The 'Restructuring' Puzzle

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As educational "excellence" was the buzzword of the early 1980's, school "restructuring" has quickly become the rallying cry of the current round of education reform.

In the past two years, a number of states and a handful of high-profile districts have begun rethinking the way they do business.

And many national education groups have some type of "restructuring'' project under way.

But precisely what people mean when they discuss the need to "restructure" education remains elusive.

"Restructuring is a word that means everything and nothing simultaneously," asserts Michael W. Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University.

"I think it's almost a Rorschach test," he adds. "It's all in the eye of the beholder."

According to its proponents, "restructuring" refers to a complex array of changes in curriculum and instruction, school governance and accountability, and the roles of teachers and administrators that together are meant to improve student learning.

But that very complexity has led to confusion, so that for many people the term "restructuring" has come to mean almost any change of a sweeping or fundamental nature in schools.

Notes John I. Goodlad, author of A Place Called School: "We are rapidly moving toward the use of the word 'restructuring' whenever we talk about school reform at all. And if we have enough conferences on it, we'll assume that the schools have been restructured."

"This is becoming another catchword," he says, "when the truth of the matter is that hardly any schools are restructured."

'Deep, Deep Trouble'

At its heart, the notion of "restructuring" emerges from a deepseated and growing disenchantment with the current system, encompassing both the ways in which teaching and learning occur and the management of the enterprise.

As David T. Kearns, chairman and chief executive officer of the Xerox Corporation, puts it: "America's school system is in deep, deep trouble."

"The fact is," he argues, "if we do not restructure our schools, this nation will be out of business by the year 2000."

"We cannot have a world-class economy with dropout rates that average 25 percent," he asserts. "That they approach 50 percent in our cities is a national disgrace."

Even among those who do graduate, others note, hundreds of thousands lack the habits of mind needed to become good citizens or productive workers in a rapidly changing society.

Not only are the majority of American students achieving below their capacity, Mr. Kearns and others contend, but the gap between the nation's best and least successful students remains disturbingly large.

Argues Linda Darling-Hammond, director of the rand Corporation's education and human-resources program: "There is a universal recognition that we don't have any choice now but to make education effective for all kids."

"We can't afford the inequities we've tolerated in the system, and we can't afford the inefficiencies we've tolerated in the system," she says. "And that's acknowledged by political and business leaders, as well as educators, in a way that it hasn't been in the past."

A New Theory of Change

It is in this climate of growing national urgency that traditional notions about how to fix the schools are changing.

"The old theory," according to Ms. Hammond, "was that if you could just find the right set of prescriptions for learning, you could encode those in textbooks and curriculum requirements, ... pass them down in mandates to the schools, and then spend a lot of time monitoring, and inspecting, and enforcing so that those things got done."

But the effects of this "uniformly mandated approach" on student learning were limited, she asserts. And national disgruntlement with the quality of the curriculum, the content of textbooks, and the utility of standardized testing has grown.

The problem, according to Ms. Hammond and others, is that students and schools differ, and what works in one set of circumstances may not work in another.

In order to make education responsive to these individual differences, "we need to begin to move authority downward in the system and outward," suggests Michael Cohen, associate director of educational programs at the National Governors' Association.

"A lot of the decisions about how we organize ourselves to teach kids need to be made at the school site," he says.

Where it was once assumed that competence "trickled down" to teachers and principals from the state education department or the central office, the new theory asserts that schools work best when teachers and principals learn how to become problem-solvers, work collaboratively, and accept greater accountability for results.

Based on this theory, there can be no model or formula for "restructuring" a school, because each site is different and will have to find its own solutions.

'Can't Be Fixed'

Moreover, many educators now argue that the basic design of schools actually interferes with student learning, particularly for youngsters "at risk" of failing or dropping out of school. (See related story, page 9.)

"I think what's driving the calls for restructuring is the sense among educators that schools as they have been previously are just not capable of being fixed," says Stewart C. Purkey, assistant professor of education at Lawrence University. "We need to have an entirely new configuration of schooling."

Beginning in the early 1980's, prominent educators, such as Mr. Goodlad and Theodore R. Sizer of Brown University, have criticized some of the most sacrosanct elements of school organization.

These include the rigid grouping of students by age and ability; 55-minute class periods; anonymous and impersonal environments; the dominance of passive, sedentary learning; and an emphasis on plowing through content rather than studying a few subjects well.

At a meeting of the Education Commission of the States in August, Mr. Goodlad alleged that educators could "improve schools more" by omitting many of the harmful practices now in place than by adding something new.

Among other ideas, he advocated replacing "the egg-crate structure of schools" with a more flexible use of space and a more malleable view of student progress.

Some schools are already beginning to reorganize learning into larger blocks of time, create schoolwide "themes" and more integrated curricula, explore ways to pair teachers with fewer students, and provide students with less lecturing and more active, hands-on experiences.

Such changes are especially important for "at risk" students, according to Gary G. Wehlage, associate director of the National Center on Effective Secondary Schools at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, because they have fared so poorly under the current system.

"What I call tinkering on the fringes isn't going to do it," he says. "We have to provide for a much different curriculum and pedagogy than now exists."

Teacher 'Empowerment'

But to do that, Mr. Wehlage and others assert, will require a parallel change in the lives of teachers.

If Americans expect students to engage in thoughtful, reflective behavior, noted Deborah Meier, director of the Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, at a recent meeting of the Council on Foundations's precollegiate division, "they have to see adults in the building doing it."

It is for this reason that many advocates of restructuring have embraced the notion of "empowering" teachers by improving their working conditions and professional status.

The Carnegie Forum's 1986 report, A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century, argued that real school reform would depend upon the support of talented, highly educated teachers. But it predicted a dwindling supply of these individuals unless schools were reorganized to provide a more attractive work environment in which adults could exercise their professional judgment.

In addition to higher pay, the report advocated giving teachers new roles and responsibilities, opportunities for career advancement, the chance to work collaboratively, and a greater say in such school policies as the allocation of staff and the selection of textbooks.

In exchange, the report said, teachers should be held more accountable for results.

According to Mr. Kirst of Stanford University, that emphasis on teacher "empowerment" as a way to address problems of teacher supply and demand has been one of the earliest and strongest themes of the restructuring movement. And it has led to a variety of attempts to redefine the hierarchical structure within schools, ranging from shared decisionmaking to "school-based management."

Altering School Governance

Complaints about the bureaucratic, regulatory nature of education have also given rise to "restructuring" initiatives.

The heavy emphasis on "top down" mandates, in particular, has spawned a large bureaucracy that has tended to "depersonalize schools" and steer resources away from the classroom, says Ms. Hammond.

More attention has been paid to whether schools comply with rules and policies than to the results they produce, others assert.

And they note that desired changes in school organization, and in the roles of teachers, will not occur absent concomitant changes at the state and district level.

Now, some states and districts are attempting to "deregulate" the system by waiving restrictive rules and regulations if schools agree to be held more accountable for results.

And in places like Chicago, citizens are trying to win greater control over their schools by redesigning the governance structure.

At the same time, notions about how to reform school governance and management are feeding into the policy pipeline from the business community, which has been engaged in a massive effort to make its own organizations more competitive.

These ideas include the use of more streamlined organizational structures, reductions in middle management, a more prominent role by workers in the decisions that affect them, and a heavy reliance on market forces, such as parental choice, to pressure schools to change.

Notes William S. Woodside, former chairman and chief executive officer of the Primerica Corporation: "At a time when the business community is decentralizing and viewing headquarters staff as a service agency to facilitate the work of operating units, schools are still commonly operated in a hierarchical context in their management style and philosophy."

'Engaged in a Search'

The collective result of these various notions has been a new period of ferment and experimentation within schools and school districts that combines some old ideas about schooling--like team teaching and ungraded classrooms--with a new willingness on the part of both teachers and their unions to take risks.

In July, the National Education Association approved a plan that calls on each state to designate at least one school district as a "learning laboratory," in which teachers would be "free to turn their school systems upside down or inside out" to improve student learning.

Similarly, the American Federation of Teachers has advocated that small groups of teachers and parents be free to create their own innovative "schools within schools", in order to accelerate the pace of change.

Just what the solutions to America's education problems will be is still uncertain, says Albert Shanker, president of the aft

"We are engaged in a search," the union leader has said. In the same way that society has learned to respect and honor doctors who try innovations that may not work--such as experiments to cure cancer--"we need to honor those educators who try something," even if it fails, he says.

'Beneath the Words'

But as the number of advocates for "restructuring" has grown, it has become apparent that not everyone is speaking the same language.

"There's too much on the plate," complains Mr. Kirst. "It's like trying to eat everything on a Chinese menu."

According to Ms. Hammond, there are probably only "a few dozen places that are really seeking to fully restructure schools" in a comprehensive fashion.

"There are probably hundreds of other places," she says, "that are trying to copy one or another piece of this without a full understanding of what the point is, or of how one might achieve that goal."

"I often hear people say they're doing 'school-based management' or they're doing 'shared decisionmaking,' " she notes, "but if you look beneath the words at what's actually being done, you'll find less consensus about what those terms mean."

In some cases, she says, no real budgetary or decisionmaking authority has passed from the central office to the school site. In other instances, teachers have been asked to become decisionmakers without additional time or training to develop their skills, share ideas, or evaluate each other's work.

'Instituting a Process'

Moreover, there is a bewildering assortment of variations in the restructuring proposals coming from states and school districts.

Washington State, for instance, created the "Schools for the 21st Century" program in 1987. To date, 21 projects, involving individual schools and entire school districts, have been given six years to redesign their organizations and create new decisionmaking structures.

All of the plans included multifaceted strategies for change. And they differ markedly from one place to another.

Some are focusing on new uses of technology; others, on the use of cross-age grouping and multidisciplinary instruction; still others, on the provision of parenting programs.

Marcia L. Costello, coordinator of the 21st Century project, says the initiative was not aimed at "addressing particular issues or developing particular programs."

"What we were talking about was instituting a process for change," she says, "and so what schools decide to do isn't as impors the process they use to get there."

Similarly, in Massachusetts, where seven schools just received $30,000 grants to develop new organizational and management systems, proposals include a broad array of initiatives. These range from creation of a "family outreach" program, to the development of a multimedia resource center, to the introduction of a sliding-day schedule to maximize students' learning time.

Many of the proposals are "a little too ambitious," says Barbara Brauner Berns, director of the office of planning, research, and evaluation in the Massachusetts Department of Education, "but we wanted them to be diverse."

"They had to respond to the uniqueness of that particular community," she says, "so if we had gotten proposals that all looked alike, we would have been very nervous."

'A Bunch of New Programs'

But while variations are to be expected and even lauded in an enterprise where the solutions are far from certain, says Richard F. Elmore, professor of education administration and political science at Michigan State University, the goal is not just "to let a thousand flowers bloom."

"We ought to be watching for ... variations around some central themes," he says, such as "changes in the working conditions for teachers, ... changes in the basic performance and accountability systems that surround teachers in schools."

"If it's just kind of this and that, ... then I'm going to be very concerned," he adds. "If there isn't some coherence around a set of themes, we're just going to be reinventing the old 'free school' business, where we demonstrated in the '60's that you can do just about anything in one site."

"The danger," agrees Thomas B. Timar, a visiting assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, "is that restructuring could become just a bunch of new programs, not too different from the alternative schools we had in the early '70's. Or, you could wind up with a whole bunch of new procedures, like shared decisionmaking, ... but the school is not really much better off."

"If schools don't become better at helping students achieve high levels of excellence," he asserts, then whatever else they do "doesn't matter a whole lot."

Providing a Framework

Mr. Timar's fears have led some people to argue that any proposed changes in schools should at minimum be based on carefully reasoned arguments that are linked to the possibility of improved student learning.

"I'm concerned, frankly, that there is a kind of 'anything goes' mentality surrounding restructuring," says Pamela J. Keating, associate director of the Institute for the Study of Educational Policy at the University of Washington.

"We have to base this on solid knowledge," she warns, "and not on what feels good."

Even now, some educators are struggling to come up with a set of guiding principles and research findings within which restructuring takes place, so that it does not devolve into experimentation for experimentation's sake.

Mr. Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools, for example, has a set of guiding principles or ideas about student learning that drive reform in participating schools.

And in Jefferson County, Ky., Phillip Schlechty, president of the Center for Leadership in School Reform, is developing a set of eight standards or concepts that schools must "attend to" in their restructuring efforts.

Similarly, both the nea and the aft have developed initial criteria for districts or schools interested in restructuring.

The aft, for example, has suggested that proposals to create schools-within-schools explain how the school would be organized as a "center of inquiry" and reflect the fact that students learn at different rates and in different ways while providing equal access to knowledge.

Interested educators and parents might also be asked to explain how they would treat students as workers rather than passive recipients of information, emphasize group learning rather than tracking, and create teams of teachers to work with students preferably for more than one year.

"You need a comprehensive framework that at least tells people who are trying to restructure about the range of issues that they've got to address in some integrated fashion," explains Mr. Cohen of the nga ''Right now, that doesn't exist."

Although state education departments have developed concept papers on restructuring for participating schools and instruments to help guide them through the change process, so far, they have been reluctant to give schools too much direction or advice.

'An End in Itself'

Even more worrisome to some educators is what Mr. Elmore calls the "$64,000 question": How to keep restructuring focused on the central goal of improving teaching and learning.

At least on paper, most "restructuring" initiatives list better academic performance as a primary objective, and many require schools to develop some measure of student achievement that shows whether progress is made.

But in practice, some assert, educators are finding it hard to stay focused on students' needs, rather than on the political ramifications of changing the decisionmaking structure within schools and school districts.

"For too many people, restructuring has become an end in itself," says Lee S. Shulman, professor of education at Stanford University. "They've lost sight of the fact that the purpose of restructuring is not empowerment, but enablement. It's not to give teachers more power; it's to give them the ability to respond appropriately to kids."

"The way to go about this," he argues, "is to first ask, 'What are the sorts of things that teachers are not doing, or cannot do, that would be good for kids?' And then, 'How would you change the structure to make those things possible?"'

Instead, says John Dornan, president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, "there are a lot of people who are seeing this, really, as an opportunity for a power shift, which may or may not have a great deal to do with student outcomes."

And according to Eugene Eubanks, dean of the school of education at the University of Missouri, that problem is making some minority parents skeptical. "They don't see in a clear, concise fashion how this will lead to better outcomes for their children," he said at a meeting of the Education Commission of the States in August.

'A Lot of Conflict'

Some educators suggest that changes in school decisionmaking have taken up so much time and attention, thus far, because they are so difficult to bring about.

Dade County, Fla., for example, is lauded by educators because its restructuring initiative has such a strong focus on student achievement. But Peter Buckholtz, a principal at the district's Miami Palmetto Senior High School, notes that it took his school "most of our first year just to deal with the entire concept of shared decisionmaking: the organizational structure, the trust level, the new roles in terms of some of the give-and-take that had to evolve."

"Now, we want to focus in on what happens in the classroom," he says, "because I think we were a little disappointed with how much time it took to set ourselves up."

In other places, years of cynicism and distrust between teachers and administrators still have to be overcome.

Montgomery County, Md., for example, plans to select 10 schools later this year to participate in a school-restructuring initiative. But Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, says that "people are cynical about these kinds of initiatives, because they don't believe that the school system is really willing to share power and allow teachers to play an independent role in decisionmaking."

"Basically, the jury is still out," he adds.

"If you get down to the trenches, there's a hell of a lot of conflict," says Mr. Cohen of the nga, "particularly around shared decisionmaking between teachers, principals, and local school boards, all of whom tend to define influence as a zero-sum game."

"Teachers are trying to figure out, 'What does this mean?' " he says. "'How do we develop a restructuring plan?' And they tend to focus more on process, more on organization, and less on kids--so far."

Restrained Enthusiasm

Meanwhile, state legislators who lack a clear understanding of what restructuring is about, or of the role they could play, have been reluctant to jump into the fray.

"In many cases, their enthusiasm is still pretty well confined," says Mr. Cohen. "People who just invested a good deal of political capital in enacting reforms that contain a fair amount of regulation aren't about to invest additional political capital in doing what they perceive as repealing what they just put in place."

Mark Weston, education program manager for the National Conference of State Legislatures, agrees. "If I lived in the state of Iowa, I'd be pretty happy with my education system," he says. "I don't know that I'd be calling for restructuring in the way that they are in Washington State or Massachusetts."

Moreover, unless the general public becomes better educated about what restructuring means, a similar level of disinterest could prevent the movement from spreading much beyond the pilot stage.

"The bad news is that, deep down inside, the public is suspicious of anything that doesn't resemble what they remember schools to be like," says Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers' Association.

"The question is whether we really will be able to get breakthroughs" in schools, agrees Mr. Goodlad, or whether "the moment you start to get deviant, then parents and others begin to worry that their kids are the guinea pigs: 'We've got to change, but don't change this school until my kid is out of it."'

Rethinking Accountability

Some suggest that creating a better accountability system in education would help keep restructuring focused on students, while reassuring lawmakers and the general public.

"It's going to be tough to free up schools from some of the regulations, restrictions, and front-end requirements," notes Terry Peterson, executive director of the Joint Business-Education Committee in South Carolina, "unless the public and policymakers are assured of some reasonable evaluation of outcomes after two or three years."

Agrees Gloria Cabe, an Arkansas legislator: "A lot of us are pretty convinced that this whole restructuring thing is a good idea, but I don't think that's enough in the counties and in the states to make it happen."

"We still have to prove that it's worth something," she argues, "and not just restructuring for its own sake."

In North Carolina, for example, the legislature agreed to waive all state laws and regulations for schools in its pilot "LEAD Teachers/Restructuring Project." But the schools must provide measures of improved student learning and increased employee satisfaction.

"Quite frankly, without that quid pro quo from the education community, policymakers have every reason to have a whole lot of reservations," says Mr. Dornan of the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

But the problem, notes Mr. Urbanski of Rochester, is that educators ''are not really close to consensus on what accountability means, at what level it ought to exist, or what the indicators of accountability are."

"If you're going to go to an outcome-driven concept of liberation for the schools," cautions Mr. Shulman, "then you've got to be damn sure that the outcomes you've selected and the means of measurement you've selected are not extremely limited."

Training and Leadership

In addition, educators warn, the quality of curriculum and instruction in schools will not change substantially until teachers have greater access to expertise and more opportunities to engage in inquiry focused on student learning.

"Teachers have tremendous potential," says Jeannie Oakes, a social scientist with the rand Corporation, "but they have very little access to knowledge themselves. Greater decisionmaking power in an environment that's not saturated with knowledge could be troublesome."

Equally important for keeping restructuring focused on students, other educators assert, will be strong leadership at the school and district level.

"The job of the leader is always to ask the question, 'What does this have to do with increasing and raising student success?"' says Mr. Schlechty. "The job of the leader is always to remind you of your values and what business you're in."

And slowly, the rhetoric is coming around, Mr. Cohen argues.

"About a year ago or so, ... the most prevalent notion of restructuring was teacher-empowerment kinds of issues, only loosely connected to kids' learning," he says. "But I'm seeing, increasingly, that the rhetoric of restructuring is focusing on what kids need to know and be able to do, and getting off of teachers."

Predicts Mr. Urbanski: "The third wave of education reform will finally be the one that everyone will be able to 'get into,' and it will directly focus on the only dynamic in education that is more important than teaching--and that's learning."

The "Unfinished Agenda" series is being supported by a grant from the Exxon Education Foundation.

Vol. 08, Issue 09

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