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Education Commentary

State Reform: Where We Have Come, Where We Are Going

By Bruce L. Wilson — March 02, 1994 8 min read
  • Reorganize how students are brought together to learn. The perverse effects of tracking in high schools have been well documented. Altering how schools are organized is inextricably intertwined with how we view time. It is a powerful structure within schools. The challenge for policymakers is to restructure student-grouping arrangements and the use of time to enable instruction to be more flexible, to create environments in which students learn from one another in teams, to encourage situations where the teacher is not the only person who claims knowledge, and to promote at-risk students as active participants in learning.

The first wave of high school reform in the 1980’s featured as its centerpiece state-mandated changes in high school graduation requirements. During that time, in fact, four out of every five states altered course and credit requirements, with these changes designed to encourage students like Anne Marie to take more challenging courses. What have been the effects of this near-universal reform? More importantly, what have we learned about change and how might we apply those lessons to current systemic-reform initiatives?

Some answers to these questions can be found in our four-year study, Mandating Academic Excellence (Teachers College Press, 1993). The findings confirm a rather pessimistic view that state-initiated changes in graduation requirements are largely symbolic initiatives, serving to pacify a public disenchanted with educational outcomes. Yes, more stringent graduation requirements increased some students’ participation in academic coursework and altered a few department course offerings. But the ability or inability to change was more a function of local conditions than it was of state mandates.

Moreover, although the new requirements were intended to push more students into taking more academic courses, they hardly made a dent in existing tracking systems. Students in college-prep tracks continued to take more challenging courses than students in general or vocational programs. And these sorting systems continued to slot students of color, and, oftentimes, young women, into lower-level or remedial courses.

We found, in addition, that those who were key to implementing the new requirements at both the state and district levels felt they had little capacity to shape policymaking or affect how policies were integrated into complex and multifaceted systems. In this “policy vacuum,” state education administrators and district superintendents made no claim to influence the mandates and focused instead on constraints the mandates placed on their particular spheres.

Finally, our results indicated that local colleges and employers were singularly unimpressed with any changes in students as a result of the new graduation requirements. In fact, they were largely unaware of the tighter graduation requirements and noted no particular increase in student preparedness.

This top-down policy-reform strategy was driven by a set of assumptions that are no longer relevant. What were they and how have they changed? Previously, educational researchers and reformers thought of change as innovation--something discrete, definable, and relatively easily installed in schools. This technical, or “engineering,” model of planned change was built on the assumption that experts could best understand the needs of those in the targeted system, and that implementation depended on persuasion.

Today, however, conceptions of change are neither linear nor context-free. Instead, they focus on the centrality of local context and value the talents of the individual teacher to modify, adapt, and individualize new ideas to better suit the diversity of the students in the classroom.

During this first wave of reform (of which graduation-requirements reform was a part), it can be further argued that the learner was viewed as a receiver of knowledge, an empty vessel. Today’s calls for systemic change are grounded in a different view of the learner than those of a decade ago. Constructivist assumptions, ones that view the learner as a creator of knowledge, are embedded in such reforms as those called for by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, as well as in whole-language approaches to reading, process-writing models, and experiential approaches to science, to mention a few.

An assumption of students as receivers of knowledge fostered instructional practices in which teachers lectured, students took notes, or students all worked on the same problems at the same time. Current conceptions of the learner have direct and immediate implications for instructional practice. Rather than a giver of information, the teacher becomes the architect of an environment in which students can engage in meaningful learning experiences, carefully monitored and guided by the teacher. The teacher becomes a resource, a co-learner along with the students, and an active participant in the construction of knowledge. These views are radically different from those embedded in reforms that focused on excellence.

Assumptions of a decade ago also defined the outcomes of schooling as the mastery of an identifiable, discrete “body of knowledge’’ determined by the teacher and/or the curriculum. Today, however, the notion of outcomes is changing. Systemic change places at center stage a more holistic view of the “product’’ of our schools. Students should be independent, complex thinkers who can also work effectively in groups of their peers. Students display complex knowledge and skills in areas that are, in large part, of their own choosing. This position represents an entirely different set of assumptions about evaluation and performance than previous ones.

Finally, reforms of previous decades designed new and separate programs for the gifted, the disadvantaged, and the at-risk, as well as for students with disabilities. These programs create segregated systems where both students and teachers have become increasingly specialized. In contrast, today’s calls for systemic change are inclusive and caring, rather than exclusionary and tracked. Driven by concerns about distributive justice and equality of access to educational resources, this newer assumption argues that our educational system has become more separatist and less egalitarian. And because this is inherently undemocratic, the line of reasoning goes, future reforms need schools and classrooms in which empowered and caring people work through flexible and democratic structures that are responsive to the diversity of the students they serve.

So where does this leave policymakers in shaping yet another wave of reforms in the 1990’s? We see the following five challenges as goals that policymakers could set to help all young people become successful learners and future citizens of the 21st century, particularly those like Anne Marie:

  • Create a vision of inclusive, caring schools. One of the most pressing problems facing our schools is the barrage of competing and often conflicting demands to do all things for all people. Schools not only get blamed for many of society’s ills, they also are viewed as the primary solution. But all these different expectations make it difficult for schools to be truly successful at anything. What is often missing from this complex mix of divergent pressures is a coherent vision at the local level about what schools should accomplish. The challenge is to structure a vision around students and what it means for them to become successful learners.
  • Reorganize how students are brought together to learn. The perverse effects of tracking in high schools have been well documented. Altering how schools are organized is inextricably intertwined with how we view time. It is a powerful structure within schools. The challenge for policymakers is to restructure student-grouping arrangements and the use of time to enable instruction to be more flexible, to create environments in which students learn from one another in teams, to encourage situations where the teacher is not the only person who claims knowledge, and to promote at-risk students as active participants in learning.
  • Infuse curricula and instruction with rigorous, thought-provoking inquiry. While enriched curricula and instruction for a few students at the top may have sufficed for an earlier manufacturing society, today’s technologically based information society requires everyone in the labor market to have complex skills. This is especially crucial in remedial, general, or “lower track’’ courses, which tend to suffer from impoverished curricula and pedagogical practices. To insure that these changes will take place, it will be necessary to invest more heavily in the professional development of teachers. Systemic change will founder if training, retraining, supporting, and revitalizing local educators does not become a top priority.
  • Create better communication channels across all levels of the system. Central to the idea of systemic change is that all the actors, from parents to state board members, will learn more about the views of other groups. Education is a complex organizational enterprise that requires the integration of many different components. But schools are generally regarded as isolating environments where the exchange of ideas is minimal. The challenge is to create formal and informal channels that encourage timely, full, and open flow of information and points of view about how different groups perceive the learning process.
  • View systemic change through multiple lenses. This final challenge undergirds all the others. Too frequently, changes are viewed as technical fixes. That is, the reforms focus on the knowledge and skills required to accomplish certain objectives. But we know that the technical lens offers only a partial picture. There are at least three other lenses through which reforms must be viewed for them to be truly systemic. There is the political lens, which embraces questions of influence, power, authority, conflict, and negotiation. There is also the cultural lens, which captures the values, beliefs, and norms of schools that shape daily life and determine what is and what ought to be for students, teachers, and parents. And, finally, there is a moral lens. It captures the principles of justice and fairness in the reform arena. This lens provides a countervailing balance to the undue weight on matters of the head by focusing on matters of the heart and soul. For schools to seriously embrace systemic change, they must capture it through a combination of all four lenses. Indeed, the Anne Maries of the world deserve no less.

A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 1994 edition of Education Week as State Reform: Where We Have Come, Where We Are Going

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