Most attempts at school restructuring appear to improve academic performance, reports research psychologist Gerald W. Bracey in Phi Delta Kappan. Research completed last fall by Valerie Lee, University of Michigan, and Julia Smith, University of Rochester, indicates that restructured schools outperform traditional schools on standardized achievement tests.
Lee and Smith compared traditional U.S. high schools with restructured schools. They defined traditional high schools as those that are large, offer many courses, track their students by ability, are organized by department and have a principal who functions as a CEO. Such traditional schools, although economical, lose the personal contact between teachers and students.
In contrast to this traditional model, the restructured school tends to be smaller, with more personal contact between students and teachers and more shared responsibility and agreement among the staff on organizational purpose. Teachers frequently work collaboratively and have more input into decisions affecting their work. Lee and Smith report that creating smaller schools does not necessitate separate campuses. Larger schools are often divided up into smaller schools within one building.
Since reform and restructuring efforts are very diverse, Lee and Smith distinguish between schools whose reforms actually lead to restructuring and those that do not. Schools in the study were classified as traditional, traditional with reforms, or restructured. These researchers controlled for individual student and school differences in socioeconomic level, percentage of minorities, gender, courses taken and achievement.
Most of the school-reform practices adopted by schools in this study did not lead to actual restructuring. Instead, most schools reformed some of their practices while maintaining a traditional structure. For example, increased graduation requirements were reported in 60 percent of the schools adopting reforms. While this can lead to increased achievement, it does not affect the underlying organization or structure of the school.
Examples of restructuring efforts include the interdisciplinary team teaching used in 24 percent of the schools and the mixed-ability grouping in math and science classes (no tracking) adopted by 21 percent.
Comparisons of traditional schools and those attempting reforms or restructuring were made on the basis of results from the 1988 National Educational Longitudinal Study, which tested reading, math, history and science in eighth and tenth grades. Over the two-year period of the study, students in schools with no reforms lost ground in all subjects to students in schools that had adopted reforms.
However, students in schools attempting restructuring gained considerably in comparison to those instituting reforms within a traditional structure. Students in restructured schools gained the most in science, history and math. Students in higher socioeconomic groups gained more than middle-class students in most subject areas. Poor students gained much less than middle-class students in traditional or traditional-reform schools, but gained almost as much as middle-class students in restructured schools.
Students in smaller schools showed larger gains
In general, students in smaller schools had larger achievement gains. Fewer gains were seen in schools that were attempting to restructure many practices at once. Further study is needed to determine whether schools undergoing major restructuring in many areas eventually produce greater educational gains.
In conclusion, this study provides evidence that students are benefiting from educational reform efforts. Disadvantaged students benefit, in particular, when traditional tracking practices are eliminated and high expectations for all students are put into practice, with advanced course work being required of everyone. Smaller high schools are more engaging environments and produce greater gains in student achievement. Bracey notes, however, that this may be due in part to the fact that students in small schools, without a wide variety of courses to choose from, tend to take more core courses, which increases their scores on standardized achievement tests.
“Restructuring for Higher Achievement”, Phi Delta Kappan, Volume 76, Number 10, June 1995,pp.812-814.
Published in ERN September/October 1995 Volume 8 Number 4