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Commitment of Educators Cited in Reforms' Success

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New York

Both nationally acclaimed school-reform programs and locally developed projects can boost low-achieving poor students to academic levels that match or exceed national averages, a study of 10 such programs has found.

But improvement is neither easy nor automatic. Success depends heavily on commitment from the educators charged with making a given program work, said Samuel C. Stringfield, an author of the study and a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

"If you don't implement a program, it's like having a medicine that just sits in the medicine cabinet: It won't cure the disease," he said.

The three-year study found little success at establishing schoolwide reform programs at secondary schools. And at all grade levels, the researchers found wide differences in the way programs were envisioned and how they were applied in classrooms.

Mr. Stringfield announced the findings here last week at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association.

The U.S. Department of Education commissioned the study in 1990 to identify promising strategies that could be used by schools that receive money from the massive federal Title I program, then known as Chapter 1. The remedial-education program targets poor students, providing assistance to school districts and giving local officials leeway in deciding how to spend the money.

Frequent Observation

The researchers identified 25 schools--five high schools, the rest elementary--as models of a particular reform strategy and followed their progress from 1990 to 1992. They interviewed teachers, administrators, parents, and students; observed individual classes; and periodically followed students through an entire school day. (See Education Week, April 26, 1995.)

The schools were in urban, suburban, and rural areas and represented a mix of programs:

  • Chapter 1 schoolwide projects, devised locally, often at individual schools. Most of the projects studied had integrated their Chapter 1 programs throughout the school, reduced class sizes, and enhanced staff development or added extra members to the instructional staff. Two of the schools also had used Chapter 1 money to expand the school year.
  • The Coalition of Essential Schools, the Providence, R.I.-based reform network founded by Theodore R. Sizer of Brown University.
  • The Comer School Development Program, based on the principles of Yale University psychiatrist James P. Comer. The program emphasizes parent participation, integrated social and educational services, and a teamwork approach to school management.
  • Success for All, a schoolwide restructuring program aimed at ensuring student success early on.
  • The Paideia program, which emphasizes developing students' intellectual skills through challenging reading material and rigorous academics.

In addition to the schoolwide approaches, the study looked at strategies targeted at specific groups, such as the Reading Recovery program, an intensive tutoring program for 1st graders.

A key finding from the three years of research is that "students who have been placed at risk of academic failure are capable of achieving at or above national averages," Mr. Stringfield said. In several of the schools, the achievement gains for disadvantaged students were dramatic.

Some Fall Short

But he cautioned that success for any given reform program was far from guaranteed. Strategies that brought substantial gains in some schools were either discarded or showed less promising results in others.

Some of the schools "were clearly losing their race to educate all children," the researchers concluded.

At many of the schools, the study found, educators striving to put such a program in place faced at the same time shortages of basic instructional materials.

Without Chapter 1 funds, few of the schools could have undertaken such programs, Mr. Stringfield said. The schools that succeeded were ones that looked at reform as a long-term commitment and paid special attention to the initial implementation of a given strategy. Without such efforts, educators and parents tended to view the strategy as the latest education fad.

Cooperation on many levels--school district, school administration, and teaching staff--was vital to making the strategies work, Mr. Stringfield said. "It's a question of: Are you willing to commit?"

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