Fragmented School Reform and Effective Partnerships

By Carlos Mora

Schools have been victimized by a multitude of well-meaning individuals, agencies and foundations­ each inspired by a private view of education reform or school improvement. School reform programs may not be compatible and thus may pull teachers and students in different directions. The observation that teachers are overwhelmed by multiple­ and many times incompatible­reform efforts is not new. Tyack and Tobin (1994) quote a New York teacher from the 1940s who, referring to a reform of that time, said: "Last year it was the socialization recitation, or the Gary Plan, or dramatization, or correlation; this year it is motivation, silent reading, or the Dalton Plan. Each is taken up in turn, indiscriminately adopted, presently elbowed out to make room for the next newcomer; and yet we are not saved. The old problems remain."

The Federal Government is aware of the dangers of fragmented reform efforts. In a recent report, the U.S. Department of EducationUs Office of Educational Research and Improvement Program (OERI) warns that their conjoint efforts with the National Science Foundation "must not fragment Federal reform efforts through the creation of a multitude of Tsystemic reform' activities. All resources going to a state should be focused on support for a single, comprehensive strategy to attain the National Education Goals."In an article written for the inaugural issue of On Common Ground, Secretary of Education Riley asserts that fragmentation is also present in staff development activities. "Too frequently, professional development activities have been Tone shot,U offer limited follow up, and are isolated from school and district goals. This has been true of many federally funded professional development activities as well."

Due to the sources of funding, urban schools are more vulnerable to the onslaught of uncoordinated reform than rural or suburban schools. For example, New Haven schools receive close to 87 percent of their funding from external sources while only 13 percent is raised from local sources. The 1995-96 New Haven schools budget includes $20 million in grants and $101 million in state aid, while local revenues amount to $23 million. The grant money supports 135 different programs, covering a wide area of subjects from curriculum-based (e.g., improving math and science education through systemic change), to community-based (e.g., adult education for the homeless). Each one of those grants embodies a preferred mode of school reform, including priorities, reporting requirements, professional development, classroom activities, and so forth. A wealthy suburban district receives less money from outside sources, but at the same time is burdened with fewer mandates.

Uncoordinated efforts create a climate incompatible with organizational goals. The lack of consistency in action and unity in purpose creates frequent opportunities for conflicts, misunderstandings, and antagonisms. Teachers and administrators in schools become less productive because part of their time and energy is spent resolving conflicts or clarifying misunderstandings. An obvious response would be to coordinate the reform efforts. In fact, this has been recommended by several observers, including the federal government. As quoted above, OERI suggested that the grants­at least theirs­should support a "single, comprehensive strategy." But it is difficult to bring the current situation into a house of order. Why is it so difficult to coordinate reform efforts? Obviously, the complexity of the education system makes coordination difficult. But that argument is not sufficient, since many other complex systems exhibit good coordination.

Unfortunately, we do not have a general theory of education, powerful enough to cover several areas including learning, teaching and school administration; instead, we have short-range "theories"­or fields of inquiry Q­that illuminate a limited area but are not sufficient to establish connections with other areas. A general theory of education would yield two immediate benefits: (a) it would filter out reform plans incompatible with the theory, (b) it would make clear how the different areas are connected, thus facilitating the consistency and unity of reforms.

The absence of a general theory may be a transitory or a permanent feature of our capacity to understand complex social systems. Maybe one day it will be developed. In the meantime, we have isolated areas of inquiry, but this is no different from the historical development of science. The eminent physicist Victor Weisskopf (1977) noted that scientific inquiry began by asking limited questions. "Instead of searching for the whole truth, people began to examine definable and clearly separable phenomena. They asked not What is matter? and What is life? but How does blood flow in the blood vessels? . . . In time this restraint was rewarded as the answers to limited questions became more and more general."

Two promising fields of inquiry in education are empowerment and accountability. Empowerment has been a popular component of many organizational transformation programs implemented over the last decade by business and industry in the Western world. The goal of empowerment is to bring first-line managers and employees closer to the decision-making process. The strategy seems to be working.

Numerous studies in the business literature document a strong relationship between increases in productivity and quality on the one hand, and increased workers' empowerment. In education, the goal of empowerment is to move to the school building most of the decision making power previously assigned to the central office. It also seems to be a winning strategy for schools (cf. "The Milwaukee Experiment," Business Week, April 17, 1995).

For over a decade now, the New Haven schools have experimented with a very effective model of empowerment: the Comer model. The Comer model is predicated on a school-based organization called the School Planning and Management Team (SPMT). The SPMTs are organized around psychological and academic needs of the school community. However, the fact that at the present time the SPMT does not have a budget for operations limits the extent of empowerment.

Another example of empowerment is provided by the Yale-New Haven Teacher Institute. The Institute is a teacher-based program that offers both resources and training for teachers to express their contributions to curriculum development. The productivity of the Institute, as measured by the quality and quantity of curriculum units developed over the years, is a testimonial of its effectiveness. At the present time the Institute is developing a database of curriculum units developed by fellow New Haven teachers. The intent is to make the database available through the Internet and train teachers so that they are able to use this vast resource.

The effectiveness of empowerment is a reflection of the quality of decisions made by teachers and school administrators who have had neither training nor experience as decision makers before. What decision tools should be available to them in order to discharge their new responsibilities with a fair probability of success? Although we don't have a definite answer to that question yet, it is possible to identify some basic tools that need close attention.

Database of available resources. This may include curriculum materials, training programs, assessment kits, student enrichment activities, university and/or business partnerships, and so forth. The database should identify basic attributes of the resource such as cost, source, availability, training requirements, duration, and references.

Selection criteria. This may include a voting system, a checklist of minimum requirements, a plan for resource utilization, or a combination of these and other selection criteria.

Budgeting and resource allocation. This will include a diagnosis of the current slack in human and material resources.

Program implementation and monitoring. This will be covered under constructive accountability.

Accountability is another popular topic in the current debate over school reform. The American public is concerned with the cost and quality of public education and that concern is being expressed in the political arena. Legislation calling for standardized testing, minimum graduation requirements, endorsed diplomas, teacher certification, school report cards, and district profiles has been adopted by most states.

Operationally, accountability is based on measurement models that define the object of accountability. For example, interest in student outcomes leads to the development of standardized tests or other measures of student performance. Information systems are needed to collect and analyze measurement data and disseminate results. The informational infrastructure created by the measurement models and information systems could be used to convey a constructive facet to accountability. Constructive accountability must be based on a model of information utilization for early detection of problems, timely suggestions for improvement, participatory decision making, and consistent recognition of good performance.

An example of university-school partnership forged around constructive accountability is voluntary accreditation. In 1871, The University of Michigan initiated a program of school accreditation whose original purpose was to "examine" schools instead of individual applicants. Applicants who graduated from accredited schools were granted admission without further tests. That created a great incentive for local schools to become accredited and Michigan began receiving correspondence from schools interested in its accreditation program. A few years later James Angell, then President of The University of Michigan, hosted a meeting of presidents of midwest universities interested in the accreditation program. That meeting resulted in the foundation of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA), a regional accreditation association that expanded over the years and today includes nineteen states plus the Navajo Nation and the Department of Defense dependent schools.

In spite of the fact that the automatic admission status granted to otherwise qualified applicants from accredited schools has been eliminated, schools continue to express great interest in voluntary accreditation. Today, the accreditation process is based on a set of minimum standards or indicators of total school quality. The accreditation process generates data which can be used (and in fact is typically used) for school improvement.

Although the public at large may only be interested in a pass/fail verdict, universities can help schools further develop the informational infrastructure of accountability systems so that the information can be used to inform decisions in the context of school improvement. This possibility is not restricted to school accreditation. Student achievement, teacher certification and re-certification, graduation requirements and the like, are all examples of accountability objects that can be treated in a similar manner.

We hope that with the information provided by a system of constructive accountability and the power needed to make decisions based on that information, school-based organizations like SPMTs will be able to impart order to the many reform programs and make sure that their energies converge at all those points where teaching meets learning.


Riley, R. (1993). "The Emerging Role of Professional Development in Education Reform." On Common Ground, Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, Number 1.

Tyack, D., & Tobin, W. (1994). "The TGrammar'of Schooling: Why Has it Been So Hard to Change?" American Educational Research Journal, 31(3), 453-479.

U.S. Department of Education. (1993). Building a Capacity for Systemic Reform , Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Programs for the Improvement of Practice.

Weisskopf, V. (1977). "The Frontiers and Limits of Science.S American Scientist, Volume 65, Number 4, pp. 405-411.

Back to Table of Contents of the Spring 1995 Issue of On Common Ground

© 1997 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

© 2018 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute
Terms of Use Contact YNHTI