Fred M. Newmann and Gary G. Wehlage
October 30, 1995
Since the late 1980s, education reformers in the United States have sought ways to "restructure" schools to boost student performance. Has it worked? Have changes in school structure -- such as site-based management, interdisciplinary team teaching, flexible scheduling and assessment by portfolio -- actually boosted student achievement? What other conditions tend to make such organizational innovations successful?
From 1990 to 1995, the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools at the University of Wisconsin-Madison examined these questions. Center researchers analyzed data from more than 1,500 elementary, middle and high schools throughout the United States, and conducted field research in 44 schools in 16 states.
We conclude that school restructuring can indeed improve student learning. But there is no "magic bullet" or simple recipe for successful school restructuring. For a restructuring effort to work, it must be clearly focused on four key factors:
The Center developed a particular vision of high quality student learning, "Authentic Student Achievement." This vision has three parts:
Construction of Knowledge - Students learn to organize, interpret and analyze information, instead of merely reproducing specific bits of knowledge from a textbook or classroom lecture. They learn to apply knowledge, not just collect facts.
Disciplined Inquiry - Using established knowledge in science, mathematics, history or literature, students develop in-depth understanding. They express that understanding in an "elaborate" way, such as writing an essay or engaging in a substantial discussion of the topic, instead of merely checking boxes or filling in the blanks on a test.
Value Beyond School - Students produce work, or solve problems, that have meaning in the real world. A student's accomplishments in school have value beyond merely proving that he or she did well in school.
The Center's research shows that when schools restructure around this kind of vision, it works: Students learn more.
2. Authentic Pedagogy. A vision for high quality student learning is necessary, but it's not enough. Teachers must bring the vision to life in their classrooms through the pedagogy -- the combination of instruction techniques and assessment tools -- they use.
The Center developed a set of specific teaching standards that measure the extent to which students are challenged to think, to develop in-depth understanding, and to apply academic learning to important, real-world problems. These standards are called "Authentic Pedagogy." Our research showed that students who receive more authentic pedagogy learn more.
What's more, authentic pedagogy boosts achievement for students of all social backgrounds: Students benefit equally from more authentic pedagogy regardless of their race, gender or family income. This is true whether student achievement is measured by standards of authentic achievement or with more conventional tests, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
3. Organizational Capacity. To promote learning of high intellectual quality, a school must build the capacity of its staff to work well as a unit.
The most successful schools are those that use restructuring to help them function as "professional communities." They find ways to channel staff and student efforts toward a clear, commonly shared purpose for student learning. They create opportunities for teachers to collaborate and help one another. Teachers in these schools take collective -- not just individual -- responsibility for student learning, and for constantly improving their teaching practices.
Schools with strong professional communities are better able to offer authentic pedagogy and are more effective in promoting student achievement.
Building professional community requires a great deal more than simply putting new organizational structures in place. In fact, introducing new structures and practices in a school often has the opposite effect, and diverts attention from the quality of student learning.
The Center found, however, that certain structural changes, when combined with professional skills, leadership and trust, can substantially strengthen school professional community. The following conditions can help schools develop the type of professional community needed to promote learning of high intellectual quality:
The most promising examples of strong organizational capacity were found in schools that began with a well-defined mission, the authority to hire staff consistent with the mission, and effective leaders who kept the school on track. Generally, these were schools of choice or schools with special status that freed them from conventional constraints. The Center found no examples where structural changes alone had transformed conventional schools into strong professional communities that met the Center's standards for high quality learning.
4. External Support. Schools are nested in a complex environment of expectations, regulations, and stimuli from external sources, including districts, state and federal agencies, independent reform projects, parents and other citizens. Schools need critical financial, technical, and political support from these external sources.
External agencies can help schools to focus on student learning and enhance organizational capacity through three strategies:
But sometimes external influences pull schools in different directions, impose unreasonable regulations, and instigate rapid shifts in policy and leadership, all of which can undermine organizational capacity.
The Center's conclusions are largely drawn from four studies:
1. School Restructuring Study (SRS). This study included twenty-four significantly restructured public schools, evenly divided among elementary, middle, and high schools, located in 16 states and 22 districts, mostly in urban settings. There was a large range of enrollment, with an average of 777 students; 21 percent African American; 22 percent Hispanic; 37 percent receiving free or reduced lunch. From 1991 through 1994 each school was studied intensively for one year during two weeks of on-site research. Narrative reports were supplemented by surveys of students and staff, conventional tests of student achievement, and the scoring of student achievement on two teacher-assigned assessments according to standards of authentic performance. Researchers also made intensive examination of mathematics and social studies instruction in about 130 classrooms, with complete data on about 2,000 students. This study allowed intensive study of authentic pedagogy and student performance in a carefully selected group of schools that had made significant progress in restructuring.
2. National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88). This study included a nationally representative sample of over 10,000 students, followed from grade 8 (1988) through grade 12 (1992) in about 800 high schools nationwide. The schools include public, Catholic, and independent schools and represent a wide range of school enrollment, geographic settings, school social composition, as well as various levels of restructuring activity. Student test data in mathematics, science, reading and history for grades 8, 10, and 12 were drawn from items from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Researchers also studied survey data from teachers and students, and the school principal report on curriculum, instruction, school climate, and the extent of school restructuring. Complementing the more intensive study of school restructuring in the SRS, this study permitted examination of factors that influence student learning on conventional achievement tests over four years of high school in a large representative national sample of secondary schools and students.
3. Study of Chicago School Reform. This study included survey data from 8,000 teachers and principals in 400 elementary and 40 high schools from 1990 to 1994. Surveys reported on instruction, school climate and organizational features, professional activities, relations with parents, and reform activities. The study also included three-year case studies of 12 elementary schools, including six schools actively involved in restructuring. Case study schools represent the full range of elementary schools in Chicago, which vary substantially in social composition, but most have a majority of poor and minority children. The study, focusing on local school politics and school organizational change, offered both in-depth case analysis and extensive quantitative information on the nation's most ambitious effort in school decentralization.
4. Longitudinal Study of School Restructuring. This study included four-year case studies of eight schools that had embarked on different forms of restructuring in four communities. Representing a variety of school social composition and enrollment, the schools included two urban elementary schools, two urban middle schools, two urban high schools, and a rural middle school and high school. From 1991 through 1994, researchers spent about 15 person days per year in observations and interviews at each school, studying teachers' work, interactions in groups, participation in decision-making and organizational learning. The study offered in-depth analysis of how professional community, politics and organizational learning evolved in a diverse set of restructured schools.
The report can be ordered from:
Wisconsin Center for Education Research
1025 West Johnson St., Room 242
Madision, WI 53706