You can create a situation where everything might just fail because of the weight of the changes.''

"On the other hand,'' he added, "I think we're beginning to get, for the first time, a common vision about the kinds of things that we might drive for.''

'Who Does What'?

Nonetheless, lawmakers admit that the turf-conscious, interest-group nature of education politics works against such coherence.

"What we have now,'' said Susan H. Fuhrman, the director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, "is neither a system nor the ambitious outcomes.''

Frequently, legislative committees in the same state pursue their goals without even consulting each other.

In Michigan, the Speaker of the House, the Governor, the Michigan Business Roundtable, and the state board of education each have named separate commissions to prepare reports on the future of the schools.

"How do you pull together all these groups that are doing individual studies?'' Rep. Bill Keith asked. "If change is going to happen, it's going to have to have the political coherence that people of this state want this to pass.''

The same lack of coordination occurs in moving among the federal, state, and local levels of government. Even if lawmakers develop and connect policies at the state level, Ms. Fuhrman warned, the state policies may be in conflict with existing district or federal practices.

"I don't believe we have clarity of who does what,'' Superintendent of Public Instruction Pascal D. Forgione Jr. of Delaware argued. "What does the state education agency do versus the local education agency? Where does the principal fit in?''

'All About Power'

Others worry that the emphasis on tightly aligning all pieces of the system could lead to an educational organization that is even more homogeneous and lockstep than the one that now exists and one even further removed from the priorities and concerns of local communities.

"It's all about power,'' said Theodore R. Sizer, a professor of education at Brown University, "and it's a shift in power. Once you're clear on who decides what, then you organize things in order to reflect that reality.''

"It's a very linear notion of schooling, which is orderly,'' he cautioned. "But learning isn't orderly.''

Still others suggest that systemic change may indicate a maturation in thinking about how educational improvements occur but that it is a far cry from a deep understanding of how the "system'' works.

"Systemic change is beautifully chosen,'' quipped John I. Goodlad, a professor of education at the University of Washington, "because policymakers are only interested in the systemics of education; they're not interested in the substance.''

"It is a progression,'' he added, "that you can't just drop a bill into the educational system without its having an impact on other things. But it's a far cry from what the sociologist means by systemic.''

Indeed, Seymour B. Sarason, a professor of psychology emeritus at Yale University, argued in his 1990 book, The Predictable Failure of School Reform, that policymakers' "superficial conceptions'' about how complicated settings are organized have led to the intractability of schools to reform.

"[W]hen I advocate a system approach to education reform,'' he wrote, "it is not because I think we now have the understanding of school systems we need to have or that whatever understanding we have tells us clearly where our starting points might be. Far from it.''

"What I do assert,'' he continued, "is that school systems have been intractable to the reforms sought by reformers''--a "sad, brute fact'' based on acceptance of school systems as they are.

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