Intro: Charting a Course—The Next 10 Years

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As the school-reform movement begins its second decade, educators and policymakers are like Moses on the mountaintop: They can picture the promised land, but they can't get to it.

When we undertook this special report, From Risk to Renewal: Charting a Course for Reform,' our hope was that we might find an answer to the question: How do we take this vast system of public elementary and secondary education and move it from where it is to where we want it to be?

What we found, instead, is that the journey to the promised land will be enormously difficult and its outcome uncertain.

To produce this report, seven reporters conducted nearly 400 interviews with school reformers, policymakers, practitioners, and members of the public.

In part one, which was published in the Feb. 10 issue, we depicted what reformers want schools to look like in the future. And we examined the barriers to getting there, including the lack of a clear and compelling mission for America's 80,000 public schools.

In part two--a seven-week series of articles that ran from Feb. 24 through April 7--we examined key areas where change must occur if reform is to succeed.

Part three, in this issue, focuses on strategies for change. Scores of independent reform initiatives are now under way to change virtually every aspect of the educational system. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes they parallel each other, sometimes they conflict. Can they be meshed into a master blueprint, a national implementation strategy? Should they be? Is it possible--or even desirable--to forge a plan for who should do what, and how and when they should do it?

Because Kentucky has become a laboratory for a unique experiment in educational restructuring, we looked there for answers first.

The Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990--the most comprehensive and integrated piece of school-reform legislation ever enacted--weaves together changes in governance, finance, curriculum, testing, and teacher licensure to achieve higher learning outcomes for students--a strategy now widely referred to as "systemic reform.'' It also takes aim at pre-school and out-of-school factors that affect student learning.

The Kentucky experience is especially instructive, because states have the constitutional responsibility for public education and bear an increasingly large share of the cost. They have been, and will likely remain, the primary players in the reform movement.

But there are other players who have a vital role to play. So, next, we talked to some of the nation's leading researchers and practitioners about how to bring about change on a massive scale. We listened carefully for agreement about what this country's next steps should be.

But what we heard is considerable disagreement and uncertainty. After a decade of effort, reformers may share common goals, but they still lack a consensus on how to achieve them. In fact, individuals, voicing strongly held beliefs, are deeply divided about the best way to transform a large number of schools.

In the roundtable that ends this special report, we brought together 11 of the country's leading reformers to talk about next steps. Over the course of a day, their conversation touched on some of the most important and substantive developments in the school-reform movement and on the key roles to be played at the federal, state, district, and school levels.

Above all, this special report illustrates how extraordinarily difficult it is to change a vast and complex system--especially what takes place between teachers and students in classrooms. On the one hand, the status quo is well entrenched; the public is complacent; the education establishment is largely unpersuaded that radical change is needed.

On the other hand, the pressure for change is steadily building; the power structure has joined the cause; and the seeds of revolution are taking root in thousands of schools throughout the country.

The most intriguing and important education question of the 1990's will be the outcome of the classic conflict between the irresistible force and the immovable object.

Vol. 12, Issue 30

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