The Myth of Failed School Reform

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In some upscale hotels over the registration desk, there are clocks showing times across the globe. The San Francisco clock shows 7 a.m., the one for New York says 10 a.m., London is at 2 p.m., and Tokyo, 11 p.m. Different time zones alert travelers seeking to contact clients or friends what time it is in the city they wish to call. There are such clocks for school reform also. They signal that what is said about reform, what is done, what actually occurs in classrooms, and what students learn operate on different time zones. But these school-reform clocks are hidden. Were they in public view, policymakers, administrators, practitioners, and researchers would see that the different time zones for school reform confirm that important changes in schooling have occurred and that the prevailing belief that most school reform fails is a myth.

The myth has a history. It is anchored in commission reports and research studies over the last century that document promises broken by disappointing performance. Such a belief, however, is inaccurate on two counts. First, these reports seldom distinguish between changes that are incremental (for example, longer school day, better textbooks) and fundamental(for example, teacher-run schools, student-centered instruction). Many incremental changes stick; few fundamental ones survive. Second, those who conclude that reforming schools is futile are trapped in a time zone when they ought to be scanning, like the world traveler, many clocks.

Historians who document changes over centuries have learned that many school reforms unfold at different paces. What are the different times that register reforms? Here are a few:

  • Media time. This is the fastest reform clock of all, ticking every day and week. Newspaper headlines, TV news stories, and magazine articles document immediate events and contemporary opinion, shaping and legitimizing what policymakers put on their school-reform agendas. Condom distribution in high schools, for example, receives strong media exposure as a school policy aimed at solving problems of teenage pregnancy and the spread of aids. Policymakers talk about multimedia technologies that will allegedly revolutionize teaching and learning and charter schools that will jolt district bureaucracies out of their lethargy. What is novel, eye-grabbing, and controversial registers on the media clock. In watching only the media clock, however, policymakers may wrongly conclude that what happens in one school happens everywhere, what is being reported in one setting will continue as is, and that what is reported is what actually occurred. Following media time too closely runs the risk of speeding up a clock that ticks more slowly than the media one.
  • Policymaker time. This clock chimes every two or four years as campaigns for national, state, and local offices crank up to re-elect (or re-appoint) incumbents or bring fresh faces to public posts. In some states and districts, policymaker clocks tick more quickly when annual budgets or referendums come up for voter approval.

To offer a recent example, federal and state policymakers have defined schools as an instrument for national economic recovery. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s higher academic standards, imitating corporate business practices, and advocacy of vouchers for private schools have been converted by state superintendents, governors, and presidents into campaign slogans every two to four years. In 1992 George Bush and Bill Clinton both sought world-class standards and national goals for schools.

Policymaker time, then, runs on national and state election cycles. Just before or right after campaigns, legislatures approve new policies and programs to reform schools. But policy talk, laws, and even newly funded programs are not what occurs in schools. Other clocks have to be examined to figure out if the talk, adopted policies, and programs are implemented. To determine if talk turns into action, voters need to enter the bureaucratic time zone.

  • Bureaucratic time. This clock records administrative action implementing what policymakers have decided. Often the hands of the faster media and policymaker clocks make a complete turn just as the bureaucratic clock passes the first hour. The lag between policymaker time and bureaucratic time is less because administrators prize slowness than it is due to the natural complexity of translating a policy made under the pressure of electoral time into feasible, clear procedures for those principals and teachers who do the daily work of schooling. The bureaucratic clock chimes when new rules are announced, revised budgets presented, and increased coordination between departments occurs. An example of how the hands on the bureaucratic clock are reduced to a crawl can be seen in desegregation.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) banned segregated schools. The media recorded the tortured progress of judicial policymaking as state governors and local school boards across the South wrestled both peacefully and violently with enacting the new policy throughout the 1950s and 1960s. As the years passed, federal regulations were written and rewritten under Republican and Democratic administrations. States and districts, prodded by new laws and federal agencies (Civil Rights ACT of 1964) slowly embraced administratively designed plans such as open enrollment, busing, and other remedies for desegregating schools. Over time, district attendance boundaries were redrawn; schools were closed; magnet schools were created. By the mid-1990s, a full four decades after the Brown decision, Southern and Southwestern schools had largely desegregated (except in big cities where re-segregation has occurred).

The policymaking and bureaucratic clocks, then, are seldom in sync. Important administrative details that can spell the difference between successful and failed implementation take considerable time to craft and put into practice. Often political, demographic, and other nonschool factors create greater lag time between the clocks. Further lags occur when the practitioner clock comes into view.

  • Practitioner time. If media time often looks like the speeded-up film of the 1920s movie comedies, then think of practitioner time as slow motion. One example should suffice.

As computers spilled into schools by the early 1980s, the news media carried story after story of an imminent revolution in teaching and learning. Many state policymakers mandated "computer literacy" as a high school graduation requirement or offered incentives to those districts that purchased machines. Districts bought machines like popcorn, placing them in classrooms and specially designated rooms. In 1981, there were, on average, 125 students per computer; in 1991, there were 18. Media, policymaker, and bureaucratic clocks moved at different speeds throughout the 1980s in recording what happened to a new technology entering schools.

The figures for students per machine imply that teachers were using computers for most classroom activities. Not so. In schools saturated with computers, most teachers used the machines for instructional purposes a few hours a week. Elsewhere, most teachers were casual or nonusers. Moreover, teacher use varied according to a school's socioeconomic status: low-income, minority students in racially isolated schools had less access to computers than students in affluent schools. So, in just over a decade following the media's announcement of an impending revolution in teaching and learning, more teachers were using computers, but the majority remained casual or nonusers. Practitioner time moves at a much slower and uneven pace than on the other clocks.

By the mid-1990s, the media, in characteristic hastiness, had already pronounced the "computer revolution" dead on arrival. That judgment may well be premature, as the slow expansion in teachers' use of computers grows over decades, rather than on the media's and policymakers' time frame of weeks and years. The lag time between different clocks is also evident when student learning is considered.

  • Student-learning time. Getting students to learn more, better, and to enjoy it enough to maintain the habit after leaving school hits the bull's-eye for most reformers. This student-learning clock, however, is the hardest to read because school-based learning often cannot be separated from home-based learning (including from television). Moreover, learning may show up years after formal schooling has ended, since children's speed and style of learning varies. Finally, school-based learning contains both intended and unintended effects. Most students, for example, absorb teacher- and text-taught knowledge; they learn to read, calculate, and write sufficiently to pass tests and leave school with a credential. But students learn much that goes undocumented: learning to take turns; handling anger in public situations; dealing with schoolyard bullies; not snitching to the teacher; the rudiments of sex beyond what was taught in class; and scores of other useful social skills and bits of knowledge beyond the school's formal curriculum. With all of these caveats about the student time zone, how can this clock be read at all?

Think of two hands on this clock. The big hand marks the standardized paper-and-pencil tests and teachers' grades given out every six or nine weeks during the school year. This hand measures school-based learning drawn from the formal curriculum. As standardized tests have become primary means of estimating student academic performance over the last three decades, the big hand is noted most often by media and policymaker clock-watchers. Annual school-by-school tests, for example, are often reported in newspapers. When a new program is launched in a flurry of publicity, test scores are examined to see if the program is effective.

The second hand on this clock is much slower because of all the complications noted above. With the lag time of learning over many years in a student's career in school and the difficulty of sorting out intended from unintended effects, the second hand creeps across the face of the clock at a snail's pace and goes unnoticed.

Reading five clocks may help travelers, but it is unclear how knowing that there are separate time zones for media, policymakers, administrators, practitioners, and student learning is useful to school reformers. So what if there are five different school-reform clocks?

I offer two reasons why anyone interested in improving schooling in a classroom, school, district, state, or the nation should use the metaphor of different clocks to help understand, rather than dismiss, school reform.

(1.) Paying more attention to the practitioner and student-learning clocks and less to the media and policymaker ones could shift public debate to substantial matters of classroom teaching and learning, rather than the glitzy innovations that strike sparks for a brief moment but end up as faded bumper stickers. Consider that with all of the policy talk and attention given to school-based management, shared governance, charter schools, and other forms of restructuring since the early 1980s, the overall purpose of such innovations was to improve what happens between teachers and students. Yet somehow that purpose got lost in the media and policymaker time zones. Because public attention was riveted on those fast-paced clocks, impatience with the slowness of bureaucratic, practitioner, and student-learning time led to premature and inaccurate judgments of reform failure.

(2.) Bureaucratic, practitioner, and student-learning times matter greatly in determining whether reforms succeed. Those seeking school reform need to expect that important changes occur in slow motion.

The media clock, for example, is more vivid and watched more closely by policymakers who respond to electoral cycles. The media clock not only identifies what policymakers ought to consider but also certifies that what is reported is legitimate and worthy of policy attention. Moreover, because the fast-moving media clock registers more reform failures than successes--after all, a publicly funded flop will attract readers and viewers--reforms that get adapted and prove successful over time as recorded by the bureaucratic, practitioner, and student-learning clocks are less eye-catching, less newsworthy.

As a consequence, media time vividly projects the belief that most school reforms fail. Policymakers, who are expected to respond to new problems with "reforms," come to accept that belief without fully questioning it. Public and practitioner faith in improving schools flags. Teachers and activist parents ask: What's the use of trying anything different? Such a belief destroys professional and lay-reformer self-confidence and, worse, is inaccurate.

These different clocks have become seriously devalued by policymakers. But such slow-motion time counts far more for students and their teachers than the faster-paced, high-profile media time or election-driven policymaker time. Reformers need to make that clear to those outside of classrooms and schools.

For these two reasons, those committed to school improvement need to ignore the myth of failed reforms and pay attention to the many clocks that record the long journey of school improvement.

Vol. 15, Issue 09, Pages 41, 56

Published in Print: November 1, 1995, as The Myth of Failed School Reform
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