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

Using Technology to Support Education Reform -- September 1993

Elements of School Reform

The experience of the last decade tells us that serious reform efforts must look not just at the classroom but at the whole system within which education takes place. Nevertheless, the ultimate goal is to have a beneficial impact on students, and that is where we will begin in describing our framework for thinking about school reform.

Student-Level Elements

Although variously described, the student-level outcome goals of most reform efforts are to increase learning, especially of advanced or higher-level skills, and to enhance student motivation and self-concept. Naturally, there are various schools of thought as to how to achieve these ends, but the dominant thinking within the reform movement appears to stress the elements shown in the second column of Table I-1.

			Table I-1         COMPARISON OF CONVENTIONAL AND REFORM APPROACHES              	     TO INSTRUCTION  Conventional Instruction	   Reform Instruction __________________________________________________________________  Teacher-directed		   Student exploration  Didactic teaching		   Interactive modes of instruction  Short blocks of instruction on	   Extended blocks of authentic and single subject			   multidisciplinary work  Individual work			   Collaborative work  Teacher as knowledge dispenser	   Teacher as facilitator  Ability groupings		   Heterogeneous groupings  Assessment of fact knowledge	   Performance-based assessment and discrete skills  

In our view, the catalyst for this transformation is centering instruction around authentic, challenging tasks (see Figure I-1). There is a strong sense that schools have broken down tasks into discrete component skills that have no obvious connection with anything students do outside of school (e.g., learning algorithms for finding square roots). This practice has negative effects on motivation and makes transfer of learned skills to real-world tasks unlikely (Resnick 1987).

Figure I-1.--Authentic, Challenging Tasks as the Core of Education Reform

[Figure I-1 omitted]

Reformers argue that students should be given tasks that are personally meaningful and challenging to them (e.g., describe their city to students in another part of the world). Meaningful tasks almost always will be more complex than the tasks assigned with a discrete-skills approach, and they also will tend to be multidisciplinary (e.g., describing the city means assembling geographic and historic facts as well as working on composition skills), a feature that conflicts with the standard middle and secondary school structure of distinct disciplines. Further, the fact that the tasks will be more complex suggests that longer blocks of time will be required to work on them, again conflicting with the notion of 50- minute periods for distinct subject areas.

Given these complex tasks, students take a more active part in defining their own learning goals and regulating their own learning. Students explore ideas and bodies of knowledge, not in order to repeat back verbal formalisms on demand, but to understand phenomena and find information they need for their project work. When working on complex tasks, student work will often cross over the borders of academic disciplines, just as real-world problems often demand the application of several kinds of expertise. In this context, instruction becomes interactive. The nature of the information and the support provided for students change depending on what students do; the problems they work on can change and evolve over time.

These complex tasks also lend themselves to collaborative work. Some students track down all the economic data on their city, while others look into information on weather patterns. Students work through mathematics problems as a group or serve as each other's editor when writing documents. There are many advantages of collaborative learning (see, for example, Lesgold et al. 1992).

In the process of collaborating, students gain experience in negotiating the purpose of their work, the meaning of the terms they use, and so on. These experiences mirror the activities of professionals working together. Collaborative work also has advantages in terms of motivation: students get involved because they like to work together; further, if difficulties encountered are temporarily daunting to one student, another student's enthusiasm can carry the work forward. Another frequently noted advantage for peer collaboration is the fact that it calls on students to justify their conclusions and to act as external critics for each other. In so doing, they become more reflective about their own thinking. Over time, students come to internalize the role of critic so that they can act as critic for their own work.

Collaborative projects facilitate adjusting tasks to accommodate individual differences. Students of different ability levels can work together, taking roles commensurate with their skills. Thus, it becomes feasible to teach heterogeneous groups of students who vary in age, expertise (e.g., each group may need a video expert), ability levels, and so on. Within such groups, the experience of explaining something to a fellow student who does not understand it can in itself be educationally valuable.

Within this learning model, the teacher becomes a facilitator and "coach" rather than knowledge dispenser or project director. Teachers are responsible for setting up the inquiry units and creating the organizational structure within which groups do their work, but once work begins, teachers no longer have the total control of the direction of instruction that they exercise in conventional classrooms.

School Reform, Advanced Skills, and Disadvantaged Students

While the vision of a transformed classroom offered by reformers is important for all students, the change in practice would be especially dramatic for those who have been variously characterized as disadvantaged or "at-risk". An increasing number of the children in America's schools come from homes with incomes below the poverty line. Many have been raised in homes where English is not the dominant language or is not spoken at all. Others come from homes with only a single parent or from situations where there is little stability in terms of caregivers. Others must cope with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. Statistically, students with these characteristics are more likely to fall behind in academic achievement, to drop out of school, or to turn off from the whole process of education.

The conventional view for these students has been one of diminished expectations-- we have hoped to teach them the basic skills but have not expected them to attain high levels of accomplishment in the advanced skills of problem solving, scientific inquiry, or composition. As a consequence, curricula for these students have stressed discrete skills, with extensive drill and practice on vocabulary, number facts, and writing mechanics. In effect, we have given them less instruction on advanced skills, and less opportunity to develop capabilities in these areas, which are, in fact, those most important for their future lives.

In the new vision of reformed schools, these students would experience a dramatically different kind of classroom. Instead of treating basic skills as a hurdle that must be surmounted before attempting more complex tasks that involve reasoning, problem solving, and composition, disadvantaged students would learn basic skills in the context of working on challenging, authentic tasks (Means, Chelemer & Knapp 1991). Rather than emphasizing the practice of discrete skills such as spelling and punctuation on endless worksheets, the curriculum of disadvantaged students would stress composition, comprehension, and applications of skills. Rather than working in isolation, often in ability groupings or pull-out classes for compensatory instruction, disadvantaged students would work in mixed-ability groupings, often of mixed ages. They would be judged on their ability to perform a complex task and to reflect on and describe the thinking that went into it rather than on their facility with multiple-choice tests. One of the basic messages of school reform is that challenging problems and sustained intellectual effort are appropriate for all students, not just the academically advanced, affluent, or older ones.

Broader Context

An important lesson from earlier efforts to enhance students learning is that one cannot simply intervene at the student level by providing a new curriculum or an advanced technology. Student learning occurs in a classroom with its own organizational structure, rules, and agenda. The classroom in turn is a unit within a school that provides the broader setting within which teachers and students must function. Policies, resources, restrictions, and mandates from the district, state, and federal levels likewise affect what happens in schools. Figure I-2 displays the components of education reform within this broader context.

[Fig. I-2  omitted]

School Level--The extensive literature on school reform efforts (see David & Shields 1991 for a review) can be characterized in terms of a small set of recurring themes.

Clear goals. Successful efforts at improving schools are characterized by a clear set of goals that are communicated to teachers, students, and parents alike. The earnest desire to improve is not enough; there needs to be a consensus concerning just what is to be improved and how that improvement will be measured.

Culture for learning. Schools, like corporations, have an organizational culture that embodies a set of values and sets up expectations for behavior. Changing schools means changing their culture. Elements of the culture associated with effective schools include high expectations (Brophy 1987), an atmosphere of collegiality (Rosenholtz 1985), and respect for and links to students home lives and cultural communities (Comer 1988; Shields 1990).

Site-based management. An important element of new reform efforts is the decentralization of decision-making to the schools. Although held accountable for achieving outcomes, schools assume responsibility for making decisions about how to meet those goals. This requires effective leadership at the school level, and numerous studies document the importance of the principal in motivating faculty, influencing instruction, and managing the allocation of time (David & Shields 1991). Teachers, too, assume greater management responsibility as they work together to develop new curricula and evaluation practices and to provide new knowledge and coaching for each other (Fullan 1990).

Professionalization of teachers. A related component of reform is the magnification of the responsibilities and authority of teachers (Holmes Group 1990; Shulman 1986). In addition to the increased leadership role discussed above, reform efforts provide teachers with the opportunity to decide what and how to teach within their classrooms. The student learning model described above brings with it a new role for the teacher. Rather than following a textbook curriculum and telling students what they should know, the teacher develops meaningful tasks for students to work on and acts as a knowledge resource and coach who demonstrates intellectual skills, supports students as they try them out, and diagnoses weaknesses (Collins, Hawkins & Carver 1991). This role calls for a much higher degree of skill on the teacher's part and needs to be supported by opportunities to receive training and feedback in implementing new approaches (Knapp, Means & Chelemer 1991).

District, State, and Federal Levels--Although there are differences in the usual activities at the various levels of the educational system, the major functions in supporting reform are similar and can be discussed together for the sake of brevity. The site-based management discussed above clearly requires that higher levels of bureaucracy delegate authority. This does not free the local entities from accountability, but merely gives them flexibility in making decisions and choosing means to meet specified ends. In many cases, this entails waiving state or federal regulations to allow innovative programs.

At the same time, district, state, and federal offices can support reform by exercising leadership. Schools are unlikely to change unless given a vision of what they could become and an incentive for restructuring (David 1989). Higher levels of the education system can provide support for change by articulating goals compatible with reform. The National Education Goals agreed to by the President and nation's Governors in 1990 highlighted the need for dramatic action. States are passing reform legislation, and some are calling for more local initiative (e.g., California, Minnesota, Virginia and Washington). Districts and schools are now responding to these mandates for innovation.

Innovation and reform are compatible with holding local schools and districts responsible for outcomes, but the accountability system needs to allow for assessment compatible with the goals of reform. In the past, accountability systems have tended to look predominantly at student scores on standardized tests stressing basic skills. Holding districts and schools accountable for these scores tended to stifle innovation, making schools reluctant to risk instituting programs emphasizing higher-order thinking skills. Instead of multiple-choice tests, innovative programs are seeking to measure student achievement in terms of exhibits, portfolios, and performances. Assessment systems that allow schools to use measures that are consistent with the goals of their innovations increase the likelihood that schools will try new approaches and improve our ability to document and measure the results of efforts to improve higher-order skills.

Educational improvement requires resources, most notably time for teachers to plan and develop programs and to receive and provide training in their implementation. This translates into dollars, and one of the major ways in which higher levels of the system contribute to reform is through provision of resources. These levels also provide technical assistance and opportunities for training teachers and administrators.

External Players--The above discussion of the elements of reform within the various levels of the education system should not be construed as the total picture. Many groups outside the education system per se are having an increasing role, not only in calling for reforms but in affecting their shape. The education system responds to pressures from political constituencies and is affected by state health and welfare policies. Businesses, both individual companies and interest groups, are becoming significant players in education reform, particularly in the case of reforms involving technologies, for which businesses constitute both potential donors and sources of technical expertise. Teacher education institutions are another key player outside the system. Teachers tend to teach the way that they were taught, and these institutions can do much to facilitate or impede the pace of reform. Finally, many reform efforts call for an increased involvement of parents in designing and fostering their children's schooling.

[Chapter I: Introduction ] [Table of Contents] [How Technology and Reform Fit Together: Contents of This Review]

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