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Volume 18, Number 1
January/February 2002

The Limits of “Change”

Supporting real instructional improvement requires more than fiddling with organizational structures


For the last 15 years, I have been studying the geological accumulation of education reforms in U.S. schools—the sedimentation of the last two or three geological eras. In a book I wrote with Penelope Peterson and Sarah McCarthey on the structure and restructuring of schools, the main finding we report is that changing structure does not change practice. In fact, the schools that seem to do the best are those that have a clear idea of what kind of instructional practice they want to produce, and then design a structure to go with it.

My favorite story, which is now increasingly confirmed by the aggregate analysis of block scheduling—the current structural reform du jour of secondary education—involves a high school social studies teacher I interviewed recently. I asked him, “So what do you think of block scheduling?” He said, “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened in my teaching career.” I asked, “Why?” And he said, “Now we can show the whole movie.”

That captures my take on structural reform. We put an enormous amount of energy into changing structures and usually leave instructional practice untouched. Certainly that message has been confirmed by Fred Newmann’s work at the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools, and other research. We’re just now getting the first generation of aggregate studies on block scheduling, which, shockingly, show no relationship between its adoption and any outcome that you can measure on student performance. Of course, this is exactly what one could have predicted, given the previous research on structural reforms.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

R.F. Elmore. “Building a New Structure for School Leadership.” Washington, DC: Albert Shanker Institute, 2000.

R.F. Elmore. “Professional Development and the Practice of Large-Scale Improvement in Education.” Paper forthcoming from the Albert Shanker Institute, Washington, DC.

R.F. Elmore, P.L. Peterson, and S.J. McCarthey. Restructuring in the Classroom: Teaching, Learning, and School Organization. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.

F. Newmann. “Linking Restructuring to Authentic Student Achievement.” Phi Delta Kappan 72, no. 6 (February 1991): 458–463.