The Promise and Limits of School-Based Reform: A National Snapshot

By Shields, Patrick M.; Knapp, Michael S. | Phi Delta Kappan, December 1997 | Go to article overview

The Promise and Limits of School-Based Reform: A National Snapshot


Shields, Patrick M., Knapp, Michael S., Phi Delta Kappan


A National Snapshot

The authors summarize what has been learned about school-based reform from a recent national study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.

The focus on the individual school as the key to a successful reform strategy has a great deal of appeal and research support. Intuitively, it makes sense that teachers, school administrators, and parents - those closest to children - are best positioned to craft educational strategies that meet the needs of their particular students. In addition, decades of research have underscored the limits of top-down reform attempts while consistently identifying school-level factors associated with a high degree of student success.(1) Moreover, research in both the private and public sectors has emphasized the importance of shop-floor autonomy and responsibility in the creation of high-quality products.(2)

The profusion of school-based reform attempts, coupled with the inherent vagueness of the term "reform" (and its companion terms "restructuring" and "school improvement"), prompts the need to take stock of this wide-ranging set of activities across the nation. Educational researchers have begun to do so, but generally from the perspective of a particular reform tradition (e.g., "unusually effective" schools(3)) or with regard to a particular restructuring model (e.g., Accelerated Schools(4)). A more generic look is also needed that cuts across reform traditions to capture what is common as well as unique to different traditions of school-based reform.

In this article, we offer such a generic look at school-based reform by summarizing what has been learned from a recent national study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.(5) Specifically, we answer questions about the incidence of, and variation among, school-based reforms; the types of reform activity that appear to offer the greatest promise; and the kinds of support that districts and states provide to these reform efforts. Our answers constitute a national "snapshot" of school-based reform activity, as of the year in which we collected data (1991-92). This view of school-based reform activity may serve as a benchmark that complements more specific and detailed investigations of particular reforms.

Our descriptions of school-based reform draw on the following data sources:

* a survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,550 school districts, in which we asked district administrators to respond to questions about district support for school-based reform efforts and about their most comprehensive school-level improvement efforts;

* mail and telephone surveys of state education agencies, in which we asked state-level administrators to describe reform efforts in their states; and

* case studies of reform efforts in five states (California, Connecticut, Kentucky, South Dakota, and Washington), 16 districts, and 32 schools.

Data for the case studies were collected during site visits of approximately one week in which we interviewed administrators and teachers, observed classrooms and team meetings, and reviewed relevant documents. Although such a database has clear limitations - especially for getting at the fine detail of particular reform efforts and their implementation over time - it affords a broad view of school-based reform, combined with some in-depth portraits across a wide range of settings.

The Nature and Incidence Of School-Based Reform

Administrators in a majority of the nation's school districts report that one or more schools within district boundaries are engaged in some reform activity aimed at improving instruction, raising achievement for all students, and promoting school-level problem solving and planning. This fact raises as many questions as it answers about what, precisely, respondents have in mind. A more careful analysis of survey results suggests a more modest estimate of incidence and hints at a wide range of activities that might be labeled "reform. …

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