Challenges to Reform: An Overview of the Study

Article excerpt

In 1997, the Department of Education of a mid-western state contracted with a Canadian university to coordinate research on school change initiatives. By spring of 1997, twelve schools from a sample of 500 nominated schools were selected for study. The selection process occurred in three stages.

In stage one, nominations were solicited from the State Department of Education personnel who were familiar with reform initiatives in the state's schools. Over 500 schools were nominated. Nominations were corroborated from at least one other source who had first-hand knowledge of these schools. Demographic information was compiled on each nominated school in order to provide a broad range of school communities. At the end of stage one, 30 schools were under consideration.

In stage two, 45-60 minute interviews were conducted with principals and/or assistant principals. Interviews targeted core areas of study. Principals were asked to describe characteristics of their school community and how these characteristics emerged and changed over time. Principals were also asked to discuss what factors inhibited or enabled a reform agenda.

In stage three, information was organized by: 1) school level (elementary, middle and secondary), 2) location (rural, suburban and urban), 3) school improvement initiative, and 4) focus/status of the change process. Final selection concentrated on schools that had made significant progress toward implementing school change. From the group of 30 schools, twelve were chosen to participate in the cross-case analysis-five elementary schools, three middle schools, and four high schools.

The twelve schools were assigned professors from five local universities. These university researchers were responsible for writing and designing a case study for each school. At each school, a research team was formed consisting of several educators and one or two university professors.

From spring of 1997 through spring of 1999, research teams collected and reviewed documents of student work, observed and participated in classroom instruction, and interviewed teachers, parents, community members, and district administrators. Research teams also met with coordinators from the Canadian university four times during the research process to share information about their individual schools and the school-university research collaboration.

The first two thematic research reports that follow this overview are focused on one of the five elementary schools selected for this cross-case study. It is a K-4 school with 525 students. Sixty-five percent of the students were African-American, 30% were white, and 5% were multiracial or "other." The school is in a suburb whose boundaries are contiguous to a large metropolitan city. The school district has a long tradition of educational excellence. About 97% of its students graduate from college, with many attending prestigious universities.

Historical Perspective

In order to understand the nature of the reform in this school it is important to know the history of the reform; how it evolved and the pivotal events that shaped the reform process. Prior to 1989, the school principal and a handful of teachers recognized the problematic nature of direct, behaviorist theory based instruction for mathematics. They searched for alternatives. After the publication of the NCTM Standards (1989), these educators embarked on a path of mathematics reform that would eventually require them to radically change their teaching and understanding about mathematics. To support reform efforts, the principals wrote a series of grants (1989 - 2000) that totaled approximately $300,000.00. These funds were used to purchase teacher resources and contract with university and secondary mathematics educators to conduct professional development and action-research. Grant funds also supported teachers as instructional writers and designers. …