Academic journal article Education

Validation of Reform Rhetoric within a University and Public School Collaborative Partnership

Academic journal article Education

Validation of Reform Rhetoric within a University and Public School Collaborative Partnership

Article excerpt

Introduction.

The call for systemic reform in the educational system of the United States has become a central theme of the 1990s. Advocates of systemic reform argue against past reform movements in their approach of merely "fine tuning" one or two aspects of the system (O'Neil, 1993). State-led reforms were initiated in the late 1980s in response to the dire findings from the Nation at Risk report (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). They appeared to offer promise in their support of major innovations in classroom practices aimed at teaching for understanding and at adopting a student-centered pedagogy (Cohen, McLaughlin, & Talbert, 1993). These efforts have historically engaged schools in activities designed to produce change throughout the system. Yet, continuing to operate within the constraints of the current system reduced their potential effectiveness for systemic change throughout the educational system (Holzman, 1993). Furthermore, no substantive link was established among the many individual pieces of legislation enacted by numerous states. For example, some focused on raising standards, others mandated new basic skills or supported higher-order thinking curricula (O'Neil, 1993). Proponents of systemic change strongly assert that transforming the school system requires changing essential patterns of organization (Sirotnik, 1986) that yield connections among the different components of the organizational structure.

Implementation of systemic reform mandates that every aspect of the system and its participants become involved in change (Anderson, 1993) for producing effective and sustaining outcomes. Systemic reform is about helping schools build their capacities to become learning organizations (O'Neil, 1993) by addressing every dimension of the system - governance structures, curriculum and instruction, connections between the organization, and teaching and learning. The goal of restructuring our schools has become the major proposal for approaching systemic reform today. Restructuring characterizes the need for educational reform in the organizational structure of schools (Peterson, McCarthey, & Elmore, 1996). The underlying assumption of restructuring efforts is that "changes in school organization and the workplace conditions of teachers will result in changes in teachers' and students' roles and provisions of new opportunities for student learning in the classroom" (Peterson, McCarthey, & Elmore, 1996, p. 20).

Participants may change on the surface by endorsing goals and utilizing new materials and strategies toward the achievement of particular learning outcomes. But if the "key players" (the teachers, administrators, the parents) do not specifically understand the principles and rationale for change (Cuban, 1984; Little & McLaughlin, 1993), the practices will gradually fade and the effects will be short-lived. As described by Fullan (1991), educators must "redesign the workplace so that innovation and improvement are built into the daily activities of the teachers" (p. 353) who are pivotal to the realization of the implementations. Since systemic change is about changing all aspects of the system, it is imperative that all its members are collaborators in creating an understanding for designing and implementing change within the restructured system (Bickel & Hattrup, 1995). Thus, a lack of understanding of the principles underlying systemic reform and what these principles should "look like" in practice among the teachers and the administrators is ominous for failure (for further discussion, see Peterson, McCarthey, & Elmore, 1996).

In this paper we explore the validity of the themes around which systemic reform policies are demonstrated in practice based on teachers' and administrators' perceptions of "what is" and "what should be." The literature base of diverse educational reforms is accompanied by an array of new jargon that oftentimes builds ambiguities into the rhetoric of systemic reform. …

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