Academic journal article High School Journal

Systemic High School Reform in Two States: The Serendipity of State-Level Action

Academic journal article High School Journal

Systemic High School Reform in Two States: The Serendipity of State-Level Action

Article excerpt

Maine and Vermont have been national leaders in state-level coordination of high school reform. Both recently developed almost interchangeable, new, voluntary, storewide frameworks that describe multiple ways high schools should change. Both frameworks--Promising Futures (Maine Commission on Secondary Education 1998) and High Schools on the Move (Vermont High School Task Force 2001)--were published in book form and include extensive bibliographies grounding their claims that they are research based. Both frameworks recommend principles und practices for improving high schools for all students. Both frameworks were drafted primarily by leading local educators with only modest support from experts based beyond the state's boundaries. Despite these similarities, the strategies for implementing these frameworks in each state have varied and, because of this, the two frameworks' prospects of having enduring favorable impact also appear to vary. Using historical and ethnographic methods to conduct two policy implementation case studies, this paper describes both framework's development and then focuses on early implementation. Together the cases illustrate how more than an adequate whole-school reform framework is necessary to raise the prospect of enduring high school improvement. They also illustrate the potential of anthropological inquiry to the study of educational policy development and implementation.

I. The Challenge of Scale-Up and the Prospective Role of SEAs in High School Reform

If, as current rhetoric promises, we really are to educate all students to a high standard, then it follows that all schools within a jurisdiction need to work well with the students they enroll. It further follows that if some schools are faring better than others then there will be a pressure to transfer ideas and practices from the schools faring better to those that are struggling. It is roughly from this logic that, at the dawning of the 21st century, we have come to the current historical moment wherein through private efforts like the New American Schools (NAS) project (Berends et al. 2001), federal ones (like the Comprehensive School Reform program), and the entrepreneurial efforts of education reformers like Ted Sizer, Bob Slavin, and James Comer, less successful schools are facing incentives and pressure to import ideas developed elsewhere. We have thus also come to an historical moment where concerns about scaling-up successful education models are central concerns (Coburn 2003; Datnow, et al. 2002, Murphy and Datnow 2003) and where entities, like state education agencies (SEAs), that can support scale-up are worthy of scrutiny/consideration.

The quest for viable whole-school change models at the high school level is particularly acute, as for 20 years, if not longer, high schools have been loci of substantial reform-oriented attention (e.g., Boyer 1983; Lightfoot 1983; Sizer 1984, 1992, 1996; Lee 2001). However, despite that attention, high schools have not systematically and enduringly became more successful learning environments for most of their students. The point here is not to sweepingly label high schools as "good" or "bad," but rather to suggest that they have not in aggregate gotten better (as evidenced for example by the flatness of in high school students NAEP achievement scores [Campbell et al. 2000]). The explanations for this relative failure are no doubt multiple, but two key and intertwined explanations are (1) the traditional resistance of high schools to reform (Lee 2001, McQuillan 1998, Muncey and McQuillan 1996, Sarason 1990) and (2) the typical reliance on key personnel for those reforms that do succeed (Fink 2000). In other words high schools are hard to change, but, even when they are purposefully changed, too often the change is temporary, disappearing when a teacher retires, a principal moves, or a superintendent is fired.

Thus, even as the impetus for disseminating effective models and practices is increasing, education research is also demonstrating how difficult it is for individual schools to sustain innovation and success. …

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