Curriculum in a box

Packaged programs for improving instruction and school management grow in popularity, even as their effectiveness is questioned

Some observers disparagingly refer to the approach as reform on the quick. Others praise it as the potential savior of the American education system.

However they are assessed, "whole school reform" programs have slipped largely unheralded into US schools. Such reform gives schools roadmaps to redesign themselves - examining everything from a curriculum to how a school is managed. Often an outside consultant plays a key role in reviewing the most minute daily details.

Yet growing acceptance of these programs has come despite fairly slender evidence of success. Most observers agree that more testing and critical evaluation are needed to determine whether they really work.

"In terms of making dramatic systemic reforms at schools, it really helps to have a coherent system at the center," says Paul Reville, executive director of the Pew Forum at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. "But there is a lot of conflicting research on

the relative effect of these strategies."

Whole-school reform models run the spectrum. Some say more than 300 are currently in use, though goals and procedures vary so widely that it is almost meaningless to discuss them as a group. The educational philosophies range from free-form and progressive to highly scripted and traditional.

Common ground tends to exist in the notion that education dollars are better spent trying to change the practices of an entire school than focusing on the needs of individual students. Such programs also tend to share the use of an outside agent, almost like a contractor, to help make the needed changes.

The practice increased dramatically in popularity during the past decade, as educators became discouraged by limited gains achieved through directing federal spending toward individual students in low-income schools. Maybe, advocates said, such money would be better spent on changing the culture of a school.

"A lot of schools, especially high-poverty schools, have had a very piecemeal approach," says Robert Slavin, co-founder with his wife of Success for All, a popular reform program. Whole-school reform "just made sense to people."

When the Obey-Porter Act set aside $145 million for whole-school reform endeavors in 1997 (since increased to $260 million), programs proliferated rapidly with varying degrees of quality.

The result, says Richard Elmore, professor of education at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., is "too many dollars chasing too little talent." There are now 7,000 to 10,000 US schools working with whole-school reform programs.

Prescriptive is popular

The programs with the highest profile, either negatively or positively, have tended to be some of the most prescriptive reading programs, such as Success for All, Open Court, and Direct Instruction.

Success for All, in fact, is drawing fresh attention because of its use in Houston, where Rod Paige, President-elect George W. Bush's nominee for secretary of Education, was superintendent of schools. With 47 schools in the program, Houston is Success for All's largest single market.

There is, of course, no guarantee that either Mr. Bush or Dr. Paige will push for the expansion of such programs, but some say Paige views that approach as being at least partially responsible for improvements in test scores in Houston public schools. (Since 1995, their pass rate on state tests has climbed to 66 percent from 44 percent, though that success is not exclusively attributed to Success for All.)

Others indicate that certain Bush pronouncements, like calls for national education testing and a guarantee that all children will read by third grade, seem to point to the deliberate, focused approach such programs offer.

But that technique has some educators worried that the expansion of programs such as Success for All will prove a negative for US schools. Although it also offers units teaching math, science, and social studies, Success for All has become best known for its reading program, and is in use in more than 1,800 US schools, many of them in poor neighborhoods where test scores have traditionally been low.

In a school that adopts Success for All, teachers must adhere to a strict, almost minute-by-minute set of directives for teaching. They use only books and materials supplied by Success for All, and rely heavily on the phonics method. Students are tested every eight weeks and move forward from group to group as they master certain reading skills.

Fernando Roffo, a former classroom teacher who works full time to implement the Success for All program at the James Otis Elementary School in economically depressed East Boston, says Success for All "definitely has worked for us."

His school has made small but steady gains on state reading tests over the three years since implementing the program, an achievement he considers impressive considering 93 percent of the students there have limited English proficiency.

The program has detractors as well, some of whom insist its methods are stultifying for teachers and students alike. "[These programs] are being called the solution for impoverished children," says Margaret Moustafa, associate professor of education at California State University in Los Angeles. "But in actuality, they will interfere with the ability of more knowledgeable teachers to work with these children."

But a broader concern runs through the camps of skeptics. Once again, they charge, Congress and the education establishment have put their weight behind a series of reforms that haven't been sufficiently tested.

Success for All is widely credited with being the most fully grounded in empirical evidence, but even there, doubts remain because much of the evaluation was funded by the group itself. Although noting that Success for All has been evaluated more thoroughly than most other methods, Professor Elmore says that in general, "externally funded evaluations have been pretty weak" for all programs.

Investment in many of the programs, he says, is fueled by nothing more than the fact that "everybody needs to believe that something will work."

Pressure from outside

Some teachers worry that under Bush, Success for All will grow even more rapidly. "Will we see [Paige] help continue to turn the Department of Education into a branch of Success for All?" asks an anonymous posting on an anti-Success for All website begun by a teacher who once worked with the program.

That's not a likely development, says Henry Levin, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York. If anything, he says, whole-school reform had strong ties to President Clinton's administration.

Bush's promise to give more freedom to the states to spend education dollars as they see fit, he says, means that "some might use it for whole-school reform, but others will want it to reduce class size or do a whole number of other things."

The presence of an outside influence can help jar schools loose from long-unquestioned practices, says Bari Anhalt Erlichson, an assistant professor at the school of planning and public policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "Many schools need external change agents," she says. But, she cautions, "Overreliance on these programs is a terrible thing. None of these developers can go in and single-handedly cause a reform."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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