Obstacle Course

Barriers to change thwart reformers at every twist and turn.

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When historians look back on the 1980's, they will likely see it as "the education-reform decade,'' as the Educational Testing Service characterized it in a 1990 report.

They will write that 42 states raised high school standards. That the number of states with student-testing programs rose to 47, while the number with teacher-testing systems grew to 39. That three-fourths of high schools reported stricter attendance standards, and that 70 percent set academic standards for athletics and extracurricular activities.

But historians must also point out that, despite all that activity, "schools pretty much look today like they did 30 years ago,'' as Linda Darling-Hammond, the co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University, puts it.

As educators and researchers are now discovering, reformers at any level face daunting barriers that thwart or limit even the best-intentioned efforts. The reforms of the 1980's didn't achieve their goals because reformers either failed to recognize the barriers or couldn't surmount them.

But the barriers remain, and any serious strategy to transform schools must confront them, or reform will again be doomed to fail.

The largest barrier to spurring true and lasting reform, of course, is the sheer size of the reform task, which has proved to be much greater than the authors of A Nation at Risk ever dreamed. While that report generally urged more of the same--more academic coursework, more homework--reformers now talk of a radical transformation in teaching and learning in a vast educational complex consisting of 80,000 public schools, each of which is itself complex.

As Ann Bradley's article on the mission of schooling on page 5 notes, the job of educating students is made even more difficult by the growing social problems faced by children and their families.

Moreover, the reformers often face skepticism and outright resistance from school people and the public.

But even if they had such support, those attempting to change schools would still have to cope with layer upon layer of a governance structure that obstructs and thwarts what they are trying to accomplish.

And unlike other large enterprises that have managed to reform themselves over the past few decades, schools often lack the capacity to bring about large-scale change.

In many cases, change demands money, which is in short supply or isn't used to institute reform. Change requires inspired leadership, the lack of which can stop a reform from getting in the schoolhouse door. And lasting change needs an "infrastructure'' in place to insure that good ideas can be replicated.

But perhaps the most significant barrier to change is that state policy, on which we so heavily rely, is ill-suited to the reform task. Despite the best intentions of governors and legislators, the policy levers they have at their disposal aren't powerful enough to move classroom practice. A new type of policymaking is needed--one that fosters change within schools and classrooms, rather than one that tries to mandate or command them to act.

"There is widespread agreement,'' says Edward Pauly, a senior research associate at the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, "that, sooner or later, you're going to have to deal with folks in the classroom.''

Some, like Mr. Pauly, search for "pressure points'' within the system that allow changes to take hold. Others talk of redefining the role of state and local policymakers so that they "enable'' change, rather than dictate it.

Whatever the strategy, the trick, according to Lauren B. Resnick, the director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, is to insure that the successes outnumber the inevitable failures.

"What we're trying to do,'' she says, "is to get changes to come in at a rate that will be faster than the rate at which they are knocked out, yet deep enough that they are worth it.''

The Magnitude of Reforms Poses a Formidable

Change in education has always been stymied by one set of barriers or another, and the problem of setting lasting change in motion is certainly not limited to education.

Change in any institution is troublesome, notes Henry M. Levin, the director of the Center for Educational Research at Stanford University.

"Do families change their cultures because they are dysfunctional?'' he asks. "Do religious groups change their cultures? That's almost an oxymoron.''

But achieving change in education is likely to be even more difficult because the system is so large and complex. Moreover, the greater the changes being advocated, the greater the barriers to attaining them. Education reformers, after all, are calling for a major overhaul of the educational system, down to the teaching and learning that goes on in every classroom every day.

"The theory of knowledge that is in place won't do for the future,'' Ms. Resnick says. "It says that knowledge is lots of accumulated bits that students can acquire by some form of listening, hearing, and memorizing; application [of knowledge] is separate. The education system we inherit is, by and large, built around that theory.''

In contrast, Ms. Resnick has argued for a "thinking curriculum'' built around students' abilities to use and apply their knowledge, not simply regurgitate facts. As the article by Lynn Olson on page 14 demonstrates, some schools have enthusiastically embraced such strategies and are revamping their curricula and instruction to spark student engagement.

Magdalene Lampert, an associate professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, describes the new form of student learning as a "cultural revolution'' in which understanding and intellect are more highly valued than they typically have been.

"Children ought to be learning to reason, whether in science, writing, or mathematics,'' she says. "Those things are very different from what schools now expect.''

'Look at Things Whole'

Implementing that new vision is a complex task. Simply reforming a single school is a major undertaking, observes Theodore R. Sizer, a professor of education at Brown University and the chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a network of reform-minded high schools.

"Everything important inside schools affects everything else inside schools,'' he says. "You can't do things one at a time--say, do a math or science curriculum. If you do it properly, and standards are raised, you have to change time, scheduling, and everything else.''

"It's difficult to persuade people to look at things whole,'' Mr. Sizer says. "We have a long tradition of piecemeal reforms. They don't work.''

As an example, many cite the blizzard of curriculum-reform projects funded by the National Science Foundation in the 1960's. Although the projects produced highly regarded materials and textbooks, they didn't transform schools, and, by 1976, a study by the N.S.F. found, they had vanished from classrooms.

But as difficult as implementing the changes in one school may be, replicating them in other schools is even more difficult.

Ms. Darling-Hammond of Teachers College points out that the relative handful of successful reform efforts has failed to spread widely.

"You can do it in a magnet school,'' she says, "because you're spending $20,000 a kid, you've sucked in a disproportionate number of the scarce supply of highly knowledgeable teachers, and you have waivers'' from regulations.

Beyond that, putting the reforms in place in 80,000 public schools represents a formidable barrier.

"Most folks really don't understand how much there is [for teachers] to learn,'' says David K. Cohen, a professor of education and social policy at Michigan State University. "They don't appreciate how arduous and long the learning will be. And it has to be done by people with full-time jobs.''

In a widely read article in American Educator, entitled "Revolution in One Classroom (or, then again, was it?),'' Mr. Cohen illustrates the magnitude of the hurdles reformers face. It cites the case of Mrs. Oublier, a 2nd-grade teacher in California who was eager to change her math instruction and who sought out new materials and workshops to learn how to revise her teaching methods. By Mrs. Oublier's way of thinking, she considered her classroom transformed. In reality, though, her teaching "did not realize these ambitions,'' Mr. Cohen writes. Even as she tried the new methods, she couldn't quite abandon the old ones.

"If the recent reforms are to succeed, students and teachers must not simply absorb a new 'body' of knowledge,'' he writes. "Rather, they must acquire a new way of thinking about knowledge and a new practice of acquiring it. ... Additionally, and in order to do all of the above, they must un-learn much of what they know, whether they are 2nd graders or veteran teachers.''

'Edifice Complexes'

Instead of confronting the hurdle of revamping instruction for the nation's 2.3 million-strong teaching force, though, the policymakers who govern education frequently duck it.

In fact, because politicians like to win elections, they often focus on creating new policies and programs, rather than building on and improving existing programs. As Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota puts it, politicians suffer from "edifice complexes.''

Moreover, writes Susan H. Fuhrman, the director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at Rutgers University, "politicians are attracted to the type of policies that are most easily used as campaign issues: simple, easily explained policies that can be featured in a 'sound bite.' ''

"Policies with immediate effects and clear benefits are simpler to explain than longer-term efforts with more diverse or remote benefits,'' Ms. Fuhrman writes in a forthcoming book. "Subtlety can lose out to flashiness; careful developmental efforts can lose out to quick pushes that have less chance of success because the developmental groundwork was lacking.''

Ms. Darling-Hammond points to the widespread interest in the 1980's in alternative certification for teachers as an example of one problem and its quick-fix solution. Although such policies were generally aimed at increasing the supply of teachers, they did nothing to address the question of revamping instruction.

In fact, at a time when all teachers need to be educated in a new way, Ms. Darling-Hammond argues, alternative certification not only did not solve the problem, it made it worse by creating a new cadre of teachers unschooled in the new methods.

"Rather than try to reform and take on the teacher-certification system and improve it,'' she says, "[advocates of alternative certification] said, 'Let's induce states to avoid it altogether.' ''

"That's one of the ways we've created and exacerbated a barrier to change,'' she adds.

Layers of Governance Lead to Reform 'Overload'

In addition to all the other barriers, reform itself has become a hindrance to change by setting off in too many directions at once and by being so scattered and uncoordinated.

"It is probably closer to the truth to argue that the main problem in North American education today is not the absence of or resistance to change,'' Michael Fullan, the dean of the faculty of education at the University of Toronto, suggests, "but rather the presence of too many ad hoc, fragmented, uncoordinated changes.''

Ms. Fuhrman notes that the problem of fragmentation grew worse in the 1980's, when states took a more active role in school reform. Although states expanded their activities, she points out, local districts didn't reduce theirs; in fact, they "made more policy as well.''

"More policy led to more policy,'' Ms. Fuhrman says.

On top of those policies, social problems--such as disintegrating families, drug abuse, and violence--also made teachers' jobs more difficult, Mr. Fullan notes.

In addition to their instructional duties, teachers have become responsible for dealing with students who are hungry or homeless. In some urban schools, they fear for their lives as schools can no longer keep the world at bay.

Such social problems have deepened at a time when other institutions--like churches and families--have become less able to cope with them, putting an even greater burden on the schools.

Shopping Mall Gets Bigger'

But the combination of swelling mandates from above and mounting social pressures from the outside has loaded up schools with yet more responsibilities.

"It's an old American thing,'' Mr. Sizer of the Coalition of Essential Schools says. "If you have a new problem, add it to the curriculum. The shopping mall gets bigger and bigger, with more and more stores. ... And the trivialization continues.''

Moreover, the policies often contradict one another. As one example, Mr. Sizer points out that, at the same time states authorized more autonomy for local schools, they were reluctant to cede power over some aspects of schooling--such as assessment--that would make the schools' power meaningful.

"On the one hand,'' he says states said to schools, "you say you need school-site management. On the other hand, that doesn't mean you can pick your own people, set your own budget, or decide the shape of the schedule or the curriculum, much less how to assess results.''

"Higher levels of government aren't prepared to let go,'' Mr. Sizer says.

In other cases, the contradictions may be more benign, but equally problematic.

While educators are developing new standards for teaching, based on knowledge about effective practice, Ms. Darling-Hammond notes, they are left with the legacy of previous state teacher-evaluation policies that are "absolutely countervailing'' to the new standards.

Florida, she points out, "marks teachers down if they relate a lesson they are working on to a student's personal experience--which we know is a foundation of good teaching.''

"The state policy structure in most states is loaded with a geological dig of regulations, laid on top of each other, that are self-contradictory and accumulated over decades by intrusive policymakers,'' she says.

New Constituencies

Phillip C. Schlechty, the president of the Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville, Ky., also notes that each new policy creates a constituency and that that very fact makes it more difficult to revise or abolish policies as needs change.

Teacher-certification rules, for example, were created to insure that teachers and administrators are competent, he points out. But they also restrict schools from redefining teachers' roles or restructuring to improve student outcomes.

"Those who develop certification and licensing laws,'' he writes in Schools for the 21st Century, " ... should also be aware that their decisions may so straitjacket teachers and schools that the harm done to students may be greater than if the certifying agencies had been more flexible in their views.''

Other educators contend, however, that individual schools need not be hampered by the multiple layers of authority and the resulting "overload'' of reform. If teachers worked together to make changes in their own schools, Mr. Pauly of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation says, the "multiple-policy issues would go away.''

"The problem of overlapping policies is toughest for people trying to impose top-down change,'' he says. "They have to rationalize each connection, or lack of connection.''

Deeply Held Beliefs Fuel Reluctance to Change

Both policymakers and school-based reformers also face another serious obstacle: the deeply held beliefs of people in the system.

Despite the best intentions of reformers, few people want to change.

"In a lot of communities,'' Mr. Sizer says, "change is something everybody else is going to have to do.''

In part, the reluctance to change reflects the nature of schooling, which is at its heart a "conserving institution,'' notes Ann W. Lieberman, the co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Teachers College.

"School is the only institution people think of as stable,'' she says. "The idea that a school would look different and that kids would be engaged in different ways of learning is very threatening to people.''

As a result, Ms. Lampert of Michigan State says, policymakers often block urriculum reforms because they are " 'not the way I learned.' ''

Unlearning What's 'Right'

Educators are also reluctant to change because they think what they are doing is right. Getting them to change, argues the Yale University psychologist Seymour B. Sarason, takes more than a simple command that they do so.

Reformers "assume that change is achieved through learning and applying new or good ideas,'' he writes in The Predictable Failure of School Reform. "They seem unable to understand what is involved in unlearning what custom, tradition, and even research have told educational personnel is right, natural, and proper.''

Milbrey W. McLaughlin, the director of the National Research Center on the Context of Secondary School Teaching at Stanford University, says her research has found that teachers tend to fall in one of two groups: those who are eager to innovate and those who view problems as intractable. The latter group, she suggests, is by far the most common.

Mr. Sizer believes that the public, at least, can become convinced of the need for change. He points out that his coalition's reforms, once considered "radical and out of fashion,'' are now more accepted.

In part because previous reform attempts appear to have failed, Mr. Sizer says, "there has been a relative warming of the climate for suggesting bold changes.''

Mr. Cohen of Michigan State is optimistic that educators can change as well.

"History is not destiny,'' he says. "I think we can do and think differently.''

Lack of Capacity: Money, Leadership, Infrastructure

In order for improvements to occur, however, schools must have the built-in capacity to change. Teachers need time to plan and learn new methods. Leadership to foster innovation is essential, as is an infrastructure that allows ideas about new practices to flow throughout the system. In most schools, each of these three essential conditions is in short supply.

Lack of money can also undercut a school's ability to reform itself. And inequities of funding among schools have been well documented.

While there are some well-publicized instances in which schools have transformed themselves despite these financial constraints, a serious effort to restructure teaching and learning throughout the system requires a considerable amount of teacher time--and time is money.

As Mr. Sizer writes in a recent issue of his coalition's newsletter, Dennis Littky, the principal of Thayer High School in Winchester, N.H., the first coalition school, estimated that his small school needed an additional $125,000 a year just to start its reform program. By now, that sum would be much higher.

"That would pay for two to three weeks' additional time a year for teachers, summer stipends for a quarter of the faculty, a few overstaffed 'empty chairs' during the year to allow for teachers to travel and learn,'' Mr. Sizer says.

Even narrow reforms can be curtailed by a lack of funds. Ms. Darling-Hammond notes that a study she conducted for the RAND Corporation found that the computer revolution failed to sweep the schools for the simple reason that not all schools could afford the hardware to introduce computer-based instruction.

But in addition to money, reform also takes leadership, and not all schools possess the kind of leaders who are willing to foster innovation.

"It's not that the principal does it all, but he has to help make it possible,'' Ms. Lieberman of Teachers College says. Principals "can control time, and what comes in to a school. They can stop an idea if they want to.''

Successful reformers face this problem as well. Hard-won reforms in a school often disappear when the leader suddenly leaves and a new leader comes in with a different set of ideas.

But that fact simply points up the difficulty all reformers face, Ms. Resnick of the University of Pittsburgh says.

"I don't think there are villains,'' she says. "The system is constraining what they can do, what they think is possible. Within the constraining system, almost everybody, most of the time, is trying to do well.''

Research Literature

In addition to financial and leadership constraints, schools lack an infrastructure for reform, a factor that has enabled medicine, for example, to implement widely ideas brought about by new technology.

"There is a huge infrastructure for knowledge diffusion [in medicine],'' Ms. Darling-Hammond says. "New things known, like bypass surgery, are immediately brought into training in medical schools, so that interns and residents very quickly internalize the change.''

"There are also widespread vehicles for disseminating knowledge to practicing physicians,'' she continues, "from what we would call in-service courses to journals.''

"In education,'' Ms. Darling-Hammond points out, "in such literature as we have, researchers read each others' research. Teacher magazines tend to avoid the knowledge base.''

She and others also point out another important shortcoming of the educational infrastructure: the fact that teachers are isolated from one another.

"Most teachers have never seen another teacher teach in their own building, much less gotten out of their building to look at practices in other schools,'' Ms. Darling-Hammond says. "You can't change to something you've never seen.''

Ms. McLaughlin of Stanford found that teachers who were the most innovative were ones who visited one another's classrooms and shared materials.

"Most teachers are neither trained nor used to talking to one another,'' she says.

Even if schools' infrastructure is rebuilt, change in education can only come about if other institutions change as well. But so far, Mr. Cohen of Michigan State says, higher education, by maintaining admissions policies that fail to demand high student-performance standards, and businesses, by refusing to hire students based on their academic performance, have thwarted schools' goals.

"If school people are the only people who take reform seriously, then it doesn't have a chance,'' Mr. Cohen says. "It is implausible to imagine that K-12 educators could swim across currents generated by higher education and business.''

State Policy Tools Fall Short of Goals

As the experience of the 1980's makes clear, even the most ardent reformers can fall short of their goals if the tools at their disposal are not up to the job of overcoming the obstacles in their way.

During the past decade, state after state and district after district adopted policies that assumed that, if they moved a few levers at the top of the system, the rest of the system would fall into line. In fact, though, those levers caused barely a ripple in most classrooms.

"Few people [in the 1980's] understood the extent to which any change is going to require thinking about American education as a complex social system,'' Ms. Resnick says. "The way they went about trying to fix it showed that--entrance requirements, course structures, minimum-competency tests.''

"The governance system took the tools it had--like Carnegie units--and the assumptions it had--that those kinds of regulations have something to do with the content that is learned--and used them,'' she adds. "[Then] we become surprised that the outcome as a whole doesn't improve much.''

Despite the record, however, the attitude persists that all that is needed is for state policymakers to pull some levers.

"Some [corporate] C.E.O.'s say to me, 'You have an easy delivery system--19 districts,' '' says Pascal D. Forgione Jr., the superintendent of public instruction in Delaware. "No. I have 6,000 professionals.''

'No Support for Change'

In part, the policy reforms took the shape they did because policymakers lack respect for the teaching profession and for teachers' part in changing classroom practice.

"It seems that people jump to the conclusion that teachers are not smart enough to transform knowledge into curricula and instruction,'' Ms. Lampert of Michigan State says. " 'We have to do it for them.' ''

Ms. McLaughlin's research on teachers, though, shows graphically that the policies didn't affect what happens in the classroom. She and her colleagues surveyed teachers about their practices in California--a state that adopted a broad range of reforms, including curriculum frameworks and teacher-training networks--and in Michigan, which adopted few such reforms. Yet, the teachers' responses were virtually identical in the two states.

Some teachers, like Ms. Oublier in Mr. Cohen's article, persevered and attempted to change their practice. But all teachers are not like Ms. Oublier, and many have either ignored the new policies completely or turned cynical as they have seen much-trumpeted reforms make little difference.

"People have been disaffected over the past 10 years,'' Ms. Lieberman says. "There was no money, no thrust, no support for change. There has only been a lot of headlines and neon lights.''

New Role for Policymakers

In looking at ways to bring about what they see as real change, several reformers have suggested new strategies that schools and policymakers can employ.

The strategy may not require a detailed map for reform--as long as it recognizes the problems with past strategies.

"Americans, standing on the near shore of huge change, don't have much sense of how to get to the other side,'' Mr. Cohen says. "But if you organize your trip like ones you've taken [in the past], you'll not get there.''

Mr. Pauly contends that finding "pressure points'' in the system offers opportunities to bring in changes without requiring "high intensity'' efforts to get a whole school to change.

As examples, he says, reformers could focus on revamping the first year of high school, or beginning-reading instruction.

Large-scale reformers "are trying to take on so much that they run the risk of failing,'' Mr. Pauly says. "If you focus on pressure points, you may be able to accomplish changes.''

Other reformers suggest that large-scale change is possible if policymakers redefine their roles so that they "enable'' changes to happen, rather than mandate it.

Under such a system--which Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol of New York State has called "top-down support for bottom-up reform''--states would set standards for schools, and allow local schools the flexibility to come up with ways of meeting the standards. But the state would also provide assistance to help schools build their own capacities to change by providing training and encouraging them to create networks to share ideas.

"If you think systematically, you realize we must do it school by school, but, at the same time, we can't do it [only] school by school,'' Ms. Resnick says. "We can't do it boutique-fashion.''

Ms. McLaughlin says that such a strategy would enhance the power of such state policies as curriculum frameworks and testing programs by insuring that schools are able to implement them.

"Once you've got the culture and the environment of a school as a learning community,'' Ms. McLaughlin says, "that's when all the stuff at the top of the system can have a positive effect.''

Whatever the strategy, Mr. Sarason of Yale University argues, it must change power relationships--between teachers and students and between teachers and administrators--or it is doomed to failure.

Mr. Sarason likens the changes that are needed to the founding of the United States government. The Founding Fathers, he says, didn't merely tinker with the Articles of Confederation, which they knew were inadequate; they reconstructed the system.

"As long as they allowed themselves to stay within the confines of these articles, the major problems would be intractable to remedy,'' Mr. Sarason writes. "Confronting that intractability, they entered history.''

Vol. 12, Issue 20

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