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Constant Reform Efforts Mire Urban Schools in Unproductive Mess, Analyst in New Book Says

January 11, 1999 -- Although parents and policymakers support reform to cure the ills of America's urban schools, the push for continuous reform hurts schools, says the author of a new book about U.S. education.

School superintendents feel compelled to promote reforms to demonstrate that they can "make a difference" and meet the expectations of their constituents, says Frederick M. Hess, an assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia.

But since superintendents usually stay in their positions three years or less and because urban schools are organized in a way that makes short-term improvement difficult, such reform efforts result in what Hess terms "policy churn" in his book, "Spinning Wheels, The Politics of Urban School Reform." The book was published in December by the Brookings Institution Press.

The constant policy changes distract teachers and principals from core functions of teaching and learning, says Hess, who based his book on a study of 57 urban school districts nationwide. Through his studies and interviews with more than 300 observers of urban education, Hess has become convinced that policymakers misallocate resources in their drive to implement a perceived ideal structure or pedagogy. In doing so, they pay inadequate attention to the more mundane, but more important, questions of how to implement, refine and sustain a specified approach to education within the schools, he says.

"The structure of contemporary urban schooling in the United States has perversely managed to harness high hopes and good intentions in such a way that they produce bad results," Hess says.

Superintendents and policymakers, aware that the public is dissatisfied with urban school performance, embrace reform and promise improvements to build support, Hess says. The cycle is repeated whenever another new superintendent takes over.

The quick succession of superintendents with their constant searches for new solutions ensures that commitments to programs made by ex-superintendents disappear. As a consequence, teachers become disillusioned and resist further change. "The problem has not been that 'nothing ever changes," but that too much change is being pursued too often," Hess says.

"The collective exercise of reform has become a spinning of wheels. More and more energy is expended in an effort that goes nowhere," he claims. "Like a car stuck on a muddy road, urban school districts have not benefitted from spinning their wheels more and more rapidly."

Getting urban schools "unstuck" requires a shift in emphasis -- away from pursuing a so called ideal curriculum or teaching approach -- toward an understanding of why urban schools engage in reform and produce such disappointing results, Hess says. Research indicates that the best schools are characterized by focus and the ability to develop expertise in specific approaches to teaching and learning, he notes.

To help policymakers and educators adopt and nurture a focused agenda, Hess recommends changes that would increase performance and reduce the tendency to embrace short term reform measures. One such change might be adopting rigorous accountability measures, such as the standards of learning mandated in Virginia in 1997. The law, which penalizes schools where fewer than 70 percent of students achieve a threshold score, makes it easy to judge policymakers' effectiveness, Hess believes.

Such accountability measures must go hand-in-hand with efforts to lengthen superintendents' tenure and improve their ability to shape teaching practices, he advises.

"The mismatch between authority and accountability helps discourage superintendents from quietly building on their predecessors' efforts," he says.

Another way to reduce policy churn is to stop rewarding those who promote and engage in reform, Hess says. Rewards extended to superintendents often include the awarding of grants, being named consultants, gaining status in the community, and being hailed in the media for their insights.

One of the most effective ways to encourage lasting improvement in urban schools is to abandon the search for one ideal reform, Hess says. "The search for quick fixes wastes resources while it fosters apathy, cynicism and disillusionment."

For more information, contact Hess at (804) 924-7825 or via fmh3x@virginia.edu. For a review copy of the book, contact Tracy Kellum, publicity coordinator, Brookings Institution Press, at (202) 797-6106.

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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