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

Steps for Overcoming Barriers

Specify the problems. I believe that one of the greatest barriers to improving the academic lot of children at risk is a reticence on the parts of educators to describe the problems educators face at various levels. Regardless of justification, this lack of specificity leads to an endless searching for something or someone out there to blame. Parents blame schools; teachers blame parents and administrators; administrators blame teachers, unions, colleges, and voters; affluent taxpayers blame all of the above and move to suburbs that have reputations for good schools. Generic blaming of others will only continue the current gridlock and perpetuate current problems.

Teachers and schools provide two examples of the fallacy of generic statements of the problem.

Teachers: Some of the world's most remarkable people are teachers. Some of these people provide extraordinarily high quality instruction under almost unbelievably trying circumstances. And yet, some who are paid to be teachers sit behind their desks, hand out ditto sheets, make assignments, and criticize young people for not being attentive. Brophy (1988) notes that the teacher-effects literature best differentiates the top 75 percent of teachers from the remaining 25 percent. Education is a long-term proposition. From kindergarten through middle school, most students have at least a dozen teachers. We need to not generalize about the goodness of teachers. Some are wonderful, and others, as in the example provided by Fine (in press), criticize "Those damn enthusiastic teachers" (p. 16, emphasis in original). Some teachers are virtual saints; others need a great deal of support and training, or gentle but firm encouragement to find careers for which they are better- suited and less harmful.

Schools and principals: Schools can be a large part of the solution. Levine and Lezotte (1990) describe many characteristics that are often shared among highly effective schools and principals. Lightfoot (1983) provides rich descriptions of several remarkable schools and principals. Many of us have visited schools that made us wonder, What's the problem? Education's in great shape.

However, the very presence of unusually effective schools implies the existence of unusually ineffective schools. Stringfield and Teddlie (1988) describe a path for creating ineffective schools. That downward spiral, repeated hundreds of times per year, includes appointing an administrator with little prior successful experience and even less training in working with students at risk. That principal should only visit classrooms in order to comply with state or local evaluation requirements. He or she should take no interest in curricula or instruction, or in hiring (which can be managed from the district) or firing (which can be difficult). If such a person is placed in charge of a school serving an affluent community, beyond a point the community will push for the replacement of the principal. In a school serving families who already feel powerless and alienated from public institutions, the principal may stay for decades. Given that such a person does not conduct meaningful personnel evaluations, teachers who sit and pass out assignments will like teaching at those schools and stay. More energized staff will find the situation increasingly frustrating, and tend to transfer out. Over time, these schools, typically serving poor communities, come to be led by at best indifferent administrators, and they will be staffed with more than their share of at best marginal teachers. The cumulative effect is not merely school ineffectiveness, but a virtual immunization against school improvement processes.

Some schools are wonderful. Others may require substantial changes before any new program or restructuring process can succeed. Most generalizations about schools fail to consider complex local realities. If schools are going to improve, they and their supporting districts need to begin with an honest, if not necessarily published, assessment of the strengths and weaknesses that exist in individual classrooms and individual schools, not generic schools or even generic schools serving Latino (or African-American or American- Indian) students.

Seek solutions that have been proven to work in similar situations. There is one national problem about which generalizations are possible. Funding for research and development of programs has been inadequate. Many programs that have been developed have not been independently validated. Currently, a cacophony is created from developers' claims that their programs have been shown by research to work. (For an extensive list of programs -- most of which lack adequate, independently conducted, moderate to large-scale evaluations -- see the National Diffusion Network [NDN]). Many of the programs supported by NDN may indeed have the potential to help individual schools, and some may not. However, the process by which new programs enter NDN does not require independent evaluations and has no protections against an author running multiple trials and reporting only those that are successful. A much stronger NDN could be produced by provisionally admitting programs under the current Program Effectiveness Panel, and then sponsoring moderate-scale independent evaluations of program implementations and effects. Slavin (1990) provides a similar and somewhat more extended set of suggestions. What are needed are independently funded evaluations of promising programs, and funded efforts to develop promising new programs. No less fiscal authority than the accounting firm of Arthur Anderson and Company has concluded that these studies should be undertaken as soon as possible and could most efficiently be funded at the federal level (Measelle & Egol, 1990).

In the absence of such independent evaluations, a few programs could be tentatively recommended. Who should create the list becomes no small problem. Both the Rumberger and Larson (in press) and Fine (in press) programs outlined in a recent meeting should be complimented for their data-gathering and analytic efforts. Other programs that are gathering data on their efforts include Reading Recovery, the Comer School Development Program, and Success for All. A few others could arguably qualify as effective (see Effective Programs for Students at Risk, Slavin, Karweit, & Madden, 1989). But for a nation of a quarter of a billion people, our list of independently verified effective programs is far too short, and must be expanded.

Individual schools need, and their students deserve, options which have been independently proven to be potentially worthy of implementation. The schools need independent validation that the programs can work, not just in an ideal setting, but in a setting like the one faced by the school seeking to improve. Schools need data on the general and the context specific evidence of program effectiveness. As a nation and a government, we demand no less for the introduction of pharmaceuticals, regardless of how small a population the new drugs might serve. We should demand such independent trials in various contexts for the introduction of programs into the National Diffusion Network.

Seek solutions that are compatible with the current strengths of the schools. It does little good to undertake a potentially valuable program if, for example, its basic tenants are at odds with those of the school or district. The Comer program has many attractive features, but if the local principal is unwilling to share decisionmaking with the faculty, the program will not work. Similarly, a faculty committed to whole language instruction may not become enthusiastic about Success for All. A district committed to bringing Chapter 1 services into regular classrooms should not consider Reading Recovery. It is not enough to find a good program, a school-to-program match is also critical.

Understand the demands and limitations of the chosen program. Even a program independently validated and compatible with local predilections has limitations that must be addressed. Programs that may be worthwhile -- for example, the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) -- deliberately do not specify curricula at any level of detail. Local faculty must develop units that are compatible with the CES philosophy. This requires time, effort and development skills not currently found on all faculties. Success for All requires a full- time implementer. Reading Recovery requires extensive staff development for specified teachers and that training is often not locally available. Failure to build skills and to provide the time necessary to meet these sorts of demands will result in failed implementations. When dealing with students at risk, success for most is not a satisfactory compromise.

Understand the requirements for full implementation. The areas probably most often miscalculated in this regard are staff development and planning times. CES assumes shared planning times, yet many schools have attempted to embrace CES principles without scheduling and budgeting the time required. Success for All requires the purchase of an extensive set of materials. The necessary levels of ongoing staff development to successfully implement such programs as the Paideia Proposal are almost invariably underestimated.

Showers, Joyce, and Bennett (1987) note that in order for staff development to actually change teaching, it must include presentation of theory, modeling, time to practice, and immediate, supportive feedback. These are characteristics that make a great deal of sense, yet they are rare in schools. Real change requires all of these elements, and the time and money required to implement such changes must be built into change efforts from the onset.

In this area, it is important to educate both the education bureaucracy and elected officials as to the need for support of full implementation. When fiscal crises come, as they inevitably do, the first thing most boards and superintendents cut is staff development. For programs to become implemented and institutionalized, staff must receive long-term training support.

It is not clear that once the above hurdles have been crossed, the public has the political will to underwrite the costs associated with improvement. John Kenneth Galbraith (1991) recently dubbed ours the contented society. By that he meant that the middle and upper classes have found ways to make government serve their needs (e.g., loans for college students, deductions for mortgage payments, Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid). These middle- and upper-class citizens, who are the chief taxpayers and more importantly voters, are often indifferent to the needs of the poor, who often don t vote. This is a troubling development because there can be little doubt that reforms of schools serving high concentrations of children at risk will require tax support.

One bright side of this concern is that Congress has increased funding of Chapter 1 by more than 90 percent over the last 6 years. If that trend continues, and if the U.S. Department of Education loosens it regulations regarding the expenditure of Chapter 1 funds, perhaps Chapter 1 can be used to overcome other areas of voter nonsupport for children at risk.

[SECTION III: Barriers and Pathways to Meaningful Reforms: The Need for High Reliability Organizational Structures] [Table of Contents] [Chapter 11: Toward Schools as High Reliability Organizations (HROs)]