Education Opinion

Comprehensive School Reform Will Need Comprehensive Support

By John Anderson — June 24, 1998 8 min read

As a national movement, comprehensive school reform is on the verge of unprecedented growth. With new federal aid available this summer, the number of schools reshaping themselves using campuswide models and external assistance could quadruple over the next three years.

One sign of the opportunity offered by the federal government’s $150 million boost: State leaders are beginning to consider what they must do to promote comprehensive school reform. They are realizing that the time to ensure that the money has its greatest impact on student achievement is now--before the funds go to buy more of the same.

While relatively young as a movement, comprehensive reform has already produced a substantial body of research and experience. The lessons that state and district officials can take from it are clear: While the research-based designs that comprehensive reform provides work to transform entire schools, states and districts have important and unavoidable roles to play in making that change happen. States and districts must lead the effort by providing high-quality design choices to schools and rethinking policies and practices to help schools as they bring designs to life.

Some states appear ready to accept the responsibility to foster whole-school change come July, when the federal aid begins to flow. For others, that acknowledgment is slower in coming.

This kind of reform rejects piecemeal fixes that affect one subject, one group of students, or one problem in favor of reform based on effective methods that touch everything a school does. Transformation does not simply come off the shelf to be installed at a school. No matter how solid a design is, an improvement model cannot flourish without the right support from outside the school. This is true because some of the factors that determine a design’s success fall outside the school’s control, or the control of any school.

A recent RAND study determined that, more than cost, the greatest impediments to comprehensive school reform are misunderstanding and confusion about a design, rules and regulations that must be hurdled, instability in campus or district leadership, and pre-existing turmoil among faculty members. States and districts have a role in reducing these factors as they increase the number of schools taking advantage of comprehensive reform.

Congress, in fact, acknowledged a central role for states by giving them the responsibility to decide how the new aid flows to districts and schools and which school designs meet the requirements of a comprehensive reform model. Schools in states that take this charge to heart will be more likely to transform their work and improve students’ results.

States that use their authority wisely will work to ensure that schools can make a free and informed choice among comprehensive reform models. RAND found that schools that feel pressured into a design choice, or that have one assigned to them, are, not surprisingly, slower to implement a model.

This means states must ensure that schools and districts have plenty of information about school design choices well in advance of actually selecting them. It also means that states, while setting strict criteria, should not be overly restrictive in limiting the design options available. Congress provided good examples of designs and the parameters under which other models can be deemed a comprehensive design. States should follow that guidance and resist pressure to expand the pool to include fragmented programs and isolated activities that really only amount to business as usual.

To avoid rushed choices, some states may allow schools to take time to plan their moves into comprehensive reform. While the federal aid becomes available next month, states and districts will have up to 18 months to begin using it.

States should avoid opting only for designs that appear to be the quickest to implement. The eight New American Schools designs all take different courses to reshaping schools, and Congress mentioned others. The long-term benefits and liabilities of any one strategy for comprehensive reform have yet to be established. Given that, schools must have the choice of the design that educators determine best suits their students’ and their community’s circumstances.

In terms of cost, RAND’s findings indicate that the minimum $50,000 in federal aid will allow a school to afford a design and the external assistance that comes with it.

To be sure, other resources need to be brought to bear to reshape schools around a design--teacher time for training and new activities is the largest single demand. But schools working with New American Schools have shown that those costs can be borne by shrewd reallocation of existing resources. The reallocation can happen because the designs focus a school’s work, allowing educators to decide what they really require to improve student learning.

State and district leaders should see comprehensive reform as part of a strategy to invest in quality, a lever to change how Title I and other education dollars are spent, not simply as a new pool into which schools will dip.

Research shows that the results that come from comprehensive reform come from full implementation of a design. Schools must latch on to a model wholeheartedly, then have time and support to make it work. States will play a pivotal role in setting expectations, and must eschew the idea of a “magic bullet” design that can be forced into place and produce immediate gains. For example, New American Schools sets a more aggressive timetable than most reform efforts, asking for schools to begin to show measurable improvement in students’ results by the end of three years.

Because prevailing conditions within a district influence the pace of comprehensive reform, states should consider how prepared a district is to support whole-school change. One benchmark of this preparation will be the means a district will use to gauge teachers’ acceptance of a model (NAS designs require 60 percent to 80 percent of the faculty to vote in favor). Another will be a district’s demonstration of its commitment to professional development--comprehensive reform asks educators to change their practices, to take on new roles, and to lead differently. Educators need a focused program to help them do that.

States will not have to hunt for good examples of districts making comprehensive reform work. Cities such as San Antonio; Memphis, Tenn.; and Cincinnati provide them readily. These urban districts are proving that they can uproot the status quo and chart a new course promising higher student achievement.

These districts have shown not only a high degree of quality in implementing school designs, but the courage to escape the incremental approach that has been so prevalent in education reform. Each has far exceeded its initial goal of 30 percent of its schools using a comprehensive design.

The bold scale of their efforts has led to fundamental shifts in the relationship between the central office and schools. As RAND has reported, the school autonomy that results and the “consumer” instincts that develop as campuses look for solutions are both important to comprehensive reform’s implementation.

In some respects, states across the nation must take the same steps New American Schools has taken over the last seven years--setting criteria and selecting the best available school designs, then revising policies or crafting new ones to bolster the implementation of comprehensive reform.

For this reason, RAND’s recently released report on New American Schools’ implementation, along with a series of “how to” guides we have produced, offer valuable insight into making comprehensive school reform work.

Analyzing 40 schools in seven jurisdictions with which New American Schools works, RAND found that 50 percent of the campuses had implemented their chosen design within two years. (“Study: Schoolwide Reform Not Easy,” April 1, 1998.) That kind of finding can lead to a simplistic “half-full, half-empty” reaction. A more appropriate question to pose may be: In what condition would the same schools be if they had been left on their own to devise and to carry out improvement strategies?

RAND’s view was that 50 percent implementation was notable, given precedents in education reform and public-sector reorganization generally. And another third of schools in RAND’s sample had begun to pilot their designs--putting them in good position for full implementation in their third year.

What we have seen on campuses across the country is that entire schools can change for the better, that educators can transform their practice to engage students, and that the community can become a better partner to public education. Campuses have shown us that these outcomes are possible, but they are not certain and they can be hard to achieve.

This comprehensive transformation can be powerful when done right. Early indications from Memphis, for example, show strong gains on the state’s achievement test in schools using comprehensive designs. In San Antonio, comprehensive school reform has been an important part of a district strategy that has led to many more students passing Texas’ statewide exam.

If states and districts learn from comprehensive school reform’s record, they will be diligent in creating the space that allows results we now consider extraordinary to become typical. The success of the new federal initiative depends largely on whether leaders will support reform comprehensively from statehouse to schoolhouse.

John Anderson is the president of the Arlington, Va.-based New American Schools, a national nonprofit organization founded in 1991 to develop and support the implementation of innovative school designs to improve student achievement.

A version of this article appeared in the June 24, 1998 edition of Education Week as Comprehensive School Reform Will Need Comprehensive Support