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Conference explores how to change schools

STANFORD -- What barriers block school reform, restructuring and school change?

Money and time are obvious. Sometimes, though, it simply is a matter of competing values, says Stanford University Education Prof. Larry Cuban.

The questions, Cuban said, can include:

"These are competing values, and you have to make choices," Cuban said during a two-day conference on "School Change: What Have We Learned from Research and Practice?" sponsored by the Stanford/Schools Collaborative, an umbrella organization for partnerships between Stanford and local school districts. The late November conference was attended by more than 200 Bay Area educators.

Principal David Payne of Homestead High School in Cupertino found that the pace of change was one of schools' biggest challenges. He said business leaders have repeatedly told him, "If we can't create change in six months, we're out," - yet changing schools typically requires years.

"How fast should we go?" Payne asked. "I'm impatient. I'm tired of being told to slow down. We have high school students who will be gone by the time change is effective. I feel guilty when I look them in the face."

Contradictions in research, practice

Oakland Schools Superintendent Pete Mesa, too, wanted results. Frequently, he said, research is justified by saying, "It'll raise questions." However, when he asks for the answers to the new questions, he is told, "More research is needed."

"We can't just leave questions in the air," he said. Researchers and educators seem content to facilitate collaboration and communication," he said, "but I don't want to see just process, I want to see effects."

As for giving individual schools more autonomy, he asked, "What assurance is there that if decisions are made at [the school] site, kids will learn more? It's unpopular to say that, but I wonder nonetheless. How do we have school-based change - and yet get the school to do what the superintendent wants?"

Mesa suggested that superintendents suggest the direction for change - such as "striving for interactive, hands-on learning in a district" - and allow schools a freer hand to implement the goals.

"They'll invent ways to achieve them that you'd never imagine," Mesa said.

Turnover destroys innovation

Stanford Education Prof. Henry Levin, creator of the Accelerated Schools Program (hailed by the Bush administration for its methods of accelerating the learning of disadvantaged schoolchildren rather than assigning them to remedial classes), listed a number of excuses schools use to postpone initiating reform: "We can't do it till we have the right mix of students. We have to change the teachers first. We don't have the resources."

The last excuse, Levin said, "is absolutely true. We've been treated badly by the state, the federal government and Proposition 13. But the fact is, we're not going to have another thousand dollars per student."

It is neither the students nor the teachers that must change first, Levin said.

"They must work together, not one at a time," he said. "I have never seen a school that's great for kids but awful for teachers."

He argued that success in effecting school change was 10 percent good ideas, 90 percent implementation.

"Implementation is key to school change," Levin said. "That's why what the gurus say about restructuring troubles me - there's not much talk about implementation. Let's try things first.

"The ideas are empty unless we work with them and see how change takes place."

Referring to articles that frequently appear in education journals, he added, "I would argue that if someone hasn't collaborated (with schools) to implement ideas, they shouldn't be listened to. You should ask: Where have you done this? What were the results? That's the way to bring research and practice together."

Some innovations not worthwhile

Prof. Elizabeth Cohen, creator of the Program for Complex Instruction, a strategy for multilingual classrooms with a wide academic range, described an example of schools where the implementation of innovative programs is not worthwhile - "a school where the teachers have no respect for the principal, and the principal has no respect for the teachers.

"Spare me schools like that," she said. "They have to work that problem out first."

She also deplores schools where "no one has the ability to coordinate school-wide decisions" and "where time is so tight that no one can envision how to give teachers some time. Forget it!

"There is a key amount of district support that has to be there," she said.

"Other schools have too many innovations on their way already. You can only do so much at a time. Wait till they digest what they've already done."

Cohen described a major problem that springs from success in her Program for Complex Instruction.

"The biggest destroyer of this program is turnover of personnel," she said. When districts see the program works, "they look at the hot principal and say, 'Let's move him where he's needed even more.' Not a good idea. They destroy the program he's leaving behind. They shift teachers around like musical chairs."

Cohen added that innovative programs have difficulty in schools with rigid, traditional orientations.

"We have a classroom situation from the horse-and-buggy days, with isolated teachers who can rely on textbooks. We've inherited a very dysfunctional school organization - for a variety of historical reasons. I don't think any of it is going to work in an old- fashioned school."

'Power of simple design'

Education Prof. Robert Calfee's message to a lot of schools is: "Slow down, you move too fast." Often, when he presents his Project Read/Inquiring Schools Program, which focuses on "critical literacy" and is now used in more than 100 U.S. schools, the response is, "You're kidding! We don't have time to think. We have a whole lot of things to do - more than any human being can work with."

Calfee advocated the "power of simple design" in a "chaotic world."

"You don't build the Golden Gate Bridge by starting with ribbons - but with a concept," Calfee said. "You don't educate kids to become literate by hoping that if you add enough behavioral objectives from kindergarten on, you will have an educated person. Schools in which kindergarten and fifth- and sixth-grade teachers talk to each other about common goals, ideas - meta-language, if you will - have a much better chance."

As did Levin, Calfee questioned preconceptions about "at-risk students" and "problem learners."

"Every single child in the country has the capacity to acquire any domain of knowledge, expertise and competence that we are smart enough to lead them to become engaged in and understand."

"With this crew and this boat, we could do anything - sail to the ends of the world and beyond, discover new lands, conquer new empires - but first we've got to get organized."


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