Harvard Educational Review
  1. Challenges of Conflicting School Reforms

    Effects of New American Schools in a High-Poverty District

    By Mark Berends, JoAn Chun, Gina Schuyler, Sue Stockly, and R. J. Briggs

    Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2002. 163 pp. $25.00.

    Numerous current education reforms focus on individual schools. Notably, however, the schools in which these reform programs are implemented still must operate within school districts, which may or may not have the same mission and goals as individual schools. In Challenges of Conflicting School Reforms: Effects of New American Schools in a High-Poverty District, RAND researchers tell the story of what happens when a school’s program does not mesh completely with its district’s program. The report, part research finding, part cautionary tale, holds advice for policymakers and educators walking a difficult line between school decentralization and increased accountability efforts at the district and state levels.

    New American Schools (NAS) is a 12-year-old reform effort, primarily focused on education reform through whole-school reform models. Seven reform models were included in the scale-up phase of NAS: Audrey Cohen College (also called Purpose-Centered Education); Authentic Teaching, Learning, and Assessment for All Students (AT); Co-NECT Schools (Co-NECT); Expeditionary Learning/Outward Bound (ELOB); Modern Red Schoolhouse (MRSH); National Alliance for Restructuring Education (NARE), also called America’s Choice Design Network; and Success For All/Roots & Wings (SFA/RW). As RAND reports, “While each design has unique features, the designs commonly emphasize school change in the following areas (referred to as elements): organization and governance; teacher professional development; content and performance standards; curriculum and instructional strategies; and parent and community involvement” (p. 3).

    RAND researchers “examine the conditions of NAS classrooms compared with non-NAS classrooms and . . . study the relationships between classroom conditions and student achievement in a high-poverty district in San Antonio, Texas” (p. xvii). A primary focus of the study was to “examine the relationships among various factors (at the district, school, teacher, classroom, and student levels) and the implementation of designs, classroom practices, and student achievement” (p. 3). During the study period, four of the seven scale-up models were being implemented in San Antonio: Co-NECT, ELOB, MRSH, and SFA/RW. The research design, described in chapters one and two, included teachers at NAS sites in the district and teachers from sites not implementing NAS models. Data collection efforts included teacher and principal surveys, information about student achievement and background characteristics, classroom observations and artifacts, and interviews with district staff.

    Chapter three describes the district and state context in which the NAS models were to operate. The authors describe a scenario that will not be foreign to individuals familiar with urban districts: forty-six out of San Antonio’s ninety-four schools were “low performing,” based on the TAAS (Texas’ criterion-referenced test), and the district had just hired a new superintendent. The superintendent restructured the district, “eliminating certain central office positions, creating new ones, and reallocating resources to better serve schools” in an effort to create a “balanced blend of site-based and central operations management” (p. 34).

    As part of her reform strategy, the superintendent required principals to pay attention to instruction and created “Instructional Guides,” or master teachers at the school level, both to support and monitor instructional practices at schools and to represent school needs to district staff, and vice versa. Principals and teachers were encouraged to talk with each other within and across schools in an effort to improve collaboration and communication. The district also selected new curriculum materials: Everyday Math, and Balanced Literacy and Widening Parameters for reading. Teacher professional development focusing largely on math, reading, and technology was required; principals also received new training. Finally, the district created a “Parent Community Partnership Network” in the hopes of increasing parent and community involvement in the schools.

    Believing that the New American Schools models could support the district’s reform efforts, the superintendent and district staff decided that schools should choose and implement one of the district-approved NAS models. Schools could choose from among four preselected models: MRSH, ELOB, Co-NECT, and SFA/RW. While schools did not have to select a model immediately, the superintendent informed school staffs that she expected them to choose a model within three years. The district maintained a support role for schools operating NAS models; for example, district staff made sure that Co-NECT schools (a technology-heavy model) had computer network systems necessary for program implementation. Throughout the district-level reforms, the TAAS was not far from educators’ minds. Schools were rated based on TAAS scores and, in 1995, the state introduced “a financial incentive to demonstrate improvement or sustained success on TAAS” (p. 46).

    The conflict between the need to improve TAAS scores and the desire to implement school-selected NAS models is explored throughout much of the book. First, schools that were encouraged to adopt reform models were also the lowest performing schools in the district. Teachers in these schools would come under great pressure to increase TAAS scores. “For one school, this meant neglecting its NAS design altogether in favor of teaching basic skills instruction all year long” (p. 57). Second, the lowest performing schools felt that they had to adopt some model, and this had to be done quickly. While 60 percent of teachers needed to vote in support of a model for it to be selected, non-adoption, particularly among low-performing schools, was not an option. Third, while the Instructional Guides were supposed to help with NAS implementation, teachers perceived that the district’s focus was test results — and schools that adopted NAS models were also expected to follow the district’s mathematics and reading initiatives. In fact, much of the professional development provided by the district supported the district’s initiatives, not the schools NAS-related needs.

    There was not complete discordance between the NAS models and the district’s initiatives; for example, schools that adopted SFA/RW were not required to follow the district’s reading program. Notably, however, teachers reported that even the district’s chosen math model, Everyday Math, was neglected in efforts to teach basic skills for the impending TAAS.

    While the conflict between centralized district efforts to improve TAAS scores and decentralized school models is apparent, chapter five offers glimpses into how NAS schools were different than non-NAS schools. Teachers in NAS schools reported using nontraditional grouping practice more than their non-NAS peers. NAS school teachers also reported higher levels of reform-like instructional strategies, such as students “work[ing] on problems for which there is not obvious method or solution” and “perform[ing] research projects” (p. 90), than non-NAS teachers, although both groups’ use of such instructional strategies grew over the course of the study. Teachers in NAS schools overwhelmingly reported that NAS had helped improve aspects of their professional lives and had benefited their students, including “job satisfaction, students’ achievement, students’ enthusiasm for learning, classroom curriculum, and students’ engagement in learning” (p. 104). And while teachers did not report major changes in teaching style as a result of NAS design training, many did report a higher degree of involvement in planning lessons and curriculum for their students. Most notably, the differences between NAS and non-NAS schools were often not as great as the differences between survey responses in years one and two of the study, which the researchers conclude “is likely a reflection of the dramatic level of change within the district itself” (p. 106).

    Chapter five also offers lessons about reform implementation. Researchers describe reform practices in the district and what these reform practices look like in classrooms (the adopted curriculum versus the enacted curriculum). Notably, schools following the same NAS model were not uniform in their approach to student grouping, even when grouping was an important aspect of the model. Even within schools, teachers did not necessarily follow uniform approaches. In this aspect, the book falls short: it is never clear how well the models are, in fact, implemented within and across schools.

    Without this knowledge, it is difficult to proceed through chapter six, where the researchers examine the effects of NAS models on student achievement. Student assessment results could indicate that the models were not associated with student learning. However, the results also could reflect low levels of design implementation. In fact, researchers find little difference between student achievement in NAS and non-NAS schools. While the researchers explain that the results may be due to the early stage of the implementation or that the schools looked similar because of districtwide efforts, it may also be that reforms were not implemented as completely as intended or even as reported.

    The authors conclude in chapter seven with lessons for future efforts to reform high-poverty schools. They argue that reforms need to offer specific guidance to teachers about what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to do it. Further, reforms need to have rewards and sanctions associated with them, and need to have some degree of “authority” — that is, they need to be seen as legitimate and have support from teachers and administrators. Lastly, reforms at the school and district levels need to be in coherence and alignment with each other, stability matters (e.g., when San Antonio’s reform-minded superintendent left the district, so did high-level support for the NAS reform model), and school-level leadership affects reform implementation. While many of these lessons are not particularly new, they present an important reminder for policymakers hoping to enact whole-school reform at the school level, while increasing accountability requirements and centralizing curriculum at the district and state levels.

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    Book Notes

    Challenges of Conflicting School Reforms
    By Mark Berends, JoAn Chun, Gina Schuyler, Sue Stockly, and R. J. Briggs

    A Student’s Guide to Methodology
    By Peter Clough and Cathy Nutbrown

    In the Deep Heart’s Core
    By Michael Johnston

    Using Data/Getting Results
    By Nancy Love

    Pregnant Bodies, Fertile Minds
    By Wendy Luttrell

    Lessons to Learn
    By Molly Ness

    Case Study Research
    By Robert K. Yin