School reform is a dynamic process that requires participants to engage in nearly continuous self-reflection and program improvement. Although a carefully planned reform strategy may provide initial support in achieving program goals, most reforms proceed by trial and error, which means that activities require constant review and adjustment. Maintaining educational gains may also require constant skill upgrading and professional development among reform participants, where shifts in fiscal, material, and human resources, as well as changes in school and community, demographics, can influence reform strategy. This lesson describes techniques that reformers use to maintain and enhance their reform efforts.
Maintaining Reform in an Evolving Climate
The task of reforming "never ends because the school is never static -- there will always be an ongoing need for assistance on the technical dimension."
Reformers must be responsive to newly identified needs that accompany the change process itself For instance, participants must routinely examine whether their practices are leading to the desired results, secure training to remediate weaknesses, and take time to sharpen their content and instructional skills to keep them current. In a cross-cutting study of teacher education partnerships, the authors note that
. . . long-term perspective and understanding of the change process, time, and energy . . . are critical for sustaining momentum. The dynamic nature of initiatives is evident. . . [C]hange is inherently uncertain and there is no road map for how to do this. As a result [reformers] require recurring assessment of where they are and where they are headed. Changing social and political climates shape the journey and create different needs.
(Teacher Professionalism, 85)
Reformers can stay abreast of the changing conditions and needs of the community by conducting periodic needs assessments. By surveying the community or using available data, reformers can get insight on how they are doing.
Changing Community Needs in San Diego
The Limited-English Proficiency (LEP) program at one elementary school has remained responsive to the community's changing needs. By keeping abreast of community demographics, the school has been able to provide programs that are relevant to their target population. When the school began restructuring, the Spanish- speaking LEP population was declining, while the population of LEP students speaking Southeast Asian languages was growing. In response, school staff implemented a "Sheltered English" approach (with a native language component) for all students. A few years later, the Spanish-speaking LEP population began to grow again, while the influx of Asian immigrants leveled off. In response, staff reinstated a bilingual approach for Spanish-speaking students.
(Student Diversity, I-3.4)
Some educators have used a strategy that emphasizes iterative, self-reflective thinking to stay responsive to changing needs. Called evolutionary planning, this technique emphasizes using constant course corrections to maintain alignments between reform goals and changing school conditions. In addition to providing a means of responding to unexpected developments, evolutionary planning can better blend "top-down" and "bottom-up" participation (Curriculum, 88).
Using Evaluations for Program Improvement
Evaluation can help schools determine how to adjust the reform process to meet selected objectives. In order to succeed, evaluations must be linked to the agreed-upon objectives of the reform, and measure results that either directly or indirectly account for program progress. Evaluations can also measure staff processes, and thus indicate whether "course adjustments" are necessary. This latter type of evaluation is particularly useful during the early period of implementation.
Gathering Data and Evaluating Programs
The state of California's Department of Education sponsors a School Improvement Program (SIP) "to make learning and change part of the organization on a day-to-day basis." The SIP consists of a school self-evaluation, supplemented with periodic outside review. Based on the review, schools draft a concise improvement plan. The SIP provides a good example of how schools can continuously gather data and evaluate programs to determine whether they are meeting their reform objectives. Further, the SIP experience suggests that once they are receiving feedback, reformers may shift or hone their reform objectives.
(Systemic Reform, Vol.II, 13-14)