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Student Gains, Intensive Restructuring Linked, Study Finds

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Students in schools committed to systemic restructuring are more likely to show consistent improvement from year to year than students in schools that move from one reform to another or that see no need for change, a new evaluation of district-level reforms concludes.

The study, released last month, examined the efforts of the Jefferson County Public Schools/Gheens Professional Development Academy in Louisville, Ky.

Launched in 1983 as a joint venture of the Gheens Foundation and the school district, the academy has gained a national reputation for linking the professional development of teachers and administrators directly to innovations in individual schools.

Its annual budget has expanded from about $400,000 in the first two years, with more than 90 percent coming from the foundation, to more than $10 million today, with the foundation providing less than 10 percent.

The evaluation by Regina M.J. Kyle, the president of the Kyle Group in Boston, divided the district's 131 schools into three groups: Group I schools had made a sustained commitment to school restructuring over a three- to five-year period and had worked closely with the academy; Group II schools had tended to shift from one short-term project to another during the period studied; and Group III schools were satisfied with their current academic approach.

Forty-two schools--18 elementary schools, 12 middle schools, and 12 high schools--were then studied.

The schools engaged in systemic reform were chosen first. They were matched with schools in the other two categories on the basis of students' socioeconomic status and ethnic characteristics as well as student-mobility rates.

The study examined scores on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills over the period 1988-89 through 1990-91 for two cohorts of students in the elementary schools and three cohorts in the middle and high schools.

Although such standardized-test scores are not ideal, Ms. Kyle notes in the report, they can be used, if the exams are given often enough to the same groups of students, to reveal patterns of change.

A Consistent Pattern

The study found that, across all levels of education, schools engaged in systemic reform outperformed both sets of comparison schools:

  • Group I schools increased the percentage of students scoring at or above the 50th percentile on the C.T.B.S. 88 percent of the time, compared with 50 percent of the time for students in Group II schools and 58 percent for those in Group III.
  • Students in Group I schools improved at an average rate of 8.3 percent a year on the C.T.B.S., compared with 2.6 percent for those in Group II and 5.5 percent for those in Group III.
  • Rates of student attendance, parent and student satisfaction, and parental involvement increased--and student-suspension and -retention rates decreased--83 percent of the time in Group I schools. In Groups II and III schools, the rates in the two categories improved 44 percent and 50 percent of the time, respectively.

Ms. Kyle notes that, although Group II schools engaged in a great deal of short-term reform activity and tinkering, their approach did not result in a consistent pattern of student improvement. In many instances, student performance in Group II schools was below that in schools that were not even engaged in reform.

In both the schools that were wedded to tradition and in these on-again, off-again schools, the tendency was toward wild swings in student performance.

'No Single Tool'

The evaluation also identified key characteristics of Group I schools and their principals. Such schools:

  • Have a "common vision and philosophy'' that infuses all planning and staff development;
  • Take a sustained and systemic approach to reform;
  • Have principals who "truly believe'' in the need for change and in the role of participatory management in bringing it about;
  • Have teachers and administrators who design and select professional-development opportunities that are directly related to the changes they are making in the school; and
  • Persevere.

Most of the principals at these schools have been there for several years and are what Ms. Kyle calls "frantic learners.''

In addition to participating in a wide range of academy programs, they attend national and regional meetings to keep up with research and practice, are avid readers, and encourage their teachers to do the same.

In addition to professional development, the study identifies a number of other sources that have contributed to reform efforts in the Jefferson County schools.

"Strategic partnerships [with businesses, community organizations, employees' unions, and parents] plus leadership plus professional development plus time equals successful school reform,'' Ms. Kyle argues. "No single tool ... is sufficient by itself to accomplish the work of changing schools.''

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