When Improvement Programs Collide

By Hatch, Thomas | Phi Delta Kappan, April 2002 | Go to article overview

When Improvement Programs Collide


Hatch, Thomas, Phi Delta Kappan


Efforts to implement and integrate various improvement efforts face a paradox, Mr. Hatch argues. Although many improvement initiatives can provide some of the inspiration, resources, and expertise that can help build schools' capacity to change, implementing those initiatives can bring new demands, requirements, and costs that schools do not always have the capacity to meet.

THE CENTURY that began with "the one best system"1 is ending with concerns about whether there is any "system" at all. Teachers and schools today are besieged by a host of often-competing demands and responsibilities. While many new practices, policies, and reform efforts may make sense in their own right, teachers and schools are frequently left to try to integrate and coordinate these varied initiatives when they have neither the resources nor the time to do their work well in the first place. Unfortunately, the cumulative demands and resulting fragmentation and incoherence can undermine the capacity of schools to make the very improvements so many desire.

Among the responses to this problem have been initiatives to encourage schools to take advantage of the services and resources offered by organizations promoting "whole-school" reform programs or changes in the teaching of particular subjects such as English, mathematics, or science. Specifically, in 1998 Congress created the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration (CSRD) program, in which $145 million was earmarked for schools that sought to work with one or more improvement programs or to create their own strategy for "comprehensive" reform. Many of the improvement programs mentioned in the CSRD legislation and guidance -- such as Success for All/Roots and Wings, Accelerated Schools, High Schools That Work, and the Modern Red Schoolhouse -- can point to affiliated schools that have made substantial improvements in operations and student performance. Furthermore, it is clear that these kinds of improvement programs can provide a variety of useful resources and services and can serve to motivate and inspire some staff members, students, and parents.2 But it remains unclear whether efforts to increase the number of schools working with improvement programs will lead to more effective reforms on a larger scale and the kind of school-level coherence and capacity for increased student learning that so many desire. Too often, programs are simply added to the many initiatives already in place instead of being integrated into a focused effort.3 In the process, rather than contribute to substantial improvements, the adoption of these programs may further sap the strength and spirit of schools and their communities.

Today, many schools may be trying to juggle the demands of implementing several improvement programs at the same time. For example, in a 1998- 99 survey of the principals of schools in one district in the San Francisco Bay Area (with 77% responding), more than half of the respondents (52%) reported that they were involved with three or more programs or partnerships that were created by nationally known or local groups and organizations; 15% reported that they were involved with six or more different programs or partnerships. Surveys in three comparison districts in California and Texas showed that, of the responding schools in all districts, 63% were engaged in three or more improvement programs, and 27% were engaged in six or more. In one district, 18% of schools were working with nine or more different programs simultaneously.

The programs and partnerships with which schools were involved included whole-school reform programs, such as Success for All, the Coalition of Essential Schools, and AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination), and programs such as Reading Recovery and Connected Mathematics that focus on improving student performance in specific subjects. In the Bay Area district alluded to above, locally developed programs included the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative (BASRC), which provided funds, technical assistance, and network participation to schools that passed through a portfolio application procedure; Joint Venture Silicon Valley (JVSV), which offered funds and resources to schools interested in coordinating their curricula and assessments with other schools in their feeder pattern; and a local university that offered professional development school partnerships. …

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