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Published in Print: September 10, 2003, as The 'Long Haul' or 'Boom or Bust'?


The 'Long Haul' or 'Boom or Bust'?

Gauging the future of reform in turbulent times.

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Gauging the future of reform in turbulent times.

The current budget crises and cuts to spending on education at every level make the 1990s look like a long-past golden age of school reform. It was an era inspired both by dire descriptions of a "rising tide of mediocrity" and ambitious optimism that all students could achieve "world class" standards. It was an era that saw explosive growth of improvement strategies, reform models and programs, and district and state efforts to make systemic changes.

It was also an era that launched a whole new cadre of workers versed in the intricacies of making school change happen—coaches, reform coordinators, and instructional leaders whose job it was to take on some of the most critical tasks in school improvement. These individuals provided the flexibility to fill the gaps in traditional school and district roles and responsibilities, and they helped schools and districts take on the additional work that comes with major improvement efforts.

Now, however, as thousands of teachers and principals around the country receive pink slips, eliminating many of the coaching and reform-coordinator positions added over the past few years seems like an obvious means of retrenchment. After all, it is difficult enough to show how reform efforts lead to significant outcomes in student achievement, let alone to show that those outcomes depend on the contributions of individual coaches or reform coordinators.

That's why we may have to decide the value of academic coaches and coaching on a different metric. We can demand that such coaches demonstrate their ability to "add value" in schools' efforts to make quick improvements in student performance on the narrow measures of reading and math skills that are the focus of so many approaches to accountability. But we may find it more profitable to recognize that those who fill these "intermediary" roles may be most effective when they are able to do whatever is needed to build long-term organizational capacity for improvements—even if their activities cannot be scripted in advance or their achievements measured simply or quickly.

The work undertaken by the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative—a project created as part of the Annenberg Challenge to support school and district improvement efforts in the greater San Francisco Bay area—provides a good example of one approach to coaching and what it takes to make such an effort successful. Papers presented at this year's meeting of the American Educational Research Association (and available on the collaborative's Web site: describe that program's "multilevel" strategy on coaching, including coaches that support literacy instruction in schools; coaches that provide support for whole-school reform; and district coaches that support systemwide reform efforts. The papers make it clear that embracing coaching as a central piece of reform efforts also means coming to terms with a basic paradox: Coaches need institutional support to be successful, but in many ways, they are successful because they exist outside the usual institutional and organizational structures that need to be improved.

This paradox grows out of the fact that coaching, like many reform strategies, is a conditional enterprise. It works when coaches keep in mind their ultimate goals, but make appropriate responses to the situations and circumstances in which they find themselves. Although specifying in greater detail what coaches do and helping build organizational and institutional support for them makes sense at one level, at another level, the very efforts to institutionalize coaching may end up constraining the conditional aspects that are central to its success.

The conditional nature of coaching and other reform strategies creates three related problems that most reform efforts have failed to address adequately. The first of these problems is that the contexts in which reforms are carried out are constantly changing. The Bay Area School Reform Collaborative's coaches, for example, have had to adapt their work to the significant changes in policies and rapidly shifting budget issues in California over the past few years. They also have had to adapt their work as the project's own reform strategy has evolved. Over the past year, in response to what its participants were learning, BASRC has shifted attention and resources from work at the school level to work at the district level. Likewise, the coaches have been affected by the process of organizational change, as BASRC seeks to develop a new long-term funding strategy and business plan.

In a sense, then, the coaches of BASRC, like all reform coaches, have had to deal with the fact that their enterprise always seems to be under construction in an earthquake zone: Their work is constantly being reconstructed while the ground is shifting under their feet.

A second problem is that changing contexts require constant learning. Coaches and others involved in school reform cannot follow a script or assume they will face predictable situations. Instead, they have to be prepared for many different possibilities. Yet coaches have few, if any, formal training opportunities. And they often lack time to reflect on or learn from what they are doing. Even those who do take time for intensive reflection on their activities rarely have the capacity to create the kinds of research products and "artifacts" that can help develop the collective knowledge and resources that advance the wider field.

We need to prepare for the "boom and bust" cycles of reform exacerbated by our current funding formulas and constantly shifting policies.

A third consideration is that successful reform depends on developing abilities to make judgments under conditions of uncertainty. No finite body of knowledge will enable these coaches or other reformers to be successful. Nor will guidelines, books, or journal articles easily capture and convey the kinds of expertise that such coaches need. Formal learning opportunities and sophisticated resources can certainly help advance the effectiveness of reformers of all stripes, but coaches and other like-minded reformers always need to learn "on the job" and apprentice-like, in the company of more-expert peers.

In particular, coaches have to learn how to manage the fundamental tensions that come with their jobs. As the authors of the papers on the Bay-area project point out, these tensions include whether coaches should focus on their own goals (and the goals of their reform programs) or let the goals emerge from the work of the schools; whether they should focus on one aspect of the school (such as a literacy program) or the whole school; and whether they should focus on "content" (the specific changes that need to be made) or "process" (developing the relationships and mechanisms needed to make the changes).

Unfortunately, these tensions cannot be resolved, they can only be managed. They would not be so problematic if coaches had unlimited time, or it were possible to hire unlimited numbers of coaches. But the reality is that coaches don't have the time to pursue their own goals and the school's goals, or to focus on reading and whole-school change at the same time. They don't necessarily have to make an "either/or" choice, but they have to learn how to balance their time among these competing priorities in constantly changing conditions.

The difficulty and potential costs of dealing with these problems may mean that coaching and many of the other reform strategies developed in recent years simply cannot be sustained. Coaching may be just one more manifestation of the fact that although many reform strategies are intended to build the capacity for school improvement, the current system may not have the capacity to support and carry them out.

We need to prepare for the "boom and bust" cycles of reform exacerbated by our current funding formulas and constantly shifting policies. One way to do that is to design reform strategies that can expand and contract with the times. If, though, we believe that coaches, coordinators, and other related reform tactics are essential ingredients in building the capacity for improved performance, then we have to design them for the long haul: We have to confront the paradoxes that come with trying to seek institutional support for the very reform efforts that may need to work outside those institutional structures.

We have to confront the paradoxes that come with trying to seek institutional support for the very reform efforts that may need to work outside those institutional structures.

With cuts in public education budgets around the country and reductions in the support from private philanthropies, the number of reform strategies and associated vendors may shrink rapidly in the next few years. Such a reduction is not necessarily a bad thing, but it would be truly unfortunate if the matter of which ones survive had less to do with whether they can produce educational results over the long term than whether they can weather the political and economic realities of the times.

Thomas Hatch, formerly a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in Menlo Park, Calif., this month joins the faculty of Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City, where he will serve as a co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching.

Vol. 23, Issue 2, Pages 32,35

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