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Shifting Leadership Impedes Reform

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As states' economies faltered and political and educational leadership shifted, so did their agendas. 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.

The researchers found that the same thing was true 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,'' Dornan explains. "If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there.''

In the Southeast, he notes, 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 Madeline Hunter to Total Quality Management. "It would be laughable if the impact of it wasn't so tragic,'' Dornan says. "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.''

The study, which was conducted by the SouthEastern Regional Vision for Education, or SERVE, a federally financed laboratory, 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, was 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.

The researchers suggest that some states might want to call an "outright moratorium or hiatus'' on statewide accountability systems until they can be improved. Ideally, they say, 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 they need to succeed.

In addition, the researchers propose that state legislatures ensure that appropriations cover the cost of new programs, focus more money and energy on professional development for teachers and administrators, and train and retrain their members to instill a sense of institutional memory about school reform.

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