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E.D. Study Identifies Obstacles to Pursuing Reform Strategies

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Schools face a rocky road in implementing new education-reform strategies for disadvantaged students, a federal report suggests--even when those strategies have been proven to succeed elsewhere.

"The overall picture is that just to implement programs, regardless of what they are, is time consuming, costly, and takes a lot of planning,'' said Elois Scott, the project officer for the study, which was sponsored by the U.S. Education Department's planning and evaluation service.

As part of the $2.6 million project, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and from Abt Associates, a research firm based in Cambridge, Mass., tracked the progress of 25 schools in 17 states over three years as they implemented 10 reform strategies that are widely considered successful for disadvantaged students.

The reform strategies ranged from a longer school day or year and peer- and computer-tutoring programs to the school-development approach developed by Dr. James Comer of Yale University. (See box, this page.)

The report, sent to members of Congress last month, was based only on researchers' first-year observations. But the investigators have already completed all three years of observations, and the second volume of the study is due out later this year.

As part of the study, researchers observed classrooms; interviewed school staff members; surveyed parents, teachers, students, and administrators; and shadowed three students from each of the schools studied.

Subsequent reports are also expected to include information on student performance in the schools studied.

No 'Clear Imprint'

The participating schools were chosen for two reasons: They had large enough concentrations of poor students to qualify for the federal Chapter 1 program and had been recommended as exemplars of their chosen strategies. Many of the schools, in fact, had begun the reform efforts several years ago.

Still, the researchers write, "no program has yet left a clear, uniform imprint on regular classroom instruction across these often highly recommended implementations.''

This finding was often most evident, the researchers found, when they followed students throughout the school day. In some programs, it was difficult to detect distinguishable characteristics of the strategies being used as they were experienced by students.

Part of the problem for many of the schools, the report suggests, was that the specific reform adopted was selected without consideration of other alternatives or had been imposed from above by a principal or school district.

Schools also ran into difficulty implementing their programs if they faced such problems as union disputes, racial conflicts, or financial constraints.

In fact, all of the programs required infusions of funds in order to continue operating.

'Infinitely Complex'

The researchers also found that advantages and disadvantages were associated with each type of program.

Philosophy-based programs, such as the Comer School Development program, the Coalition of Essential Schools, and the Paideia program, appeared to positively affect the levels of interactive instruction going on in classrooms, the study indicates. But the students in those classes also appeared to spend significant amounts of time socializing.

Moreover, the report contends, the programs over all were "infinitely complex'' to implement because they offered no concrete guidelines for instruction and called for broad changes in all aspects of schooling.

On the other hand, adjunct programs such as the Reading Recovery program for 1st graders or computer-assisted instruction offered very specific instructional programs. But they are often unconnected to the rest of the student's school day, the researchers concluded.

Across all the strategies, the report also cites extensive staff-development efforts and active leadership from principals as keys to success.

Researchers cautioned, however, that their conclusions were tentative.

The study grew out of a larger, Congressionally mandated study of the Chapter 1 program.

That study, Ms. Scott said, "gives us a big picture using survey instruments of what goes on in schools.''

"This, using a case-study approach, will give us a more in-depth picture,'' Ms. Scott said.

Copies of the report, titled "Special Strategies for Educating Disadvantaged Children,'' can be obtained by calling the department's office of policy and planning at (202) 401-1958.

Special Strategies for the Disadvantaged

Following are the 10 types of programs evaluated in the U.S. Education Department's report on special strategies for educating disadvantaged children:

  • Reading Recovery, a one-to-one tutoring program for 1st graders having trouble learning to read.
  • Computer-assisted instruction.
  • Peer-tutoring programs.
  • Extended-day projects.
  • Extended-school-year efforts.
  • Schoolwide projects implemented under the federal Chapter 1 program.
  • Success for All, an intensive early-intervention program for at-risk students developed at Johns Hopkins University.
  • Comer School Development program, which focuses schools on the development of the "whole child,'' based on the ideas of the Yale University psychiatrist Dr. James Comer.
  • Paideia program, which seeks to provide all children with the kinds of education programs typically reserved for private schools, incorporating the use of Socratic dialogues.
  • Coalition of Essential Schools, an approach based on the education theories of Professor Theodore R. Sizer of Brown University.

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