Single Definition of ‘Restructuring’ Remains Elusive

By Reagan Walker — February 21, 1990 4 min read

Baltimore--Two days of talks by 150 educators, business representatives, and state policymakers meeting here this month to discuss school restructuring appeared to suggest at least one conclusion: there are a multitude of definitions of the term.

The Education Commission of the States sponsored the meeting here--together with a similar event in Albuquerque, N.M.--as part of its effort to prepare a guide for state policymakers on how to transform the current legion of school-restructuring ideas into policy and practice.

“There’s a feeling that we have been marching down the path of restructuring, but without really knowing where we are going or how we get there,” said Frank Newman, president of the e.c.s.

Mr. Newman came away from the meeting with a draft document that, in its final form, will set out the principles, goals, and state policies of restructuring.

The e.c.s. is one of a handful of national groups that have released or are working on documents that seek to make clear what school restructuring is and how to go about it.

The National Governors’ Association is expected to release a report on case studies in restructuring at the end of the month. And the Council of Chief State School Officers last week published a guide on the topic for state policymakers.

Single Definition Unlikely

Comments at the meeting here suggest, however, than none of these efforts is likely to produce a single, universally accepted definition of the restructuring concept.

In fact, most participants agreed that there are many different definitions of restructuring because restructuring is many different things.

“At these meetings, there always seems to be a presumption of shared assumption,” said Ruth Jordan, a consultant with the Washington, D.C., firm of New Columbia Associates. “But people talking about restructuring are rarely talking about the same thing.”

To Paula Evans, a project director for the Coalition of Essential Schools, which is headquartered at Brown University, restructuring means “a new set of compromises” necessary to create a classroom in which the student is the active learner and the teacher is the coach.

Richard Card, deputy commissioner of education in Maine, described restructuring as “anything you do to get to an identified end.”

Phillip Schlechty, president of the Center for Leadership in School Reform, on the other hand, said he sees restructuring as an attempt to redefine the “rules, roles, and relationships” in the education enterprise.

But while characterizing restructuring as a whole is difficult, participants suggested, identifying the component parts is easier.

The basic elements of restructuring, according to those in attendance, include site-based management, realigned curriculums, teacher empowerment, school choice, reorganized state and local education agencies, new teacher-development proce8dures, and revamped testing and evaluation meathods.

Explaining such a multifaceted idea to state legislatures and the public, participants said, has been a roadblock to reform efforts.

“Crafting a vision of restructuring that is simple and compelling is the biggest barrier to change,” observed M. William Youngblood of South Carolina’s Business-Education Subcommittee.

Selling the Ideas

Not only are there different definitions for restructuring, experts noted, but also there are different ways to transform the ideas into action.

Mr. Youngblood said the campaign for school reform in South Carolina was fueled largely by taking the case for restructuring to the public and asking for support.

But John Dornan, a businessman and member of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, said his group worked with lawmakers, the media, business leaders, and educators before starting a public campaign.

While the drive for restructuring can start anywhere, participants said, it will not go far until the education community has signed on. And some said winning support for restructuring among educators has been the hardest “sell” of all.

“Overcoming institutional inertia has been our biggest struggle,” said Mr. Dornan. “It was far more difficult to build support within the education community than with the general public.”

“Many educators often point to regulations as the biggest barrier to change,” Ms. Evans added. “But state regulations and mandates can be worked through. Habit remains the bigger obstacle.”

Opening “the Cage Door”

For example, Ms. Evans said, teachers at one school belonging to the Coalition for Essential Schools were told they would not be held to the state’s regulations, and would be were free to create any kind of curriculum they wanted.

After a year’s work, however, the curriculum writers had devised a plan that met all the state requirements and was not greatly different from the old one.

In fact, many at the meeting expressed surprise that offers from states to waive regulations have in some cases gone begging.

“We’ve found that it’s one thing to open the cage door,” said Mr. Newman, “but quite another to get the bird to fly out.”

Other obstacles to restructuring, participants said, are posed by middle-level administrators who are reluctant to change, parents whose children are doing well in the current system, and state lawmakers who are unwilling to give up their control of the schools.

Working through these obstacles, attendees predicted, will be a long-term process.

“Ideally, we will never say ‘restructured’ but always ‘restructuring,’ ” said Susan Traiman, a senior fellow at the National Governors’ Association. “We will always be learning, changing, and redefining the concept.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 1990 edition of Education Week as Single Definition of ‘Restructuring’ Remains Elusive