Is It Working Yet?

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Too little, too late serves as an apt description of the information many educators historically have had about education reforms they have tried to implement in their schools. Teachers, principals, or administrators have picked a program or latched on to an idea guided mainly by the educational shortcoming they hoped to resolve. They have known much less about their chosen remedy, particularly the evidence to prove whether it cured an academic ill.

That, in part, was the reasoning behind the "consumers' guide" to comprehensive school reform models produced recently by the American Institutes for Research with support from several national education groups. ("Researchers Rate Whole-School Reform Models," Feb. 17, 1999.)

The admirable aim was to give schools a handy comparison of the 24 best-known schoolwide reform models. Not surprisingly, AIR took a traditional approach, gathering the relatively small body of published research on the programs as its evidence of effectiveness. But this sort of reliance on limited and often time-consuming research as a way of assessing comprehensive designs may be outmoded. What is called for is a new approach to holding educational innovation accountable.

The performance of schools and students is being measured like never before. As this newspaper has reported, 48 states now test students. Thirty-six states publish annual report cards on individual schools, and 19 of them provide some public rating of campuses. President Clinton has raised the stakes by promoting the idea that federal aid should be tied to these kinds of accountability measures. While there are honest and substantive differences of opinion about how best to measure students' performance or how to gauge the responsibility of educators in raising it, it seems abundantly clear that accountability will remain a watchword of education reform. It seems most likely that we will have even more information about schools, and that it will grow as a lever of change.

In most cases, these accountability systems are imposed from outside the school, even from beyond local school boards. At each campus, this will create an unprecedented demand for change, particularly change that can affect these external measures positively. Ultimately, this will be the benchmark for all educational innovation. We need ideas and examples that can surpass this standard. The alternative is a breakdown of public education as confidence in its ability to produce results wanes.

Part of the answer lies in improving schools' capacity to harness this growing and more sophisticated collection of data. Schools that lack the ability to analyze their own results, that rely on outside third parties to inform them about what is working and what is not, will always be at a disadvantage. Data can drive a school to make important and evolutionary changes. This has been the experience of the design teams that developed the eight New American Schools designs. As they have worked with a growing number of schools, the design teams have improved their comprehensive models to get better results. In the same way that a software developer has successive versions of the same product, schoolwide models can change to enhance what they offer. Judging them today based on research that is several years old may be as shortsighted as judging Windows NT based on the crashes of Windows 2.0.

Given these conditions, schools may not have the time required by traditional research; instead, they will have an abundance of data that they can use to guide reform. The consequences of accountability are much more immediate than those provided by snapshots from research. Schools do not have to wait to learn if an innovation is bringing about the desired improvement. Schools that are high-performing do not stay in the same position very long, and the same is true of the best comprehensive school designs.

Educational research falls short in another important way, given today's circumstances. Little study has been made of delivering powerful tools for change to schools on a broad scale. Again, new accountability mechanisms bring an unprecedented demand for improvement. The federal government's "demonstration project" on comprehensive school reform will involve about 2,500 schools alone. The New American Schools design teams work with more than 1,000 schools in 27 states. Even the most careful research on a handful of campuses and a handful of matched schools could not give us the full picture of what happens when models are used in hundreds of schools. New accountability systems that measure results offer a more effective approach with real impact on individual schools. As the National Education Goals Panel discovered last fall, states such as Texas and North Carolina that have robust accountability for schools are performing well not only on their own tests, but also on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The performance of schools and students is being measured like never before.

A powerful engine of education reform in the past decade has been the growing acceptance that academic standards for what students should know and be able to do matter. This belief in standards-setting has rippled into our judgments about educators as well. Groups such as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium, and the Interstate School Leader Licensure Consortium have all developed ways to assess the knowledge and practice of specific groups of educators. The consumers of schoolwide reform models should have the same ease of mind that comes with this kind of benchmark. Just like the teachers and principals who use them, comprehensive models should be held to widely accepted industry standards.

Certainly, student performance would be part of such standards of practice--meeting schools' expectations for improvement and changing schools' climate measurably. But like the designs they would address, the standards will need to take a comprehensive view of the work done by schoolwide models and the teams that create them. To its credit, the American Institutes of Research attempted to evaluate the support that models it studied provide schools. But this crucial factor is likely to attract far less attention than conclusions about student achievement.

Beyond academic results, design teams should be judged on other practices involving their relationship with schools and school districts. Practices involving implementation, communication, and data collection are all vital to viable campus change.

Taking a step back from their partnerships with schools, the providers themselves should meet certain high standards. They should have a design that is, in fact, comprehensive. Their models should be grounded in what we know works to improve learning, even as the research base about the models themselves grows. Their aim should be higher achievement for all students. They should be able to replicate their designs in a number of sites.

To carry out assistance to schools effectively, the providers need certain internal attributes that can also be described by standards. They need systems for monitoring finances and customer satisfaction. They need the capacity to attract, train, and retain staff members to work with schools. They need to be as data-driven as they want schools to be, with their information systems supporting decisionmaking.

In places such as Memphis, Tenn., where low-performing schools have begun closing the test-score gap with other city schools and with national norms, comprehensive school reform is proving itself a powerful force moving more children to higher academic plateaus. The federal government's growing support for the idea of transforming whole schools is creating unprecedented demand on providers. In this atmosphere, concern over quality is appropriate. The way to allay it lies in the accountability systems we put in place, and on a continued reliance on the idea of high standards to guide adults' practice as well as children's results.

John Anderson is the president of New American Schools, a nonprofit organization located in Arlington, Va., that advocates comprehensive school reform.

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