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
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
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.”
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.
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
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.