Education Commentary

Setting the Course for School Reform

By Bill Honig — April 18, 1984 9 min read

In the past few years, a consensus has developed among both educators and the general public that a more rigorous instructional program is desirable for all our children. Key elements of this common educational vision include improving student performance in reading, writing, speaking, analyzing, computing, and problem solving; increasing knowledge of and engagement in our physical, social, political, and ethical worlds; and developing character and responsibility.

We are also reaching agreement on the kinds of curriculum and instruction, class and school climate, and administrative support that will best achieve these goals. The large crop of educational reports offers some common prescriptions for all students. They should receive more sequenced instruction in literature, history, and science. They should read and write more. There should be more homework, more time devoted to instruction, and more emphasis on academic and behavioral standards. Finally, students should have safe, orderly schools.

Based on such ideas, a reform movement is continuing to gather momentum at the local level, and many of us at the state level have been able to secure community and political support to pass reform legislation and provide additional fiscal resources to those fighting for excellence at the local level. We can look forward to enjoying political and financial support for the next several years if we are able to show continued commitment to bettering the schools and, more important, to demonstrating results. These are important next steps in the reform agenda.

First, educators must seize the initiative by defining which measures should be used to judge success, by obtaining political and community support for using these “success indicators,” and by aggressively incorporating these standards into the policies of schools, districts, and state education agencies. If we fail to agree on a new comprehensive set of educationally sound measures of progress, we will be judged by much narrower criteria, such as Scholastic Aptitude Test averages.

Next, using these measures, we should develop an incentive program to encourage schools’ efforts to improve performance. Finally, we need to reach professional agreement on what are the most important leverage points within the system such as the content of the curriculum, the effectiveness of teaching, principals’ leadership, the line supervision of principals, testing, and the quality of textbooks. And we must also agree on the best ways to influence those points to improve education quality.

Specifying how we will recognize progress should help cement business, community, and political support. Packaged for use by schools, these measures would unleash the power of large numbers of individual teachers and principals to strive for better schools.

Recent improvements in data collection and processing now make it possible to provide each school with a detailed profile containing its standings in key measures of education quality. To be effective, these “quality indicators” must do several things:

• They must lead the instructional program in the right direction. If we are trying to encourage more English, science, history, and writing, then our tests and measures should reflect these goals.

• They must be equitable. Schools should be compared with other schools with comparable student bodies. Measures should reward schools for the academic growth of average, above-average, and college-bound students.

• They must be easy to translate into concrete goals for each school. For example, an inner-city school may be sending 30 percent of its students to college and losing 35 percent as dropouts. To reach the top quarter of schools with comparable students--according to a system of “quality indicators"--the officials of that school may have to increase college attendance to 40 percent and cut the dropout rate to 30 percent. These are legitimate, recognizable targets.

• They must use available data for the school profile. Most measures would stem from existing state databases. Others could be based on data gathered at the local level.

should be to announce state targets for a series of specific performance indicators; in California, we are doing just that.

In high schools, for example, we would use the following measures: California assessment scores; average S.A.T. scores, numbers of students taking the S.A.T. and percentage of students above selected levels; dropout rates; enrollments in physics, chemistry, foreign languages, and advanced placement courses; and amount of homework, among others.

For each category, there would be a goal. We hope, for example, that high schools will increase the number of 12th graders who have taken chemistry from 25 percent in 1982 to 40 percent in 1989. We also want to decrease the dropout rate from an estimated 32 percent in 1982-83 to 25 percent in 1989-90; and to increase the percentage of 12th graders scoring above 600 on the verbal portion of the S.A.T from 2.7 percent in 1982-83 to 6 percent in 1989-90.

For elementary and junior high schools we will announce similar targets, using such measures as 3rd- and 6th-grade California assessment-test scores and the number of instructional minutes per day.

We are also proposing to divide the high, middle, and elementary schools into five groups, based on the socioeconomic level of the schools’ students and the numbers of limited- English-speaking students.

For every high school, we would provide the information on each measure as both an actual level and also as the amount of growth over a three-year period. This information would be used for comparisons among similar schools.

Among the measures we would use are test scores. California has a state testing program which produces reading and mathematics results for each school. In the near future we will attempt to expand both commercial and state tests to include science, history, literature, and higher levels of cognition.

We would also keep track of dropout rates in high school; other measures of course enrollments and attendance, such as the percentage of students taking a third year of science or math or three years of college-bound English, the percentage of students in advanced-placement courses, and the percentage of students in a college-approved track; and measures of rigor, such as the average amount of homework and the frequency of writing assignments during a six-week period.

These are not necessarily the optimum measures for high schools, but the data are readily available and encourage the right kind of educational improvement. We would keep track of similar information in junior high and elementary school.

The next step would be to initiate an incentive program, based on these measures, to help foster high-performance schools. The National Secondary School Recognition Program, established by Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, has demonstrated how effective the practice of recognizing quality can be. If we marry the ideas of recognition and performance (based on sound professional standards that are announced in advance), we will have created an incredibly powerful engine for school improvement.

After assigning relative weights to the measures mentioned above and providing an overall school score, we would reward the schools that are in the top 20 percent of their socioeconomic group-for actual performance-with a $50- per-student, three-year grant to be used at the schools’ discretion. We would also provide a similar amount to the top 20 percent of schools in each group that grew the most in terms of overall academic scores based on a three-year average. Being in the top 10 percent in terms of either level or growth in specific individual categories-such as dropout rates or enrollment in advanced-placement courses-might qualify a school for a $5-per-pupil grant.

For example, in California there are approximately 1,000 high schools---200 in each socioeconomic group. Thus, approximately 40 schools would receive incentive grants for high performance in each group, for a total of about 200 high schools in the state. A similar procedure would be used for elementary and middle schools. A typical high school of 1,000 students could thus obtain $50,000 per year to spend on such needs as science equipment, smaller class size, or staff development.

This incentive program should generate a tremendous improvement effort for a substantial number of schools because the criteria will be clearly known in advance. It is possible that more than half of our schools would compete to receive an incentive grant and would work hard to raise educational levels in the critical areas being measured.

Not only would winning schools receive deserved recognition and rewards but they would constitute a significant core of identified high-quality schools that could be used in further improvement efforts. We propose to provide an additional $25-per-pupil grant to half of the top-level schools that would compete to become model training centers for science, mathematics, and writing, or to receive $25,000 to provide training slots for prospective principals. With 500 half-year training slots, 1,000 principal candidates could be placed with our best principals each year. (California will need about 3,500 new principals in the next five years--a figure equal to nearly 50 percent of the existing principal force.)

In California, this “merit-school” program is currently being considered by the I state legislature. The current budget contains $15 million for a more narrowly constructed test-score, growth-incentive program. For an additional $15 million, we could launch the more comprehensive plan. After three years, it would cost $90 million a year-less than 1 percent of California’s annual budget for education. A third of the eligible schools would be phased in each year until about 35 percent of the schools in the state would be receiving grants.

With this limited expenditure, we should generate a tremendous next stage in the reform effort. The beauty of this approach is that the measures define a general educational direction but allow individual schools to decide how to improve results. Schools receive benefits for performance, not process. This strategy also rewards a school for its team effort and establishes successful schools as models. The program discourages excuse-making for schools with large numbers of students in lower socioeconomic groups because comparisons are made with similar schools. Comparisons would also unmask weak programs in schools with more advantaged students.

Some argue that incentive programs merely reward those who are already most capable, while neglecting those who need the most help. I disagree. In the first place, half the schools will receive grants for the amount of growth they achieve, not for their level of performance. Among those schools that do receive grants for actual level of performance, many would not have reached those high levels unless they exerted the extra effort to compete for the incentive grant. Second, this is not the only reform effort-it is just one, fairly inexpensive program that should promote improvement. Other programs will aim at improving curriculum, instruction, teaching abilities, tests, textbooks, and principal leadership. Finally, what is wrong with rewarding the best? They deserve it; and once identified, they will be able to assist others that need to improve.

There is a good deal to be said for the merit- school program. It reinforces important themes from the school-effectiveness literature, such as the need for clearly defined missions and accountability. It help promulgate important criteria of quality and high standards. The plan encourages schools to focus improvement efforts on those characteristics most likely to promote student learning. If adopted, a merit-school plan would be a powerful and frugal vehicle to accelerate the momentum for educational improvement in this country.

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 1984 edition of Education Week