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

Education Reforms and Students at Risk: A Review of the Current State of the Art - January 1994

SECTION III: Barriers and Pathways to Meaningful Reforms: The Need for High Reliability Organizational Structures


Sam Stringfield
Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students
Johns Hopkins University

Chapter 10: Organizational Barriers to Reform

Clearly, we know more than ever before about how to address the schooling needs of children at risk. When well implemented, Slavin et al.'s (1992) Success for All program, James Comer's (1988) School Development Program, Henry Levin's Accelerated Schools, and such highly focused projects as Reading Recovery (Pinnell, 1988) show promise for improving the academic and more general well-being of students at risk. In addition to this programmatic knowledge, we know much more about what students at risk are capable of learning (much more than we are teaching them). We know more about teaching them reading and math (Brophy, 1986) and "higher order" or "advanced" skills (Means, Chelemer, & Knapp, 1991). We know more about the school structures needed to sustain higher student achievement (Good & Brophy, 1986; Stringfield & Teddlie, 1991).

If we understand this much, why do we have more and more young people who are at risk of school failure and dropping out? It is a fair question, and it can not be answered simply. What can be done is to describe a route toward addressing the question and to map our progress toward a satisfactory answer.

A few years ago, I had the great fortune of receiving a 3-year Kellogg Fellowship. Among other activities, the foundation brought its fellows together twice a year to interact with experts from around the world as they presented the problems of their fields and the steps they were taking to address them. Presenters included management gurus, politicians, philosophers, social advocates, leaders in medicine, public health, agriculture, and education. While the content areas and contexts of the presentations varied widely, a common theme was that problems are solved when talented people understand problems, identify plausible solutions, garner adequate resources, identify a plausible path between current realities and goals, create necessary alliances, act, and evaluate/react. In short, they all advocated contextually sensitive organizational development.

If the problems of students at risk are to be successfully addressed, schools must be improved. For schools to improve, educators, parents, and other concerned citizens must engage in contextually sensitive organizational development. This seems so obvious that it raises another question, Why has that not already happened, or not happened often enough? A discussion of the numerous barriers is presented in this chapter, and possible solutions to each roadblock are discussed. In the next chapter, a conception of schools as "high reliability organizations (HROs)" is presented. HRO is discussed as a more viable model for institutional excellence. Implications for school districts serving large numbers of students at risk are discussed within the HRO framework.

What are the Problems?

Imagine visiting an organization that has the following general characteristics: widespread low employee morale is evident, and ongoing labor-management conflicts are contributing to carelessness. Staff reductions are perceived as having directly contributed to a rise in accidents and an eroded emergency human backup capability. Workers have inadequate training and staff development to meet the changing demands of their jobs. Management and staff have little information regarding the potential short- and long-term hazards of not doing their jobs well. Management has failed to investigate the causes of previous poor performance, and staff are not carrying out several of the crucial tasks of the facility. Backup and support systems are either nonoperational or of such poor quality as to be irrelevant. Moreover, the central administration of the larger system views the facility as having low importance. Equipment and materials sent to the building are often inadequate or substandard.

I have visited schools that fit this description in rural and ghetto America. Several such schools were negative outliers in the Louisiana School Effectiveness Study (LSES) (Stringfield & Teddlie, 1991). However, the above description is of Union Carbide's now infamous chemical plant at Bhopal, India (Shrivastava, 1986).

The above example should make two points clear. First, as many of our problems are "human" as are technological; and second, solutions to many are as near as our collective will and wisdom. Just as Bhopal was avoidable, many of the problems involved in educating students at risk are avoidable and/or addressable.

The societal-level problems have been identified in such recent works as Kozol's (1991) Savage Inequalities, Kotlowitz's (1991) There Are No Children Here, and Natriello, McDill, and Pallas' (1990) Schooling Disadvantaged Children: Racing Against Catastrophe. Many students must face inadequate food, shelter, and safety, a shortage of highly skilled teachers willing to work in high-poverty inner-city and rural areas, inadequate school resources and occasional misuse of scarce resources, and apparently less-than-universal motivation to improve the education of students at risk. I will say little more about these, focusing instead on the organizational problems within our schools. This is not to imply that these problems are not important or are unaddressable, only that I believe they may best be attacked by giving pre-eminent focus to improved school experiences for all. In fact, successful schools will, of necessity, address many of these problems in formulating their goals and strategies, and others of these problems are best addressed by schools that are effectively functioning for all students.

Within schooling, there are at least six reasons why organizational reforms that would benefit students at risk have not taken place. First, having been criticized from without so often, educators are often loathe to openly discuss problems from within. Not clearly understanding and stating our problems makes it unlikely that we will choose the best available solutions. Second, once problems have been identified, clear solutions are not always readily available. Third, for programs that work to work in a specific context, they need to be compatible with the current strengths of the schools in which they will be placed. Fourth, in the rare instances where proven programs exist in sufficiently detailed forms, practitioners, administrators and boards often underestimate the human and fiscal costs of effective implementation. Staff development and training time are the most commonly miscalculated components of implementation plans. Finally, in our time there seems to be a profound individual and societal ambivalence about action in the public good. Galbraith's (1991) contented society describes a voting public with a highly selective cynicism regarding government's competence to act. Voters are particularly skeptical of cost-bearing programs designed to help poor people. Programs that address the five already mentioned problems or barriers will not be free. Achieving taxpayer support of at-risk program improvement becomes a final challenge.

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