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March 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 6

Comprehensive Solutions for Urban Reform

Whole-school reform models build coherence throughout a district while addressing the needs of individual schools.

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Management guru William G. Ouchi notes a crucial difference between the ways that U.S. and Japanese businesses make important decisions. U.S. executives are quick to form partnerships with other firms—to get the deal in ink—and once they have done so, they expect their employees to find a way to make the arrangement work. Japanese executives, on the other hand, seem to stall, letting months go by before responding to offers of collaboration. Yet once they finally sign off on a business partnership, Japanese firms move fast. Within a few weeks, they are ready to execute the agreement, whereas their U.S. counterparts tend to get bogged down at this point, unable to decide how best to manage new relationships, assign new responsibilities, and cover unanticipated costs.
In this respect, the nation's urban school districts belong to a great American tradition.
Consider, for example, the case of a big-city school superintendent who recently came into office with grand plans to upgrade the district's mathematics curriculum. “The goal is to prepare every student to take algebra by 9th grade,” he announced as he signed a contract committing the schools to using a new textbook series through 8th grade.
When the materials and books began to arrive, however, it became obvious that most of the district's classrooms lacked sufficient storage space for the new manipulatives. The training session on using the textbook for middle school teachers conflicted with a previously scheduled districtwide workshop on classroom management. Many students found it impossible to follow the textbook because they lacked the basic skills that the book presumed they had mastered. And because middle school class size reductions had just gone into effect, the district faced a shortage of qualified mathematics teachers to teach the new curriculum. In short, although the textbooks were elegant, orderly, well-paced, and demanding, they fit this particular district like a square peg in a world of round holes.
The lesson to be learned is an old one: In education, piecemeal reforms seldom work. Schools are made up of intersecting and overlapping parts, such that any single intervention will inevitably influence and be influenced by the rest of the system. Before signing on the dotted line, school leaders ought to pause, put down the pen, and consider the number of pieces that need to come together for any single, larger reform to succeed. They need to see both the forest and the trees.

Top-Down and Bottom-Up

A contradiction is built into the job description of the urban school superintendent: Sustain a coherent overall reform strategy while pursuing a range of specific school-based improvements and tending to local crises. To be successful, the reformer must blend not only the parts with the whole but also local leadership with systemic planning.
Whether a specific policy should be top-down or bottom-up varies. Superintendents must first find the proper balance between the efficiencies and idiocies of standardization. It is neat and clean to have the same staffing structure, textbooks, food, and paper supply at every school, but at some point—which varies by situation—standardization compromises the quality of student learning. When all teachers are required to work from the same script for a given subject, it may compromise an individual teacher's ability to adapt materials to match the needs of his or her students. On the other hand, in a district with high rates of student mobility or novice teachers, the value of scripted instructional strategies may outweigh those limitations. Excessive top-down direction siphons out the energy and professionalism in schools, whereas excessive bottom-up initiatives may generate inefficiencies and vast inequalities of opportunity.
Superintendents need to “embrace contraries,” to borrow a useful phrase from writing teacher Peter Elbow. They need to accept the fact that good leaders in different parts of the school system can and should have contrary views of what is best for schools and students, and they must exploit rather than suppress those differences. Once different views are embraced and hashed out in debate, the proper balance between top-down and bottom-up policies can emerge.
The comprehensive school reform (CSR) movement began in the early 1990s as an attempt to overcome the incoherence arising when schools—especially those serving a high proportion of children from low-income families—adopted a wide variety of remedies, both top-down and bottom-up, that failed to fit together. Remedies targeted such areas as instructional content and methods, scheduling requirements, school culture, and staffing needs.
The comprehensive school reform movement sought to sponsor teams that could design methods and materials to enable all schools to be high-performing. Teams initially chosen for sponsorship by the New American Schools Development Corporation, for example, took various approaches to helping schools. Each team had its own ideas about what provided the essential driving force of school improvement. Some considered school culture to be the real engine of reform. Others tackled academic standards, technology, instructional materials, instructional methods, or some other aspect of schooling. Each team developed a model or process for change that began by intervening at a specific part of the system and moved on to the whole.

District Leadership for CSR

To provide comprehensive leadership for school improvement, district leaders should define which aspects of culture and practice need to be given a similar emphasis and shape in all schools and which aspects should be adapted to each specific school's students and community. A given design team might argue that the quality of instruction is likely to improve if all educators in a district develop a shared vocabulary to discuss instruction and a common set of goals for student learning. If student mobility seems to be a crucial issue, a design might begin by standardizing the textbooks and other curricular materials used across the district to ensure consistency among schools.
Consider the city of Atlanta, Georgia, where superintendent Beverly Hall turned to CSR design teams and the Consortium on Reading Excellence (CORE) to blend seemingly incompatible agendas of top-down and bottom-up school reform. She knew that teachers would be more responsive to school improvement strategies that seemed to meet the specific needs of their students and schools. She also knew that the school system could not tolerate a crazy quilt of reforms that reduced the central office's role to supporting and monitoring various school improvement programs.
Her solution? First, she would adopt a common template for designing standards-based instruction throughout the district with the support of the Modern Red SchoolHouse Institute, ensuring a good fit with Georgia's state academic standards. Second, she would look to a single external provider, CORE, to focus on improving reading instruction. Third, each school in the district would choose another CSR model to provide a blueprint for change in some targeted area that incorporated Modern Red SchoolHouse's overall template for designing instruction and CORE's specific approach to reading instruction.
Duval County, Florida, shows us another approach to balancing a school-based solution with districtwide coherence. In 1999, the newly appointed superintendent of the 126,000-student school district launched a campaign to implement the America's Choice school design in the district's 30 elementary and middle schools. This model simultaneously encourages both top-down and bottom-up changes. It emphasizes setting academic benchmarks and is insistent that schools align their curriculums to standards, create ongoing assessments of student progress, and commit to professional development for faculty and administrators.
America's Choice is not at all directive, however, with respect to content or teaching methods. It offers lesson plans and materials to schools that want them, but it makes no attempt to micromanage teachers or specify how they should go about meeting their standards. Rather, the model emphasizes a solid structure—on the basis of research showing that schools improve when they set high standards, assess student progress, and invest in staff development—and then backs off, letting teachers and administrators implement this structure as they see fit.
Duval County has seen excellent results. Independent researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that in just two years, participating schools saw their language arts scores jump 81 percent while other schools in the district posted only an 18 percent increase (Supovitz & May, 2003).
Decatur, Illinois, is using the Co-nect model to build districtwide coherence while addressing conditions specific to each school. This model is connecting school reform to district reform by providing timely, accurate, and actionable data that will help promote coherence and an evidence-based approach to professional development. The program trains participants in using technology and data-driven decision making to improve instructional practice. Co-nect is also working to develop a compendium of the district's professional development offerings, which will tie into its finance, human resource, and student information systems. Practitioners, providers, and administrators will have a firmer grasp on how to answer the question, “What kinds of professional development taken by what kinds of teachers and implemented in what kinds of ways get what kinds of results from what kinds of students?”

What the Research Says

Given the recent attention to the testing and accountability provisions of NCLB, comprehensive school reform has been largely absent from the headlines for the last few years, despite the fact that it was written into NCLB and placed under Title I.
CSR remains a vital force in school improvement, however, and it has quietly accrued a large and positive research base, making it an especially promising strategy for urban schools. No other federal or commercial school reform program has been studied as rigorously. Dozens of large-scale evaluations of CSR are currently in progress, directed by some of the nation's leading research firms, and most results are due over the next few years.
The most thorough and respected review of CSR research to date found that CSR showed greater achievement gains for at-risk students than did any other intervention. In their meta-analysis, Borman and colleagues looked at 29 whole-school reforms, combing through more than 800 studies, 232 of which they selected for further review. They concluded that CSR improved student learning.
Most important, they found that CSR was having a modest but positive effect on the achievement scores of low-income students, over and above the gains associated with other interventions. When the researchers focused exclusively on Title I-eligible schools, they found that students in schools that had implemented CSR did better than those who attended non-CSR schools, even when the non-CSR schools offered other special resources and programs (Borman, Hewes, Overman, & Brown, 2003).
The research is beginning to confirm that CSR can raise student achievement, improve the professional lives of teachers, and play a significant role in helping schools clarify their goals and plans.

Urban Schools and CSR

Consistent with the results of Borman and colleagues' meta-analysis, a number of recent evaluations have noted the positive effects of CSR projects in specific schools and districts. Urban districts figure prominently in these findings.
In Philadelphia, for example, all five high schools using the Talent Development model have made remarkable progress in raising student achievement, increasing attendance, and improving student discipline. In four years, 9th grade pass rates in English, algebra, and science have jumped almost 17 percentage points. The proportion of students with high attendance rates grew by nearly 9 percentage points, even as attendance dropped at neighboring schools. In 2003, four high schools posted 20–40 percent decreases in their suspension rates (Philadelphia Education Fund, 2004).
A 2003 University of Pennsylvania study of the America's Choice school design's effect on the academic performance of students in grades 4–6 in the low-income, largely African American Plainfield, New Jersey, public schools revealed thatEven after statistically controlling for the background characteristics of teachers and students and for students' prior test performance, teachers' implementation of America's Choice was associated with significantly higher learning gains for students. (Supovitz & May, 2003, p. ix)
A 2003 Johns Hopkins University study found that the comprehensive Direct Instruction model, which was implemented four years earlier in six low-income Baltimore, Maryland, elementary schools, helped students make dramatic test score gains in reading and math. Between 1st and 3rd grade, for example, average scores rose from the 16th to the 48th percentile in math and from the 17th to the 49th percentile in reading (MacIver et al., 2003). From 2000 to 2002, the Co-nect model helped seven Houston, Texas, elementary schools outscore comparison schools on the reading and math sections of the state's achievement test (Smith, 2003).
Finally, a 2001 study found that Memphis, Tennessee, schools posted impressive gains in student achievement during the first stage of that city's large-scale CSR initiative, which began in 1996. In the course of three years—until the program was scaled up from 70 to 161 schools, sparking political turmoil that eventually put an end to the reform—participating schools exceeded the average value-added gains of other schools in the district by 14 points, and they exceeded state averages by nearly 18 points (Ross, 2001).

A Balancing Act

Peter Drucker, one of the most important business theorists of the past 50 years, said that instituting a change in practice requires that “any decision become ‘our decision’ to the people who have to convert it into actions” (1986, p. 365). From the beginning, CSR developers were quick to insist that if a school were to proceed with a particular improvement model, a tipping point would have to be reached in the numbers of teachers and other staff who wanted to work with that model. Yet whole-school reformers also know that consensus is a fragile achievement and that teacher-led reforms can easily produce schisms where none existed before. This is why CSR developers have made such efforts to balance school-based improvisation with model-driven consistency, local autonomy with districtwide coherence, and practice with research.
By no means does this make CSR a panacea. Remember the well-known experience of Memphis in the late 1990s, where buy-in wasn't firm enough and where district leadership wasn't committed enough to keep a citywide CSR initiative going after the departure of its chief sponsor.
However, when schools and districts choose high-quality CSR models, make a real commitment to see them through, and secure the necessary buy-in, CSR offers a most effective option for urban education reform.

Borman, G., Hewes, G., Overman, L., & Brown, S. (2003). Comprehensive school reform and achievement: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 73, 125–230.

Drucker, P. (1986). The practice of management. New York: Harper.

MacIver, D., et al. (2003). The Baltimore Curriculum Project: Final report of the four-year evaluation study. Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk, Technical Report #62. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University.

Philadelphia Education Fund. (2004). Year four of the Talent Development Initiative in Philadelphia: Results from five schools, 2002–2003. Philadelphia: Author.

Ross, S. M. (2001, December). Creating critical mass for restructuring: What we can learn from Memphis. Charleston, WV: AEL, Inc.

Smith, R. (2003). Findings from the Houston implementation of Comprehensive School Reform in elementary schools in the Reagan High School feeder system. Cambridge, MA: Social Structural Research, Inc.

Supovitz, J., & May, H. (2003). The relationship between teacher implementation of America's Choice and student learning in Plainfield, New Jersey. Philadelphia: CPRE.

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