Planners Find Value in High-School Redesign Effort

By Robert Rothman — August 02, 1989 4 min read

Portland, Me.--Officials from 24 schools met here last month to wrap up a two-year national project to redefine the way high schools should be organized and run.

The meeting focused on the schools’ “strategic plans” for the future, most of which are already in effect or are expected to be implemented in the coming school year.

The changes undertaken by the schools reflect many of the ideas advocated by reformers, including:

Reorganizing school governance to give more authority to teachers and parents;

Revising the curriculum to include interdisciplinary courses;

Emphasizing a variety of instructional strategies; and

Enhancing the use of technology in teaching and administration.

The plans will help the schools both solve their current problems and meet the challenges of the coming decade, said Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, which directed the project.

“The future isn’t well understood, but we are all certain there is going to be change and a lot of it,” Mr. Cawelti said. “The high school has not been responsive to a lot of changes that have come along.”

But, he said, “if you put together all [the proposals], you’d have a hell of a high school.”

Mr. Cawelti and the school officials acknowledged that most of the participating schools had been unable to implement all the desired changes. In some cases, they noted, resistance from school boards, parents, or teachers had forced participants to jettison or modify their more ambitious proposals.

But they suggested that the process of developing the long-range4plans had helped school officials establish a procedure for responding to future needs.

“If this project induces a mindset about the need for changing sensibly and responsibly,” Mr. Cawelti said, “then it has been highly important.”

‘A Pragmatic Approach’

The ascd’s “futures planning” consortium is the third effort by the association to spur changes in high schools.

The first consortium, formed in 1981, created a core curriculum. The second, initiated in 1985, developed a more comprehensive plan, including school organization, curriculum, teaching, and technology.

“The easiest thing we could have done was to issue a white paper recommending what we thought should happen, and hope somebody would do it,” Mr. Cawelti said. “But what schools didn’t need was one more report.”

“This in fact is a more pragmatic approach to getting things done,” he added.

Beginning in 1987, the 24 schools in the latest consortium formed teams of parents, teachers, principals, and central-office administrators. They were charged with formulating a five-year plan for redesigning school organization, curriculum, teaching, and technology in ways “more appropriate to the future lives of students.”

Although the schools were free to adapt their plans to their own particular needs and circumstances, some common themes emerged.

Several schools chose to replace the traditional top-down system of management with a new structure that extended decisionmaking authority to teachers and parents.

The Joel Barlow High School in West Redding, Conn., for example, created “focus groups” of teachers to re-examine such issues as assessment, writing, and thinking skills.

The new system broke down the “priestly attitude” that assumes the principal holds all the answers, according to Nelson Quinby, West Redding’s director of secondary education.

“I’m a resource,” he said. “There are many resources for learning.”

‘19th-Century Mentality’

Several schools also stressed the need to foster interdisciplinary instruction. The traditional departmentalized curriculum, said Robert Mackin, principal of Fox Lane High School in Bedford, N.Y., represents a “19th-century mentality toward what education is about.”

“In no way does school make an effort to show kids how knowledge is integrated,” he said. “The real world doesn’t treat subjects as disparate units.”

Fox Lane divided 9th graders into “teams” to study English and social studies in 80-minute blocks. “Rather than doing English for 40 minutes and social studies for 40 minutes,” Mr. Mackin said, “teachers can use that time any way they please.”

In addition to redesigning the curriculum, he noted, the team structure also created “schools within schools” that help 9th graders adjust to the high-school environment.

Schools also created staff-development programs focused on providing teachers with an array of instructional strategies.

Penn High School in Mishawaka, Ind., for example, offers teachers training workshops in a variety of new methods, such as cooperative learning and peer coaching. The district also extends the workshops over several weeks so that teachers have an opportunity to practice the techniques and discuss their effectiveness with the trainers.

“A three-hour mandated inservice workshop is not going to change teachers’ behavior,” said James Welling, director of staff development for the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation.

Political Obstacles

Mr. Welling also noted, however, that his district’s program demonstrates the political problems schools face in implementing their plans. As part of a budget-cutting move, the Penn-Harris-Madison board of trustees cut the district’s $11,000 staff-development funding by 20 percent.

Mr. Mackin of Fox Lane, where the school board approved the 9th-grade team project by a one-vote margin, said that “enormous inertia” among policymakers and teachers can block any change.

“It’s difficult to prove beforehand that what you are going to do is better,” he said.

Mr. Cawelti acknowledged the obstacles. But he argued that even those schools that have been unable to put their proposals in place have benefited from the strategic-planning process.

“It’s hard to find time to think about these important questions,” he said. “We like to think we’re showing a direction for all high schools.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 02, 1989 edition of Education Week as Planners Find Value in High-School Redesign Effort