Impact of Reform Said To Be Spotty And Not Systemic

By Debra Viadero — February 09, 1994 4 min read

While some educational innovations are taking root in the nation’s high schools, much of the change is occurring slowly and haphazardly, concludes a new study based on a survey of 3,380 high school principals.

The study, which was scheduled to be released late last week, is believed to be the most comprehensive survey in decades to examine the progress of reforms in public and private high schools.

It was conducted by Gordon Cawelti, the executive director of the Alliance for Curriculum Reform, for the Educational Research Service, an organization that serves as a research arm for seven national education groups.

According to the survey, hundreds of schools are using cooperative-learning techniques, incorporating new national standards for teaching mathematics, and giving more decisionmaking authority to teachers and parents.

But those efforts are spotty, and few schools are attempting systemic reform by taking on several of the changes at once.

Timothy J. Dyer, the president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, a study sponsor, said the findings are important because they point to a lack of consensus about how to restructure high schools.

“There is a lot of activity, but there is not a clear vision as to what is necessary to restructure the schools,’' he said. “One can argue that this indicates we’re not making much progress at the high school level.’'

Measuring Change

As part of the study, Mr. Cawelti selected 36 indicators of change in five broad areas: curriculum and teaching, school organization, community outreach, technology, and monetary incentives for improving performance. He then asked principals to indicate whether those reforms were “in general use,’' “partially implemented,’' “planned for next year,’' or “not planned for next year’’ in their own schools.

Some of the most popular reforms, he discovered, were aimed at improving what is taught.

Almost half of the principals, for example, said new standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics were in general use in their schools. And over half the schools had set or were moving to set standards or outcomes that students would be expected to meet to graduate.

Only 32 percent of the schools, however, planned comprehensive professional-development programs next year to help teachers put those kinds of curricular changes into practice.

The survey also found that of the surveyed schools:

  • One-fifth were using portfolios, projects, and other alternatives to traditional pencil-and-paper testing methods;

  • Nearly one-quarter were collaborating with local community colleges and businesses to provide “school to work’’ programs for non-college-bound students;

  • One-fifth used interdisciplinary teaching; and

  • One-ninth used block scheduling, with another 27 percent either having partially implemented that system or planning to implement it next year.

Block schedules allow students to spend 60 or more minutes in one class.

Computers and Pay Raises

Some technological innovations are widespread in high schools, the survey found. But even technology as basic as instructional videos or word-processing programs is not in universal use.

Only 64 percent of the schools surveyed regularly use video-instructional materials, while 60 percent routinely offer their students opportunities to practice word-processing skills on computers.

“You can’t imagine a business being without that today,’' Mr. Cawelti said. “I can’t imagine schools trying to teach writing without computers.’'

More sophisticated technological innovations, such as computer modems enabling students to obtain information from outside data banks and networks, are rarer.

Monetary incentives are the least popular reform among the high schools polled. Nine out of 10 principals said there were no plans to introduce incentive pay in their school systems for either teachers or administrators.

The study also suggests that the trend toward site-based management, which it defines as a system in which individual schools take responsibility for the teaching that goes on inside them, may have peaked. While 66 percent of the schools have fully or partially implemented such programs, only an additional 4 percent plan to do so next year.

Little Systemic Change

To see if schools were undertaking changes in a more systematic way, Mr. Cawelti looked more closely at seven innovations: standards- or outcomes-based education, interdisciplinary teaching, site-based management, block scheduling, alliances with local businesses, and computer modems.

Only seven of the 3,380 schools said all seven of the reforms were in general use.

When the reforms dealing with business alliances and computers were removed from the list, the number of schools grew only to 18.

“It may be that not all of those seven elements are important to every high school,’' Mr. Cawelti said. “The larger reason may be that it’s difficult to sustain all of that change at one time.’'

The report contends, however, that “a focus on systemic reform is essential if high schools are to become more significant institutions in the lives of students.’'

High schools have long been considered the most resistant to change of all the levels of schooling. High schools frequently are more complex and bureaucratic than smaller elementary and middle schools, Mr. Cawelti suggested, and have faculties that tend to be more protective of their “turfs.’'

As a result, high schools have received relatively little attention in the reform movement. But Mr. Cawelti said he hopes his findings will place high schools squarely in the reform spotlight.

“These findings suggest the need for action by the federal government, state agencies, and local school boards to provide more incentives for change,’' he said.

Copies of the report, titled “High School Restructuring: A National Study,’' are available from the Educational Research Service, 2000 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22201; (703) 243-2100.

A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 1994 edition of Education Week as Impact of Reform Said To Be Spotty And Not Systemic