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OBSTACLES TO REFORM
Diana Soliz teaches math at KIPP 3d Academy in Houston

Diana Soliz teaches math at KIPP 3D Academy in Houston.

Whether reform begins district-wide or school-by-school, change is difficult. It isn't easy to alter the status quo, even if it does not serve the best interests of children. People get comfortable and become used to doing things a certain way. What we learned in producing Making Schools Work is that successful reform requires a willingness to take risks and do what is not familiar. It also takes a deep commitment and willingness to persevere.

According to experts, there are a number of obstacles that can impede reform efforts:

Short-lived Reform Efforts

There is impatience by the public and political leaders with the number of years needed to carry out effective reform. “You don't get results unless you stick to something over the period of time that it takes to get those results,” said Steve Fleischman, from American Institutes for Research. “If you expected something is going to take three to five years to show results, as many programs do and many reforms do, you cannot switch after three years.”

Although student outcomes may begin to improve with reform in a number of years, there are no quick fixes or shortcuts if people want reform to last. School improvement is a continuous process. It is not something that can be accomplished in a fixed number of years. Maintaining progress is an ongoing process, because students and staff change each year. The educational process always needs to be refined and improved – just as any business venture does – if it is to be successful.

Turnover Among School Administrators

Turnover is a huge problem. The average tenure for a superintendent is three years or less – not long enough to implement district-wide or whole school reform. Typically, a new superintendent or principal comes in with her/his own ideas and disrupts the existing process.

One result is that teachers, administrators, and the staff of a school system often continue with the old way of doing things and wait out the reformer rather than changing, since they know there's a good chance the reform-minded superintendent will soon be replaced. Turnover makes veteran teachers hesitant to commit themselves to reform, knowing that once one leader leaves a new person will come in with different ideas. It is difficult to make any progress with minimal or no commitment from the stakeholders (principals and teachers) and lack of continuity among the district administration.

Ineffective Professional Development

Many school districts have time and money allocated for teacher training, but it is often haphazard and does not directly support the curriculum and instructional program. Teachers go because participation is required for certification and re-certification, which affect pay and status. But often, teacher skills are not upgraded substantially by a professional development strategy that is essentially filling squares. Other districts let each individual school determine its own professional development needs, with results that are haphazard – good in some schools, not good in others.

Reform models usually require and provide specific training in the educational strategy and curriculum that they have adopted. Training courses and mentoring are carefully connected to the curriculum and strategy, usually across entire school districts.

In reflecting on what the most successful schools systems do, Michael Casserly from the Council of the Great City Schools says, “Rather than letting each individual school decide how it was they were going to train their teachers and provide workshops and all of that; rather than hiring the guy down the street or somebody's cousin, or the latest presenter that they had heard at a conference that everybody just thought was really dynamic…the [school] systems started to standardize professional development and this professional development was standardized around the curriculum and the instructional program.”

Poor Follow-up

Failure to follow-up and insure effective implementation of reform is often a downfall of reformers. Reform not only requires people and systems to change but to keep pursuing the new path. District staff, principals and teachers all need continuous support and guidance in implementing the reforms.

Experience has shown that reform models and district-wide reform strategies that do no include follow-up to monitor implementation are far less successful than those which follow-up carefully and continuously. Experts agree that well-implemented programs and strategies usually show the best student outcomes – and that requires frequent monitoring to be sure the reforms are working effectively.

Many of the successful reform models and district strategies not only provide a great deal of professional development but according to Bob Slavin, developer of Success for All, they also include “strategies of coaching where people inside the school are able to follow up on initial workshops and watch what teachers do and give them feedback.” These programs invest a lot in the change process, not just in developing the strategy of reform and providing the initial training.

Inadequate Buy-in

No reform can work well without buy-in from the key stakeholders. That certainly includes principals, teachers, and district administrators, and usually includes school boards as well. Major frictions between district leadership and individual schools and their parents and communities can also stifle reform or sharply diminish its effectiveness. Frictions often arise because reform mandates require change from school staff and parents, often creating resentment. Thus, buy-in from teachers and school administrators, as well as the community is essential.

Similarly, individual schools that attempt reform can get into trouble if they fail to engage district support. One problem is often that an individual school's staff and the reform model developers consider the school a self-contained educational unit and ignore the district. Sometimes even states try to bypass the school district's leadership by sending funds for reform efforts directly to individual schools. But knowledgeable reformers assert that from experience, they see that both the district and the school have to be included and committed to the reform strategy; otherwise it may not be sustained through changes in administration and funding allocations.

School Systems Lack Long-term Investment Mentality

Underestimating the time it takes to carry out reform can lead to insufficient resources to carry out effective reform. Unlike businesses, school systems rarely set up funds for long-term improvement and then after enthusiastic beginnings, they find themselves short of resources precisely at the point that reform is taking root and student performance is getting ready to take off.

According to experts, one reason is that old-line conservative financial managers of school districts resist reform because reform usually involves revision of the budget systems they have run and disrupts their personal control of the allocation of funds.

In many districts the chief financial officer is appointed independently from the superintendent, meaning that the superintendent lacks direct power over the flow of dollars. Typically, financial officers hang around a long time, far longer than superintendents. They see superintendents come and go and their primary interest is in budget-balancing rather than in change and in improving student performance. In such cases, financial officers tend to preserve the status quo and become obstacles to reform because they dislike change, especially change that costs money.


Copyright © 2005 Hedrick Smith Productions. All rights reserved. | PBS Privacy Policy | Created September 2005