ERIC Identifier: ED314546
Publication Date: 1989-00-00
Author: McDonnell, Lorraine M.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
on Urban Education New York NY.
Restructuring American Schools: The Promise and the Pitfalls.
The text of this Digest has been abridged for online purposes.
Demands from powerful political
constituencies, coupled with a remarkable consensus--both inside and outside of
schools--that the educational system is not working as well as it should, have
led to calls for a major restructuring of American education. Two problems
motivate the current restructuring movement--the poor performance of the
educational system and the changing nature of work and workers.
POOR EDUCATIONAL PERFORMANCE
Scores on standardized tests
show only modest achievement in areas requiring problem-solving skills; American
students' scores are low compared with those in other countries; and a troubling
gap persists between whites and minorities and between boys and girls. The
National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that "more than half of
the nation's 17-year-olds appear to be inadequately prepared either to perform
competently in jobs that require technical skills or to benefit substantially
from specialized on-the-job training."
WORK AND WORKERS CHANGE
Concern about the United States'
ability to compete in world markets has directed much attention to the link
between education and employment. Can U.S. schools effectively teach the skills
their students will need in the workplace? Three types of skills, not
traditionally required of those in lower-level jobs, are increasingly critical.
The first is a higher level of cognitive problem-solving skills, including
knowing how to learn. The second is flexibility--knowing how to perform a
variety of tasks. The third is teamwork abilities, including the capacity to
The evidence on how effectively schools are teaching these skills is limited.
However, the most common form of teaching and learning in schools--passive
presentation of information and an emphasis on individual work and
achievement--is at odds with the active learning and teamwork now being stressed
Further, the workforce itself is changing. In a decade, only 15 percent of
the new entrants to the labor force will be native white males, compared to 47
percent in that category today. The new workforce entrants will be those whom
the nations' schools have most poorly educated--minorities, women, and
Critics of public schools say that
they are over-bureaucratic, over-centralized, and unduly constrained by
standardized rules and procedures. Three main options for dealing with this
problem are: school-based management (SBM), more professional teaching
conditions, and family choice of schools.
School-based Management. Based on the premise that schools have different
cultures and needs, SBM proponents argue that state and local officials should
let each school decide how to organize itself and solve its own problems. This
means giving school-site staff greater control over budget, personnel, and
curriculum. The argument is not that SBM will directly lead to higher student
test scores, but that where it works effectively, schools will be more conducive
By definition, SBM promotes variation among schools. If such variation is a
response to differing school needs, it is an advantage. If it reflects differing
levels of either capacity or commitment, it is a problem. In the past, increased
top-down management has been at least partially a response to inequities across
schools in resource allocation, teacher expertise, course offerings, or
instructional practices. If SBM is to work as intended, districts must ensure
that all schools have the expertise to make budgetary, personnel, and curriculum
decisions. Some schools will need only a limited amount of initial training and
planning time. Others will require districts to provide assistance over a much
More Professional Teaching Conditions. Some scholars and policymakers argue
that the solution to problems of teacher supply and quality is to make teaching
more professional. This might occur with greater teacher autonomy and a
differentiated staffing structure giving some teachers leadership
responsibilities. For teachers, autonomy means the ability to exercise their
best judgment about the most effective ways to teach the students in their own
classrooms. It also means that teachers would be partners in decisions about
budget, personnel, and curriculum.
Two feasibility issues need to be faced. First, creating a larger role for
teachers is sometimes perceived to be at the expense of school administrators.
Second, classroom teachers themselves do not support all of the strategies
designed to strengthen teacher autonomy. Much more important to teachers are
items affecting basic working conditions, such as class size limits, higher
salaries, and guaranteed preparation time. Until they have achieved these,
rank-and-file teachers are unlikely to accept reforms that require new roles and
commitment from them.
Choice in Public Education. Three states--Arkansas, Iowa, and
Minnesota--recently enacted legislation allowing parents to enroll their
children in virtually any public school in the state. Fifteen other states are
considering such proposals.
Three key assumptions underlie the concept of public school choice. First, if
parents have the option of leaving schools that do not perform at acceptable
levels, schools will become more responsive. Second, educators will configure
personnel, curriculum, and instructional time in ways so as to create clear
choices. Third, if schools are more responsive, parents will become more
actively involved in school activities, and students will work harder. No
empirical tests of these assumptions have yet been made. Available evidence
suggests that there is no direct relationship between choice and students'
academic performance. Further, while competition can motivate schools to be more
responsive to parental preferences, many will lack the resources to do so.
A change as profound as moving away from mandatory student assignment could
have trouble gaining political support. Opposition does exist. Groups
representing the interests of minority students argue that choice programs would
discriminate against children of poor parents. Students may have unequal access
to different types of schooling opportunities.
As with most restructuring options, costs are a challenge. Magnets cost from
10 to 12 percent more to operate than traditional schools, and some specialty
schools are considerably more expensive than that.
These feasibility issues are not insurmountable, but they do suggest that
designers of choice plans will need to insure that all students have an equal
opportunity to learn about available options and then to enroll in the school of
Accountability became linked with school
restructuring when the National Governors' Association, in 1986, recommended
that in exchange for better student results, states would loosen control of
local districts. State governments are now using data about school performance
to reward, punish, and assist schools. About 25 states have policies that range
from granting exemptions from state regulation to direct state intervention in
the day-to-day operations of chronically low-performing districts.
Educators take accountability data seriously and attempt to improve student
performance on whatever indicators higher governmental levels stress. However,
even in those states that collect a variety of data, only student achievement on
standardized tests is stressed as important, and most tests still focus on basic
skills. The effect in many schools has been to narrow the curriculum.
Nevertheless, the very power of indicator systems suggests that if the
appropriate indicators are used, they could be a potent tool in motivating
schools to teach tomorrow's skills.
At a technical level, states and local districts need to develop indicators
that reveal not just student test scores, but the entire range of school
experience. States need to compare districts and schools fairly, giving adequate
consideration to their differing resource levels and student composition.
But the technical difficulties pale in comparison with the philosophical and
political issues. Where significant authority has devolved to the school level,
how much responsibility should state governments, local districts, and
individual teachers and principals each bear for student outcomes? Where
students can attend any school in a given state, what role do local districts
play and to whom are they accountable? How much authority should be ceded to the
teaching profession to define its own standards? How much should be retained by
Further, to whom are schools accountable? Those with a stake in public
schooling include parents and students, the American public broadly defined, and
a variety of other constituencies, including employers. How much accountability
do individual schools owe to each constituency? Those advocating
decentralization of authority to the school level assume that the greatest
accountability is owed to students and parents.
ALTERING CLASSROOM INSTRUCTION
reform was tried several decades ago by the National Science Foundation (NSF)
with only modest success. Despite these efforts, the classroom of today is
little different from one of 20 years ago.
Of all the restructuring strategies, those aimed at the content of classroom
instruction are most directly related to the problems of underachievement and
the need for new workplace skills. Curriculum restructuring proposals first
focus on higher-order thinking skills and emphasize broad concepts such as
systems, change, conflict, and trade-offs; second, they recommend moving to a
deeper curriculum and away from the current practice of covering a broad array
of topics rather superficially.
Third, proposed curricula move away from the notion of stand-alone courses.
Instead, they introduce topics in early grades and cover them in progressively
more rigorous ways throughout a student's school career. Fourth, these proposals
integrate the practical and the academic. The emphasis is that academic learning
should be inquiry-based, and that practical or vocational training should not be
divorced from conceptual learning.
Another approach seeks to alter the process of classroom instruction. The
most far-reaching (and controversial) proposals call for the elimination of
ability tracking. The effect of tracking on student achievement is not clear.
The clearest evidence relates to differential learning opportunities.
Students in lower tracks receive less rigorous and lower-quality instruction
that fragments concepts instead of treating topics in depth and involves rote
memory instead of critical thinking.
STRENGTHENING SCHOOL-COMMUNITY LINKS
Even the best-run
schools cannot overcome the effects of poverty and the related problems of child
abuse, drug addiction, and delinquency on their own. Even in particularly
effective schools, family background is the best predictor of student
One set of proposals envisions the school as a "settlement house" or focal
point for delivery of a variety of services, including child care and parenting
education, job counseling and training, preventive health care, and substance
abuse treatment. Another model advocates greater collaboration with the business
community and with colleges and various cultural organizations.
In contrast to the research supporting curricular or teaching reforms, there
is no solid evidence that collaborative projects have a significant impact on
student learning. The evidence from most other collaborative projects is spotty.
One major problem of collaboration stems from linking schools with social
service agencies involving multiple programs and funding streams, inconsistent
eligibility criteria, splintered organization of interest groups, and
legislative jurisdictions that preserve service fragmentation. Further
confounding this fragmentation is the way students are referred to various
services. Delivery of social services is exceedingly informal, usually depending
on relations among staff and on their personal knowledge and judgment about
The promise of restructuring lies in the
strategies that have emerged from the natural variation among schools, the
experience of other countries, the exemplary practices of creative educators,
and a growing number of pilot projects. The challenge in fulfilling that promise
is threefold. The first is to determine which of the many reform strategies are
most likely to improve student learning. Not all are worth an equal investment
of time and effort. The second is to move beyond the unique circumstances that
have inspired various restructuring proposals and to implement those strategies
on a widespread basis in schools with varying student needs, goals, and
resources. The third is to ensure that the promise of restructuring is not
diluted by a kind of tokenism that merely adopts the rhetoric of reform.
None of the major pitfalls is insurmountable, but most have not yet been
addressed by reformers.
First, although reform is typically justified in terms of student outcomes,
the benefits we most often hear about are teacher empowerment, parental choice,
and public credibility. Defenders of the status quo may very well argue that
while restructuring represents opportunities for power shifts, it does not have
a great deal to do with students.
Consequently, the link between American education problems and solutions must
be made more explicit. Although the current state of research is insufficient to
establish a causal link between these strategies and student outcomes, at least
a logical link should be specified, showing the progression of changes likely to
be associated with a particular restructuring proposal. This will give
policymakers and the public a basis for understanding what they would be
purchasing with their money and support, and educators a clear gauge for judging
the effectiveness of restructuring efforts.
The second potential pitfall is that each of the major restructuring
strategies addresses different parts of the educational system. Educational
problems are multi-faceted, and some combination of reforms is needed. However,
few efforts are being made to design a comprehensive strategy. Worse yet, some
restructuring proponents are isolated from one another. This is particularly
true for those advocating changes in the organization of schooling and those
espousing different curriculum and teaching methods.
Third, scant attention has been paid to basic feasibility questions. Society
cannot implement a fundamentally different curriculum or ask teachers to assume
the role of gatekeepers for an array of social services without providing
training, time, and opportunity to develop new operating procedures. But no one
has yet made a systematic attempt to determine how much time, effort, and
resources such changes would require.
Policymakers and educators need at least a rough balance sheet showing the
relative feasibility of different alternatives--the level of new resources
required, the extent to which existing resources would need to be reallocated,
the new staff capacity required, and the expected time for implementing proposed
Finally, restructuring raises profound questions. Is the market mechanism in
choice plans consistent with the broader goals of public education? How can the
demands of professional accountability be reconciled with those of democratic
accountability? How can curricula meet expert standards of sound subject-matter
knowledge, and not violate the norms of diverse local communities? If
restructuring is to work, the implications of those changes for the allocation
of democratic values need to be articulated before they are put into effect.