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

Fitting the Pieces - October 1996

Lesson 3: Timing


School reform takes time and involves risk

Reform is neither easy nor quick; many reforms require years of work before producing measureable results. While patience and perseverance are two of the strongest assets of any education reformer, there are a number of strategies that educators have developed to increase their likelihood of success. These include making the most efficient use of available time, and capitalizing on the opportunities that risk may provide. This lesson reviews how some education reformers have responded to pressure in order to secure meaningful reform in their own schools.


Using Time Intelligently

"[T]he amount of time allowed for development, introduction, and institutionalized of assessment reform can have dramatic impact upon [the] ability to sustain reform efforts and to meet various objectives." set of skills that students need in order to function in the real world."

(Assessment, 5-11)

Time is the most critical resource when implementing reform. Although it seems that there is never enough of it to plan programs or organize training activities, the intelligent reformer anticipates and makes efficient use of the time that is available before implementation, as well as the lag between startup and initial outcomes.

Sometimes it is better to allow for additional time up-front than to rush into reform. For example, the state of Vermont took two and a half years to develop a set of goals for education. Although the goals themselves could have been drafted rather quickly according to one State Department of Education official, the state instead made an effort to involve and inform the public, building "a general feeling of ownership" that they hoped would prevent the type of public outcry that derailed goal setting activities in other states (Systemic Reform, Vol. II, 86). Similarly, when embarking on an innovative curriculum reform emphasizing Latino and Chicano experiences, the principal at Evelyn Hanshaw Middle School (Modesto, California) spent a year planning the school program, recruiting faculty, and garnering support in the community (Student Diversity, H-16­H-17, Appendix 32).

Taking Risks

Once introduced, reforms may require considerable time to gain widespread support. The change process often extends over a number of years, and this period of time can be stressful as individuals and organizations struggle to adopt new strategies. When risks are high, the pressure to produce results can be overwhelming; however, expecting returns too early in the process can be a prescription for failure. For example, when one elementary school in Louisiana was asked to simultaneously implement reforms and to demonstrate their effectiveness (e.g., through improved test scores), the reform effort faltered because test scores did not immediately improve. Concerned that the reform might not succeed, the district opted to drop the project and did not allot continuation funds. Protecting schools from immediate "high-stakes accountability" may be one key to success (Uses of Time, 74­75).

Taking Risks For Reform: South Creek Middle School

Even though there was little political support to justify his position, the superintendent of South Creek School District lobbied to open and equip a technology magnet school. To increase the likelihood of success, a new school principal was hired one year before the school was opened. Charged with providing "state-of-the-art" instruction, the principal involved teachers and other school staff in curricular and instructional planning in the summer preceding the school year.

Careful planning and calculated risk taking paid off handsomely. In its first year, South Creek students scored second in their district in their mastery of grade 6 math objectives. Despite the fact that the school has next to the lowest SES (socio-economic status) composite in the district, South Creek students also score consistently higher than their peers on state assessments, and teacher satisfaction and student attendance are remarkably high.

(Technology, 55)

Reform is a process of trial and error; during the initial reform process, incremental course corrections are common. Given the slow process by which gains are won, several respondents in the Uses of Time study noted that it is possible to reduce the pressure to succeed early. The Wheeler School (Jefferson County, Kentucky), for instance, arranged for the superintendent to enforce a "hold harmless" provision in order to free staff to take risks when developing a high school dropout program. This provision enabled the teachers to experiment with innovative strategies. One unexpected outcome was that the opportunity to work together produced a more cohesive school environment and impressive scholastic results (Uses of Time, 75).

Nurturing Reform in the Midwest

The principal of an ethnically diverse, economically disadvantaged Midwestern school implementing a Paideia curriculum notes that although the program has not resulted in an immediate improvement in standardized test scores, she is willing to wait for results. "We have to give this program time to work - even if it takes 10 years to see a difference," she said. In the meantime, the principal is focusing her efforts on monitoring program quality and implementation internally.

(At Risk, Vol II, 178)

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[Lesson 2: Goals] [Table of Contents] [Lesson 4: Training]