A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Fitting the Pieces - October 1996


Education reform is about improving what goes on in schools. Reforms often target classroom instructional issues -- such as content and pedagogy -- or focus on larger organizational aspects such as the structure and decision-making processes of schools. Interestingly, although the scope of work varies widely, nearly all educators face a similar set of challenges when it comes to planning, implementing, and sustaining reform. Whether reform involves minor changes in classroom practice or major administrative restructuring, successful reformers adopt a similar set of strategies to overcome obstacles.

This report draws upon a series of studies on school reform to describe a set of strategies commonly used by educators to achieve their reform goals. It identifies innovative techniques developed by experienced reformers through eight lessons that reflect essential components of successful reform. Interactive planning guides are provided in Appendix A to assist motivated educators in jump-starting reform in their own community. While all educators can learn from the information presented here, it is primarily targeted at school district administrators and school staff to help them gain a better understanding of the strategies they may adopt to initiate successful reform.

About the Education Reform Studies

This report is based on 12 studies of education reform conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) between 1990 and 1995. These studies were built around case analyses describing practices that educators could emulate, or at least learn from, if they wanted to undertake work in a particular reform area. The cross-cutting questions that guided the research teams were as follows:

The OERI research projects spanned a variety of reform efforts. Some studies focused on particular populations, including at-risk and limited-English proficient students, while others focused on pedagogy, assessment, and instructional practices. Some studies addressed broader issues, such as management and school restructuring. The 12 studies are described in Appendix B.

The Current Focus on Education Reform

For most of the 20th century, reformers have been asking whether schools are adequately preparing students to assume the responsibility of employment, citizenship, and family life. During the 1980s, much attention was paid to the role that schools played in preparing the nation's future work force. In particular, there was evidence that the skills of American students were falling behind those of students in other countries, perhaps jeopardizing our nation's future competitive strength. At the time, there were many efforts to address the perceived problems.

Several major reports, A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983), Action for Excellence (Education Commission of the States 1983), and Educating Americans for the 21st Century (National Science Board 1983), proposed strategies to bolster the traditional education system by changing school "inputs" (e.g., increased number of academic courses required for graduation, increased attendance standards, and increased student testing) as a way of improving student achievement. Others approached the problem of achievement by looking at educational processes. In particular, Boyer's High School (Boyer 1983), Goodlad's A Place Called School (Goodlad 1984), and Sizer's Horaces Compromise (Sizer 1984) examined teaching and learning environments that were closer to the classroom. These studies called for changes in how schools were organized in order to increase academic support for students and to improve the quality of interaction between teachers and students.

Taken together, these reports and analyses raised concerns at all levels of government that schools were not meeting the nation's expectations. The 1980s response to this call to arms was new mandates (e.g., new graduation requirements, more performance tests, and a longer school year). At the federal level, for example, interest in articulating some common framework for educational goals culminated in the 1989 "Education Summit" and the President's AMERICA 2000 initiative. Moreover, states became particularly active in the reform movement, with their initiatives emphasizing graduation requirements, standards for teaching credentials, and school curriculum. Although many school districts had set standards that were higher than those required by new state initiatives, the states provided an impetus that supported and promoted change. Similarly, school districts became active participants in articulating the reform agenda, implementing changes in student standards, and curriculum, instructional methods, school organization, class size, and standards for teachers, as well as increasing principal, teacher, and parental control over school as well as classroom decision making.

These and other developments during the 1980s are part of the current reform legacy. However, the 1990s school reform effort has taken another direction. Recently, education reformers have turned their attention to results and the quality of student learning, and 1980s efforts to mandate improvements in student performance have been supplanted by school- based continuous improvement strategies built around shared objectives for students. Standards for performance, often in the form of state or combined state and local curriculum frameworks, have been coupled with strategies to build staff capacity. Teachers, often viewed as central to the reform equation, have become more active in the planning process. In fact, classroom instructors are now recognized as collaborators and are expected to help determine how best to achieve the desired student results.

This is the context in which the reforms discussed in this report have been introduced. Today, school reformers, practitioners, and policymakers alike recognize that reform is increasingly a "local event," one that is often organized and carried out by school administrators, faculty, community, and even students. In this sense, the OERI studies detail the process of design and implementation of reform in ways that should be beneficial throughout the reform community.

Before Assembling the Reform Puzzle

These 12 OERI studies identify a series of issues that, when taken together, account for many of the problems that educators confront when planning, implementing, and sustaining school reform. As such, the lessons offered below are not intended to be adopted in a piecemeal or serial fashion. Although some attempt has been made to list strategies in the order in which reforms characteristically proceed, the array is not meant to imply a sequence of events. Rather, this list is intended to describe important elements that must go into a complete reform package.

Ideally, the committed education reformer would address each of these elements before implementing a particular effort. Herein lies the challenge of reform -- for it is not sufficient to simply apply these strategies at some point during implementation. Rather, each strategy must be continuously "fine-tuned" throughout the reform process; in other words, effective reformers must plan, build, and support an organizational structure that allows them to continuously address and monitor the pieces of the reform puzzle throughout the process.

These lessons generally cluster around phases of the reform process. The first three lessons address issues of planning (leadership, goals, and timing); the next three address issues of implementation (training, flexibility, and infrastructure); and the last two focus on sustaining reform (managing resources and self-assessment). Planning guides and worksheets, provided in Appendix A, are designed to help propel and direct the efforts of those attempting to initiate reform. While not necessarily of interest to all reformers, the exercises can frame the reform debate and, therefore can be valuable to practitioners and policymakers alike.


[Acknowledgements] [Table of Contents] [Lesson 1: Leadership]