Education reforms endure when key stakeholders internalize reform goals and support implementation strategies. Regardless of the type of reform, positive results are more likely when everyone supports the larger vision, understands their role in the process, and takes responsibility for action. Reformers seeking to create an environment that supports change must engage in a variety of planning and consensus-building activities that motivate individuals to join the effort. This section outlines three necessary components of reform -- envisioning goals, building support, and assigning responsibility -- and examines how educators undertaking reform have used these elements to lay the framework for a sustained effort.
Envisioning Reform Goals
Schools that are actively engaged in restructuring seek to develop a shared vision that specifically addresses the concerns of their education community. Identifying these issues may involve holding school and community meetings, sponsoring planning workshops and focus groups, or inviting local agencies and business leaders to provide input. The objective here is to build consensus in order to maximize buy-in among key participants. Evidence suggests that institutions that build a common vision often empower individuals to share ownership of the reform, thereby encouraging them to work harder to implement it successfully (School-Based Management, 76). As noted in Lesson 1, this argues for building a reform organization from the grass roots level, rather than attempting to implement a reform unilaterally from the top down.
"The guiding principles for Project C3 (Communities, Corporations, and Classrooms), a partnership between the community and the school district, emerged out of a visioning process involving 25 Chief Executive Officers of leading community corporations. In an effort to link classroom instruction to real-life applications, the community leaders agreed upon a set of skills that students need in order to function in the real world."
(Community Involvement, Vol. II, 54)
Once the organizational vision has been defined, reformers must take steps to communicate their ideas. Ideally, they should use simple, direct language to describe the reform so that all participants can understand its objectives. Without a clear reform agenda, even the most well-intentioned plans may founder. For example, when a midwestern state attempted to legislate an education reform plan that was negotiated by the governor and the business community, researchers found that many local educators did not feel that it clearly articulated student learning objectives (Systemic Reform, 43). Due to this confusion, initial attempts to implement changes that were coordinated with this vision met with resistance and apathy from the teachers who were ultimately responsible for implementation strategies. Thus, an inclusive envisioning process that specifically identifies reform objectives can define a clear set of program goals, while securing ongoing participation from key constituencies.
Identifying A Common Vision For Reform
Recognizing that their students needed to be better prepared for "life after graduation," a small group of high school teachers set out to reform their institution's educational program. To design an intervention plan, the teachers sought input and direction from school and community stakeholders as well as reviewed research and information on existing reform models.
The school's strategic planning process involved more than 50 teachers, students, parents, business people and staff. During a three-day meeting, the group developed a mission statement and set of beliefs for the reform initiative. This was followed by a two-day staff retreat at which time the group reached consensus on the mission and beliefs and developed a list of standards. This provided a system for soliciting ideas and concerns of representatives from a cross-section of the school and community.
(School-to Work, 4-6)
Building Support for Reform
While a shared vision typically translates into widespread support for a proposed reform, how this enthusiasm is transformed into action is equally important. A common mistake that many schools make is trying to accomplish too much with inadequate resources; for instance, schools may attempt a reform that is too ambitious or gives too few participants responsibility for managing the reform process. Reform of any kind inevitably requires a significant amount of time and effort from many individuals. Thus, reformers who attempt to take on too big a challenge risk becoming overwhelmed by the demands that reform entails, or becoming stymied by "over-conscientiousness" as they systematically attempt to implement changes that will benefit all students. Unfortunately, all to often burnout follows such unsustainable dedication (Uses of Time, Vol. II, 6).
This kind of burnout is a particular problem in schools that rely heavily on teacher goodwill to achieve reform. Generally, unless steps are taken to build a network of participants who can share responsibility for implementing changes, the burden of administration and committee work, along with upheavals caused by reform activities, can quickly take their toll (Uses of Time, Vol. II, 67). For instance, the demands of undertaking a large reform project on a volunteer basis drove some teachers to request transfers out of one middle school in Minnesota (Uses of Time, 72).
Indeed, much of the research on school-based management suggests that teachers are often overwhelmed by their enormous teaching and management workload. Asking instructors to spearhead a reform on top of their existing responsibilities can be extraordinarily demanding. Successful reform programs build support among a critical mass of teachers and other constituents, who can then collaborate to accomplish group goals. Forming subcommittees of teachers and other interested parties can reduce the workload for individual teachers by allowing greater numbers of people to share responsibility (School-Based Management, 68).
Unless there is consensus among teachers, administrators, parents, and the community at large, the reform process is difficult to sustain. Consensus is most often achieved when reformers reach out to solicit ideas and suggestions from all participants and incorporate feedback to address individuals' concerns. Since reforming school curriculum often goes hand-in-hand with changing classroom and instructional roles, many reforms require that students assume an active role in their own education. Like other stakeholders, students must understand the purpose of a reform and feel that it is in their best interest. When students do not understand why certain changes are advanced and are not enlisted in the reform process, they may actively resist proposed improvements.
Marginalizing Reform: The Importance of Networking
After attending a national conference, a nucleus of secondary math teachers were inspired to restructure the mathematics curriculum at their school. However, because not all teachers were consulted before the curriculum was developed, some instructors resisted the reform attempt, partially because they did not feel that they were participating in the decision-making process.
At the district level, administrative support also lagged. Failure to consult with school officials meant that not everyone agreed on how to jump-start reform; as a result, administrators were hesitant to gain support in the community, primarily because of concern that new instructional materials would jeopardize students' academic performance.
Because they were unable to enlist the support of others in the learning community, the teachers ultimately could not extend the initial reform effort, and it became fragmented because of the lack of cohesive, schoolwide or communitywide support for the proposed changes.
Assigning Reform Responsibilities
An inclusive decision-making process that involves individuals at all levels of the institution can support the reform environment by assuring that all parties "invest" in the undertaking. As noted in Lesson 1, decentralizing authority can also diminish isolation and spread the burden of reform among a group of interested players. Moreover, empowering individuals to make decisions can build their commitment to the reform process. A survey of classroom teachers, for example, determined that "a greater sense of control over in service is accompanied by a rate of participation considerably greater than reported in national surveys" (Systemic Reform, 77). Similarly, the extent to which teachers are involved in assigning and implementing new assessment systems affects the degree to which they are eventually appropriated in the classroom (Assessment, 6-5). For example, Vermont's prescribed learning portfolio at Maple Leaf Middle School enjoys extensive support, in part because teachers have some flexibility in designing assessment tasks for their classroom. Although policy is established at the administrative level in the organizational structure, programmatic aspects of the reform are left to the discretion of those who are implementing it (Assessment, 6-13 to 6-14).
A decision-making process that disperses responsibility among staff can also help secure widespread support for reform. Effectively, "what distinguished the schools where school-based management worked from the struggling schools was the extent to which power was dispersed throughout the school beyond the principal and council to subcommittees and other decision-making groups, like teaching teams and ad hoc committees. In contrast, schools that struggled with reform tended to concentrate power in a single school council composed of a small group of committed teachers painfully aware they did not have broad representation" (School-Based Management, 12223). Moreover, teachers in schools that discouraged stakeholders from becoming involved felt isolated.
Ultimately, organizational and school governance structures contribute to the success of education reform. A decentralized decision-making structure can support a "culture" of reforming other words, such a structure is the glue that holds the reform process together. The Student Diversity study noted that exemplary sites "restructured their school into smaller school organizations such as 'families' that heightened the connections among students, between teachers and students, and among teachers." These smaller organizational units, in turn, made it easier to incorporate new limited-English proficient (LEP) students into the flow of instruction (Student Diversity, I-2.4).
"Because they have had little input in the decision-making process, several faculty members have decided that it is better to focus their time, energy, and talents on other things. Internal divisions have resulted in certain factions spending an inordinate amount of unscheduled time complaining about other faculty members' class loads and contributions to the school. In addition, time is spent protecting "turf" rather than working for the collective benefit of the entire school. These activities not only represent a substantial amount of lost time, they are by their nature counterproductive to the work of the school."
(Uses of Time, Vol. II, 64-72)