Skip to content
ascd logo

April 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 7

Perspectives / How Do We Make Lasting Improvements?

      In Becoming Good American Schools, Jeannie Oakes and her colleagues make a distinction between change that comes from the reform mill and change that is more likely to result in the lasting betterment of schools. From the reform mill roll out all kinds of promising ideas—from the left and from the right—smaller class size, teacher teaming, site-based management, charter schools, longer school days, block scheduling, standards, literacy reforms.
      Usually the reforms from the reform mill are generated as top-down innovations, have funding attached and rules for getting it, and are accompanied by packaged content and presentations. What happens with such reforms is that they often obscure rather than elucidate the conflicting demands and needs of all constituencies—both within and outside schools. By silencing or ignoring those who do not agree, do not understand, or remain unconvinced that the new idea is more worth trying than a competing one, the reforms fail to gain the necessary community backing and whole-hearted support of those who need to implement them.
      "We're always changing but we are not sure why we are changing," laments one teacher (p. 264) quoted in the book. Another principal says of her faculty: We just have so many things going on that you almost get to the point where you just want to quit. The sad thing is that clearly outstanding people are the ones who get close to burnout. . . . The challenges that they take on are so involved that they require multiple hours of outside work. (p. 265)
      How does one marshal the commitment to make schools places where teaching and learning are the primary purposes—schools that are better for teachers, students, and communities? This issue of Educational Leadership probes for some of the answers.
      Commitment to an ideal. In an interview with John O'Neil and EL staff (p. 6), Larry Cuban reflects on the historical tendency of schools to react to pressures of different constituencies. Reforms that last are those that reflect a deep-rooted social concern for democracy, for equity, or for preparing students to lead fulfilling adult lives. Reforms that have not lasted have often attempted to change teaching practice without being well understood or accepted by the teachers who knew most about how classrooms work.
      Commitment from educators. A reform that promotes teaching and learning insists that teachers grapple with questions about what improves learning. In other words, teachers must ask, How and where does this idea work? Do we have evidence from other classrooms that this change will promote learning? How does it fit with our knowledge and experience of what engages students, encourages them to surmount difficulties, and spurs them to continue learning? What do we do now that we need to change?
      Mandates that treat teachers as if they know little about their practice or need incentives to do their jobs will result not in large-scale improvement but merely in sporadic success or superficial compliance. A schoolwide focus on improving instruction and investment in professional development about classroom instruction are vital (p. 35, p. 66).
      Commitment from leaders. From the United Kingdom, Christopher Day (p. 56) presents a study that shows what kind of qualities educators respect in their leaders. Leaders who effect change are those who understand instructional strategies, are values-led, and are people-centered. Researchers Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink (p. 30) document case studies that show that leadership is key to getting reforms off the ground.
      Commitment from the community. Reforms that come strictly from within the school community die hardest for those who believe in them. Hargreaves and Fink advise reformers that they must capture the public imagination and help create a broad social movement if the reforms are to live on after the originators' tenure. Arnie Fege (p. 39) reminds us that the roles of parents are changing. We can neither view parents as meddlers nor give in to each special interest in the name of market response. He endorses a two-way conversation, a debate he calls "the genius of American education."
      Oakes and colleagues agree: In democratic participation, no one feels coerced to compromise or to rush to agreement. Participants must continually remind themselves that all is not talk. . . . Inquiry encourages freely made decisions [and asks] at every opportunity: Is this the way we want things to be? and, What are we going to do about it? (P. 322)
      End Notes

      1 Oakes, J., Quartz, J. H., Ryan, S., & Lipton, M. (2000). Becoming good American schools: The struggle for civic virtue in education reform. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

      Learn More

      ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

      Let us help you put your vision into action.
      From our issue
      Product cover image 100030.jpg
      Sustaining Change
      Go To Publication