Implementing Whole-School Reform

By Hertling, Elizabeth | Teacher Librarian, February 2000 | Go to article overview

Implementing Whole-School Reform


Hertling, Elizabeth, Teacher Librarian


Comprehensive reform, whole-school reform, schoolwide change -- no matter what name is used to refer to it, this reform movement seeks to improve school performance by simultaneously aligning all aspects of a school's environment with a central, guiding vision.

This Digest examines some of the key issues surrounding the implementation of schoolwide reform and the factors that can lead to failure or success.

How Successful Have Schools Been in Implementing Whole-School Reform?

These schoolwide programs can produce compelling results such as substantial gains in student achievement. However, there is a catch. The designs must be well implemented, and that is where many schools and districts have run into problems.

In 1998, the RAND Corporation released a study of schools that were implementing whole-school designs. Two years after adopting the designs, only about half of the schools were implementing the core elements of the programs schoolwide, and 45 percent were below that level (Glennan, 1998).

How Important Is Outside Assistance?

Because comprehensive reform encompasses so many complex aspects of school organization, a school typically seeks assistance from an outside organization. The school works with a design team to implement the specific model it has chosen. The design team is therefore crucial to the success of implementation, often providing resources and support to the school for up to three years.

The support that design teams provide varies from model to model. Some design teams are more prescriptive, providing a specific set of standards for curriculum and assessment. Others work with the schools to help them create their own standards (New American Schools 1998). Some work with staff for up to a year before beginning implementation; others dive right in (Glennan, 1998).

New American Schools (NAS), a non-profit, non-partisan organization that assists and supports schools through the implementation of comprehensive school designs, cites many benefits that result from the use of design teams to facilitate reform. For one, design teams integrate reform efforts into one comprehensive effort, rather than trying to implement fragments. Design teams also focus on results and recommend actions based on research and development that would be difficult for most local education agencies to duplicate. This can save schools the time and effort of having to invent their own models of reform. Perhaps most importantly, design teams provide a strong vision to schools that can sustain them through the long process of implementation (NAS, 1998).

How Should Schools Choose an Effective Design?

In a guide to choosing comprehensive school reform models, the Educational Research Service (1998) says the school's first, and most essential, step is to conduct a thorough self-study. If the school carefully and realistically identifies its strengths and weaknesses, as well as what staff expects from a design, its chance of successfully implementing reform is much greater. ERS suggests asking such questions as "How does this design fit with the school's vision and goals? What sort of professional development does the design team provide? Is the school prepared to make changes in school governance?"

Others agree that if schools take their time in choosing a design, they will be more likely to experience success. Susan Bodilly, a senior social scientist at RAND, says: "If a design is forced upon a school, you have a high probability that it will not go forward" (Olson, 1999). Others express caution that schools should be provided with some guidelines to prevent them from making the wrong decision about a model (Olson).

Once schools have assessed their needs, how can they determine whether a design will improve student achievement? ERS says that effective programs will set clear goals, as well as provide a means to assess students' progress toward those goals. …

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