"I don't know what reform means anymore. I just wish we'd get it right."
-- Chicago school board President Gery Chico, addressing a management association conference Nov. 5 in Baltimore.
It's on the lips of educators and politicians from coast to coast, their holy grail. Chicago has been reforming its schools for more than a decade. Houston, Memphis and San Diego are said by various educators to be the hot new reform cities.
Since the 1983 release of "A Nation at Risk," a report that documented U.S. public education woes, scores of school board members and superintendents have called their own district, or someone else's, a model for school reform.
But a growing number of educators say it's time to scale back the rhetoric and lower the expectations. They say that few, if any, school systems have achieved -- and sustained -- the broad turnaround in performance that the claim of reform suggests.
Some researchers say the hyperbole is not only misleading but dangerous, because it creates the illusion that improving schools is easy. Hearing that other cities have managed to fix their troubled schools, parents and politicians wonder why their principals and teachers can't get it right.
The focus on district-wide policies and initiatives is wrong to begin with, some educators say, because real change happens at individual schools and from the bottom up.
John Goodlad, head of the Center for Educational Renewal at the University of Washington in Seattle, said he can't stand the word "reform."
"The word implies bad people who need to be reformed. And that is part of the reason that school reform is doing so badly -- people doing things for other people, rather than people doing things for themselves," said Goodlad, whose prescription for better schools emphasizes raising teacher quality.
Ted Sizer, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, agrees that reform is a school-by-school proposition. In fact, he said he can't think of a single big-city district that has thoroughly reformed itself.
"The traditional effort is for the superintendent to ride in on the white horse and say, 'We are going to have reform, and here it is, bang, bang, bang.' It's never worked," Sizer said. "Districts can arrange the resources and incentives in such a way that an individual school can reshape itself, but a superintendent can't do it in every school from on high. It hasn't happened yet."
Frederick M. Hess, an assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia, looked at the progress of 57 troubled school districts from 1992 to 1995 in the book "Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform." His conclusion: None had made sweeping and lasting improvements. Several of the districts pursued ideas that were good in theory but did not match community conditions.
Educators say the trumpeting of a district's success can obscure the fact that what works in one city isn't necessarily transferable. The effectiveness of a strategy might depend on parent involvement, teacher union rules or the level of public spending on education, and those conditions can vary enormously from place to place.
Sometimes, one district quickly lays claim to success with an initiative. Other districts soon follow its lead, but by then, the first district has quietly realized that its program didn't work as well as advertised.
After Chicago's mayor took control of the city school system in 1995, for example, the system stopped promoting weak students to keep them in their age group. Based on initial reports of the program's success, other districts launched similar efforts. But various researchers recently have found that Chicago students who were "socially promoted" did as well as or better than those who were retained.
"An idea that is being considered a reform in one district is being abandoned in another," said Paul T. Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Furthermore, none of these ideas lasts very long."
The bottom line, experts said, is that school leaders need to stop focusing on one program or theory -- or on one district's experience with reform -- and instead use a combination of approaches, making sure that the programs are suited to their city and to particular schools.
"There are no standardized answers," Sizer said. "There are common directions. There are accumulated wisdoms. But there isn't one best system. There never has been."
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