The reality of school reform

The reality of reforming schools differs greatly from the theory, writes Paula M. Evans, former high school teacher, principal, and director of professional development at the Coalition of Essential Schools and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. Evans is an advocate of small schools, believing that smaller is better for instruction, for relationships and community, and for behavior management. “Students in small schools are more likely to be well known by faculty members, to be academically challenged, to take intellectual risks, and to engage in authentic learning.”

Evans asserts that the question is not whether small schools are better, but how to implement them. Dividing large comprehensive high schools into several small schools is particularly difficult. This is the task she took on three years ago. Leaving Brown University after 15 years, she accepted the principalship of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Evans’ description of her experience reveals the pitfalls and complexities of large-scale reform efforts in urban high schools. CRLS had 2,000 students in four houses and a large achievement gap. It had been created from two schools – one serving minority poor students and the other, middle-class white students. The school community had studied how to reform their school over a period of years, but, finding it difficult to bring about change themselves, they hired Evans to make it happen. Evans set three priorities: high standards for all students, public exhibition of student work, and collaboration among all adults. To realize these goals, the school community agreed to:

  • Break the school into five autonomous four-year, 400-pupil schools with rigorous curricula and high standards
  • Build a strong, four-year advisory program in each school with a curriculum for which students received credit
  • Create schedules in which all adults, including administrators and counselors, would teach and no teacher would be responsible for more than 80 students
  • Provide collaborative planning time for all adults within the school day

Evans brought in experienced outside educators who agreed with her philosophy to serve as deans for each of the schools. Evans reports that many teachers felt the pace of change was too fast. After one year of planning, the high school opened as five small houses. Cliques of faculty members and students were broken up. Seventy-five percent of the faculty had to move rooms. Students, who had previously been allowed to choose their house, were redistributed so each small school would mirror the diversity of the entire school’s population. For example, all the bilingual students had been together in one house, but now they were distributed throughout the five schools. The students were angry.

The challenge of heterogeneous classrooms

Teachers were uneasy with the new heterogeneous makeup of their classes. Thirty percent of the incoming freshman read between the fourth- and sixth-grade level. While the administrators and staff had agreed with the goals and principles Evans had set forth when she was hired, the reality of what that meant was shocking to many in the community. Shifting a culture from one that makes demands of selected groups and tolerates mediocre work from others to one that fosters respect and insists that everyone learn was difficult for most students. CRLS was 60 percent minority, yet it had been largely segregated when Evans was hired. While AP classes had been open to any student, they consisted almost entirely of white, middle-class students. Evans asserts that many minority students had never been academically challenged under the old system. Used to being taught by teachers with low expectations, they suddenly found themselves in classes taught by teachers with much higher expectations. Students with poor reading skills were in classes with students who knew how to discuss a book, formulate questions and write critical essays. Higher-achieving students were appalled by the disruptive behavior of some of their struggling peers.

Faculty members hadn’t imagined how much change and work the reforms would entail. Twenty five percent of the faculty had been teaching in the school for at least 30 years. Many were worn out by the endless meetings and difficult-to-teach groups of students in their classes. Collaboration with colleagues was hard for those who had always worked independently. Evans concedes that the concerns teachers voiced were legitimate: How could they teach algebra to a mixed groups of students, some of whom couldn’t do basic arithmetic? Evans and her staff tried to help teachers with additional time, money and psychological and intellectual support, but she concedes that the reality did not always live up to the plan.

Four nights a week, Evans met with parents to help them understand the inequities in the old system and the opportunities of the new. She reports that opposition to change came, almost exclusively, from white, middle-class parents who were afraid that mixed classrooms would lower the standards and education for their higher-performing children.

Despite the disruption and added amounts of work the reforms created, Evans reports that progress was being made. Parents began to understand that their children were being challenged in new ways and that the focus was on high standards for all. Teachers were learning new skills to cope with a wide variety of skill levels. The administration was listening and responsive. Halfway through the first year, however, the school committee, under political pressure from unions and a group of parents, made the decision to immediately return the school to its segregated system. To Evans’ surprise, enough progress had been made in community understanding that parents came out in force to support the reform efforts. The faculty, which had been divided, unified and picketed the committee’s office. Students held a candlelight vigil. Evans threatened to resign.

Although they won this battle, they eventually lost the war. Evans reports that fighting the committee took time and energy away from the school reform efforts at a critical time, slowing the momentum. While Evans and the faculty continued to implement the plan, and students began to respond to higher standards and more individual attention, political problems outside the school were growing. Evans had been promised hiring authority, but the committee interfered with hiring decisions and intruded into the daily running of the school.

Evans was shocked by the bureaucracy and inefficiency of the district office. She brought in outsiders for leadership positions, which meant veterans of the system were no longer guaranteed administrative positions. Although the superintendent supported Evans and the reform efforts in most ways, the political pressure ultimately caused Evans’ hiring authority to be denied. Evans believed that unless she could base her hiring decisions on the excellence of the candidate for the position rather than longevity in the system, she could not bring about significant change. Increasingly, the school committee overruled decisions by Evans and her administrators until Evans resigned. She said that she could not do her job without both hiring authority and freedom from micromanagement. Without this essential decision-making authority, Evans believed, she “could not provide the leadership or the protection vital to the administrators and teachers brave enough to undertake meaningful change.”

“A Principal’s Dilemmas: Theory and Reality of School Redesign”, Phi Delta Kappan, Volume 84, Number 6, February 2003, pp. 424-437.

Published in ERN April/May 2003 Volume 16 Number 4

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