Restructuring for Higher Achievement

By Bracey, Gerald W. | Phi Delta Kappan, June 1995 | Go to article overview
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Restructuring for Higher Achievement

Bracey, Gerald W., Phi Delta Kappan

In the 1980s "restructuring" became a popular term in education circles. In fact, by the end of the decade it had become so popular that some people felt it had become meaningless. Assuming that the word retains some meaning, we ought to ask, "Does it work?" That is, do schools that claim to have restructured themselves function any better than schools that follow traditional practice? Some new research by Valerie Lee of the University of Michigan and Julia Smith of the University of Rochester suggests that the answer may well be yes. A summary of their report appears in the fall 1994 issue of Issues in Restructuring Schools.

Lee and Smith begin by seeking to contrast traditional American high schools with restructured schools. The usual high school conforms to what they call a "bureaucratic" structure. In the hope of obtaining economies of scale, these schools are large, offer many courses, have a principal who functions as a CEO, are organized by department, and engage in tracking. While there are indisputable economies of scale, there is a loss of sustained personal contact between the staff and the students.

In contrast to the bureaucratic school stands the communal school. "Complicated rules and procedures are less necessary because the school setting is smaller, contact between people is more sustained and more personal, and there is more agreement on organizational purpose for which people share responsibility. In a communally organized school, teachers work collaboratively, often in teams that are formed across subjects. Instead of having top-down directives, teachers have more input into decisions affecting their work."

For their study Lee and Smith chose schools included in the surveys of the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88). Recognizing that restructuring efforts are anything but uniform, the researchers distinguished between the activities of schools that did not depart from traditional practice and those that did. Using a set of criteria on restructuring from the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools, they categorized school reform practices as traditional, moderate, or restructuring. A school was considered to be a restructuring school if it reported having in place any three of 12 practices judged to be restructuring reform practices. Of the schools that met this criterion, most had adopted a total of 11 to 13 of the 30 reform practices identified by the researchers.

At the level of individual pupils, the researchers imposed statistical controls on initial differences in socioeconomic status (SES), minority status, gender, and differences in engagement and achievement prior to reaching high school. At the school level, controls were in place for SES, minority concentration, course taking, and the degree to which different students took different courses within each grade.

The first finding of note was that most of the school reform practices adopted were not those that would lead to a restructured school. Instead, they were practices that would maintain a traditional organization. Tradition-oriented practices such as increased graduation requirements had been adopted in about 60% of the schools. Restructuring practices occurred much less frequently. For example, having interdisciplinary teaching teams occurred in 24% of the schools, mixed-ability grouping in math or science in 21%, and flexible time for classes in only 9%. Clearly the millennium of school restructuring will have to wait a bit.

Having located schools with various types of reforms in place - and schools that engaged in no reform practices - the researchers next sought to determine what difference restructuring and traditional reforms made. The achievement levels of students in schools with no reforms and in schools with restructuring reforms were compared to those of students in schools with traditional reforms.

As part of NELS:88, students took reading, mathematics, history, and science tests in the eighth grade and again in the 10th grade.

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