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Focus on Student Learning Is Key In School Restructuring, Study Says

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Washington

Though there is no simple recipe for success when it comes to restructuring schools, a five-year, federally financed study released last week provides some of the key ingredients.

Structural reform can work if it is properly focused on student learning and supported by outside groups and resources, researchers at the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools at the University of Wisconsin-Madison concluded.

Their preliminary report analyzes some of the most popular methods of reform, including decentralization, shared decisionmaking, school choice, schools-within-schools, flexible scheduling with longer classes, team teaching, and portfolio assessment. A final report will be issued next year.

A panel of education policymakers that convened at a meeting here last week to release the report praised its potential to influence policy.

"This is the most publicly accessible report that I've ever read," said Cynthia Brown, the director of the Council of Chief State School Officers' center for educational equity.

From 1990 to 1995, the Wisconsin researchers analyzed data from more than 1,500 elementary, middle, and high schools and conducted field studies in 44 schools in 16 states.

The Ingredients

Their report, "Successful School Restructuring," concludes that organizational changes improve learning only when carried out within a framework that emphasizes student learning of high intellectual quality.

The report says that students must be engaged in activities that:

  • Build on prior knowledge and help them apply that knowledge to new situations;
  • Encourage them to elaborate on their ideas both orally and in writing; and
  • Have value beyond school.

Educators and the public, the report says, can help students succeed at such activities by giving them three kinds of support: teachers who practice "authentic pedagogy," schools that work as a unit, and external agencies and parents that back schools' efforts.

Authentic pedagogy, the authors explain, means engaging students in higher-order thinking, substantive conversations with teachers and peers, and connections to the world beyond the classroom.

But, they caution, it is difficult for even the most talented teachers to make a difference if schools are not organized with a clear focus on student learning. To do so, schools must create opportunities for teachers to collaborate, give them a say in school management, and offer staff development consistent with the school's mission.

Range of Reactions

The report says schools work best when they are small in size and when parents are involved in a broad range of school affairs.

Finally, schools need financial, technical, and political support from government agencies, parents, and other outside groups. Staff development is one of the most significant forms of support, the study says.

Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and a member of the panel last week, said the report serves better as a framework to evaluate reforms already in place than as a guide to creating a new way of schooling. "Knowing what some of the attributes of a successful school are does not necessarily enable you to replicate it," he said.

Without a national curriculum in place, Mr. Shanker suggested, building a far-reaching system based on the report's findings would be difficult.

Other policymakers at the meeting said the research could be used to shift more money to professional development and other critical components of school reform.

"Ultimately, it comes down to policymakers and how you take research like this and make it broad-based," said Brenda Welburn, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

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