Analyzing reform efforts

“What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.” –John Dewey, 1900

International assessments reveal that schools in the United States are among the most unequal in the industrialized world in terms of spending, curriculum offerings, and teaching quality. Differential spending ratios of more than 10 to 1 show up most strongly in the quality of teaching children experience.

The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future has found that 25 percent of the teachers hired each year are under-prepared, and that these teachers are assigned disproportionately to schools serving the most educationally at-risk students.

Educational reforms in the past — even when shown to produce substantial improvements in student achievement — have usually failed to be widely adopted. According to Linda Darling-Hammond, Co-Director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST), Columbia University, this is because such reforms require “infinitely skilled teachers” to sustain complex forms of teaching, yet the United States has failed to invest adequately in teacher preparation to create sufficient numbers of these highly skilled teachers. Current research efforts at NCREST, the Center on Organizational Restructuring of Schools, and the Center for Research on Teaching have shown that schools can be successful in teaching the most at-risk populations of students. Darling-Hammond states, however, that it is as important to understand what can be done to create the conditions that enable good practice to grow and take root as it is to understand what the practices themselves are.

Successful Reform Efforts

Growing research evidence illustrates the success of organizational arrangements that are smaller and more personal; that foster more cooperative ways of learning; that use less departmentalization and tracking; that include a common core curriculum for students; that create stronger and more long-term relationships between teachers and students; that use team teaching and include parents, teachers and students in making decisions about schooling.

Researchers have been studying how these features are sustained in city schools that produce dramatically increased achievement results for low-income and minority students. In the high schools studied, over 90 percent of students graduate (as compared to less than 50 percent in other schools in the neighborhood), and most go on to post-secondary education. The vast majority of these students succeed at college.

Untracked common core curriculum

In these reformed schools, all students follow an untracked common core curriculum. All students are challenged to meet high standards that require research papers, scientific experiments, mathematical models, essays and literary critiques, and oral defenses of their work. Darling-Hammond and colleagues have tried to understand what enables students in these schools to meet these high standards and what enables their teachers to help them do so.

Darling-Hammond reports that several factors have been identified as important:

1) Structures that help teachers to know their students well and to work with them intensely. These include smaller schools and the clustering of students and teachers that allows teachers to work for longer periods of time each day, and over weeks and years, with smaller numbers of the same students. Examples of such structures are interdisciplinary projects, multi-year advising, and longer class periods to undertake more ambitious chunks of academic work.

2) Exhibitions of student work that make it clear to all students, teachers and parents what various classes are working on, what the school values, and what constitutes good work.

3) Collaboration among teachers that is focused on students’ learning. One very strong organizational feature of these successfully reformed schools is that teachers work on two kinds of teams — one that focuses on curriculum planning within subject areas and another that focuses on a shared group of students and their needs. This structure leads teachers to assume joint responsibility for a number of students, working with them in multiple subjects and counseling them for several years. It allows teachers to become more accountable for students’ success. It motivates teachers by increasing their involvement in students’ lives and their control over the total learning process. This curriculum and assessment teamwork requires staffs to focus together on academic issues important to the whole school and helps them develop shared, explicit standards.

4) Shared decision making. This includes teachers hiring their colleagues, developing evaluation systems, conducting peer reviews, making curriculum decisions, setting standards for assessing students’ and teachers’ work, and deciding on professional development. Students and parents are often included in these activities as well. Because these schools are deliberately kept small, there is a sense of empowerment and access and a greater sense of shared purpose, commitment and effort.


In our search for what works, we must be prepared to deal with the problems inherent in change, to acknowledge that reforming education is difficult and it requires everyone in the process to learn new things and adapt to new structures. Telling schools what they “should” do will not get us from research to practice, says Darling-Hammond. She reminds us that we “can not mandate what matters most.” For example, substantial research suggests that tracking tends to hurt low-track students without greatly benefiting high-track students and that retaining students in grades actually slows down their learning and dramatically increases dropout rates. However, there are profound problems of pedagogy, organization and community politics to be solved by schools that try to invent alternatives to these practices. Schools need encouragement and support to think and work productively about these problems so that their reform efforts can succeed.

“The Right to Learn and the Advancement of Teaching: Research, Policy, and Practice for Democratic Education” Educational Researcher Volume 25, Number 6, September 1996 pp. 5-17.

Published in ERN November/December 1996 Volume 9 Number 5


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