Growing Pains

By Lynn Olson — November 02, 1994 18 min read

Piscataquis Community High School sits in a rural area of northwestern Maine populated by farmers and working-class families. In 1991, the academic performance of its 330 students placed the school in the bottom 20 percent of schools in the state. “And that was fairly reflective of community expectations,” says Principal Norman Higgins. “No one was shocked. No one was upset. That’s the way it had always been.”

Then the school decided to get serious. With the help of a $571,000 grant from the RJR Nabisco Foundation, it set to work. It eliminated its separate tracks for college-bound and non-college-bound students and replaced them with a core curriculum for everyone. It abandoned the traditional seven-period day so students could take two 85-minute classes in the morning and two in the afternoon. It gave away students’ desks and replaced them with large tables where students could work collectively. It trained staff members in how to use technology and new forms of instruction.

The results have been immediate and dramatic. Last year, the school ranked 12th in the state on Maine’s statewide achievement test. This year, it ranked 18th out of 127 schools. College-acceptance rates have soared, from about 35 percent in 1991 to above 70 percent today. Meanwhile, the dropout rate has fallen like a rock, from 4.5 percent to 1.3 percent. You’d think everybody would be lining up to discover Piscataquis’ secret.

“We’ve had lots of visitors,” says Higgins. “We have lots of inquiries. A lot of people like to listen.” But very few, he says, have adopted the high school’s changes in their entirety. “I’ve been all over the country,” he adds. “When I visit good schools, the question always comes up, ‘Why is the school next door not emulating what’s going on in this school?’ ... There’s just a built-in resistance to change.”

The story is a familiar one. After more than a decade of reform, good schools in which all students strive to meet high standards remain the exception, not the norm. Research identifies best practice, but it never seems to spread far enough. The unevenness in the quality of classrooms across the country frustrates parents and policymakers alike. Everyone can point to isolated instances of powerful--even stunning--learning, but they never seem to catch fire. If anything, nearly the opposite occurs. Potent forces, aligned against change, inexorably seem to drag innovations back to the status quo.

“After a lot of years of trying to improve schools,” laments John L. Anderson, the president of the New American Schools Development Corporation, “we don’t have one district of any size or diversity of population where good schools are the norm not the exception. And that runs contrary to the fact that we know how to create good schools.”

So the debate has shifted. Once, reformers strove to change a handful of schools to demonstrate that education could look and feel different. Now, they are increasingly worried about how to spread effective practices broadly and deeply. They want to bring about high levels of student learning in large numbers of schools, not just a few. But to achieve changes in the numbers desired, reformers may need a whole new set of strategies. They need a strategy for “scaling up.”

The current bag of tricks won’t work. There isn’t enough foundation money in the United States to transform 80,000 public schools. There is no way to re-educate 2.4 million teachers relying on the existing system of professional development. There aren’t enough charismatic reformers to reach every school. But precisely what strategies and approaches will work is far from certain.

Some of the most promising results have come from networks of like-minded educators who have banded together to transform their schools. These include groups like the Coalition of Essential Schools, the School Development Program, and the Accelerated Schools Project. Over the past decade, such networks have blossomed from working with one or two sites to literally hundreds. (See related story.)

But even the best school-reform networks are hard-pressed to expand beyond their current numbers. And thousands and thousands of schools remain unserved.

So reformers have tried policy. Over the past few years, one of the most popular strategies for bringing about changes in large numbers of schools has been something called “systemic reform.” Under systemic reform, states align their assessments, curriculum, professional development, and resources behind high standards for student learning. Then they give schools greater autonomy and incentives to figure out how to meet those standards. The theory goes like this: If all parts of the system are pushing in the same direction, schools will have a powerful context in which to improve. Instead of getting mixed messages about their goals, schools will finally have a clear sense of mission.

But skeptics worry that academic standards imposed from above could narrow the focus of instruction even more and hamper--rather than inspire--innovation. They note that state policymakers and bureaucrats don’t have a history of producing bold and coherent reform. And they criticize systemic reform for underestimating the hard work and particularities that must be attended to school by school.

Moreover, it’s not clear that the linear, rational notion of change implied by systemic reform has anything to do with how change actually occurs. “There is a fundamental flaw in the conclusion that we can resolve the problem by attending to systemic alignment,” argues Michael G. Fullan, the dean of education at the University of Toronto. “There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that educational change is inherently, endemically, ineluctably nonlinear.”

Reform isn’t just putting in place the latest policy, he argues. Inspiring goals, better curriculum frameworks, and new kinds of assessments help. But “systems,” notes Fullan, “have a better track record of maintaining the status quo than they have of changing it. This is why attempting to change the system directly through regulation and structural reform does not work.”

“It is people,” he argues, “who change systems through the development of new critical masses. Once a critical mass becomes a majority, we begin to see system change.”

Viewed in this light, the problem isn’t simply changing policies but changing culture. If every teacher in the country woke up tomorrow with classrooms of 15 students, some would still lecture to 15 students. If all parents were allowed to alter their child’s schooling, many would opt for only modest modifications. “Unless you get into the hearts and minds of teachers in a persuasive way, you’re not doing very much,” argues Theodore R. Sizer, the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, one of the nation’s largest school-reform networks.

Reformers not only have to reach large numbers of schools and teachers and citizens, they must also change people’s fundamental conceptions of what good teaching and learning look like. In the process, they must transform the very norms of schooling that thwart innovation. Thus, “scaling up” implies creating lasting and broad-based social change. It’s not just about disseminating a number of discrete and effective practices.

The past year has seen three major attempts to bring about changes on a broad scale: the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the work of the New American Schools Development Corporation, and philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg’s multimillion-dollar bequest to the nation’s schools. Each has taken a slightly different approach.

  • Goals 2000 was enacted by Congress last spring. It formalizes the country’s adoption of eight national education goals. It creates a council to help set voluntary national education standards for what students should know and be able to do in key academic subjects. And it provides states and communities with seed money to develop comprehensive education-reform plans aimed at helping all students reach challenging academic standards. The bulk of funds, however, will go to school districts actually working to achieve the standards.

    “This is an exciting time for American education,” said Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley in inviting states to apply for the funds. “We are beginning a historic partnership with states, communities, and the federal government working in concert to bring world-class standards to every classroom in the nation.”

  • The New American Schools Development Corporation has embraced the federal government’s call for high academic standards, but it has taken a somewhat different tack to spreading reform. U.S. business leaders formed the nonprofit organization in 1991, at the request of President Bush. For the past three years, it has funded nine design teams and charged them with creating “break the mold” schools based on the best available research. Now, it is looking for five to seven jurisdictions that will commit to implementing those designs in at least 30 percent of their schools by 2000.

    To the corporation and its supporters, a “critical mass of restructured schools is reached when so much change has occurred that it would require more effort to revert to the old than to maintain momentum toward the new.” Faced with such large numbers, the corporation hopes, states and districts will stop treating ground-breaking schools as the exception and adjust how they regulate and administer all schools.

  • The Annenberg Challenge--the publishing mogul’s $500 million gift to public education--takes yet another approach. It too will focus much of its effort on a small number of jurisdictions, in this case, some of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. But its strategy is to give the bulk of the funds to schools. In particular, it has looked to promising school-based practitioners--who have been engaged in the hard, lonely work of change--to come up with strategies for how they would spread reform beyond their individual buildings.

    “Our concern is to help the best people in those places figure out what’s best for those places,” says Sizer, who is also the president of the newly created Annenberg Institute, “and to harness the best of the reform effort so that it works to the greatest possible degree in concert.”

    “There are in most big cities,” he adds, “a lot of little reform efforts, but each of which is so small that it can’t establish the kind of reputation and credibility that is required.”

Each of these three initiatives seeks to address the frustration with glittering gems: places that work but are available only to small numbers of kids. “Everybody agrees we have a scaling-up problem,” says Susan Traiman, the director of the education initiative for the Business Roundtable, a group of corporate leaders involved in school reform. “But they may not all agree on the solution.”

Robert Schwartz directs education programs for the Pew Charitable Trusts, which has funded some of the nation’s largest school-reform efforts. “I have not yet seen anybody who’s got a strategy that seems to me really compelling on this problem,” he says. “We don’t even have a language that works.”

“The challenge is not simply one of adapting other people’s ideas or programs into your own setting,” Schwartz argues, “but in schools, at least, creating a culture in which there’s a norm of looking outward and looking for best practice, wherever it is, and then figuring out how to really learn from the experience of others. And that’s really variant to the way schools are organized and the reality of most schoolpeople’s lives.”

Obviously, there are benefits to replicating sound ideas and programs, notes the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in a 1990 report on replication. “It defies common sense to invest continually in the development of new programs when ones with proven effectiveness already have been developed and could be implemented more easily and economically,” it argues. But many reformers now shudder at the term “replication,” which implies the rigid copying of someone else’s program or practices. Research has found that schools typically adapt--not adopt--innovations. The more complicated the innovation, the less likely it is to be implemented in full.

Milbrey W. McLaughlin, a professor of education at Stanford University, has spent most of her professional life studying the work of teachers and the culture of schools. She argues against focusing on particular programs or treatments as the way to address problems of scale.

Instead, she says, policymakers should pay more attention to the learning opportunities available for teachers.

In a five-year study by the federally funded Center for Research on the Context of Secondary School Teaching, McLaughlin and her colleagues found that the most effective teachers had hooked up with a network of like-minded colleagues who addressed problems and found solutions together. Such networks included subject-matter departments within schools, entire school faculties, and outside groups, such as the Urban Mathematics Collaboratives. “Not one [of the teachers studied] who was able to develop sustained and challenging learning opportunities for students was in isolation,” says McLaughlin. “Each belonged to a professional learning community.”

The center’s latest data suggest that when individual teachers hook up with networks like the Bay Area Writing Project in San Francisco, it’s wonderful for the students in their classroom but rarely affects the whole school. In contrast, when an entire school, a department, or even two teachers in a building are engaged in pushing and reflecting on ongoing practice, it has a wider ripple effect. These are the learning communities where the norms and values of schooling are more likely to get addressed, argues McLaughlin.

New curricula, assessments, and standards that emphasize high levels of content for all students are important, she adds. “But I would worry about creating multiple discourse communities for teachers. The issue is keeping the environment reeking with rich ideas, keeping it stoked, keeping learning opportunities in the water supply.” In schools where teachers are working effectively with a wide range of students, she says, “we see teachers who are satisfied with themselves as professionals. And there is just phenomenal learning going on among the adults.”

Research like McLaughlin’s has led reformers to view networks of schools and professionals as one of the most powerful tools for spreading reform. “Large-scale implementation of school-improvement efforts depends on networking strategies,” contends Bill Honig, the former state superintendent of public instruction in California. “Eventually, every school in the country should belong to a specific network dedicated to a potent improvement theme.”

Such networks don’t come at professional development in the traditional way, in which “experts” lecture teachers about content divorced from the realities of their classrooms. Instead, the networks encourage teachers to share ideas, visit each other’s classrooms, try out new approaches, refine them, and try them out again. They offer professionals a rich variety of avenues for learning.

“I might suggest that networking when practiced on a significant scale may increase the involvement of teachers in systemic reform from our hypothetical 5 percent to some 30 percent to 40 percent,” says Fullan of the University of Toronto.

But as a scaling-up strategy, networks have their own drawbacks. For example, teachers often belong to multiple networks, which doesn’t solve the problem of fragmentation at the school. In addition, while most networks serve as external prods to the existing system, they typically cannot change the working conditions within schools. “I think that networks are going on, in a sense, despite the existing system,” says Fullan. “They’re working in some ways, one could say, at cross-purposes. And unless we realize that, we’re going to have networks that are exciting to people but then fizzle out.”

Many networks also lack the self-monitoring mechanisms that would hold the quality of their innovations up to rigorous scrutiny.

For these reasons, reformers argue that networks have to be married to something else. Fullan calls it the “reculturing” of individual schools around new conceptions of instruction, radical new uses of time, and collaborative working conditions for teachers.

“It really means that the principal and teachers and community have to be working away at their own sense of priorities,” Fullan says, “so that they are not looking for solutions to be handed to them by some external network, even though it is a supportive network. They have to get better and better at being critical consumers of the possibilities that are out there. It’s hard. It’s not clear how to do that.”

Some have suggested the need for brokering agencies that would bring schools up to speed on the latest research, help them exercise informed choice, and assist them in integrating various reform strategies.

Annenberg has pledged $15 million to the Education Commission of the States to disseminate promising school designs. The U.S. Education Department’s National Diffusion Network, which promotes the adoption of proven practices, is also trying to identify innovations that could be profitably combined in schools.

“I used to believe that we probably could find one best approach to schooling,” says Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard’s graduate school of education. “I think that in this country that’s not realistic. I’m hoping that in the next few years a small handful--a computer screen-sized menu of options--of four or six major approaches to school reform could become legitimized enough that people understand what they’re about and could make reasonable choices among them.”

But he cautions that educators are being asked to do things fundamentally different than in the past and that many of the principles and practices are not well worked out. “I think the scale-up for stuff which hasn’t been widely done and widely understood intuitively by parents, teachers, and kids is going to be a cottage industry for a while,” Gardner predicts.

Others have begun to look outside education at how other sectors create and spread innovation.

Kenneth G. Wilson, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, became interested in school reform when he joined a team to improve mathematics and science education in Ohio. He was struck by the contrast between the success of a handful of education programs, like Reading Recovery, and the way most schools operate.

This fall, Wilson published a book, Redesigning Education, that examines the differences between how innovation is fostered in education, science, and industry. What educators lack, he contends, is an ordered process of strategic change. Wilson calls this the “redesign process": the infrastructure of research, development, dissemination, and refinement that industry relies on to create innovations and make them affordable. “The conversation that the redesign process and its succession of innovations fosters in industry has no counterpart in our schools,” he argues.

To create such an infrastructure, he proposes a string of heavily staffed “Systems Redesign Schools"--at an annual cost of $100 million--whose job would be to try out, refine, coordinate, and integrate innovations in education. Because these schools would be a “crucible” in which to break down the old cultures of teaching and learning and forge new ones, Wilson argues, their ranks should initially be drawn from those of the existing school-reform networks. Eventually, the increased effectiveness and budgetary efficiencies that such schools could achieve would lead them to become almost self-sustaining.

Wilson, like many others, seems to assume that if educators are shown a better way, they will rush to adopt it. But one of the dilemmas of scaling up is that schools don’t jump at the opportunity to change themselves.

“One of the things we need are external standards that apply pressure to the system to cause it to search for better ways to do things,” argues Richard Elmore, a professor at the Harvard education school. “That’s why the standards movement is so critically important, granted that it has all kinds of problems.”

Elmore maintains that “hard strategies"--as well as soft ones--are needed to promote widespread reform. These include making tough decisions about who gets to teach and who doesn’t, when to change the leadership of a school, and whether to close it down and reorganize it. “It’s not that I want to convert the whole system to some kind of macho management,” Elmore protests. “It’s just that if you have this external standard--and the aspiration to get beyond this threshold--I think you have to have both hard strategies and soft strategies. One without the other won’t get you anywhere.”

“For the most part, the system does what it does,” he argues. “It gives the appearance of innovation. It hires consultants. It does staff development. It tries to at least change the words to describe what it’s doing. But the technical core of the operation--what teachers do in classrooms with kids around content and materials doesn’t change much.”

Back in rural Maine, Principal Norman Higgins can come up with lots of reasons why the system doesn’t change. First, there are the vested interests: school boards that don’t want to give up power, parents who don’t want to put their child’s education at stake. Then there are the psychological barriers, including teachers who can’t imagine teaching in a way different than they have been taught. Finally, there’s the problem of time in a school calendar structured to hurtle people from one class period to the next, and from Labor Day to June.

But, in the end, Higgins says, “I think it’s a problem of systems and culture. As I speak across the country, I always tell people we have a national problem in education, but there is no national solution. The only solution you’ll find rests within your local communities.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 1994 edition of Education Week as Growing Pains