Road Map to Reform
Policymakers, educators seek coherent strategy to transform nation's schools
Without a doubt, the last decade has been one of the richest and most exciting in American education, both in the number of new initiatives launched and in the sustained focus on reform.
Dozens of networks of reform-oriented schools and teachers have sprung up since A Nation at Risk was published in 1983.
There are groups working on national standards and assessment systems for what teachers and students should know and be able to do. There are organizations focused on creating a stronger school-to-work transition for the non-college-bound, and those advocating universal access to preschool for disadvantaged youngsters.
At the state level, policymakers have passed successive waves of reform legislation.
But while the high level of activity has been unprecedented, the reforms themselves remain fragmented and chaotic. Connections among the myriad reform efforts are still rare and, where they exist, are usually informal.
Ernest L. Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, says: "You could draw a 'Keystone Cops' image here of people charging off in different directions and bumping into each other and, in some instances, having a conflict with one another. There's no overall sense of where the problem is and how we should work together to get there.''
Such diversity of approach is particularly problematic for teachers, who feel buffeted by one reform after another, many of which conflict.
"I'm sometimes dismayed and frustrated by the endless confusion and cacophony of voices,'' adds Mr. Boyer, who fears that, as a result, reform efforts end up being dissipated. "I guess one would have to say, 'Welcome to America.'''
Now, some are suggesting the need for a more coherent national game plan in an effort to increase the pace and the chances for success.
"We've got a national problem,'' argues Robert B. Schwartz, the director of educational programs for the Pew Charitable Trusts. "We need a national strategy.'' He envisions a forum of educators, business leaders, and politicians "where broad agreements could be struck about who should do what to advance the scale of reform.''
But others worry that attempting to orchestrate the reform process from on high is the wrong way to go. Calcifying the changes now under way could prove disastrous down the road, they argue.
Even some of those who support a stronger national role--through the creation of standards and assessments for students, for instance--worry about taking too many steps too quickly.
"It would be a great irony at this moment if we centralize the school system into a single national system,'' contends Lauren B. Resnick, the director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.
"We are coming to understand that you can't run the system with top-down rulemaking. The actual coordination has to be closest to kids.''
One Approach: Making The Effort School by School
At a crude level, reform strategists can be roughly divided into two camps: those who believe that schools must change from the ground up, one building at a time; and those who believe that federal and state policies should provide the stimulus and the conditions for building-level change.
Notable examples of the school-by-school approach include the Coalition of Essential Schools, founded by Theodore R. Sizer of Brown University; the Accelerated Schools Network, founded by Henry M. Levin of Stanford University; the Success For All program, founded by Robert E. Slavin of Johns Hopkins University; and the School Development Program, founded by Dr. James P. Comer of Yale University.
"My personal belief is that there's no other way to make change,'' Mr. Slavin explains in defending the strategy of school-by-school reform. "The only thing that really matters in reform is what happens between teachers and kids. ... Anything that takes place too far from the level of the classroom and the school doesn't make a difference.''
In addition to the school-by-school consortia that have blossomed over the past decade, a number of foundation-funded networks have been created to link teachers and scholars based on their subject-matter orientation or their instructional approach.
These include such groups as the Foxfire Teacher Outreach Network, the Urban Mathematics Collaborative, the Collaboratives for Humanities and Arts Teaching, and the National Writing Project--all designed to support richer teaching and learning in the classroom. A growing number of school-university partnerships, such as the Puget Sound Educational Consortium, have also joined the reform movement.
Such networks have inspired a fierce loyalty among those involved. And they have proved to be particularly effective both in sustaining reform and in providing meaningful professional development.
In a summary of a five-year study, Milbrey W. McLaughlin, a professor of education at Stanford University, found that teachers who are part of a "learning community'' that extends beyond their individual classrooms are much more likely than isolated teachers to adapt to changes in the student population and to alter their practices.
In some cases, school-by-school reformers have joined together to build on their efforts. Last year, a design team known as the ATLAS Project--which consists of the Coalition of Essential Schools, the School Development Program, the Education Development Center in Newton, Mass., and Project Zero at Harvard University--received a contract from the New American Schools Development Corporation, a private, nonprofit foundation, to create a group of "break the mold'' schools that mesh their views.
In a separate development, the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University, has brought together members of the existing networks to focus on common problems, such as the development of performance assessments for students.
But the list of lighthouse schools that have floundered or gone under is long. Some leave the ranks of the exemplary after a dynamic leader has left the scene or in the wake of steep budget cuts. Others fall victim after a run-in with an inhospitable public.
The repeated rise and fall of innovative programs highlights one of the central shortcomings of the school-by-school approach.
"You can't change one piece of the system without reforming other pieces,'' argues Phillip C. Schlechty, the president of the Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville, Ky. "So you reform a schoolhouse. The kids leave the schoolhouse, and they go to another schoolhouse within that same district. The very notion that we have high schools, elementary schools, and middle schools precludes certain kinds of reform if you start reform at the building level.''
Mr. Schlechty also charges that both school-by-school reformers and those who favor a more comprehensive, statewide approach have largely ignored the role of school boards and district-level officials in providing leadership for reform efforts.
"We've got to talk about inventing district-level capacity to support and sustain building-level reform,'' asserts Mr. Schlechty, whose organization does just that. "People talk about systemic change, but they don't approach it systematically. In the U.S.A. right now, for the most part, the most significant financial, political, and economic unit is that unit which represents the voters through boards of education.''
Recognizing the importance of state and district policy in sustaining school change, some school-by-school mavericks have begun to focus on the modifications needed in the larger system to support their efforts.
Mr. Comer of Yale University, whose network includes more than 250 schools nationwide, says he now sees the need to influence district policies that have obstructed the spread of his ideas. "We know that you can't just continue to go school by school,'' he says. "You've got to have a systemwide effort that will involve more schools more quickly in building-level changes.''
Similarly, in 1988, Mr. Sizer and the Coalition of Essential Schools formed an alliance with the Education Commission of the States to create Re:Learning, which is designed to link the school-reform agenda with state-level policy.
Re:Learning now encompasses schools in 10 states, and its membership is growing. "What's good for kids,'' Mr. Sizer explains, "should drive the system.''
Even so, the slow pace of school-by-school reform has frustrated some policymakers. Worried that they will be long gone from the reform scene before a significant number of schools are revamped to their liking, they are calling for the creation of a statewide framework that would provide a more powerful lever for moving the reform agenda forward.
A Second Approach: Changing The Rules of the Game
This second group of reformers is focusing on what has come to be known as "systemic'' change: the careful alignment of state policies--particularly those regarding curriculum, assessment, textbooks, and teacher licensure--with high and ambitious standards for student learning.
Like the school-by-school advocates, these systemic reformers acknowledge that the existing policy structure inhibits innovation. But they contend that a more positive framework could be created that would both encourage and support deep changes in teaching and learning.
"You can change a school, but you haven't changed the superstructure,'' Frank Newman, the president of the E.C.S., says. "You haven't changed the rules of the game.''
Other national organizations that endorse this view include the Business Roundtable, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Governors' Association. In addition, a growing number of states, such as Kentucky and South Carolina, are pursuing systemic-reform initiatives. And the Clinton Administration has come down firmly behind this tactic.
The current effort to create national standards and a national system of assessments for students also falls roughly in this camp.
Among those engaged in systemic change, as well as in the work on national standards and assessments, an increasing amount of cross-fertilization is occurring, both formally and informally.
The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which is developing a series of performance assessments and certificates to recognize outstanding teachers, is working closely, for example, with those who are developing curriculum standards for students.
"There's a lot of independence,'' says James Kelly, the president of the national board. "It's a messy system. But it is more coherent than it is at a casual glance.''
'Turns a Lot of People Off'
Nonetheless, many educators harbor strong doubts about the wisdom of pursuing the kind of tightly aligned strategy advocated by the systemic reformers.
"Ultimately, it is important for us to be connecting the right ideas to make the environment more coherent for schoolpeople, so they are not subject to contradictory policies, as they are now,'' says Linda Darling-Hammond, the co-director of the center for restructuring education at Teachers College.
"But,'' she adds, "the quality and nature of what is in the system is extremely important. In a rush to get things lined up, there is always the danger we will do something not very thoughtful.''
Critics of systemic reform also worry that attempts to increase the number of "reformed'' schools too quickly will lead to changes that are broad but shallow.
Instead of a handful of truly transformed schools, the nation could end up with thousands of schools that supposedly have restructured but really haven't changed much at all.
"The emphasis across the country right now on trying to create large-scale systems turns a lot of people off,'' admits Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, "because they think it's never going to have an impact on the classroom.''
"That's wrong, in my judgment,'' he adds. "No sustained, effective activities at the school level are going to occur unless there is a genuinely supportive and nurturing environment that is provided by the district or by the state or even nationwide.''
Wedding the Top-Down And Bottom-Up Approaches
At least some now advocate a marriage between what have frequently been referred to as "top down'' and "bottom up'' reform. But courtships across this great divide are relatively rare and difficult.
"Just trying to keep the conversation alive between people who work at the school level and people working at the systemic-reform level is essential, but it's hard,'' Mr. Slavin says. "There're a lot of folks who work at the systemic-change level who don't think school-by-school change is possible ... and vice versa.''
"I'm not opposed to systemic changes in accountability and funding and so on,'' he adds, "but those have to be accompanied by school-by-school kinds of reform, if it's actually going to make a difference for children.''
Members of the National Alliance for Restructuring Education--which now includes five states and four school districts--portray their partnership as an effort to wed the two strategies. While the alliance is working with its state- and district-level partners to pursue broad changes in policy, it is also signing up teachers at individual schools to alter curriculum and instruction within their buildings. And it is providing them with the technical assistance to do so.
Some states--California, Kentucky, and Maryland among them--are also relying on teachers to help develop, as well as use, their statewide assessment systems based on the belief that the measures must be useful in individual classrooms as well as at the policy level.
'A Forum to Talk'
But the most widely praised effort at bringing the two camps together is the "gurus'' meetings--a series of three discussions to date between small groups of leading education reformers that has been co-sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, Atlantic Philanthropic Services, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
"What we wanted to do was simply provide a forum for people who have been toiling in the vineyards on very serious school reform for a number of years to talk to one another and to learn from each other's experiences,'' explains Marla Ucelli, a senior program adviser for the Rockefeller Foundation. "Their energies are so devoted to their own efforts that they never have an opportunity to really share.''
The first meeting, in November 1990, involved about a dozen reformers and foundation officials. The school-by-school strategy was represented by such advocates as Messrs. Comer, Levin, Sizer, and Slavin. Representing the systemic-change approach were such leading spokesmen as Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, and David W. Hornbeck, the co-director of the National Alliance for Restructuring Education and one of the architects of both the Kentucky Education Reform Act and the B.R.T. agenda.
Several working relationships have emerged from the get-togethers, including what became the ATLAS project. A second meeting, in June 1992, included, in addition to the national players, a handful of principals and superintendents. And a third meeting took place in December. All of the gatherings have been kept small and informal to encourage the serious interchange of ideas.
In a similar vein, the Pew Charitable Trusts has created the Pew Forum on School Reform, which brings together about 25 of the nation's leading educators and policymakers to try to make intellectual sense of the various strands of the reform movement and to discuss strategies needed to achieve reform goals.
But Jane L. David, the director of the Bay Area Research Group, notes that Americans lack models for thinking productively about how to wed top-down and bottom-up change. "We tend to think of it as if there's an answer--a perfect balance--rather than that there's an ongoing tension, and the balance is constantly shifting,'' she says. "It's our general inability to live with the same kind of ambiguity and complexity at the level of policy that we expect teachers to handle in classrooms.''
A 'War Room' Devoted to Reform?
In trying to make more sense of the current cacophony of proposals and protestations, some have called for a national focus similar to what has recently been bestowed on health care.
Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, the chairman of the N.G.A., argues: "We've got to get this thing going faster. We need more leadership. We need more strategy.''
"I'm ready to buy a federal role in setting priorities in education,'' he says. "Just give it to me in a way that is not prescriptive.''
"The 'war room' is a bad analogy,'' the Democratic Governor continues, "but it's the one I think about. It's kind of like having charts on the wall as to who has what assignment, who can push what button.''
Others favor the current loose configuration of reform efforts and urge that connections and partnerships be allowed to develop naturally. They doubt that any one group--however high-profile--could ultimately be successful in advocating a single plan for rescuing the schools. Some even trumpet the merits of heterodoxy.
"One of the central failings of the status quo is being too wired by interconnecting obligations and relationships,'' says Chester E. Finn Jr., a founding partner of the Edison Project, which is trying to develop a national network of for-profit schools. "It's like Gulliver tied down by so many strings.''
"In a system as vast as K-12 American education that is in need of so much change, with as little clarity as to which changes work best,'' he continues, "I think a degree of diversity and unplanned occurrence is probably a virtue rather than a vice.''
Perhaps the single biggest concern of entrusting the reform effort to a "war room'' is that such an approach could ossify change efforts prematurely or homogenize everything down to the lowest common denominator.
"It matters a lot to have Kentucky doing something very different from what Vermont is doing,'' says Richard P. Mills, Vermont's commissioner of education. "We're all intensely collaborative, but we're also intensely competitive. We want to borrow ideas that have been developed someplace else. Let's keep that spirit alive and not let this thing get rigid.''
An Outside Agent
Indeed, some suggest that, given what we know about the way change occurs in the real world, any kind of logical, highly rational approach to school reform will ultimately fail.
Ted Kolderie, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Studies in Minnesota, argues that real change in complex systems occurs through a combination of trial and error and pressure from the outside, not as a result of centralized planning.
"Did we have a central mechanism, a national commission, a czar when we decided we couldn't use horse-drawn carriages in cities anymore?'' he asks.
This notion of introducing an external change agent into the reform mix is already evident in the school-reform arena. It drives proposals that would enable parents to choose from among private and public schools at taxpayer expense, and those that would allow individuals and organizations outside the education establishment to create and run public schools.
Those who advocate a national push to accelerate the pace of reform have proposed a variety of scenarios.
Picking Up the Pace With a Stronger National Role
Some suggest that the federal government take the lead, both through legislation and by capitalizing on its use of the bully pulpit.
"A lot of people would disagree with me on the federal folks getting too involved in education,'' says Roger Noe, the former chairman of the House Education Committee in Kentucky. "But I think they could take a stronger stand in helping coordinate these efforts on a state-by-state basis.''
The Administration is now engaged in negotiations with Congress on a bill with three components: a section codifying the national education goals, provisions establishing a federal role in developing national education standards and assessments, and a grant program to help states and districts develop plans for "systemic reform.''
Marshall S. Smith, the undersecretary of education-designate, says the bill "doesn't orchestrate [state reform]. But it provides incentives.''
Next year's reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which contains the vast majority of federal elementary and secondary education programs, could also provide a vehicle for relating federal dollars to the reform agenda.
A major report issued in December by the independent Commission on Chapter 1 advocates using remedial-education funding to leverage change throughout the system, not just for students who qualify for the categorical aid. It would also hold youngsters who benefit from the program to the same high standards as other children and use rich new performance assessments to evaluate their progress.
In some ways, notes Gregory R. Anrig, the president of the Educational Testing Service, the federal government has already taken the lead in coordinating the reform effort through its support of national standards. The standards, he suggests, provide a "core around which various reform efforts can coalesce.''
An 'Education Supreme Court'?
Others argue that U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and President Clinton could convene some type of national forum on education.
"This is a wonderful opportunity for the federal department, not to direct or to search for an overall system,'' Mr. Sizer says, "but to press the agenda and pour the coffee.''
Furthermore, a stronger national role does not necessarily mean a federal one. An independent commission could be created in an effort to bring cohesion to various reform efforts.
Howard Gardner, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, envisions a kind of "educational supreme court''--a permanent, ruminative body of educators, researchers, politicians, and business leaders--that could develop a long-range vision for moving education forward.
Mr. Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation suggests that Congress create an independent "national council of education advisers,'' parallel to the President's Council of Economic Advisers, that would periodically report on educational progress and help sort out priorities.
Others propose forming national task forces around specific issues--such as how to meet one of the national education goals.
"I don't think all the wisdom in education is centered in Washington, D.C.,'' Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., says. "We want to galvanize the wisdom in states and school districts.''
A less centralized option would be to increase the frequency and level of conversation among the various reform groups, individual schools, and teachers by creating a computer network dedicated to educational change.
In addition, both the federal and state governments could do more to support the existing networks of reform-oriented schools and teachers.
But while many see the advantages of creating a stronger national presence, they worry about who would be in charge of such an endeavor and who would get to choose such a select group.
"The skittishness some have about a national coordinating strategy is, Who is doing the deciding?'' Ms. Darling-Hammond says. "How do decisions about what we are told to do get informed by a wide array of viewpoints and voices?''
'Too Much Noise in the System'
Whatever their differences, most see a pressing need to help schools sift through the maze of reform initiatives so that they can forge a coherent plan for change.
"At the local level,'' says Christopher T. Cross, the executive director for the education initiative of the Business Roundtable, "there's too much information and there's too much noise in the system ... for people to really be able to ascertain what's valuable and what's not.''
"That's the place where I think the federal government could provide some help, as well as some of the professional associations,'' he adds.
Some districts and states are attempting to do just that. Last month, the Dade County, Fla., school system held a districtwide fair to present teams of educators and community representatives from individual schools with information about national and local education networks and research. The hope is that each school will use the information to develop a specific theme or focus. The district will provide the support and resources to do so.
Similarly, South Carolina officials have created a "systemic-innovation network'' to provide schools with information on projects from around the state and nation as well as research from the federally sponsored regional laboratories.
In Vermont, Mr. Mills notes, state officials regularly sit down to review how the various reforms that they are pursuing interconnect.
'Some Rationalization' Needed
Such guidance is particularly needed in the development of state and national curriculum standards. Without a better way of thinking through such efforts, observers note, they could conflict or overwhelm schoolpeople.
"My concern is that, if you take each of the standards and aggregate them,'' Mr. Cross says, "the net effect would be that children would have to go to school 18 hours a day, 365 days a year probably. There has to be some rationalization of all this.''
One group that is attempting to do that is the Alliance for Curriculum Reform. "We can help [schools] find their way through the thickets of the many reforms and facilitate how they can put them together in ways that make sense,'' Judith RÀenyi, the director of CHART and the co-founder of the alliance, says.
But Mr. Boyer cautions that the very notion of developing content standards based on traditional academic disciplines may be counterproductive. What is needed, he suggests, is a series of seminars to explore alternative models that are more interdisciplinary in nature.
Missing Pieces, Missing Players
Reformers also speak as one voice about some of the areas that must be addressed for reform to succeed--including the failure of the public to buy into education reform, the unwillingness of higher education to embrace the reform agenda, and the role of the mass media.
Most notably, they point to the lack of deep and sustained professional development for teachers and others in the system.
"You don't have to spend very many days in real schools,'' argues Kati Haycock, the director of the school/college trust at the American Association for Higher Education, "to become deeply worried about how we could possibly get kids to standards teachers don't meet.''
David K. Cohen, a professor of education and social policy at Michigan State University, suggests stipulating that no state agency or subject-matter group be allowed to make a proposal unless it contains a "fully developed agenda for professional education.''
"That would give reformers the same requirements for managing reforms that reformers now delegate to teachers,'' he asserts.
Signing Up the Public
Experts also agree that the public must buy into the reform agenda if it is to succeed, and that that is far from happening.
"We have failed to engage the general public in conveying the notion that this is something that touches everybody,'' Mr. Finn of the Edison Project argues. "Education reform is a tempest at the surface of a very deep, very calm body of water. That calm worries me a whole lot.''
Higher education has also been glaringly absent from the reform debate. In addition to training the next generation of educators, colleges and universities could play an important role in defining curricular content and in setting expectations for students.
Currently, however, Mr. Gardner says, institutions of higher education "don't see [reform] as their problem, and the kinds of signals that are therefore sent by admissions officers ... are very antithetical to the deep problems that we see in American schools and in society.''
Still others argue that reforms must reach beyond the education community to address the influence of the mass media and other societal institutions. Mr. Sizer points out that children spend more time in rooms in which televisions are on than they do in classrooms.
"In the discussion of school reform,'' he says, "we have forgotten that we're talking about education reform. One of the most important educators is the mass media. They are not at the table at all.''
'Nibbling at the Margins'
Whatever the strategy, transforming schools and crafting policies that promote and sustain building-level reforms is a relatively new endeavor. And we are not very good at it--yet.
After a decade of effort, most reforms are still identified with a handful of prominent individuals and have not become common currency within the education community as a whole.
Moreover, the vast majority of schools are not connected with any network and are doing very little to change.
"With all the talk that's going on,'' Mr. Slavin says, "I still think that we're nibbling at the margins. I think that there's a lot more talk about reform than reform that actually takes place.''
"If you were blindfolded and put in a school that says it's engaged
in reform,'' he asserts, "you still wouldn't know it after the
blindfold was off.''