ERIC Identifier: ED405642
Publication Date: 1997-04-00
Author: Irmsher, Karen
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
Education Reform and Students at Risk. ERIC Digest, Number 112.
By the year 2020, the majority of America's public school students will be
living under conditions that place them at risk of educational failure. This is
a projection, of course. But the trend toward ever higher percentages of poorly
housed, malnourished, abused, and neglected children is inarguable.
It's a rare school that hasn't already reconfigured its offerings to provide
the extra boost such students need to bolster their chances for academic
success. With no substantial knowledge base for identifying consistently
effective strategies, these efforts have resulted in widely varying outcomes.
In 1991, Congress sought to remedy this and other knowledge deficits by
commissioning the Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and
Improvement to investigate various aspects of education reform. One of twelve
resulting studies focused on the effects of school reform on students at risk*;
this Digest encapsulates that study's findings. The study gathered information
at eighteen schools that had worked successfully with at-risk youth.
The study's primary research goal was to reveal the essential mechanics of
effective reforms for students at risk. Supportive subgoals included documenting
incentives for, and barriers to, implementing and sustaining these reforms.
WHAT ARE THE COMPONENTS OF EFFECTIVE PROGRAMS?
overarching conditions are typically present in schools that successfully serve
at-risk students. First, these schools function as caring, cohesive communities.
Second, they operate under standards similar to high-reliability organizations
In the schools researchers visited, a strong sense of community provided the
foundation for positive change at the building level. In the most successful
ones, reform decisions were made, sustained, and supported at the building,
district, and state levels in ways characteristic of HROs.
Noneducational examples of HROs are air-traffic-control towers and
regional-power grids. To meet the expectation of 100 percent failure-free
operation, these organizations provide whatever level of support is deemed
necessary to achieve this goal.
Clearly, the two concepts are interrelated. The schools that functioned as
high-reliability organizations were also more successful at facilitating the
development of enthusiastic learning communities.
WHAT MAKES A SCHOOL A CARING COMMUNITY?
characterize adult, student, and adult-student relations in schools that
function as communities: shared vision, participation, shared sense of purpose,
caring, shared values, trust, incorporation of diversity, teamwork,
communication, respect, and recognition.
Shared vision, purpose, and values were generally the result of mutual
efforts to define common goals. Strong principals were typically good listeners
who worked with staff, students, and parents to reach consensus.
Incorporation of diversity was a hallmark of all eighteen successful sites.
Frequent cultural celebrations were the norm, along with strong outreach efforts
to involve area families. Communication and participation were encouraged by
open-door policies and open forums for discussion. Caring, trust, and teamwork
generally developed as a result. Respect and frequent recognition of efforts and
successes were evident, stimulating teachers and students to do their best.
A strong sense of community is difficult to achieve in very large secondary
schools. Creating smaller units within larger schools is one effective first
step in cultivating community in such settings.
WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERISTICS OF HIGH-RELIABILITY
HROs typically have three features. With regard to "mission," central goals are clear and widely shared. Staff members and the public believe
failure to achieve core tasks would be disastrous. Because of their high rate of
reliability, HROs are greatly valued. Successful schools are strongly supported
by the community of adults working within the school, the surrounding community,
and the district's central administration, as well as state-level
decision-makers and program developers.
Similarities in "management structure" and "resource management" comprise the
second set of characteristics. The management structure is a flexible hierarchy
with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Administrators incorporate
collegial decision-making when appropriate. Staff members at all levels are
empowered to deal effectively with emergencies across as many traditional
boundaries as are necessary to avoid failure. Standard operating procedures,
based on formal, logical decision analysis, are the norm, and vigilance against
failure is highly prized. Key equipment is available and well-maintained,
databases are up-to-date and relevant, and fiscal priorities focus on high
reliability over short-term efficiency.
"Professionalism" is also a critical feature. HROs rely on the professional
judgment of all staff members. To this end, they stress intensive recruitment
and ongoing training.
WHAT RESOURCES ARE NEEDED TO IMPLEMENT AND MAINTAIN EFFECTIVE REFORMS?
Implementation is considered a long-term process, not a quick
fix. The mobilization of monetary, personnel, material, and political resources
Monetary resources were diversified in all the schools studied. While all
sites made use of external funds such as foundations, grants, and special state
funds, no sites relied solely on these outside resources to fund reforms. These
programs enjoyed local, within-system support for these programs at the school
or district level.
The categorical nature of many public and private funding sources
necessitated a creative, sometimes patchwork approach to project budgets. This
could easily have resulted in pronounced fragmenting of programs, were it not
for the full-time commitments of budget developers and program planners. Title I
and state compensatory-education funds typically undergirded the participating
elementary schools. In some cases, external funding was used to provide
important add-ons to ongoing efforts. When it came to personnel resources, the
principal was a key player. He or she was a "believer," willing to lend support
or to take credit for the program's successes. In addition, each site benefitted
from staff persons trained in the particular school-program approach. Other
personnel involvement included paid classroom aides, parent/adult volunteers,
community volunteers, extra staff time, reform-tested advisors, and new teacher
pipelines (professional networks to colleges or universities).
Each school provided the needed material resources. These included
reform-related instructional materials (books, supplementary reading materials,
manipulatives), along with the typical array of general instructional materials.
In one or two cases, computers played an increasingly expansive role, but this
was not generally true. Staff at many of the sites had invested effort in
creating a comfortable, attractive environment for students. Student-created
artwork was often displayed prominently.
Major political resources came through affiliation with institutions of
higher education and the private sector. In addition to being beneficiaries of
pools of prospective new teachers, some sites received additional monetary
resources and enhanced credibility through their association with colleges and
universities. Several sites also forged relationships with local companies and
firms. Tapping into these linkages opened a flow of fresh volunteers, generated
funds designated for the purchase of equipment and supplies, and provided
opportunities for students to learn job-related skills while receiving minimum
WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS FOR POLICY AND PRACTICE?
researchers believe individual schools acting in isolation cannot ensure that
at-risk students will receive a quality education. While keeping students from
dropping out of school is an important goal, current standards are so varied
that large numbers of high school graduates are clearly undereducated.
They state, "There is simply no way to safeguard the educational futures of
students--especially students who are placed at risk--without the assurance
that, as a nation, we will maintain a coordinated, coherent, and consistent
program of schooling for all."
Local bureaucrats and educators must collaborate with federal and state
representatives to set clear, agreed-upon goals and objectives. The authors see
the current call for a reduced federal role in education as moving in the
opposite direction from what is needed.
They recommend that federally-funded demonstration programs and evaluations
build upon ongoing state and local efforts. At the same time, statewide
assessment initiatives and other reforms should build more effectively on
national efforts to develop standardized profiles of student performance in
various curriculum areas.
In addition to setting clear goals and aligning federal, state, and local
education programs to better serve students, the authors recommend maintaining
external sources of support for schoolwide programs (for example, Title I);
upgrading teacher-training and staff-development programs; and fostering the
development of sense of community among students and staff. A coherent,
sustained program of applied research and evaluation is also needed to discover
more about the conditions that foster or cripple reforms for students at risk.
Finally, all who are involved need a mechanism for disseminating research
findings related to assisting at-risk students.
Rossi, Robert J. "Education Reform and Students
At Risk: Volume III: Synthesis and Evaluation of Previous Efforts To Improve
Educational Practice and Development of Strategies for Achieving Positive
Outcomes." Studies of Education Reform. Palo Alto, California: American
Institutes for Research in the Behavioral Sciences; and Baltimore, Maryland:
Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk, 1995. 83 pages.
ED 397 543.
Rossi, Robert J., and Samuel C. Stringfield. "Education Reform and Students
At Risk: Volume I: Findings and Recommendations." Studies of Education Reform.
Palo Alto, California: American Institutes for Research in the Behavioral
Sciences; and Baltimore, Maryland: Center for Research on the Education of
Students Placed At Risk, 1995. 127 pages. ED 397 541.
Rossi, Robert J., and Samuel C. Stringfield. "Education Reform and Students
At Risk: Volume II: Case Study Descriptions." Studies of Education Reform. Palo
Alto, California: American Institutes for Research in the Behavioral Sciences;
and Baltimore, Maryland: Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed
At Risk, 1995. 384 pages. ED 397 542.