Challenges of Conflicting School Reforms: Effects of New American Schools in a High-Poverty District
reviewed by William Ruff - 2003
Title: Challenges of Conflicting School Reforms: Effects of New American Schools in a High-Poverty District
Author(s): Mark Berends, Joan Chun, Gina Schuyler, Sue Stockly and R.J. Briggs
Publisher: Rand, Santa Monica, CA
ISBN: 0833031163, Pages: , Year: 2002
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Challenges of Conflicting School Reforms: Effects of New American Schools in a High Poverty District by Berends, Chun, Schuyler, Stockly and Briggs is a must read for state-level policy implementation officials and school district executives wrestling with the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB, Public Law 107-110) policy. For the next decade educators will strive for adequate yearly progress in student achievement (Linn, Baker & Betebenner, 2002). This book directly speaks to such NCLB policy implications and to the nature of school reform in general. It describes a two-year, mixed method study examining, first, the differences between classrooms of schools adopting New American Schools (NAS) designs and the classrooms of non-NAS campuses and, second, the relationships between classroom conditions and student achievement within a high-poverty, urban Texas school district. It conveys the story of a school district that obscured its own long-term goals of comprehensive school reform by focusing on immediate test score gains.
The difficulties [with respect to a schism in design implementation] arose out of the struggle to merge district demands with design practices while maintaining the integrity of the designs. All teachers indicated in their talks with us that they perceived passing TAAS [Texas Assessment of Academic Skills] scores to be the bottom line (p. 92).
The authors began by describing the NAS designs and providing a brief history of the non-profit organization’s efforts for whole-school reform. This is followed by a thorough description of the study design as well as the characteristics of students, teachers, classrooms, schools and the external assistance provided by the design teams.
Chapter two elaborated the sources of data for the study including the longitudinal surveying of a sample of 40 teachers, interviews, observations, activity logs, student achievement, and student work samples.
Chapter three detailed the school district context highlighting key operations prior to the arrival of a new, reform minded superintendent, and the reorganization of the district shifting the focus from management to instructional leadership.
Chapter four described the process of individual schools, generally low performing schools, adopting one of the NAS designs including the pressures felt by teachers to vote without sufficient review and subsequent teacher collaboration and support.
Chapter five articulated the classroom implementation of NAS designs highlighting the context of a high-poverty district emphasizing increased student pass rates. The overarching theme of both quantitative and qualitative results indicated competing priorities. “Teachers frequently mentioned their difficulty trying to ‘fit’ all district and design activities into any one school day…the emphasis on TAAS tended to stifle their creativity” (p. 109).
Chapter six described and reported the results of a multilevel, multivariate analysis of student achievement. At the student level, “the strongest predictor of fourth grade scores was the scores students achieved in third grade” (p. 124). Variables measuring teacher characteristics did not have a significant effect on student performance; yet, classes with more boys tended to have lower average reading scores. At the school level, principal leadership as measured by a set of survey items did have a significant effect on student achievement. No difference was found between NAS design schools and non-NAS campuses.
In chapter seven, the authors noted four implications of the study. First, high-poverty schools are simultaneously the schools to benefit most from comprehensive school reform models; yet, under the most pressure to produce immediate increased achievement scores. “Federal and state policymakers need to think critically about their current stance of simultaneously promoting high stakes testing …and the implementation of multiple concurrent reforms” (p.137). Second, this study supports the notion that effective implementation requires specificity, sanctioning power, legitimacy of authority, alignment with other activities and stability over time. Third, “principal leadership had a strong effect on student achievement scores” (p. 141). Finally, implementation of a reform must be aligned with other school reform efforts—the local condition in which whole-school reform operates is critical.
During the period that this study was conducted, the district’s superintendent addressed issues of school reform to a group of educators attending the 1998 annual Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development convention. In this presentation, she elaborated a variation of Lewin’s (1951) unfreeze-move-refreeze model of organizational change using the district’s experience. She emphasized that as organizational routines were fragmented during the unfreezing, chaos ensued creating a diabolical political situation. Tying organizational action to immediate objectives provided a political solution in terms of galvanizing community support of the reform efforts and providing an anchor in the storm of chaos brought by organizational change. This study supported that perspective by explaining the central office viewed “NAS designs as the framework and glue to hold the multiple district initiatives together” (p. 43).
Yet, the classroom perspective presented a different picture—a picture not of complimenting priorities, but competing priorities. Unquestioned assumptions exist within all organizations and often create the misalignment between what is espoused and the actions taken (Argyris, 1999).
The poignant contribution of this book to the literature lay in its ability to highlight the intersection of a growing body of literature addressing the need for whole-school reform (Fullan, 2001; Sarason, 1990; Schlechty, 1997; Tye, 2000) and the constraints of high-stakes testing (Kohn, 2000; McNeil, 2000) with the clarity to provoke effective action. High-stakes testing and whole-school reform are not necessarily oppositional; however, this study underscores the need for specificity and alignment. Beyond this study, achieving greater specificity and alignment will require a clearer understanding regarding the unquestioned assumptions that exist among policy makers and multiple layers of policy implementers. Such tacit assumptions create barriers to effective whole-school reform in a high-stakes testing environment that must be removed if NCLB is to succeed.
Argyris, C. (1999). On organizational learning (2d ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Fullan, M. (2001). The new meaning of educational change (3d ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Kohn, A. (2000). The case against standardized testing: Raising the scores, ruining the schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science. New York: Harper & Row.
Linn, R. L., Baker, E. L., & Betebenner, D.W. (2002). Accountability systems: Implications of requirements of the no child left behind act of 2001.
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McNeil, L. M. (2000). Creating new inequalities: Contradictions of reform. Phi Delta Kappan, 81, 728-734.
Sarason, S. B. (1990). The predictable failure of school reform: Can we change course before it’s too late? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Schlechty, P. C. (1997). Inventing better schools: An action plan for educational reform. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Tye, B. B. (2000). Hard truths: Uncovering the deep structure of schooling. New York: Teachers College Press.