Academic journal article Planning and Changing

The Eye of the Beholder: Superintendent Perceptions of State Systemic Reform

Academic journal article Planning and Changing

The Eye of the Beholder: Superintendent Perceptions of State Systemic Reform

Article excerpt


Since their inception, one of the major conceptual bases for standards-based reforms has been the notion of alignment. In a local sense, alignment means that in order to improve student achievement and learning, school districts need to have clear standards of attainment with which their curriculum and accountability measures must align. At the state level, this notion of alignment or coherence refers to the state-developed policies that comprise its accountability system. In the most basic way, this would entail two main elements-the content standards themselves and the assessments used to evaluate school and student performance. As with the local level, this notion of alignment is paramount and the logic straightforward: the greater the degree of alignment and coherence between the state standards policies and the assessment measures, the greater the power (strength) of the accountability system, and thus, the greater the likelihood of seeing significant improvement in student outcomes. Following closely on this alignment issue is that of policy strength or impact. Again, the logic is straightforward: in essence, the bigger the stick, the greater the motivation to act and improve. Thus, it seems reasonable to believe that states that evince high-impact, high-coherence policies should also evince more activity at the local level and, ultimately, greater gains in outcomes for students.

This study attempts to investigate the first part of this proposition by examining superintendents' perceptions of state policy strength or impact in two states, one that exhibits what can be termed high impact policies (New Jersey) and the other that exhibits relatively low impact policies (Pennsylvania). Previous work has examined the intent of systemic reform policy formation in both of the states, searching for intended policy outcomes and explicating the means by which each state hoped to achieve the desired ends (Prestine, 2003). This study now moves to the next step: an examination of the perceptions and understandings of the first-line implementor of such policies-superintendents.

A brief background review of two key factors, systemic school reform and policy implementation issues, is presented here as a means to orient the findings from this study.

Systemic School Reform

Since its introduction in the early 1990s, conceptions of systemic school reform have grown and evolved. For all intent and purposes, many people now act as if systemic school reform is synonymous with standardsbased reform, and the terms are used interchangeably. However, it is the original ideas of systemic school reform that are of interest here as something somewhat separate from the more recent and more narrow incarnation as standards-based reform. Since these ideas are foundational for the study outlined below, it is appropriate to revisit them.

As first articulated by Smith and O'Day (1991), systemic school reform offered a fairly radical approach to changing and improving schools. The authors argued forcefully that it was little wonder that schools were in the sorry state that they were because the system was, in fact, in total and complete disarray. Initiative after initiative, policy after policy, program after program had come down the pike only to meet with dismal failure, especially in the nation's large urban schools. Educational policy was at best a hodgepodge with no rhyme or reason to it, and local districts and schools were proving to be largely intractable to efforts to significantly change them.1 A growing number of critics (see, for example, Clune, 1993; Fuhrman, 1993; Timar, 1989) pointed out that many of the problems were directly attributable to an appalling lack of policy coherence both within and between levels of the educational system. Local educational agencies (LEAs), limited by position and power within the system, were simply incapable of meaningfully addressing or rectifying the situation. …

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