Managing school reform

Successful school reformers have borrowed techniques from other institutional reform efforts and adapated them to the specific requirements of variety of schools. In their publication, Horace, The Coalition of Essential Schools at Brown University recently described how successful schools have been able to turn their vision of quality education into practice.

Kathleen Cushman, The Coalition of Essential Schools, reports that three factors must be juggled simultaneously in reform efforts:

1. change in classroom practices;

2. change in educators’ attitudes and beliefs; and

3. change in school structure.

Although many strategies are available for managing organization change, there does not appear to be an established formula by which schools can successfully manage reform. But, educators affiliated with successful reform efforts report that the most important elements in implementing change are setting clear goals and developing teamwork.

Teamwork and goals

One effective way to begin discussions of reforms and possible goals is to assess the quality of current student work. Most reform models call for some version of the following basic steps:

1. Agree on a problem that needs a solution.

2. Set clear goals that go beyond surface issues.

3. Understand what in the school’s current structure and culture works for and against these goals.

4. Establish a participatory structure that allows those affected by change to organize how and when change will happen – a structure that accommodates new ideas and conflicts when they arise.

5. Start making changes in an orderly way that includes ongoing evaluation and reflection.

Learning teamwork and developing goals is a difficult process than can easily take five years to accomplish, writes Cushman. Setting clear goals is essential to real reform, but goals cannot succeed unless implemented through teamwork. Serious change always engenders conflict. If there is no conflict, then the proposed changes probably support the status quo. Successful schools manage to involve everyone in a team effort to set goals. Experience shows that this need to be managed carefully. Those who are skeptical or who oppose a proposed change should be brought onto an advisory panel to investigate all aspects and consequences of the proposed change and to report their findings to the entire staff. It is crucial to listen to the concerns of resistant staff members and to revise plans as necessary. Dissent can be used productively.

Listening for conflicts, heartfelt concerns, dissatisfaction and the needs of staff enables the team to look hard at proposed changes and anticipate potential problems. The entrenched, hierarchial structures of schools and their many vested interests make change very difficult. Schools can institute reforms on a staggered basis, to enable everyone to take part when he is ready and not before. Ignoring even passively resistant teachers only backfires causing the development of factions that sabotage teamwork efforts. Sustained outside help has proved helpful for many schools. A mediator or coach who works with the staff on a weekly basis can help them learn to work as a team. Sufficient time must be set aside during the teachers’ salaried day to learn new skills, to reflect and to work as a team. Once a staff’s collective energy is trained on common goals, problems become much easier to solve. But, for this to happen, everyone who would be affected by any change must have a say in it.

Cushman reports that change can be successful when teachers make their own difficult budgetary, personnel, scheduling and instructional choices necessary to reach their goals. Some schools have developed a set of goals by planning backward from the tasks that they want students to accomplish. As goals and plans to reach them are put into motion, schools find that every aspect of school life is affected. Procedures and norms have to be changed so that they are in accord with stated goals.

Community involvement

Some schools run into trouble because they forget to keep in close touch with parents and other people in the community. Officials in schools that have successfully initiated changes say that there is not limit to the amount of communicating needed to keep parents informed. Particularly important are community meetings and newsletters which give examples of schools in which successful implementation of the proposed changes have led to improved education. Such information is important because it provides parents with a sense of security that their children are not being used as guinea pigs. Building community understanding buys the necessary time for schools to effect change. Maintaining some traditions also helps lend stability to schools that sometimes feel overwhelmed by change.

In conclusion, Cushman states that there is no model for change that can substitute for the difficult and time-consuming task of “teaching people to work together, setting their own priorities that reflect their own situations and assessing their own progress against new standards.”

“So What Now? Managing the Change Process”, Horace, Volume 9, Number 3, pp. 1-11

Published in ERN March/April 1993, Volume 6, Number 2.

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