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 5: Flexibility


Reform strategies should be flexible to accommodate solutions to a given problem.

It is often difficult to reverse direction once a reform strategy has been selected. Shifts in political climate or changes in fiscal resources, however, may require a change in reform plans. Alternatively, unexpected results of a reform may suggest other, equally promising paths to achieving intended goals. Successful reformers are agile: they adopt strategies that can accommodate a range of approaches and that respond to changing conditions and needs. This includes planning multiple solutions to a given problem, developing realistic timelines that avoid "all-or-nothing" approaches, and anticipating conditions that may contribute to achieving reform goals.


Selecting a Strategy

Flexibility is central to any successful reform effort. Once reform participants have developed a common vision, they must select a strategy to accomplish their reform goals. This process can be expedited if time is allotted to research proposed initiatives: often a considerable literature can be found that provides insight into nearly any reform topic. Moreover, most educators are happy to share their thoughts and experiences, and where possible, visits to successful sites can help reformers clarify their goals for learning. many of the OERI studies noted that exemplary programs were grounded on a solid body of research. For example, in establishing one middle school:

...both the district superintendent and the principal looked to the effective schools research for good practice concepts. This review led to practices such as site-based management teams, the institutionalization of self-studies, and the collection of school climate data. The principal also did an intensive study of the literature on technology and instruction during the year before the school's opening. This review led to the school's emphasis on tools rather than didactic uses of technology.

(Technology, 80,81)

In some cases, education reform proposals may be so new that reformers have little experience or counsel to fall back on when selecting strategies. In these situations, it is often the case that reforms may be "co-opted" from related areas. For example, when seeking to identify school restructuring models, school-based management researchers found that private-sector experiences provided a wealth of pertinent information. Generalizing from the literature on decentralized management, they were able to find different models that could be used to help managers and staff share responsibility for developing strategies. Although each approach had similar goals -- to empower staff by ceding them greater responsibility -- each model had a different focus in different circumstances.

Accommodating Multiple Solutions

Teachers spend most of their day physically isolated from one another. Since much of their experience is built around activities in their individual classrooms, overly prescriptive reform strategies may actually inhibit reform by preventing teachers from using their natural skills and creativity, and by demanding that they compromise fundamental pedagogical beliefs and values.

The failure of early technology reformers to create a "teacher-proof" curriculum provides a clear example of the pitfalls of an overly regimented reform strategy. Fearing that many educators lacked the knowledge and instructional pedagogy to support technology instruction, early reformers attempted to develop course materials that bypassed teachers to directly engage students. Computer software and simulations that marginalized teachers' classroom roles eventually stymied many reform efforts, in part because teachers found ways of bypassing the materials to emphasize their own goals and teaching style. Today, it has become apparent that

... most successful technology-supported instructional activities seem to take a middle-of-the-road approach, in which there is a curriculum package with a set of basic instructional goals and suggested activities and strategies, but the teacher has [or takes] the opportunity to modify the content and fit it to his or her class and local curriculum concerns.

(Technology, 167)

Offering teachers greater autonomy can actually strengthen the reform process, particularly when educators are encouraged to use their professional judgment to tailor reform strategies to meet their identified classroom needs.

Phasing in Reform

"While vision communicated from a higher level may be important, successful reformers - whether individual teachers, a department, or an entire school - have the autonomy and power to determine how they will put this vision or some modification thereof into practice."

(Curriculum, 61)

Adopting a more flexible approach to reform sometimes entails mixing the "old" with the "new." Many of the OERI studies noted that teachers are often uncertain that proposed reforms will help students learn basic skills or properly prepare them for standardized assessments. As a result, some instructors are reluctant to abandon old practices or materials until they can understand how a particular reform will help students. While not all teachers may fully adopt a proposed reform, those who do may help convince others to change. In short, individual classroom successes coupled with other skills and the freedom to move at a comfortable pace may ultimately make the difference between reforms that work and ones that do not.

Evidence of how reforms may be structured to accommodate multiple approaches comes from a study of exemplary school programs conducted by the OERI Student Diversity researchers. Flexible programs were one of the primary characteristics of schools that were successful in meeting their reform goals.

All the language development programs were flexibility constructed to accommodate students with varying levels of fluency and, where appropriate, students from different language backgrounds. Rather than using a single model for all the LEP students, teachers adjusted curriculum, instruction and the use of primary language to meet the varying needs of students.

(Student Diversity, I-2,3)

Adapting to the Unexpected

Reform is seldom an isolated event. As individual reforms are adopted, they may trigger complementary changes in other aspects of schooling that support the original intended outcome. For example, new approaches to instruction and curriculum may in turn lead to a restructuring of assessment practices that eventually reinforce curricular change. Alternatively, original reforms may spark new unanticipated ones that address other aspects of education and governance. As such, it is important that reform plans remain somewhat flexible to anticipate and adapt to unexpected changes that may arise.

While reform may initially focus on a single issue, it often spreads to other aspects of schooling. Anticipating reforms that may be related to and naturally follow one another may represent an important strategic planning consideration. For instance, one school district that had implemented assessment reforms found it necessary to devote substantial effort to revising curricula. In contrast, a high school in Massachusetts that had implemented an innovative math program coordinated reform in instructional practices with the curriculum; this enabled teachers to link their assessment practices to support the new curriculum and instructional techniques. While reformers may start with a modest objective, they should consider the context for that reform and understand that a range of other reforms may become necessary or possible (Assessment, 6-23).

Changing School Culture in San Diego

In response to low achievement on standardized tests, the principal at one elementary school undertook a comprehensive reform effort to increase student performance. A site-based structure of governance was adopted to redesign curriculum and to reorganize the school into four nongraded, age-appropriate "wings."

Unexpectedly, changes have not only affected the schooling and governance process, but also the atmosphere of the school itself. The principal for the school reports both an increase in staff morale and in students' engagement and performance, as well as an improvement in parent attitudes toward the school. student attendance has also improved dramatically.

(Assessment, Vol. II, 3-1 to 3-16)

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