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A Framework for Change: A Broader and Bolder Approach to School Reform

by Ernest Morrell & Pedro Noguera - August 04, 2011

A substantial body of evidence reveals that past reforms have largely failed to improve schools in urban areas. The authors contend that prior efforts failed because they did not address the numerous ways that past research has shown poverty influences student academic outcomes and school performance (Coleman et al., 1966; Rothstein, 2004). The author’s call for a new approach to school improvement, one that draws upon the principles advocated by the Broader and Bolder Approach, and includes: evidence-based instruction, community engagement, and the strategies that have been pursued by the Harlem Children’s Zone, the Children’s Aid Society, and a small number of similar efforts that attempt to mitigate the effects of poverty.

Ten years after the adoption of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the most far-reaching federal educational reform ever enacted into law, the educational performance of children throughout the nation continues to be a subject of considerable concern. According to state and local reports, reading and math scores on standardized tests, particularly for low-income and minority children, remain low (College Board, 2010; Hemphill and Vanneman, 2011; Nord, et al., 2011), and college attendance rates have been stagnant for the last fifteen years (Darling-Hammond, 2010). Although recent data indicate that there has been a slight increase in high school graduation rates from 70% to 72% (Pearson Foundation, 2010), a closer examination of the evidence reveals little change in most of the nation’s largest cities and school districts where dropout rates typically hover at 50% and higher. Furthermore, on most international comparisons, the academic performance of American students has fallen further behind that of students in other nations, in subjects such as reading, writing and math (UNICEF, 2007; Gertz 2010, Fleischman, Hopstock, Pelczar, & Shelley, 2010).  

Despite being confronted by a broad array of challenges – war, recession, and environmental disasters, for example - the Obama administration has sought to make reform of education a national priority. However, it has sought to do so largely by following the reform strategies pursued by the Bush administration. Using academic standards and high stakes testing as levers for change, the administration has attempted to impose a number of untested reforms on states desperate for funding. For example, through its Race for the Top (RTT) initiative, it has attempted to raise academic standards by compelling states to adopt the “common core,” and to use student test scores to judge teacher efficacy, even though the validity of such measures remains in doubt (Baker, et al., 2010). The administration has also tried to bring about the dramatic transformation of the nation’s chronically under-performing schools. U.S. Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, has called for over 5,000 failing schools throughout the country that he and others have described as “dropout factories,” (Gonzalez, 2010), to be “transformed” or shut down completely.

We do not question the sincerity of the administration’s desire to improve the nation’s schools. Since his inauguration, President Obama has repeatedly made a point of emphasizing the importance of improving education, and his administration has been persistent in promoting its reform agenda. However, given the strategies it has chosen to pursue, it is clear that the administration does not fully understand why past reforms failed to generate greater improvement in the nation’s schools. Moreover, the administration does not appear to understand why the progress achieved under No Child Left Behind has been so limited.

A disproportionate number of America’s failing schools serve the poorest and most disadvantaged children. Many are located in racially segregated urban areas where poverty is concentrated and poor families are socially isolated (Wilson, 1989). There is a vast body of research that has established that poverty has an impact on child development and student achievement (Coleman, et al., 1966; Jencks, 1972; Jencks & Phillips, 1998). Though Secretary Duncan and former New York Chancellor Joel Klein, have steadfastly maintained that “poverty is not the issue” (Klein, Lomax & Muraguia 2010), a number of recent studies have shown that when educational reforms are implemented without a concerted attempt to address the numerous ways in which poverty influences student academic outcomes, school improvement is substantially less likely (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, & Easton, 2010). In a comprehensive examination of the school improvement strategies that were implemented over a 10-year period in Chicago, Bryk et al. (2010) found that the least progress was made in the schools serving the poorest children; the very schools where change was needed most.   

While it is easy to criticize the policymakers and educational leaders who have been responsible for leading reform efforts, we target our comments about failed educational reform to our colleagues in schools and colleges of education. We do so because, as individuals and as institutions, we have unique and important roles to play not merely in critiquing policy, but in offering evidence-based solutions to our most pressing educational problems. Schools of education must be able to offer useful research and intellectual leadership to help in solving the problems confronting our nation’s schools, otherwise we risk becoming irrelevant. Schools of education and the universities they belong to, must also have a clearer sense of how to develop meaningful partnerships with schools if they are to play a positive role in advancing reform.

An Alternative Approach:  Working with Key Stakeholders and Learning from Success

In the larger public discourse about reform, relatively little of the conversation or the policy making takes account of the existence of a number of successful schools and models of effective practice that are being utilized in schools and classrooms throughout the country (Barth, et al., 1999). Given how many schools are searching to find ways to develop the intellectual curiosity of students and increase their academic performance, it seems obvious that schools would be better served if we were able to understand the factors that contribute to the success achieved by programs like AVID, MESA and Upward Bound (Slavin, Karweit, & Wasik, 1989; Fashola & Slavin, 1997). It would also be helpful if education scholars spent more time learning how to replicate successful high poverty schools like Emerson in Berkeley, Multicultural High School in Brooklyn (where 100% of the students are English language learners and 100% of 9th graders passed the Algebra Regents with a score of 85% or higher) or KIPP Aspire in San Antonio. Too often, school systems are treated as monolithic failures, and the popular reforms that are offered to improve them – charter schools, performance pay for teachers, and mayoral control, for example – rarely consider why some schools and students have managed to flourish within the existing systems.

Throughout our careers we have observed, studied, and participated in successful schools and interventions. Our confidence in the potential of schools to improve, even in high poverty areas, grows out of these experiences. We would like to briefly point to some key components of these successes because we feel they can serve as the basis for a new approach to education reform.

Evidence-based instruction. Defined simply, evidence-based instruction is a program or collection of practices that have been tested and shown to have a record of success (International Reading Association, 2002). The case for evidence-based instruction is straightforward, but it is important to think in broader terms about the “evidence” that is collected and how that evidence is applied to specific local contexts. In their longitudinal comparative case study of sixteen successful middle schools, Jeannie Oakes and her research team documented the ways that principals and teachers were able to use data to improve instruction and achievement (Oakes, Quartz, Ryan, & Lipton, 2000). The research team found success when the process was participatory, systematic, and humanizing, and when assessments of student learning were authentic and meaningful. Similarly, in the Berkeley Diversity Project, Noguera and his colleagues drew upon interviews with students and classroom observations to generate dialogues among faculty about what constituted reliable evidence of student learning. These conversations in turn were ultimately used to guide classroom instruction (Noguera & Wing, 2006).

Throughout the country there are large numbers of students who have passed state exams but are still required to take remedial courses once they enroll in college. To increase college readiness, we believe, school leaders and classroom teachers must have access to robust and accessible research on powerful classroom practices, suitable to serving a student population with a diverse array of needs across a variety of contexts. They also need access to meaningful data generated from their local school communities so that they can monitor the effectiveness of their practices and interventions. These data come in various forms ranging from standardized tests, to formative assessments, to demonstrations of student work, to conversations with students and their parents. Schools of Education can facilitate the implementation of evidence-based instruction by collecting and sharing scholarship on the most promising practices in classrooms across disciplines, age groups, and geographies. We are also uniquely positioned to provide current and future principals and classroom teachers with the tools they need to systematically collect and make sense of multiple forms data, which they can then use to make more informed decisions about best practices.

Long-term collaboration and engagement with teachers. In their work with schools, Stanford researchers, Linda Darling-Hammond and Milbrey McLaughlin (1995) have found that meaningful professional development can have a significant and sustainable impact on teacher practice. The authors contend that Schools of Education and school districts must replace traditional notions of in-service training or knowledge dissemination with opportunities for “knowledge sharing” that occur in settings where teachers have opportunities to share what they know, discuss what they need and want to learn, and connect new concepts and strategies to their own unique classroom contexts. In our experience, the only way to create this type of professional development is through long-term collaboration and engagement with teachers. Our recent experience at Central High School in Newark has shown us that when there is a concerted effort to support teachers in improving their classroom practice, significant increases in student outcomes can be obtained and a “failing” school can begin to “turn around” (Wells & Noguera, 2011).  

Community engagement. One of the great oversights of the current educational reform movement is the failure to understand the importance of student, parent and community engagement. More often than not, the parties who are most central to the schooling process, students and their parents, are the least likely to be consulted when reforms are being considered (Orr, 2007). More often than not, “reformers” who have no history of connection to the distressed communities they attempt to help, devise plans for creating new schools (often charters) and shutting down old “failing” schools, without ever consulting or engaging those who will be most directly affected. In response to this top-down, paternalistic approach, community groups often resist these efforts, and conflicts over control of schools ensue. Presently, there are intense political battles raging in cities such as Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., Detroit, and New Orleans. In many cases, conflict contributes to paralysis and acrimony. Rather than advancing a reform agenda, constituents that should be working together have become mired in contentious debates over control.  

In 1999, Morrell and his colleagues (Rogers, Morrell, & Enyedy, 2007) attempted to create new ways to engage young people in the school reform process by creating the Council of Youth Research; a program that trained high school students to become researchers of their neighborhoods and communities. Over the past 12 years these youth have conducted surveys and interviews with residents, compiled detailed observations of civic life, and consulted historical and demographic data pertinent to the neighborhoods where they live. They have also used this research to write reports, policy briefs, and blogs on the state of their neighborhoods. Their work has appeared online, in academic journals, and on major network television. Research documenting the impact of this project on the participants indicates that their literacy development has significantly improved and their academic identities (i.e., how much time and effort they invest in learning, whether or not they intend to enroll in college, etc.) have been positively altered (Morrell, 2008; Mirra & Morrell, 2011).  

In Newark’s Central Ward, parents from the seven schools that form the Newark Global Village Zone (NGVZ), have been enlisted to shape and participate in guiding the direction of school change efforts. For this to happen the organizers of the NGVZ have had to invest time into organizing meetings and finding creative ways to reach out to parents who have often felt marginal to the decisions that have been made about the schools their children attend. As a result of these efforts to enlist community support, the schools in the NGVZ are making steady progress (High School Proficiency Assessment scores for 2011 show small but significant increases at all seven schools in the NGVZ), while much of Newark is bogged down in a highly polarized debate over the direction of reform (and how to spend the 100 million dollar gift from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg).

Respond to the non-academic needs of children. In addition to the political factors that have contributed to the lack of progress there is also a substantial body of evidence that suggests the educational reforms implemented over the last 30 years have not succeeded in bringing about sustainable improvements in the most disadvantaged schools because they have largely ignored or failed to address the impact of poverty on school performance and student learning (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, & Easton, 2010; Payne, 2008; Rothstein, 2004). For the last 20 years most social scientists and urban planners who have studied poverty alleviation have argued that poverty and the variety of the social issues that frequently accompany it (e.g., housing instability, substance abuse, and inter-personal violence) have an impact on student achievement and the character of schools (Adelman & Taylor, 1999; Noguera, 2003; Payne, 2008; Rothstein, 2004). In an attempt to explain the lack of progress made in efforts to close the so-called achievement gap over the last fifteen years, Barton and Coley (2010) find that low wages, high unemployment and the elimination of efforts to combat the effects of poverty in distressed neighborhoods, have all contributed to lower outcomes for poor and minority children (pp. 37-43).  

A small but growing number of public schools have devised strategies designed to mitigate the effects of poverty on students and schools by implementing strategies such as: (1) comprehensive school-based services (Martin, Fergus, & Noguera 2009; Dryfoos, Quinn, & Barkin 2005; Eccles & Gootman, 2002), (2) increasing the amount and quality of academic and social support students receive outside of school (Waldfogel & Lahaie, 2007; Auerbach, Krimgold, & Lefkowitz, 2000); (3) increasing access to tutors, summer enrichment camps, and homework support, for example (Blau & Currie, 2006); and (4) implementing community-based programs to improve the health, nutrition, safety, and overall psychological and emotional well-being of students and their families (Adelman & Taylor, 1999; Syme, 2004). In many cases, these needed services are made possible through partnerships between schools and community agencies (churches, social service agencies, recreation centers, etc.). The Harlem Children’s Zone is perhaps the most well known of such an effort, and while there is still no evidence that it has produced substantial gains in student achievement, its impact on youth development is clear and increasingly undeniable (Tough, 2008).   


Several critics of American education policy have pointed out that too often reforms are conceived and implemented in a top-down manner and without sufficient understanding of how they will impact schools (Tyack & Cuban, 1995; Fullan, 2007). Too often, policymakers develop and legislate new education policy based on ideas that may be politically popular (i.e., phonics versus whole language or opposition to bilingual education), but without consulting with educators or having a clear sense of how the policies they enact will impact classrooms and schools. In many cases, educational policies are more likely to be based on politics and ideology than objective educational research. This has been most evident in the policy debates over how best to teach reading and bi-lingual education (García, 2001). Finally, several critics have argued that many of the reforms have failed because the theory of change guiding them has been weak and has not taken into account all of the related changes that need to accompany implementation (Elmore, 2004; Noguera, 2005).  

Recognizing that we have gone through more than a generation of failed reforms and building upon a variety of studies that have called for a more integrated approach to school improvement and child development (Brofenbrenner, 1975; Comer, 1988; Kirp, 2011) we believe the need for a new approach to school reform is clear. As faculty in leading schools of education we believe that it is not good enough to critique the mistakes made by policymakers and school administrators from the sidelines. We have a responsibility to conduct research that can be used to guide the development of more effective policies and to work with educators in solving the problems confronting schools. Additionally, we have particular responsibility related to the preparation of teachers and administrators. Schools of education must provide training and support to teachers that are clearly superior in preparing future teachers for the challenges they will face in the classroom; it is not good enough to complain about the poor quality of alternative credential programs. We have found that the best way for this to be done is through long-term partnerships with school districts. Given our location in leading universities, we should also attempt to enlist medical schools, schools of social work, and schools of public health on our campuses to work with us in supporting schools and districts. By fostering such relationships we will be in a better position to help schools and offer useful insights to policymakers. We can also leverage our various roles to create powerful partnerships that can enable us to become public advocates for successful educational reform. However, in order for this to happen we must be clear about what it takes to achieve success and what will be required to expand it on a larger scale

Ultimately, as deans, professors, research associates, directors of institutes, and teacher educators, we must recognize both the urgency and the potential in our present educational climate. While we have done much to increase the knowledge base around effective teaching and learning and necessary social and institutional supports, we have fallen short in our efforts to translate this knowledge into policy and practice. As key participants in the field of education we must recognize that our role is not only to advance educational research, but also to participate more fully in the enactment of meaningful and lasting change in classrooms and schools across the country.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 04, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16503, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 11:45:29 PM

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About the Author
  • Ernest Morrell
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    ERNEST MORRELL is the Director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) and Professor of English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He has also been elected as the incoming Vice-President of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and will assume the presidency of this 50,000-member organization in 2013. For nearly twenty years Dr. Morrell has worked with adolescents and inner city teachers drawing upon youth’s interest in popular culture and participatory media technologies to increase motivation and to promote academic literacy development, civic engagement and college access. He is also recognized nationally for developing powerful models of teaching and learning in classrooms and non-school environments and for engaging youth and communities in the project of educational reform. Professor Morrell is the author of numerous articles, book chapters, and four books including The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools (with Jeff Duncan-Andrade) and Critical Literacy and Urban Youth: Pedagogies of Access, Dissent, and Liberation. He is a sought after speaker by universities, school districts, professional organizations, and private foundations. Morrell has also received several commendations for his teaching including being recognized five times by Who’s Who Among America’s High School teachers and receiving UCLA’s Department of Education’s Distinguished Teaching Award. Morrell received his Ph.D. in Language, Literacy, and Culture from the University of California, Berkeley and was the recipient of the Outstanding Dissertation award.
  • Pedro Noguera
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    PEDRO NOGUERA is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. He holds tenured faculty appointments in the departments of Teaching and Learning and Humanities and Social Sciences at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Development and in the Department of Sociology at New York University. He is also the Executive Director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education and the co-Director of the Institute for the Study of Globalization and Education in Metropolitan Settings (IGEMS). He is the author of several books including City Schools and the American Dream (Teachers College Press 2003), Unfinished Business: Closing the Achievement Gap in Our Nation’s Schools (Josey Bass, 2006) and The Trouble With Black Boys…and Other Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education (Wiley and Sons, 2008). His two most recent books are Invisible No More: Understanding the Disenfranchisement of Latino Males (with Aida Hurtado and Eddie Fergus) and Creating the Opportunity to Learn with A. Wade Boykin. In 2008, Noguera was appointed by the Governor of New York to the State University of New York (SUNY) Board of Trustees. He also appeared as a regular commentator on educational issues on CNN, National Public Radio, and other national news outlets.
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