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Rapid Turnover in Leadership Impedes Reforms, Study Finds

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Fifth in an occasional series.

When researchers in the Southeast launched a study of barriers to school reform, they expected to find the usual culprits: state education departments that overregulated and micromanaged.

But what they found was something else.

"After the first year, we all were just struck by how many initiatives had stopped and started since 1983," said John Dornan, the director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, which directed the study. "Last year's panacea is this year's throwaway."

The problem was not too few reforms, the researchers found, but too many that were short-lived. As states' economies faltered and political and educational leadership shifted, so did their agendas.

Those findings have serious implications for anyone interested in creating a large number of high-performing schools, a concept commonly known as "scaling up" reform. (See Education Week, 11/02/94.)

An analysis of the top six education jobs in the six states studied--Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina--showed that only two of the 36 positions had remained constant since the national push for school reform began with the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983. The average position had changed hands three times since then.

Rapid Turnover

At the local level, rapid leadership turnover was the norm. And with every new superintendent came a change in direction, a change in priorities, and a change in school principals.

"Until we answer that basic question--what do we want kids to know and be able to do--it's a classic case of the Alice-in-Wonderland syndrome," argued Mr. Dornan. "If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there."

In the Southeast, he noted, educators have seen career ladders come and go, school-reform laws that were never fully financed or implemented, and district policies that swung from the ideas of Madeleine Hunter to Total Quality Management.

"It would be laughable if the impact of it wasn't so tragic," Mr. Dornan added. "When we did focus groups and case studies, the degree of cynicism and anger and frustration at the school-building level was, for anyone concerned about school reform, really frightening."

After 11 years of reform, teachers and principals were "improvement weary" and convinced that "this too shall pass," the study found.

The SouthEastern Regional Vision for Education, or SERVE, a federally financed education laboratory affiliated with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, conducted the study. Appalachian State University and the University of South Carolina helped the Public School Forum direct the project.

Barriers Identified

The study identified six major barriers to school improvement: the instability of political leadership, poor economic conditions, stop-and-start reforms, an inability to reach consensus on the goals of education, an underinvestment in training, and a lack of trust between educators who were on the firing line and those at the top.

But one of the biggest obstacles to reform, the researchers found, were the high-stakes accountability systems states were installing to spur schools to measure up.

In most cases, these systems were being implemented before states had specified what they wanted students to know and be able to do or how they planned to assess it. Schools scrambled to perform on standardized, norm-referenced tests that often measured the wrong things, or struggled to meet curriculum goals that shifted underfoot.

Not surprisingly, the same school districts that had failed to meet the older, less rigorous standards were failing under the new system.

The study found that a typical low-performing school in the Southeast is likely to be rural, geographically isolated, and poor, with a high rate of teenage pregnancy, a disproportionate percentage of at-risk youths, and a weak economic base.

Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina all have passed laws that enable states to intervene, or in some cases, assume control of low-performing school districts, Mr. Dornan noted.

But the "unintended consequence" of such actions, the researchers asserted, was to further stigmatize communities that were already facing the greatest challenge in keeping or attracting jobs and industry.

Moreover, the typical state accountability system provided assistance only after failure had been documented for a period of years. As soon as student performance started to improve, the assistance was removed.

Beyond the School Doors

The problems in such low-income, rural districts extend far beyond the schools, the researchers found, to create a "culture of poverty" and racism. To correct decades of neglect, they suggested, would require interventions and support that also go far beyond the school doors.

"When you look at the percentage of people on welfare in those communities, the demographics are just staggering," Mr. Dornan said. "The thought of a state improving schools by sending in a curriculum expert from the state capital is almost laughable."

Rather than focusing on sanctions for low-performing school districts, the researchers argued, policymakers should place an equal emphasis on ways to prevent failure.

But Mr. Dornan acknowledged that would be difficult given the current level of expertise in state education departments and their shrinking size, as a result of state budget cuts.

The researchers suggested that some states might want to call an "outright moratorium or hiatus" on statewide accountability systems until they could be improved.

Ideally, they said, a well-conceived system would begin with a consensus around goals, standards, and assessments. It would provide the time and money needed for training, staff development, and local planning. And it would focus from the start on the schools most likely to fail, so they could be given the resources to succeed.

States should also work to win the support of teachers and principals, the researchers said, by involving them in establishing new standards and assessments.

Training Urged

In addition to improving state accountability systems, the researchers suggested that:

  • State legislatures train and retrain their members to instill a sense of institutional memory about school reform. Some states, like South Carolina, have created independent "watchdog" committees charged with keeping track of reform.
  • Policymakers should insure that appropriations will cover the cost of new programs.
  • More money and energy should focus on professional development for teachers and administrators.
  • Policymakers should be clear from the start about which areas of schooling will remain state decisions and which will become local decisions.

Copies of the reports, "Overcoming Barriers to School Reform in the Southeast" and "A New Framework for State Accountability Systems," are available free of charge from SERVE, P.O. Box 5367, Greensboro, N.C. 27435; (800) 755-3277.

The "Scaling Up" series is underwritten by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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