The Costs of Sustaining Educational Change through Comprehensive School Reform

By Odden, Allan | Phi Delta Kappan, February 2000 | Go to article overview

The Costs of Sustaining Educational Change through Comprehensive School Reform


Odden, Allan, Phi Delta Kappan


Mr. Odden provides data that can be used by readers to make judgments about which educational strategies and staffing positions are needed in their own locales and about how much additional money will be required to fund them.

SUSTAINING fundamental educational change is difficult and complicated. Implementing and institutionalizing a curriculum reform, the focus of educational change in the 1970s and early 1980s, was difficult enough. Implementing and sustaining schoolwide change through a complete restructuring effort - what has come to be known as "comprehensive school reform" - is even more challenging. In this article, I discuss the costs of such a thoroughgoing and complex change effort.

Comprehensive school reform is a growing phenomenon across the country. It began in the early 1990s with a few whole-school designs, such as Success for All, Accelerated Schools, and the Coalition of Essential Schools.1 It expanded with the scale-up of the comprehensive school designs developed by the New American Schools (formerly the New American Schools Development Corporation).2 It accelerated last year with the Obey-Porter legislation, which set aside nearly $50 million in federal funds to encourage states, districts, and schools to engage in comprehensive school reform.

Comprehensive school reform seeks to have schools create, adopt, or adapt an educational approach that integrates all students and programs into a cohesive, schoolwide educational strategy. Comprehensive school reforms have a curriculum that sets high standards for all students and doesn't "water down" material for those in categorical programs, but makes use of appropriate instructional strategies that provide extra help for students who must struggle to master the regular curriculum. Comprehensive school reform also addresses the grouping of students for different subjects, the scheduling of instruction and planning time for teachers, pupil support and home outreach strategies, professional development, and the use of computer technologies.

Implementing a comprehensive school reform model, such as Roots and Wings or the Modern Red Schoolhouse, requires substantial changes in program and staffing because these models tend to staff schools differently, group students differently, and approach curriculum and instruction differently. In short, implementing comprehensive school reform represents a major educational change effort.

Cost Issues

One of the most problematic issues raised in comprehensive school change has to do with cost. Most discussions of comprehensive school reform seem to assume that such reforms can be implemented with little if any new funds. Underlying the idea of comprehensive school reform is the notion of using existing resources differently. But it is not clear whether schools need additional money to implement comprehensive school changes or whether existing funds, if reallocated, could cover the costs.

Those who have followed the New American Schools (NAS) designs are probably familiar with my cost analysis published in 1997.3 These cost data emerged from a series of conversations with NAS staff members and with several members of

the design teams associated with each of the NAS models. In these conversations I sought to identify the "cost structure" of each design - to identify what staff and other resources would be required to fully implement the design and to determine what the total costs would be. I identified two types of costs: 1) ongoing operating costs, such as cost for teachers, tutors, and instructional facilitators; and 2) other costs that might be transitional, such as design-based assistance - the several years of training and professional development provided by the design team.

The figures for final costs appeared in a widely disseminated paper. All the figures that made up the costs of the comprehensive reforms were in addition to "core" staffing of one teacher for every 25 students and one principal for a building with 500 students. …

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