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Caught in the Middle

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A thumbnail sketch of the current status of education reform in many states would indicate that positive forces for reform exist at the top of the system--the state-policy level--and at the bottom, in schools that are restructuring, either separately or through networks of like-minded schools. Many of the people in the "middle"--district administrators, school boards, union leaders, for instance--are struggling to preserve their customary control over events as more of it slips away yearly to the state above them, site-based decisionmaking teams below them, and networks all around them. A public torn between contradictory ideas about reform watches the whole process with some confusion, increasing impatience, and, in a growing number of cases, fear based on misunderstanding the issues.

Our experience working with both school-level reformers and state policymakers in the Re: Learning initiative suggests that neither can fully succeed without the other and both need broad public support. Yet, considerable differences separate the people at the "top" of the system from those at the "bottom," even when they are all aiming to raise expectations and improve student learning. They view the system differently, and they often distrust the other's view and the other's understanding of their own point of view. If the differences are not appreciated and turned into positive forces for transforming the current overly centralized, overly bureaucratic system, reform will not live up to its champions' promises. In some places, it could well grind to a halt. The consequences for public education could be disastrous, especially for students who already are not well served.

At the top of the system, presidents, Congress, governors, business leaders, state policymakers, and prominent educators have reached agreement that the country's students must meet higher standards of academic achievement. Forty-four states are at some stage in developing new standards, and an increasing number of them are beginning to link the standards to new curriculum frameworks, updated certification requirements for teachers, new approaches to teacher education and professional development, and new forms of assessment and accountability. This is called "performance-based systemic reform" because it aims to use new performance standards as a way to force change throughout the whole system, not just a few parts of it.

At the bottom of the system, thousands of outstanding teachers have pioneered new, more powerful forms of instruction. One-third of America's schools are undertaking some kind of reform initiative, 3 percent to 5 percent of schools are tackling full-blown restructuring, and charter schools are popping up in eleven states. Numerous reform networks--the Coalition of Essential Schools, Accelerated Schools, the Yale Child Development Program, various whole-language groups, Success for All, the Turning Points and Clark Foundation middle school networks, the Foxfire Teacher Network, the Alliance of Restructured Schools, and many more--have blossomed over the last 10 years.

Except for Re:Learning, which was created to bridge the schoolhouse and the statehouse, and a few other reform networks, local school-reform networks have operated outside the state's educational system. They serve no formal state purposes, and may, in fact, be perceived as maverick reform movements within the state, even threats to the state department of education, school districts, and others. At the very least, they are seen as anomalies in the system, as exceptions, needing waivers to function. No state has figured out how to collaborate with school-reform networks, supporting them while protecting their individual missions.

Yet, by connecting like-minded teachers and school-change leaders and providing personal, intellectual, and financial support, networks extend the power of individuals and small groups to innovate and to fight off the animosity or inertia of bureaucracies not designed to accommodate, let alone foster, unconventional ideas.

The critical importanceof these reform teachers, schools, and networks lies in the fact that they constitute the bulk of the system's capacity to respond to changing realities and to innovate and link schools to the communities that breathe life and meaning into education.

The problem we face, simply stated, is that neither the policy reformers providing leadership at the top, nor the school-level reformers innovating and connecting schools to communities at the bottom, know how to take greatest advantage of the other's strengths. And the people in the middle, by and large, don't know how to implement or accommodate reform initiatives wherever they come from, top, bottom, or middle!

At least three major dangers present themselves which, if not addressed, may play out in a number of states. One is that policy reformers will design standards that make it harder for formal and informal networks to function effectively as incubators of new ideas and examples of how to change schooling. New standards, when added to already formidable requirements, rules, and regulations and implemented by district bureaucracies, might either suffocate innovative reform networks or keep them out of the mainstream, unable to spread their innovations or sustain their numbers. Reform policy might inadvertently kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Another danger is that an enormous amount of energy will be expended by policy reformers and school-level reformers alike, but it won't make any difference for a significant number of kids, especially those in greatest need. Our work in Re:Learning has taught us that the people in the middle--the district people and others--are having great difficulty understanding and dealing with reform policy from above them and reform practices emanating from the schools below them. They do not resist these initiatives out of base motives. They do it in order to survive and to do what they believe they are supposed to be doing.

Again and again, we have found that, to the central administrator, many of the ideas of reform legislators and nationally known school reformers are impractical, inequitable, inefficient, disruptive, or even illegal. So entangled are they--especially in big cities--in rules and regulations affecting health, safety, civil rights, employee rights, and liability; so caught up are they in political tempests, budget fights, labor disputes, court orders, and bureaucratic intrigue, that even those with the best intentions cannot see a way to allow more than a few people in the district to do anything remotely unconventional.

Furthermore, our work indicates that district working conditions, policies, procedures, and politics tend to insulate teachers from potential state leadership and protect them from potential "infection" by other teachers in the district who have caught the reform bug, usually through some formal or informal professional network. The average teacher has heard little about state policy initiatives or about reformers such as Theodore Sizer, James Comer, Henry Levin, or Deborah Meier, or about the hundreds of books written and reports issued about education reform. The most effective way of breaking through the information blockades in a district, in our experience, proves to be through networks, which act as reform rumor mills and professional-development channels linked to a wider world and its resources, beyond school and district boundaries.

The third danger is not clearly communicating the specific characteristics of a transformed system. We either assume people have knowledge and understanding of what we want to do to change the system, or we try to communicate but fail because we don't have enough models and concrete examples of the theoretical arguments we are making. The knowledge gap is easily filled by misinformation that leads to misunderstanding, fear, and opposition. Because what we're talking about is a very different system from what people know, the rhetoric of school change is scary, redolent of brainwashing, values, and usurpation of family rights. Now that increasing numbers of schools are making significant changes, opposition is increasing almost geometrically and threatens the entire school reform effort.

Performance-based systemic reform should be allied with efforts to provide more choices in public education and increase the power of people in schools to make decisions about what and how to teach. A major goal, for many of its advocates, should be to move from a "school system" to a "system of schools" in which all students acquire, in whatever ways local ingenuity can provide, the knowledge and skills they need to be healthy, productive adults. In this flexible approach, policy would be designed to leave maximum discretion about how to interpret and meet the standards in the hands of parents, teachers, and the networks they form or join to accomplish the task their way.

Flexible policy would set some high standards and critical boundaries and make it clear that districts and schools should act on these and be accountableand then get out of the way. It would allow for wide variations across the state in such things as learning time (for example, year-around schools, night classes, Saturday academies); learning sites (for example, storefront schools, Boys and Girls Clubs, expeditionary-learning centers); teachers (uncertified staff, para-professionals); curriculum fundamentals focus, Montessori, Afrocentric); assessment (exhibitions, performances, portfolios) or graduation requirements (walkabouts, outcomes-based examinations students can take at any age).

Flexible policy would also encourage new approaches to funding and operating schools. For instance, maximum flexibility might require giving innovative schools their entire operating budgets and letting them decide how best to spend them in order to bring all students up to higher standards of performance. It might also provide latitude for many degrees of privatization, new kinds of labor agreements, and diverse forms of governance.

Flexible policy would not just allow occasional exceptions; it would actively encourage people to do things in new, better ways. In the event that new approaches ran counter to existing policy, it would place the burden on the system to prove the status quo must be preserved, rather than on the petitioners to prove that exceptions should be made.

The pendulum of school change in this country has shifted significantly in the last decade from a highly regulatory system to one with some promise of providing enough flexibility to speed up the pace of school reform and restructuring. However, states are struggling with making the transition from the old system to the new one. State policymakers need to know how to insure that policy related to standards will make a difference in the everyday lives of children. They need examples of policies that accomplish their goals but provide maximum flexibility to local communities. They need strategies for linking networks into the state effort.

People in the middle--district administrators, for example--need to know how to reshape their unique roles in implementing state policy that is intended to allow for local flexibility. They need to understand the role school-reform networks can play regarding state policy. Finally, practitioners, especially those engaged in significant reform, need to see how their work can inform others and serve needs across the state, and how that work can mesh with state goals for student achievement.

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