Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Role of State Departments of Education in Complex School Reform

    By Susan Follett Lusi

    New York: Teachers College Press, 1997. 217 pp. $54.00; $24.95 (paper)

    Reforming schools in the United States acquired a new meaning with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983. Two kinds of reform efforts followed, sometimes referred to as the first and second waves of reform. During the first wave, state legislatures and state departments of education (SDEs) became more proactive in the school reform process, initially by issuing new edicts regarding graduation requirements and instituting new testing of teachers and students. Later in the 1980s and early 1990s, the second wave of reform focused on "restructuring." For example, schools were encouraged to change the way they organized themselves for the purpose of improving teaching and learning.

    In response to policymakers' observations that neither of these reform strategies (the first characterized by top-down mandates, the second by bottom-up, school-by-school structural change) resulted in widespread improvements in teaching and learning, reformers in the 1990s have argued for a more systemic approach to school improvement, which some have called the "third wave." As author Susan Follett Lusi puts it:

    Systemic school reform differs from the reform attempts of the 1980s in at least two important ways. First, systemic school reform strives to reform the education system as a system; it works for coherence across the system's component policies, something that the piecemeal reforms of the past did not achieve.

    Second, systemic school reform explicitly strives to support school-site efforts at redesigning teaching and learning with the goal that all students will learn ambitious content knowledge and higher-order skills (Smith & O'Day, 1990). It is insufficient to promulgate mandates such as increased graduation requirements from the "top" of the education system (the state). The "bottom" of the system (schools and districts) must be supported and activated to transform teaching and learning. (p. 6)

    Current proponents of systemic reform believe that their vision combines the best of both the "top-down" and "bottom-up" approaches of the first two waves of reform. Lusi calls this statewide systemic effort a "complex reform," which she defines as a state department of education reorganizing itself to support the transformation of teaching and learning in local schools.

    In order to explain the role of SDEs in complex reform, Lusi uses a case-study approach in her book, examining two states (Kentucky and Vermont) and their SDEs that are in the midst of a complex reform effort. Then in a cross-case analysis, Lusi draws some conclusions and makes several recommendations for other SDEs that may be considering a statewide systemic reform.

    In Kentucky, Lusi finds puzzling contradictions. The Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) requires that schools focus on student learning outcomes. To support this, KERA abolished the existing state department of education and required that a totally new department be organized for the purpose of supporting districts and schools in changing their focus. However, this new department is still organized and still functions in a hierarchical, top-down, manner. Furthermore, the focus on the relationship between the new department, on the one hand, and districts and schools on the other is in compliance with KERA and adheres to its timelines. In addition, the department is subject to pressure from the legislature to adhere closely to KERA's mandates and timelines. Given this legislative pressure for compliance with KERA, Lusi is pessimistic that the department of education will be able to recreate itself in a way that will support the spirit of KERA; that is, focusing on student learning in local schools, rather than on legislating management deadlines.

    In Vermont, Lusi finds the SDE progressing along the continuum from an old-style hierarchical organization toward a new structure of teaming around the various functions of the department. The SDE is also moving along a similar continuum from a traditional school approval process based on school inputs (for example, having a minimum number of books in the library) toward a new process of supporting local capacity-building for continuous improvement. Lusi notes that the SDE is about midway along both these continua. This leaves the department personnel feeling at times suspended between the old and the new. It is still unclear whether the department will continue moving forward or slide back into the old ways.

    Kentucky and Vermont present quite different contexts in which to examine the role of an SDE in complex reform. Kentucky's history of state involvement in education contrasts sharply with Vermont's history of strong local control. Kentucky's reform was court mandated and legislature designed, whereas Vermont's was built by consensus using a process of citizen and educator involvement in the reform's design.

    In analyzing the experience of these two states in light of these contexts, Lusi derives a set of seven recommendations for state policymakers to consider in preparing for systemic school reform. The first and most logical is that an SDE needs to model the intended values, norms, and goals of a reform effort, both in its internal operation and in its implementation strategies. This is also likely the most difficult of Lusi's recommendations for an SDE to follow. Among the other six recommendations is an important suggestion regarding the relevance of supporting the creation of local capacity for change, along with an emphasis on knowing the necessity of the SDE's local districts well so state officials can design administrative reforms that fit local school contexts in a supportive way.

    Lusi's case study should be of interest to anyone active in improving schools, including policymakers, educators, and concerned citizens.

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    Book Notes

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    By Susan Follett Lusi

    Improving America's Schools
    Edited by Eric A. Hanushek and Dale W. Jorgenson

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