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A Discussion on School Reform -- An Introduction: Substantive Change Versus Superficial Change: A Look at Two Urban Middle Schools

by Grace Cureton Stanford - October 30, 2000

An introduction to the case of two urban middle schools engaged in reform with quite different results

As we begin the 21st century, there is widespread agreement that urban schools are in a state of crisis. Indeed, many reform measures specifically targeted urban schools during the decade of the 90s. Countless policy makers, school administrators, and teachers attempted to make urban schools places where students engage in meaningful learning. For some schools, this process has yielded success, albeit modest success. For other schools, the process has led to little success.

Two schools that have engaged in this process, Granite Junior High School and Kousanar Intermediate School, both located in large metropolitan areas have had different outcomes. While Granite appears to have created a program that has led to increased success for its diverse students, Kousanar has experienced less success. The difference in outcomes appears to be related to the different approaches used by the schools. The dissimilarities center around the opportunities to learn that were provided for students at both schools. In order to understand those differences I asked the following question: What structures, both explicit and implicit, were in place at both schools that hindered or promoted learning?

The Settings

Before discussing those differences, I will briefly describe the social context of the schools. Granite serves a poor community that is half African American and half White. Kouanar is situated in a middle-income community with a student population that is predominately White. Because it houses a magnet ESL program, Kousanar attracts a large number of poor, linguistically diverse students who are bused to the school from other communities.

Institutional Structures

The teachers and the principal at Granite embraced a firm belief in their students' capacity to learn and the teachers' ability to teach them. This belief system resulted in the adoption of a "no excuses" attitude toward the students' learning. The "no excuses" attitude was exemplified in the ways in which the school was structured to maximize students' success. That is, students were held responsible for completing their work, but they were given extra instruction and additional time when needed. Thus, the teachers and principal not only believed their students were capable of learning, but they also assumed responsibility for creating conditions within the school that fostered success. In assuming responsibility for the students' learning, the teachers recognized that neither they nor their students were helpless in confronting challenges that impeded the students' success. By so doing, challenges did not become major stumbling blocks. Instead, they became the impetus for creative problem solving.

Supportive relationships between students and teachers helped anchor the students and stimulate learning. Extensive academic support was provided with specific time set aside each day for reteaching. The teachers set high academic standards and enabled students to meet the standards. Thus, the teachers both insisted upon and facilitated their students' learning.

By contrast, teachers at Kousanar, including most of the ESL teachers, embraced a deficit model with respect to ESL students. This attitude was pervasive throughout the school and extended into the dominant white community through dialogue between the teachers and members of the school community. The perceived deficits were the students' language and culture that the teachers believed interfered with learning. This way of thinking, which was informed by the discourse of deficits, led the teachers to view the students as "problems". Rather than building upon the students' existing knowledge, a process that would have made the curriculum more relevant and accessible to the students, the ESL teachers emphasized assimilation. As such, they believed that as the students' became more Americanized, their academic problems would lessen. The process of "blaming the victim" relieved the ESL teachers and administrators of the responsibility for addressing the ways in which the school's embedded structures undermined the success of the ESL students. By so doing, they failed to see themselves as part of either the problem or solution. Thus, unlike the Granite teachers, they did not modify school policies and procedures to accommodate the needs of their students. Significantly, the ESL students were also seen as outsiders. In this role, they occupied a marginal role both socially and academically while the White students occupied a central role. Being marginalized made it difficult, if not impossible, for the ESL students to develop a sense of connection to the school that may have helped them experience greater success.


Granite provides a useful model of an urban school that seriously embraced change. The changes that took place contributed to the development of an effective program for its diverse learners. The changes centered largely around pedagogical changes that were an outgrowth of the way the teachers and administrators viewed their work and their students' capacity to learn. By accepting responsibility for students' learning and believing that their students could learn, the teachers and administrators created a school environment that facilitated learning.

By contrast, Kousanar provides an unsuccessful model for teaching diverse urban students. While welcoming the opportunity to become a magnet ESL school, thereby offsetting declining enrollment, the teachers and administrators did little to enhance the ESL students' learning. Even though some of the teachers expressed an interest in the education of the ESL students, by framing the ESL students as "problems" and utilizing pedagogical practices that emphasized assimilation, their efforts were largely unsuccessful. Consequently, there was no evidence of any substantive change aimed at creating a rich and stimulating learning environment for the ESL students.

Both schools show the power of belief systems in the creation of structural conditions in schools that both foster and impede student success. At Granite, the school professionals developed and implemented pedagogical strategies that promoted learning for their students. At Kousanar, the school professionals relied upon inappropriate curriculum and instruction that undermined the academic success of the ESL students. The teachers and administrators at both schools acted in ways that were consistent with their beliefs and, as a consequence, achieved different outcomes with their students.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 30, 2000
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10618, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 9:46:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Grace Stanford
    Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    Grace Cureton Stanford is an Associate Professor of Education and Coordinator of Urban Education at Penn State University, Delaware County. Her interests include exemplary African American urban teachers and preparing pre-service teachers for teaching in urban schools. She is working on a book on history of urban education and has recently published inThe Urban Review.
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