School Reforms That Actually Work


There is a story about a guy who banged his head against a stone wall because “it felt so good when he stopped.” It’s time that we stop banging our heads against the wall trying to implement school reforms that are ill-conceived, and it’s time for policymakers to look at reforms that have actually succeeded in raising achievement for challenged populations of students.

The Consortium on Chicago School Research, in Organizing Schools for Improvement, studied schools attempting reform in that city. Some schools with very similar demographics ended up with very dissimilar outcomes. Schools that showed success embraced “Essential Supports.” These supports, in essence, are as follows:

  • leadership—principals organized their staffs and community assets in support of student learning;
  • improved community ties—the principal and school staff reached out and made school more welcoming for parents and created links to other community institutions;
  • increased professional capacity—a focus on quality professional development and continuous improvement;
  • student-centered learning environment—an environment where students feel safe and supported to engage in ambitious intellectual activity; and
  • instructional guidance—gathering the whole school community around a common vision of curriculum and instruction promoting ambitious academic achievement.

Another reform model that increased student achievement is detailed in Improbable Scholars, by University of California Berkeley Professor David Kirp.  Although Kirp concentrates on one school district, in Union City, New Jersey, he also references districts implementing a similar model, including Sanger in California.

Kirp emphasizes that there are no “silver bullets,” no overnight transformations available in reform that works.  It just takes hard work sustained over time by stable school staffs and managers.

The essentials of what makes Union City a success are “familiar to any educator with a pulse.” These include:  high-quality preschool; “word-soaked” classrooms; true bilingual education; coherent curricula; test scores used to diagnose problems; teachers involved in continuous learning; schools enlisting parents as partners; and, the schools maintain a climate of high expectations, caring, and trust.

Most importantly, Kirp talks about what doesn’t work: e.g., school chiefs who are “long on pressure and short on supports.” He also notes that absent in Union City are mass firings of teachers, the closing of schools, Teach For America, and charter schools.

One California experiment in what works in school reform is known as the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA). QEIA awarded certain “low performing” schools extra funding if they agreed to conform to a number of policy changes including reducing class sizes and keeping an experienced teaching staff at the school.

Researchers Courtney Malloy and Andrea Nee completed a study, Pathways to Change—Learning from Exemplary QEIA Schools, that found that schools adopting certain common features could be considered “exemplary;” that is, they improved their state ranking by at least three deciles.

The features uncovered by the study were: exemplary leadership; a common vision; willingness to innovate; ongoing and open communication; and drive and dedication. In addition, for collaboration to serve as a gateway for change, a school climate of trust and respect, as well as supportive leadership, are absolute requirements.

The National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academies (including the National Academy of Sciences, the National Council of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine), wrote in a 2011 report that standardized test scores “fall short of providing a complete measure of student performance.”

The “conventional wisdom” of the self-styled education reformers is that, in education, “money doesn’t matter.” The QEIA experiment proves this wrong. Teachers interviewed at the exemplary schools asserted that a relatively expensive reform—class size reduction—was central to their success. Other keys were collaboration time, mentors, and coaches to provide quality professional development for teachers.  These are all “cost” items.  In Chicago, state spending per child is half again what California’s is, and in New Jersey spending is almost twice as much.

Reform strategies outlined in this article are models of reform demonstrated to work. These models emphasize the importance of school leadership that can organize teachers, parents, and communities around a consensus-based goal. All emphasize that key supports must be in place for teachers and students. Such reform does not scapegoat teachers or demonize their unions. All provide evidence that it is time to stop banging our heads against the wall of false reform and begin implementing reform that works.

Republished by permission of the author.

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