School & District Management

Experts Debate Effect Of Whole-School Reform

By Joetta L. Sack — January 30, 2002 3 min read
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The federal government has poured millions of dollars into its whole-school- reform program, and hundreds of schools have overhauled their academic programs in the hope that such prescriptions will improve academic results. But are those models meeting the high expectations of lawmakers and educators?

That depends on who’s doing the evaluating and which whole-school experiments they’re looking at, according to a panel brought here last week by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. While some schools have shown great success, and the concept carries much potential, many pitfalls remain in packaging and mass-producing systems for school improvement, panelists said.

Some participants cast doubt on the efficacy of the popular whole- school concept, also known as “comprehensive school reform,” which this year became a permanent fixture within the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The fiscal 2002 federal budget also increases the funding for such efforts to $310 million, up from $265 million the previous year.

Most of the problems come when districts try to install one-size-fits-all programs, some panelists said, likening that approach to taking a box off a shelf and placing it in a school that may or may not be ready or willing to change its ways.

“The box doesn’t always match the school,” said Anne McClellan, the director of program development at the Houston-based Center for Reform of School Systems. “Some do not treat teachers like worthy professionals; some other models miss the target— learning.”

Individual Needs

Putting in place a successful whole- school model requires that districts carefully consider the individual needs and dynamics of each school, the experts speaking here agreed.

Ms. McClellan, for one, said districts must bring together factions at all levels: teachers and other school staff members, the district, and the community. Often, she said, districts don’t realize that the culture of a school is resistant to change, teachers do not have the skills needed to put a plan in place, leadership is not strong enough, or a particular model that succeeded at one school doesn’t fit the needs of another.

Sometimes, she said, the models assume a school is starting at square one and force the school to throw out successful strategies.

Whole-school reform—in essence, overhaul of school academic systems with integrated programs—has come under fire.

Most notably, the Memphis, Tenn., school system last June abandoned its entire roster of whole-school-reform systems. The district’s new superintendent, Johnnie B. Watson, declared that little improvement in academic achievement had been seen from the use of the models. Other schools, including some in the Miami-Dade County and San Antonio districts, also quit using such models in recent years. (“Whole-School Projects Show Mixed Results,” Nov. 7, 2001.) The federal program for whole-school reform was first approved as a pilot effort in 1997. It lent the concept more credibility and generated increased interest.

The whole-school-reform movement was originally designed to link all educational services in a school into a coherent vision that would drive improvement, rather than piecemeal approaches that might make no difference.

“If a district continues to ‘Christmas tree’ a whole range of initiatives, it is not going to be successful,” Gene Bottoms, a senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta and the founding director of High Schools That Work, a whole-school-reform model, said at the session last week.

But another panelist said that those individual programs might have more impact.

“Less dramatic reforms,” such as summer school, teacher professional development, and curriculum changes, “may not get the attention they deserve, while they could be as or more effective than whole-school reform,” said Jeffrey Mirel, a professor of educational studies and history at the University of Michigan.

Mr. Mirel wrote a report critical of New American Schools, a private, nonprofit group based in Alexandria, Va., that underwrote some of the earliest whole-school models created in the early 1990s. The organization billed itself as revolutionary, Mr. Mirel said, but “not only did New American Schools round up many of the usual suspects, they rounded up many of the usual ideas.”

Mary Ann Schmitt, the president of New American Schools, said the group has learned from its early experiments and that schools using the model are showing academic success.

“Every critique of the movement is that ‘when you put a box in a school system, miraculous things don’t happen,’” she said. “That’s not what we’re trying to do.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2002 edition of Education Week as Experts Debate Effect Of Whole-School Reform

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