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Study Finds Formidable Barriers to Promising Reform Strategies

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San Francisco

A study of 10 promising school-reform programs suggests that, even in the best of schools, change comes hard.

The Special Strategies Studiessic were mandated by Congress in the late 1980's to determine which of the growing number of popular school-reform strategies work best for poor children. It is a companion to the massive Prospects study, which looked at the effectiveness of federal Chapter 1 programs--now called Title 1--for 40,000 disadvantaged students nationwide.

The Special Strategies Studies, which are expected to cost more than $2.5 million, are not yet complete. But researchers presented some of their broader findings here last week during the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

The programs they examined ranged from highly acclaimed efforts to bring comprehensive change to whole schools, such as the Coalition of Essential Schools, an effort begun Theodore R. Sizer, a professor at Brown University, to equally well known programs with a narrower focus, such as Reading Recovery, an effort aimed at providing intensive reading instruction to the lowest achieving 1st graders.

The other programs examined included: Success For All, a school-wide restructuring program aimed at insuring students' success early in their school career and helping them maintain it; the School Development Program, a comprehensive school-improvement model developed by Yale University psychologist James P. Comer; the Paideia program, an approach that stresses Socratic dialogues and rigorous academics for all children; computer-assisted instruction; tutoring programs; efforts to extend the school day or year; and schoolwide projects launched under the federal Title I program.

Models of Reform

To gauge the effectiveness of these programs, researchers targeted 25 schools that had been identified as models of their particular reform strategies. They interviewed parents, teachers, students, and principals; gathered achievement data on students; and observed schools and classrooms. In addition, they "shadowed" three students in each program twice a year over the course of the three-year study.

Investigators met the students in the morning and followed them throughout the school day. Visits were also made to other schools that were replicating the programs under study to corroborate observations.

"In 25 longitudinal cases, of which virtually all were nominated by two independent sources, Special Strategies researchers found few fully implemented, well integrated, institutionalized programs," Samuel C. Stringfield, the project's lead researcher, writes in a paper prepared for the conference.

Nevertheless, all of the programs seemed to provide "some advantages, for some schools, in some school districts," Mr. Stringfield said.

Researchers said such findings have implications for the school-reform movement. Too often, they noted, educators focus on finding "magic bullets."

"Clearly, what we need to do is to move beyond what works to the conditions under which these things work," said Lorinsic Anderson, a professor at the University of South Carolina.

The researchers discovered, for example, that school officials picked the particular strategies they used without considering alternatives that might make a better fit.

Program Variations

The wide variations in the ways that schools implemented the same program meant that students' school experiences varied as well.

The researchers pointed, for example, to the cases of "Jake" and "William," two 10th graders attending different schools using Mr. Sizer's program. William, a student who chose the urban school he attended because of its Reserve Officer's Training Corps program, attended classes on a block schedule that enabled him to study chemistry for an hour and a half at a stretch. Also true to the approach used by the Coalition of Essential Schools, seniors in his school were required to carry out projects that last several months to demonstrate what they had learned. He learned to work in groups and to think critically--so much so that he often questioned his r.o.t.c. supervisors. When he graduated from high school, William had several options, including attending college.

In the rural school that Jake attended, classes were not on a block schedule. The only time that he could be seen demonstrating Mr. Sizer's "student as worker" principle was in his vocational-education classes, where researchers said the training he received was "obsolete anyway."

When he graduated, Jake's options were limited.

The investigators also said that school administrators frequently discovered that the programs they undertook cost more than they expected.

And tensions arose over the programs when teachers were not included in the reform efforts. Teachers not participating in Reading Recovery, for example, sometimes resented the additional training and resources their colleagues in the program received.

The final results from the studies, including data on students' achievement, will be reported to Congress later this year.

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