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April 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 7

The Three Dimensions of Reform

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Two innovative schools provide examples of what to look for to ensure long-lasting educational reform—and of how initial improvements can go awry.

Ultimately, only three things matter about educational reform. (1) Does it have depth? Does it improve important rather than superficial aspects of student learning? (2) Does it have length? Is it sustainable over long periods of time? (3) Does it have breadth? Can it be extended beyond a few schools, networks, or showcase initiatives? Successful school reform is a Picasso, not a Rembrandt. It approaches change not from one or two dimensions, but, like a cubist painter, from all three at once.
What leads to success in the three dimensions of educational reform? How do the three dimensions interact, and what strategies secure progress?

Depth: Social and Emotional Understanding

Increasingly, educational reformers want more than improved achievement results. They want deep, powerful, high-performance learning for understanding that prepares young people to participate in today's society.
Learning for understanding is not just cognitive and psychological. It involves more than constructivism, multiple intelligences, metacognition, or problem-based learning. Deep learning is also cultural and emotional. Students must contextualize learning in what they have learned before, in what other teachers are teaching them, and in their own cultures and lives.
In addition to establishing cultural connections, teachers have to create emotional bonds with and among students. These bonds are the building blocks of empathy, tolerance, and civic duty. Emotional understanding—the ability to read instantaneously how well students are learning or are engaged in learning—is foundational to the standards agenda, not a sidebar to it (Hargreaves, 1998). Without strong bonds and sustained relationships with students, emotional understanding and learning standards suffer. When learners are diverse and demanding, educators must be responsive to students' varied cultures, inclusive of their own ideas in defining learning targets or sharing assessment criteria, and ready to involve families and communities to bring learning to higher levels.

Length: Sustaining Change over Time

Educational change requires more than strategies. It also requires ways to anticipate and overcome obstacles to sustain change over time (Stoll & Fink, 1996). Two cases of innovative high schools from our forthcoming Spencer Foundation study, "Change Over Time," illustrate the difficulties.

Lord Byron High School

When Lord Byron High School in Ontario, Canada, opened in 1970, it was one of the most innovative secondary schools in North America. It had a semestered timetable, open architecture, interdisciplinary departments, team teaching, individualized-learning programs, and differentiated staffing. The school's young staff were largely handpicked by the charismatic principal.
Teachers used such words as exhilarating, enriching, exciting, and challenging to describe the first seven years of this "grand experiment." They talked about the collaboration with colleagues, the intellectual acuity of staff-lounge discussions, the active schoolwide professional development program, and the personal and professional satisfaction.
Most evaluations of model schools take snapshots in the early phases. They rarely follow change beyond the initial years of creativity and experimentation. Byron overextended itself in pursuing further change, then retreated in the face of external pressure (Fink, 2000). By the 1990s, Byron had reverted defensively to conventional structures that made it largely indistinguishable from the secondary schools around it.
  • Leadership succession. High-profile changes are often assigned to innovative, even charismatic, leaders who can draw excellent people to them, create a vision, and establish commitment and loyalty. In the words of one teacher, Byron's first principal was "a hard act to follow."
  • Staff recruitment and retention. New schools open with handpicked staff. The staff create the initial vision, form the founding culture, and feel special. At Byron, some of the best teachers eventually left the school for leadership opportunities elsewhere. Later-appointed staff seldom had the same commitment to the school's philosophy, were baffled by constant references to the school's "golden age," or were attracted only to the school's surface laissez-faire image. As a result, the original staff became separated from newcomers or "outsiders" (Hargreaves, 1994). Meanwhile, as the original staff members aged, their energy and enthusiasm for change started to fade.
  • Size. As Byron's student population grew, the school became more bureaucratic. Divisions developed among departments and between in-class and support staff, department heads and classroom teachers, and staff and administration. The small, special community gave way to micropolitical bickering. During the school's enrollment decline, union agreements made newer teachers with less tenure leave the school, and rivalries surfaced over who would be transferred and who would stay.
  • District and policy context. In its early days, Lord Byron received special support from the district for leadership allocation and permission to break rules on staffing. In time, the regional government tightened curriculum and organizational requirements, which forced the district and Lord Byron to fall into line with other secondary schools. Innovative schools might begin as islands in the stream of broader district and policy priorities, but the incoming tides of policy change eventually drown out their uniqueness.
  • Community support. In innovative settings, professional images of a "good school" are often at odds with the community's notion of a "real school" (Metz, 1991). Byron pursued new changes before earlier innovations had been consolidated. For example, in a school of 900 students, unscheduled student time created few problems. But when the school expanded to 2,100 students, time was harder to monitor and the resulting behavior problems led to negative publicity and community backlash. Many parents moved their children to the more conventional school down the road.

Blue Mountain School

In the same district, Blue Mountain School has been open for five years. Established with a charismatic principal and a carefully selected staff, the school has great technological, structural, and curricular innovations.
The school has no subject-defined departments; its staff workrooms are mixed, and school documentation declares that "no subject or extracurricular area dominates another with respect to importance." The initial leadership team had eight process leaders in such areas as technology and assessment and evaluation, rather than the customary group of subject-department heads. In addition to their own subject areas, all teachers belong to at least one process team that meets regularly.
Architecturally, the school has a relaxed meeting space in the entrance area, its main hallway resembles a shopping mall, and the gymnasium and fitness center are used by staff and the community as well as by students.
  • Leadership succession. Blue Mountain's founding principal works in a district that has a policy of regularly rotating leaders among schools. After four years, he was called to solve a problem elsewhere. The new principal is well respected and competent and had been the school's founding vice principal. But she, too, has a hard act to follow. Moreover, this new leader must lead in a rapidly transformed, restrictive, and teacher-unfriendly policy environment.
  • Staff recruitment and retention. Blue Mountain has no special protection in staff assignments to maintain its distinctiveness. Teachers with fewer than eight years of experience have been transferred elsewhere, and the staff has had to accept teachers whom they rejected in previous interviews. These problems have been intensified by the accelerated departure of senior founding staff because of early retirement incentives and a disillusionment with the government's reform agenda. Maintaining the school's original vision with this high rate of staff turnover is an increasing struggle.
  • Size. As Blue Mountain's enrollment almost doubled, its staff expanded, too—beyond the initial core group who worked together and established the school's vision. Newcomer staff did not always understand or share this vision. They were not selected as carefully as the initial group to ensure that they believed in the school's purposes.
  • District and policy context. Government policies to make extensive educational economies, to tighten curriculum and assessment control, and to introduce change at breakneck speed have had dramatic consequences for Blue Mountain. Legislated changes in teachers' working conditions have significantly reduced in-school time for teachers to prepare, plan, meet with individual students, contact parents, and work with colleagues. The leadership team has shrunk to half its original size in a school with almost twice as many original students. A new curriculum has been mandated in every subject. The government has reduced the number of guidance counselors by 75 percent and the teacher-librarians by half.
  • The effects are beginning to show. Discipline problems are increasing. Teachers are retreating to their subject groups and abandoning long-term planning for short-term implementation. Many teachers are disillusioned, showing increased signs of stress and exploring options for early retirement, alternative careers, or transfers to other schools.
  • Community support. Like Lord Byron, Blue Mountain built strong relations with its community from the outset. But even here, administrators report that with media-fueled panics among parents about an alleged educational crisis, the school now must deal with a spate of unprecedented criticisms and complaints that are based on abstract anxieties rather than on concrete experience.
We are feeding these insights back to the Blue Mountain staff to see whether they can reflectively halt the "attrition of change" in their school (Fink, 2000). But individual school improvement cannot be isolated from the surrounding policy context. Individual school changes can be sustained only if government policies do not directly undermine them. They also require strong and continuing district support that recognizes the school's exceptionality and allows it to retain the top of the district's leadership pool and staff committed to the school's distinctive approach.
However, exceptional leaders and staff are, by definition, scarce resources. Is it fair that one school persistently gets the best of them? Does this not undercut the innovative capacities and opportunities of other schools? How does sustaining change in one school affect schools elsewhere?

Breadth: Extending the Model

Sustainability does not simply mean that something can last. It also addresses how particular initiatives can be developed without compromising the development of others in the surrounding environment, now and in the future. Sustainable change is more than a question for individual schools; it extends to whole districts, states, and nations.
Schools and districts are not all alike. Variations exist in the social and cultural characteristics of students, the extent to which schools involve teachers in policy development, the quality of leadership, and past experiences with change. Transplanting an initiative that has been successful in one district or group of schools to others is difficult. Transplanted initiatives soon become transformed ones—diverging sharply from initial intentions.
This is known as the challenge of "scaling up" (Elmore, 1995). It entails developing "ambitious models for school reform" by "building networks of technical assistance and school-to-school support to ever expanding numbers of schools that freely choose to implement the models" (Slavin, 1998, p. 1300). A proliferation of such models seeks to change structures, cultures, and learning conditions of schools by using adventurous volunteer schools and districts as catalysts to scale up reform across wider systems.
Scaling-up strategies have had uneven success (Glennan, 1998). A review of 24 U.S. models of schoolwide change found that only three demonstrated strongly positive effects on student achievement (American Institutes for Research, 1999). Interestingly, these mainly had a rather narrow, prescribed, and somewhat conservative instructional focus on literacy and numeracy skills or on direct instruction. They provide breadth without depth.
Efforts at districtwide change that show promising signs of success have a persistent emphasis on teaching, learning, and student performance; on partnerships that share and develop expertise; on extensive professional development; on the stringent selection of teachers and leaders; and on assessment and accountability factors (Bryk, Sebring, Kerbow, Rollow, & Easton, 1998; Elmore & Burney, 1998).
However, these initiatives are vulnerable to shifts in political control and have no proven record of sustainability (Fullan, in press). They have some breadth and even depth, but no duration. This trend is even more evident where reforms extend beyond single districts. Coordinating systemwide change, maintaining a core emphasis on deep learning, sustaining political support and consistency, and locating as well as sustaining quality school leadership are all problematic.

Touchstones of Change

  • Focus on deep learning, not just on superficial performance results. The educational battle against poverty, disadvantage, and racial inequality involves making broad connections with families and dramatic changes to the structure and the curriculum of schools—to contextualize learning in a deep way and to create conditions for it to occur. Yet this agenda is being pervasively whittled down to more specific preoccupations with literacy, numeracy, and cognitive standards. Of course, literacy, numeracy, and standards are part of a deeper learning agenda, but are not a substitute for it (Sergiovanni, 1999). Better achievement results don't necessarily mean deeper learning.
  • Use model schools to reculture, not just to restructure, the system. Deep learning demands changes. Schools typically instigate this shift with a shock-and-copy strategy. In the Lord Byron School example, educators from other schools felt that the district "rammed the Byron model down our throats," and they became distrustful, angry, and jealous. Many visitors looked for flaws so that they would not have to emulate Byron's policies.Although specific parts of an innovative school's legacy may be widely adopted—for example, Byron's semester system and Blue Mountain's teacher advisory groups—reform by wholesale structural cloning is inadvisable. Unexpectedly, Byron did make a lasting, long-term contribution to systemic reform—through reculturing as much as through restructuring. Leaders who left Byron spread themselves around the system, exporting Byron's organization and philosophy so that they slowly became embedded in the cultures of other schools. Model schools may therefore work best not as blueprints to copy in the short term, but as places to grow systemwide cultures and leadership in the long run.
  • Treat the wider policy context as integral to school and district reform efforts. The goal of educational reform must be to establish not just islands and archipelagoes of improvement, but entire continents of change (Hargreaves, Earl, & Ryan, 1996). Crucial parts of the policy context repeatedly sabotage this goal—yet reformers and researchers rarely confront them directly. If and when particular governments alter these factors, subsequent shifts in political control will probably only reverse them. In the end, educators would do better to capture the public imagination on which governments depend by making their practice and improvement efforts highly visible and by helping create a broad social movement for large-scale, deep, and sustainable transformations in public education that will benefit all students (Hargreaves, in press).
Deep, sustainable, and scaled-up reform is not achieved by mandate, by shock-and-copy strategies, or by other quick fixes. Expecting to make full progress on all three dimensions at once is unrealistic. Three-dimensional reform is an ambitious, complex, and trying—as well as controversial—balancing act. Those who believe otherwise must ask themselves why simpler, short-term strategies have failed persistently until now.

American Institutes for Research. (1999). An educator's guide to school-wide reform. Washington, DC: Author.

Bryk, A., Sebring, P., Kerbow, D., Rollow, S., & Easton, J. (1998). Charting Chicago school reform. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Elmore, R. (1995). Getting to scale with educational practice. Harvard Educational Review, 66 (1), 1–26.

Elmore R., & Burney, D. (1998). School variation and systematic instructional component in Community School District #2, New York City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

Fink, D. (2000). Good schools/real schools: Why school reform doesn't last. New York: Teachers College Press.

Fullan, M. (in press). The return of the large scale reform. Journal of Educational Change.

Glennan, Jr., T. K. (1998). New American Schools after six years. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Hargreaves, A. (1994). Changing teachers, changing times. London: Cassell.

Hargreaves, A. (1998). The emotional politics of teaching and teacher development: With implications for educational development. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 1(4), 315–336.

Hargreaves, A. (in press). Beyond anxiety and nostalgia: Building a social movement for educational change. Phi Delta Kappan.

Hargreaves, A., Earl, L., & Ryan, J. (1996). Schooling for change. London: Falmer Press.

Metz, M. H. (1991). Real school: A universal drama amid disparate experience. In D. E. Mitchell & M.E. Goetz (Eds.), Education politics for the new century (pp. 75–91). New York: Falmer Press.

Sergiovanni, T. (1999). The lifeworld of leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Slavin, R. (1998). Sand, bricks and seed: School change strategies and readiness for change. In A. Hargreaves, A. Lieberman, M. Fullan, & D. Hopkins (Eds.), International handbook of educational change(pp. 1299–1313). London: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Stoll, L., & Fink, D. (1996). Changing our schools: Linking school effectiveness and school improvement. Buckingham, England: Open University Press.

End Notes

1 The names of these schools are pseudonyms.

Andy Hargreaves is director of CHENINE (Change, Engagement and Innovation in Education) at the University of Ottawa, research professor in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College, and honorary professor at Swansea University in the UK. He is cofounder and president of the ARC Education Project, a group of nations committed to broadly defined excellence, equity, well-being, inclusion, democracy, and human rights in education.

Hargreaves was president of the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement 2017–2019, served as education advisor to the premier of Ontario 2015–2018, and is currently an advisor to the first minister of Scotland. He holds honorary doctorates in the Education University of Hong Kong and the University of Uppsala in Sweden. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He has been honored in the United States, the UK, and Canada for services to public education and educational research.

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