The call to restructure U.S. schools "implies that something fundamental needs fixing. But what does restructuring really mean? What changes are called for? What are the changes meant to accomplish?" Valerie Lee of the University of Michigan and Julia Smith of the University of Rochester explore these questions in the July 1993 issue of the Sociology of Education.
I would disagree that "something fundamental needs fixing" systemwide, as noted in "The Third Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education," which appears elsewhere in this issue. I would argue that we need restructuring because we now know a lot about how people learn that is not in accord with a 25-kids-in-a-box instructional model. But I would certainly concur that "restructuring" is a fuzzy term and that we don't know what, if anything, happens in restructured schools.
To see if anything had actually changed in middle schools that claimed that they had restructured, Lee and Smith pulled a nationally representative sample from the eighth-grade database of the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) begun in 1988. Because restructuring is such a muddy term, the researchers established several ways of measuring it. Citing evidence that collaboration leads to improved outcomes, they examined schools that reported engaging in team teaching. Given the largely negative findings on ability grouping, they looked for schools that reported heterogeneous grouping practices. To uncover changes in the rigidity of the bureaucracy, they looked at data from schools that had reduced or eliminated departmentalization. Finally, they constructed a 16-item index of restructuring.
They hypothesized that schools that exhibited these features of restructuring would have students who achieved more, who were more academically engaged in their work, and who engaged in fewer at-risk behaviors. Achievement was measured with the NELS tests. Academic engagement was judged from student reports on the frequency of coming to class with appropriate supplies, books, and homework; on the time spent per week on homework; and on whether a student felt bored in school. Indications of at-risk behavior included coming late to school, warnings received by parents about behavior, being sent home for misbehavior, and skipping school.
Lee and Smith hypothesized that students who attended restructured schools would score better on these variables than those who did not. The researchers also hypothesized that restructured schools would distribute achievement more equitably. Finally, they took a look at the relationship between achievement and engagement and the number of students in a grade.
The researchers concluded that "the pattern of associations for school restructuring demonstrated here offers general support for our hypotheses. Although the magnitude of relationships is generally modest, elements of restructuring are positively associated with academic achievement and engagement with schooling of American eighth-graders."
Team teaching and reduced departmentalization were related to higher achievement, although heterogeneous grouping was not. Heterogeneous grouping did produce a more equitable distribution of achievement, however. Restructuring produced modest effects on the measures of academic engagement, but it also increased the prevalence of at-risk behaviors. It is not clear why this last outcome occurs, but one could conjecture that some at-risk students might function better in a more structured setting. To the extent that the restructuring Lee and Smith studied might be associated with more "freedom" for students, some students might not be able to use this freedom to their advantage.
Schools with smaller eighth-grade classes showed higher achievement, higher engagement, and less departmentalization. Less departmentalization, in turn, meant less separation of eighth-graders from other students. Lee and Smith conclude that "early adolescents fare better in schools in which their age group is not isolated and that they are likely to demonstrate higher achievement and more engagement with academics in smaller schools. …