School systems around the world have been increasingly under pressure to improve student achievement and promote the skills students need to participate effectively in national and global economies. To achieve this end, many have been implementing school-wide reforms focused on systemic change, based on the idea that a school's performance will be strengthened by a coherent vision of its mission and by a strategy that considers every aspect of the school's operations in organizational restructuring and/or changing the school culture. While the reforms themselves may vary, underlying them all is the recognition that a school includes many components—such as teaching, administration, and finance—that interact.
In the United States, school reform has perhaps become most prominent as a key strategy targeted to schools identified as “lowest performing” under No Child Left Behind—a group comprising 5 percent (PDF) of public schools in each state. Many of these schools have received Title 1 School Improvement Grants that fund implementation of reform approaches such as the school turnaround model and the school transformation model, which require schools to adopt new governance structures, institute comprehensive instructional reforms, create community-oriented schools, and have operational flexibility. In other countries, such as Indonesia and Qatar, similar types of reforms have required school restructuring in order to increase school autonomy, accountability, innovation in instruction, and community involvement.
Although countries differ greatly in how their education systems are structured and financed as well as the extent to which they are centralized, we see both in the United States and abroad common obstacles that undermine the possibility of reform success. RAND research has identified the following as shared barriers to successful implementation:
- Mandated top-down reform, resulting in lack of buy-in from school stakeholders and unfavorable attitudes towards the adopted reform.
- Lack of understanding by school stakeholders, including parents, regarding changes in behavior expected of them.
- Insufficient time for principals, teachers, and parents to implement the new strategies required under the reform.
- Inadequate or ineffective allocation of resources for implementation.
- Lack of continued provision of professional development.
- Inadequate efforts to build school capacity to implement school reform including school stakeholder knowledge of roles and responsibilities, as well as stakeholder leadership and skills.
Beyond the obvious steps of providing adequate resources and professional development, we offer several additional recommendations for what can be done to improve the implementation of school-wide reforms.
To begin with, educational authorities could develop messages for school stakeholders regarding the reform and engage principals, teachers, and parents early in the process through working groups to learn about the reform features and get involved in determining how to best implement the reform within their local context.
Education authorities should also encourage a culture that balances accountability with experimentation to facilitate principals' and teachers' efforts to change their practice. Systemic school reforms are complex and educational authorities would need to provide school stakeholders with adequate time to learn new practices without feeling threatened.
Since research on school reform shows that the level and quality of implementation is a major determinant of outcomes, it is important for educational authorities to monitor changes in the practices and strategies undertaken by schools and teachers in order to identify challenges and act to overcome them. Establishing a continuous improvement process that is implemented at all levels of the education system and embedded in its normal processes is critical to check how the reform is being implemented, refine the strategies that work for the schools, and provide timely and targeted support for implementation.
Proponents of the school reform approach argue that low-performing schools are not deficient only in one area but in multiple areas and thus need multi-pronged interventions that address all aspects of schooling. And, indeed, evidence supports the idea that low-performing schools or education systems require systemic-level reforms in order to improve. In the United States and around the world, school reform efforts must be vigilant in tackling the persistent barriers they face if they wish to live up to the promise of true, comprehensive change.
Rita Karam is a policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.
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