Reform reminders from an old hand

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In the more than 10 years that I’ve been working in Chicago public elementary schools, I’ve watched quite a few education reform groups and initiatives come and go. In some instances, I was one of the “reformers”; in others, only an interested observer; in still others, I had to help settle the dust after the (so-called) reformers lost interest (i.e., funding).

Through these experiences I’ve developed a list of reminders to myself that I keep posted in my office. I review and add to my list periodically, especially whenever I’m called to work on a reform issue or comment to the various media about school improvement efforts and policies. I find this list keeps me grounded; that is, it prevents me from getting caught up in any one philosophy, any one “take” on the particular reform situation or issue, as I’ve seen and heard so many others do, to their detriment.

For true reform to occur, all participants in the effort must care deeply enough so that they will persevere until they make a significant difference in students’ lives. Reform is not for dilettantes or those who fear getting dirty, disagreed with or having their paradigms shifted. It’s a concerted effort constructed by many with roles for all. I hereby share my list, such as it is, with those who work on CPS reform; I welcome additions.

While Planning a Reform Effort, Consider the Following:

Like losing weight, true reform requires a multi-pronged approach; it’s never any one factor, alone, that influences the outcome. Therefore, no one policy, instructional method, or idea by itself will achieve true reform.

Use a medical model to ask, What school symptom are you treating? What are the various behaviors or situations that led people to believe something needed to be changed? What’s influencing these behaviors? Which ones can be controlled easily by the efforts you have in mind? Which ones will need outside intervention or help? Which ones are too big to handle, even with additional aid, and need to be crossed off the list?

Change is a messy, nonlinear process. Given this, learn to accept partial success and partial knowledge about how well the change effort is working. Celebrate the small steps while checking to ensure they’re leading toward the larger goals.

Change also takes time. A commitment of fewer than four years, minimum, isn’t a true commitment. Period. The minimum increases with each of the following factors: a student mobility rate higher than 20 percent; veteran school personnel who refuse to commit honestly to change; new personnel who lack experience with the school’s student and personnel demographics; implementation of new curriculum programs and materials; uncertainty or unreliability of full funding for each year planned.

Reform is achieved in two interrelated ways: from within and without. Outsiders must not go in with the attitude of “We’ll fix this” nor should they be afraid to ask the necessary, hard questions of those within. Insiders must not view all reformers as interlopers nor should they be afraid to ask those same necessary, hard questions about reformers’ intentions, commitments and agendas.

Each participant in the reform effort must commit to changing her/himself as well as the situation.

Since students are at the center of all reform efforts, all reformers inside and outside must spend meaningful time with them and their parents, families and neighbors. Schools don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re a reflection of their situations, local and global. Reformers who drive to the school and spend all their time in its meeting rooms or within the four classroom walls won’t ever realize true reform. Remember: Context does matter.

Reform is labor intensive and well worth the effort!

Take the reform effort seriously, yourself less so!

Marie Ann Donovan is an assistant professor of early childhood and reading education at DePaul University.