Reform Efforts Mire Urban Schools in Unproductive Mess, Analyst
in New Book Says
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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,
accountability measures must go hand-in-hand with efforts to lengthen
superintendents' tenure and improve their ability to shape teaching
practices, he advises.
mismatch between authority and accountability helps discourage superintendents
from quietly building on their predecessors' efforts," he says.
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
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."
more information, contact Hess at (804) 924-7825 or via email@example.com.
For a review copy of the book, contact Tracy Kellum, publicity coordinator,
Brookings Institution Press, at (202) 797-6106.