What is a "Restructured" School?
A Framework to Clarify Means and Ends

"Restructuring" has entered the dialogue of practitioners, policymakers and researchers with a burst of power, but also ambiguity. It represents a concern for fundamental changes in the way schools are organized, but the precise nature of those changes and the priority given to different new "structures" are in hot dispute. Restructuring joins a lexicon of other memorable slogans in the history of educational reform (e.g. back to basics, community control, effective schools, choice, cultural literacy). Much of a slogan's appeal rests in its capacity to embrace multiple meanings that draw diverse constituencies together in an apparently common cause. While a slogan galvanizes attention and energy, thus offering new possibilities for action, its ambiguity brings the risk that energy will be dissipated in scattered, and even contradictory, directions. The danger here lies not in multiple meanings and approaches, but in the failure to clarify the means and ends of different approaches to "structural" change. The following framework recognizes the multifaceted nature of the means of school restructuring, and it identifies six critical outcomes that can be used to evaluate the value or worth of new structures. The framework is based primarily on consideration of organizational changes at the school, in contrast to changes in the organization of district or state agencies.

Structural Changes, Organizational Changes, and Big Changes

Organizational structures can be defined as the roles, rules and relationships (legal, political, economic, social) that influence how people work and interact in an organization. Changing a school's governing authority from the principal to a local school council, or having teachers perform functions formerly delegated to guidance counselors, represent structural changes. Other changes in how the organization operates may be significant, but not qualify technically as structural changes under the above definition. For example, a new principal might consult informally much more frequently with faculty, or the school might reduce the number of elective course offerings. Life within a school might also be significantly affected by other "big" developments, such as major changes in student enrollment, adoption of a new curriculum, or the hiring of several new staff members, but these may not be neatly categorized as either structural or organizational changes.

Since the nature of roles, rules and relationships in a school can be affected in many ways, we are interested not only in identifying changes in formally defined structures, but also in the broader question: In what ways has a school deliberately made major departures from conventional practice--either in clearly defined formal structures or in other important organizational characteristics? As will be indicated below, restructuring could involve a great variety of changes, but there is no particular combination or minimum set of changes dictated or implied by the concept of school restructuring.

Proposed changes in schooling are rarely defended through explicit theories of individual and organizational behavior, and even less frequently supported by solid research. Nevertheless, the implicit rationales for most of the restructuring outlined here rest on two main premises. Almost any proposed change in organizational structure will be defended on the prediction that it will enhance either the motivation and commitment of students and adult educators to learn and to teach or their technical capacity and competence to do so. These can be considered respectively the "will" and "skill" assumptions behind school restructuring.


Restructuring proposals and programs can be differentiated according to the emphasis they give to four arenas of schooling. Major departures from conventional practice have been proposed for the experiences of students; the professional lives of teachers; school governance, management and leadership; and the coordination of community resources with school. Specific changes in each of these arenas are listed in the sidebar, Criteria for School Restructuring.

  1. Student Experiences. Compared to schools as we know them, how could students' lives be different in restructured schools? Changes in this arena include the organization of curricular, instructional and assessment activities; methods of grouping students for instruction; systems of rewards and penalties for academic work; discipline procedures; school-sponsored support for students outside of instruction.

  2. Professional Life of Teachers, Many restructuring projects aim most prominently at changing the expectations and roles that define teachers' work which includes their relations with students, colleagues, administrators, parents; their experiences in professional development activities; their orientations to the subjects they teach.

  3. School Governance, Management and Leadership. A main strand of educational restructuring tries to change the authority and power of various constituencies (e.g. employees, parents, students) involved in school governance; to develop new procedures for making decisions about staff, budget and curriculum; to create new mechanisms that hold staff and schools accountable; and to sustain a continuous process of organizational change.

  4. Coordination of Community Resources. Recognizing the powerful influences on students of family, peers and community social context, restructuring in this arena tries to build a more effective partnership between the school and those community resources that, if coordinated more effectively, could enhance student success. Such efforts involve integration of health and welfare services for children and families, programs for youth employment, incentives and mentoring for higher education, programs to increase parental support for children and their schools.

School and district plans may, of course, include activities in more than one arena, and some activities may overlap with others, but making distinctions between the arenas helps to highlight differing points of emphasis within the broad territory covered by proposals and actual programs.

The sidebar includes 38 criteria across the four arenas that might be used to define a restructured school. Are some arenas and criteria more important than others? Should some minimal number of criteria or specific combination be required to qualify a school as "restructured?" The difficulty of arriving at consensus on this shows that we cannot count on the concept of restructuring alone to resolve the issue.

Since the ultimate purpose of restructuring should be to improve students' experiences in school, our Center sees this arena as critical. Beyond this, we view restructuring not as a single categorical property, but in multiple dimensions, each considered on a continuum. The most restructured schools are those that represent the most extensive implementation of largest number of criteria distributed across most or all arenas. The least restructured schools are those that represent the least extensive implementation of the smallest number of criteria distributed across only one or a few arenas.

The degree of restructuring at a school, however, is far less important than the ends or qualities that the school promotes. It would be foolish for a school to adopt a restructuring plan that attempted to implement the 38 criteria as if adding separate ingredients to a recipe. The school must first build a foundation - by clarifying the educational ends it seeks, assessing its unique needs, and analyzing how it must change to serve the ends. The criteria will be useful only in suggesting departures from conventional practice that could help to address some of the problems. A major task for our research will be to examine the extent to which school restructuring can be used to promote six valued outcomes or qualities of schooling.

Valued Outcomes

Authentic Student Achievement

Increased student achievement is widely agreed to be the most important ultimate goal of school restructuring. But apparent consensus on this point glosses over pervasive disagreement over what should actually be taught and tested - what kind of academic achievement should be most valued. The controversies take many forms, but most represent an underlying tension between conventional and authentic achievement. Conventional achievement emphasizes the learning and reproduction of specific definitions, facts and skills that have been prespecified by authorities. Masters of conventional achievement are winners of quiz shows who have stored encyclopedic arrays of knowledge in their minds and can retrieve discrete pieces efficiently on demand. Authentic achievement emphasizes using the mind to produce discourse, material objects and performances that have personal, aesthetic and utilitarian value. Exemplars of authentic achievement are investigative journalists, computer designers, sculptors, and others who tackle new problems and, through in-depth inquiry, produce new solutions that have value in the world beyond the demonstration of individual proficiency.

To be sure, authentic achievement depends upon knowledge of important definitions, facts and skills. Familiarity with a wide range of information is important for success in work, civic affairs and personal life. The point is not to cultivate one form of achievement to the exclusion of the other. The problem is that formal education is so dominated by conventional achievement that it stifles student engagement in learning, suppresses critical and creative thinking, and minimizes the application of school learning to life beyond school. To move toward a more reasonable balance between conventional and authentic achievement, the Center is interested primarily in how restructuring efforts can enhance the significance of authentic learning in school. Instruction aimed in this direction is likely to stress higher order thinking, in-depth study, and substantive conversation about the subject.


To the extent that students' educational opportunities are determined by race, social class, gender, or cultural background, the system violates the democratic principle of equal educational opportunity. The "effective schools" movement began with a clear focus on this issue, as does much of the rhetoric about restructuring urban schools. On the other hand, in most schools, vast inequities persist and aspects of the restructuring movement (e.g. site-based management, teacher empowerment, choice plans), can exacerbate inequities by neglecting to address the issue directly. Administrators and teachers are profoundly concerned about how to respond more constructively to students of increasingly diverse backgrounds, interests, prior knowledge, and styles of learning. Research on learning has dramatized the negative effects of schools' failure to adapt instruction to students' special needs. National reports on the changing demography of the student body are plentiful. However, policies for reform have given little attention to organizational mechanisms that might respond equitably to escalating pluralism. By focusing on the experience of students of color, women, those from low-income families, and those of with limited English, and by highlighting consequences to equity of restructuring efforts, the Center will keep this issue visible and identify promising approaches for enhancing equity.


Research on organizational productivity in many contexts (e.g. industry, government, service professions) indicates the need to decentralize decision-making. One of the most prominent themes of the restructuring movement is to empower parents, teachers, principals and students. New decision-making structures raise complex issues in defining both the scope of authority of participants and the processes through which they work. To what extent, for example, should a local school be obligated to fulfill district or state-wide curriculum standards? Under what conditions should parents be permitted to override teachers' decisions, or should teachers be able to reject parental preferences? How much control should students have over the planning, execution and evaluation of their schoolwork? Empowerment of teachers often expands their responsibilities beyond the role of instruction in a self-contained classroom. Broader responsibilities for school curriculum, hiring, budget, and interaction with parents present new demands which can actually decrease opportunities to reflect systematically on instruction. How will new structural arrangements offer teachers, students and parents the resources (additional time and knowledge) they need to make constructive use of opportunities to exert influence? How do schools respond to teachers who prefer nor to be "empowered?" The Center will examine the ways in which teachers, students, and parents within schools are empowered, and the apparent costs and benefits in terms of the five other valued outcomes.

Communities of Learning

Research suggests that society in general, and education in particular, could benefit substantially from efforts to transform impersonal, fragmented bureaucratic organizations into places where participants share goals and pursue a common agenda of activities through collaborative work that involves stable, personalized contact over a long term. In communities of learning, all teachers and students feel included as full-fledged participants in the school; teachers and students relate to one another in less specialized roles, but more as whole persons; they participate and take responsibility for the collective life of the school; and they can count upon one another for help in meeting both individual and collective needs.

Tightly knit communities can, of course, become oppressive and unjustly restrict individual choice and expression. In communities of learning, however, members support the right of all students to develop as individuals. This commitment and the ethic of caring, based on respect for each individual, protects against the potentially negative qualities of parochial communities.

At least three powerful social forces work against building community in schools. The first is cultural differentiation related to race, ethnicity, class, gender, and urbanicity. The second is professionalization (including specialization of knowledge). The third is the culture's valuing individual autonomy as the most important criterion for quality of life. Each of these push toward differentiated experience and goals rather than common experience and goals, making it increasingly difficult to organize schools into unified, integrated communities.

Restructuring initiatives such as cooperative and small group learning, teacher teaming, site-based management, developing a core curriculum for all, schools-within-schools, reducing school size, or magnet schools are consistent with the effort to build a community of learning, but of these alone will not necessarily develop community or sustain it. The Center will study how such efforts and others contribute to the building and sustaining of community, the difficulties encountered and how to overcome them.

Reflective Dialogue

Research on student learning, teaching, and educational and social change is beginning to converge on a central insight: belief systems cannot be changed by unilateral imposition or by simple replacement of old belief with a new one. Instead, beliefs change through dialogue that stimulates open, non-threatening questioning and testing of basic assumptions through exposure to new experiences. The failure of curriculum reform movements of the 1960s can be explained largely by their neglect of this point. Curriculum packages were developed in isolation from practicing teachers who were then expected to adopt them simply on the face value of published materials. In short, mandates, regulations and materials are not enough. Unless restructuring efforts support opportunities for enriched dialogues, substantial change in educational practice is unlikely.

Reflective dialogue allows teachers, administrators, policymakers, and parents to make decisions about optimal educational practice through careful study and honest discussion. This requires time, the willingness to probe deeply and to entertain unconventional ideas, and, most importantly, access to new knowledge and ideas. Without reflective dialogue, educators are likely to implement the kinds of educationally useless innovations that have plagued schools for years. Without reflective dialogue, even the potentially effective innovations are doomed. Unless teachers conclude, through the best use of their intellect, that a given change ought to be tried, they are unlikely to invest in making it work. The Center will try to learn how various approaches to school restructuring create or suppress opportunities for reflective dialogue about educational practice and change.


At the state and district levels, the accountability theme represents a major shift in thinking about how to enhance educational quality. Rather than attempting to control and regulate the process of education (e.g. course credits, curriculum content, staffing ratios), schools will be held more accountable for student outcomes. Increased accountability is usually not carefully defined, but it usually means gathering more precise information about student achievement on a periodic basis; through indicators that can be compared across classrooms, schools, and districts over time; making the information more widely accessible to the public; and allocating more dramatic positive and negative consequences for performance to students, teachers, schools and districts.

Holding schools accountable for student achievement can be considered a valued outcome in the sense that taxpayers, parents and students should be entitled to good documentation of the quality of service that schools offer. Since many schools have not traditionally supplied meaningful information of this sort (grades and standardized test scores give very little useful information about what students have learned in school), the press for accountability can be considered a positive step.

At the same time, restructuring for increased school accountability raises several unresolved issues. There is little consensus on what standards should be used to evaluate student performance, and this poses serious problems if the point of accountability is to enable the public to compare schools to one another. The specific incentives or sanctions used to motivate students, teachers, and administrators have yet to be clarified. High-stakes accountability systems could conceivably support or undermine each of the other five valued outcomes, depending upon both the content and procedures of school assessment. Standardized achievement tests, for example, tend to emphasize conventional forms of student achievement to the neglect of authentic achievement. Some approaches to reporting of data fail to reveal the disparity in achievement between racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. The Center will study the extent to which schools are held accountable for student performance, but it will be most interested in how accountability mechanisms can support, rather than undermine, the other five valued outcomes.

Structure and Culture

It is important to realize that any single organizational structure alone (e.g. school-site council, heterogeneous grouping, teacher mentors, longer school day, team teaching) is unlikely either to advance or to impair valued outcomes. It all depends upon how the innovations are used. The use of organizational innovation is influenced largely by the values, beliefs and technical capacity that individuals bring to their work. Educators' instructional goals, their knowledge of subjects, their patterns of interaction, their commitments to excellence, equity, or the development of children, their receptiveness to innovation itself comprise the "content" that ultimately determines what impact schools have on students. We have seen instances, for example, of schools where committed staff with minimal structural support offer more authentic instruction to students than in other schools where structural support is superior (e.g. common planning time for teachers), but the opportunities are not used.

Since organizational structures may help to facilitate progress toward certain outcomes, but cannot guarantee them, we must pay careful attention to school culture, which often seems to be the most powerful factor in comprehending "everyday life" in schools. Culture affects how structures are used, and structures provide opportunities, limits, incentives and sanctions that affect culture. The problem for research is not simply to determine how specific structures alone produce valued outcomes, but how structure and culture interact to do so.

This framework for clarifying the means and ends of school restructuring was developed to guide the Center's five-year program of research. We hope it will also help teachers, school administrators and policymakers to understand the issues they confront and to consider new possibilities.

Fred M. Newmann, Director of the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools, is also Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison