Taking Risks for Reform

By Lawrence Hardy

When ASBJ asked education consultant Deborah Meier to name some failed and successful school reforms of the past three decades, she e-mailed back this short reply:

“In fact, the successes have also been the failures.”

What was she talking about? Our guess is that administrators and school board members know only too well. Indeed, many have experienced this paradox firsthand.

It has to do with the context of reform. What works on paper doesn’t necessarily work in practice. What works in one setting doesn’t work in another. What works with a particular population of students—with the countless variables that define groups and individuals—does not work with another. And so on.

There is an obvious risk in doing nothing in the face of changing educational and societal needs. And then there is the risk, and potential rewards, of action—what has come to be known as school reform.

For this story, we asked several leading education “reformers” like Meier to discuss the successes and failures they have witnessed over the past few decades. School leaders in several districts also were interviewed about their successes and failures.

What becomes clear in reading the accompanying stories from districts in Delaware, North Dakota, New York State, and Washington State is the degree to which local politics, budget issues, district culture, as well as state and federal mandates can affect the course of reform.

Let’s take a look at what has worked, what hasn’t, and why.

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