Urban educational challenges: Is reform the answer?
Dean and George and Diane Weiss Professor of Education,
Graduate School of Education, The University of Pennsylvania
My topic for this address is Urban Education Reform. Clearly, there
are challenges in urban schools, but what's important and what I
want to focus on is that there is no shortage of reforms intended
to address them. The question I want to address is - why is reform
so prevalent and so disappointing?
I think that there are
three sets of reasons, some having to do with political factors,
some having to do with an overemphasis on structural solutions,
and some having to do with the research base that is supposed to
guide us as we choose among the different ones. So, if "reform"
is not the right metaphor for addressing urban challenges, as I
believe it is not, what is? And, what should we do? I'll try to
address that during this talk. In the course of it, I'll refer to
some things we're doing right and maybe not so right here at Penn's
Graduate School of Education. I'd like you all to help us improve
as a graduate school of education that cares deeply about urban
Urban educational challenges
To start with the background,
you all know how concentrated students are in urban settings. Over
31% of all students attend school in 226 large school districts
among the 15 or 16,000 school districts in America. That translates
into 31% of all students in just 1.5% of school districts (Ladd,
32). So, urban education is where the challenge is, and for my money
if you are not focusing on urban education, especially for a school
of education located in Philadelphia, you are not focusing on the
important issues of our time.
I don't need to dwell
on the litany of challenges that accompanies the concentration of
students in large districts. You know that there are higher than
average proportions of students in poverty, of students with poorly
educated parents, of immigrants and other students with limited
English skills, of students from unstable family settings, and that
there are greater rates of student mobility. There are greater shortages
of teachers, more teachers with emergency credentials, poor facilities,
and low achievement-generally significantly lower than suburban
And, there are, of course,
fiscal challenges. Great disparities related to wealth still exist.
Districts with 25% or more of their school-age children in poverty
had average total per pupil revenue that was only 89% of the average
total per-pupil revenue elsewhere. So, poor districts spend less.
And then, that's total revenue. If you adjust for the needs and
the costs of educating children in urban areas with all the challenges
I just outlined, and for the higher costs in urban areas where there
are higher prices to be paid for labor and virtually everything
else, then you find the real significant disparities.
Just to take some data
that emerged from Standard and Poor's School Evaluation Service
recent release of Pennsylvania school district data, when you adjust
for costs and needs, Philadelphia spends as much as 23% below the
state average expenditure per pupil. Now this is not to say that
all of Philadelphia's problems, such as extraordinary low achievement,
are related to money, but it is certainly to make a point about
the disparities between richer and poorer areas in this country.
On top of that, we know that Philadelphia citizens and other urban
citizens are paying high taxes for every service that they must
provide, not just schooling, and are overburdened with all of these
Given these challenges,
it's no surprise that most urban districts are extensively engaged
in reform. I want to read to you a little section from a book called
Building Civic Capacity by Clarence Stone and colleagues.
This is a description of the recent reform efforts in the District
of Columbia (p. 148).
As part of the decentralization
effort, every school had been required to establish a local school
restructuring team. And over forty "enterprise" and
"renaissance" schools had been given special discretion
to shape their own policies at the school level. Many schools
offer specialized programs that had developed loyal constituencies.
These included an elementary school with dual language, (English
and Spanish) immersion, another elementary school with an Afrocentric
curriculum, and special "academies" designed to provide
high school students with career-relevant education (including
a Health and Human Services Academy, a Public Service Academy
and a Trans-Tech Academy). Public/private partnerships were in
place in dozens of schools; many of these provided enriched career-related
training, including separate programs for Culinary Arts, Interior
Design, and Landscape Architecture, International Studies, Pre-Engineering,
Business and Finance, and Travel and Tourism, and COMSTAT's computer
and science partnership with Jefferson Junior High. In addition,
during the early 1990s, an aggressive deputy superintendent spearheaded
the expansion of the District's Early Learning Years program,
which involves more child-friendly curriculum, and a heavy emphasis
on making certain that teachers and principals receive the training
and support they need to put the curriculum into place. The district
is perhaps the only large urban school district to offer a full-
day early childhood education program in every elementary school.
And the program has been expanding to incorporate many three-year-olds.
In 1995 Congress passed legislation initiating a major charter
school program in D.C., but even before Congress acted, the public
system had experimented with "School-within-School Charters,"
including a Montessori school, a Non-graded School, and a Media-Technology
Social Research School.
That description could
take place in any city in America except for the fact that Congress
mandated part of it, because in the case of the District of Columbia,
Congress is the big school board. So, this amount of reform is quite
common. Frederick Hess, the author of Spinning Wheels: the Politics
of Urban School Reform, studied 57 large school districts and
reported that the mean district proposed 11.4 reforms over a 3 year
period in the 1990s. (Hess, 1999). The problem is not the absence
of reform. In fact, what we see is a picture of too much reform.
Too many reforms, few of which are effective. Too many reforms that
are undertaken; too few that are implemented. Further, the reforms
are hardly coordinated; they seem to lurch in all different directions,
reflecting opportunism more than any coherent improvement strategy.
Why this "policy
churn," to use Hess's (1999) term? As I said before, I think
that there are three sets of factors. Let me start with the political
factors, and draw heavily from Hess (1999) who writes about how
institutional incentives encourage a focus on proposing change,
not on improving schools, on symbolic change, on inputs, and not
It is obvious is that
it's much easier to propose a reform than it is to implement it.
That explains part of the "policy churn". But there are
a number of other factors that are particularly characteristic of
urban schools that lead to this emphasis on symbolic reform, or
this posturing around change. For one thing, it's hard to hold urban
schools accountable for performance, even in the current climate
There are so many complicating
factors in urban schools-high mobility, teacher turnover-that it's
really hard to determine the value added by schools. Leaders can
escape accountability for performance, so it doesn't matter much
if the reform actually works. Because if it doesn't work, there
are many reasons we can say it didn't. "Well, the kids weren't
here two thirds of the year when we tried to implement this new
curriculum." And it's true, not a made up excuse; it's absolutely
Another factor is executive
turnover. Urban superintendents hold office for about 3 years, which
is much too short a time for reforms to really take effect. They
are not around long enough to be accountable for results, so they
tend to be held accountable for what they propose. And, in fact,
superintendents' careers are built on advancing from district to
district, to larger and larger districts with more and more prestige.
Superintendents have to be active to build a reputation, and since
they have a short term, they have to be active in that short term.
And that means proposing and starting reforms, and calling attention
to oneself for doing that, or in Hess' terms "overindulging
This posture is reinforced
by the foundation, corporate, government and, yes, academic communities
surrounding education. We get benefits when they adopt our ideas
so we push our ideas on them. And these are always "new"
ideas because we aren't about to push somebody else's ideas on them.
No one gets paid for working on old ideas, so we contribute to the
The high visibility of
education, particularly in urban areas, also contributes. There
is much at stake. You can't work quietly. The public thinks that
you're doing nothing if you're not attracting attention. You have
to convince the community that you're acting if you're an urban
school leader and proposing reforms is a way of rallying community
support and resources. Also, reforms bring notoriety and prestige
to a community. Unlike the quiet, much less glamorous work of improvement,
school boards support reforming superintendents because it enables
them to claim credit too. They can say, "We were the school
board that initiated X Y and Z reforms."
Clarence Stone and his
colleagues see additional reasons for urban school reform challenges
such as the absence of civic capacity. (Stone et. al, 2001). Civic
capacity is the ability of a community to collectively problem solve
with a supportive array of relationships across elected and district
leaders. Without it, long term support for reform is missing. Elected
leaders have even more incentives than superintendents and boards
to engage in eye-catching reforms; their electoral cycle drives
them to short-term, catchy initiatives. Getting their cooperation
for hard, long term work requires an investment in education that
has to be deeply felt and that is not present in many communities.
One of Stone's coauthors,
Jeffrey Henig, and his colleagues note in the Color of School
Reform that in the four cities they studied, Atlanta, Baltimore,
Detroit and Washington, DC, racial factors made long-term civic
collaboration on education that much more difficult. (Henig et.
al 1999). There was distrust and much history that was never overcome.
A second characteristic
of urban reform that impedes its effectiveness is the emphasis on
structural reforms, on centralization or decentralization, school
based management, charters, choice, on altering patterns of authority
within the district. The resort to structure characterizes American
education reform efforts historically. We've played around with
how to organize schools around grade levels with graded vs. ungraded
classrooms, with large vs. small schools, with creating large, centralized
bureaucracies, in Tyack's words, the "one best system,"
and then breaking them up.
Why the preoccupation
with structure? Structures are visible, manipulable, and easy relative
to the hard work of really improving teaching and learning. Structural
reforms are tangible, you can see them; if you have a three year
time frame, structural change may be something that you can do.
You can see why, given the political incentives just discussed,
people would gravitate to big, structural reforms.
But these reforms don't
necessarily lead to meaningful improvement in teaching or learning.
They focus on changing the incentives around which people work,
"empowering," them, or monitoring them more closely, theoretically
affecting people's will to work harder.
But sometimes, that theory of action is just wrong. For example,
people don't necessarily work harder on instruction when they are
"empowered" through school-based management. They may
be tied up in meetings on keeping hallways clean or determining
how council representatives are elected. Even if they do work harder,
motivation is just a part of effectiveness. These structural reforms
don't necessarily affect the other aspects that make educators effective,
their knowledge, skills, and beliefs about whether children can
learn. This is the "myth of omnipotent structure" to borrow
a title from public administration literature (Anne Marie Houck
Walsh as cited in course material, 1973). Policy wonks and educators
alike seize on structural solutions without fully elaborating the
connections between the structural change and the desired results.
School based management may give teachers more authority, but what
conditions would be necessary for them to use that authority to
Structure can, of course,
be enabling, but it should not be seen as the entire solution.
I find the emphasis on structuralism particularly troubling in the
case of charters and choice. They are clearly today's "silver
bullets," the panaceas that are going to change everything.
"Break it up," one hears often with respect to large,
urban districts-but the next question, "and then what?"
rarely gets asked.
The research base
This leads us naturally
into the third area I will discuss: the research base underlying
the reforms that cities are so busy adopting. Choice and charters
are a good example of the kind of guidance or lack thereof that
the research base gives us. With respect to those reforms, the evidence
about their effects is increasingly clear; it's inclusive. There
is no clear evidence of achievement gains, for example, there are
gains in certain grades, certain subjects, and certain populations
and not in others.
Why don't we have better
research to guide us about reform, and if we did, would it matter?
Would urban educators use research to choose reforms, instead of
selecting the more visible, structural reforms we just discussed?
Let me address the more
sensitive topic first and that is the quality of the research. Present
company excepted, I want to say that the research base is much weaker
than it could be. There are many important questions about which
we could use more guidance. I think education research needs to
be improved in several ways. In 2000, I gave a speech at AERA about
three studies that had gained a lot of policymaker attention. (Fuhrman,
2000). Deborah Nelson, who worked with me on this, and I chose three
studies that policymakers were interested in and referred to in
a way that they don't often with other research. The three studies
are the Perry Preschool study of early childhood education, the
Tennessee STAR experiment on class size, and the NICHD (National
Institute for Child Health and Human Development) studies of reading.
I cited four qualities of these studies that enhanced their credibility,
along with a host of contextual factors, such as the presence of
research brokers to help popularize their results.
First, the studies did
not try to answer a question with an inappropriate design. Or to
state that positively, the studies tried to address a question with
an appropriate design. Much education research tries to get at the
"what works" question with studies that might show relationships
between treatments and achievement but cannot answer the causal
question as definitively as possible. Research rigor has everything
to do with matching the design to the question, something by the
way that I don't think we as a field think enough about or pay significant
attention to in the training of new researchers. I know that we
at Penn GSE have excellent methods courses-both quantitative and
qualitative-but I often wonder how well we prepare students with
the prerequisites they need to really benefit from the methods courses.
How well do we prepare them with the ability to frame a good research
question and to match it with a good design that employs one or
more of these methods?
I certainly don't mean
to imply by focusing on those three big studies or by the causal
question that all research should be experimental or quasi-experimental.
I don't mean that at all. The "what works" question is
not the only question to be asked about reform options. We also
want to know the manner in which policies exert an influence-not
just whether they exert influence. We want to know how various design
options play out in practice. We want to know more about the dimensions
of problems, such as whether different population groups or types
of schools experience issues differently. In other words, there
are many things we want to know that don't require an experimental
design. The important point is that research suited to the question
is more likely to be considered rigorous by policymakers and by
us than research that is stretched to answer questions it can't.
A second point about these
studies is that they were longitudinal. Either the original study
or follow-up studies looked at effects over a period of time, giving
the results staying power and helping to sell them to policymakers.
It's much easier to justify a program expense when the results of
the program last, and there's no way to know that unless some longitudinal
research is conducted.
Third, these studies were
replicated by other studies, confirming their findings and lending
them much greater power. Replication is a way to test findings-it's
through repeated studies that we learn whether original findings
can be confirmed, whether they hold up. If repeated studies get
different results, there's good reason to question the original
findings. Lack of replicability is what did in cold fusion, as I'm
sure you all remember. But replication serves other purposes as
well, purposes especially important to education reform. Repeat
studies can confirm findings in different contexts, proving to policymakers
that results are not just situational but have broader applicability.
In other words, policymakers want to know that "this will work
in my city." It's easier to make that case with studies done
in a variety of settings than with evidence from just one.
And, replication creates
a body of research that multiplies the importance of any one study,
telling policymakers that a variety of researchers, perhaps even
of different perspectives, agree on a conclusion. This last point
is very important to policymakers. Few things irk them more about
research than the fact that researchers often disagree with one
another and can't provide clear guidance. It leads them to discredit
and underfund research altogether.
Finally, these studies
were incorporated into syntheses that helped make sense of the findings.
This is what we need to do in order to create and understand the
weight of the evidence. Policymakers want to know how the latest
study affects what was known before, how new work fits into the
total body of work, and how the research aggregates to form a conclusion.
We can do more to assure
the credibility of research. We can assure that designs are suited
to questions, that more studies are longitudinal, that replication
takes place, and that work is synthesized to provide cumulative
answers. It's true that much of this can't be done without additional
funding, and lack of adequate support for education research creates
a real challenge. Elaborate designs, longitudinal studies and replication
are very expensive. And funders tend to put a premium on new work,
just like reformers, rather than on repeating existing work or doing
follow-up studies. Each funder wants to claim its own unique contribution,
so it's hard to get both public and private funders to support confirmatory
work that's not likely to be as splashy as the original. In the
case of dissertations, we can also accept some blame. We push the
new and the unique no matter how narrow and arcane it can make the
topic. And we rarely think about the importance of replication and
confirmatory studies when encouraging students to undertake research
The fact that too few
large-scale, longitudinal, and replication studies are done isn't
all our fault, but we can't escape the blame. We value newness over
replication ourselves-in our training of future researchers and
our guidance about dissertations. We argue among ourselves over
paradigm rather than spending the time necessary to see how the
evidence accumulates across qualitative and quantitative work, across
different research approaches. We are too rarely concerned that
students become adept in combining methods. Certainly, we must convince
funders that we need more money to do the kind of work that they
value, the kind of work that has meaning for policy and practice.
But we also need to prove that we are interested in doing the sort
of work that can justify a much larger investment.
There are some encouraging
signs. One example that I am very proud of is the Campbell Collaboration,
which is taking shape here under the leadership of Bob Boruch. This
collaboration, a new multi-national effort, will prepare, maintain,
and promote access to systematic reviews of studies on the effects
of social and educational policies and practices. The organization
will provide regularly updated syntheses intended to help policymakers
and other users by presenting the weight of the evidence. Not coincidentally,
by deciding what research to include in syntheses, the Collaboration
can have a great deal of influence over research standards.
However, it would be naïve
of us to assume that better research would automatically have stronger
sway in the marketplace of ideas that surrounds urban school reform.
In fact, we have reason to worry about the climate for research
and the value placed on evidence by practitioners. Tom Corcoran,
Cathy Belcher and I studied the adoption and support for comprehensive
school reforms in two large districts. We called them River City
and Metropolis. We found that while district personnel wanted to
use evidence about student learning in choosing reforms and talked
about "best practice" in a way that implied research-based
decisions, they often made choices based on ideology rather than
results. At the school level, there was even less pretense about
the importance of research.
Our major finding was
that school personnel value the opinions of other educators much
more than published research. The teachers we surveyed placed strong
value on the endorsements of other teachers, with between 80 and
90% agreeing that these were the "best" source of evidence
on quality. On the other hand, only around 60% gave such support
to published research on evidence of effects. In fact, 35% of the
teachers we surveyed in these two cities think that the findings
published by education researchers should not be trusted. Almost
the same proportion is likely to distrust anything but their own
eyes and own measures as evidence of effectiveness in education.
Surely there is reason
to distrust educational research as I have just discussed, but we
haven't built a culture of attending to evidence in education either.
Of course the relationship between a research culture that produces
good evidence and a culture of use of evidence is circular. We need
to work on both sides if we want to improve evidence-based decision
making. It's important that we worry about the quality of the research
we produce, but it's also important that we focus the education
of practitioners on evaluating and benefiting from evidence. I know
that the new mid-career leadership program we're designing at GSE
takes evidence-based practice as one of its starting points. I'm
encouraged by that development.
Improvement not reform
is not the answer for urban schools because they already do too
much of it, because they tend to rely on structural reforms, and
because picking reforms that "work" is difficult to do
based on existing evidence and educators might disregard the evidence
anyway - what is the answer?
I'd like to shift the
metaphor around urban school progress from "reform," to
"improvement." This is not a new concept. Fifteen years
ago, Richard Elmore and Milbrey McLaughlin wrote a very influential
little book called Steady Work (1988). Improving teaching
and learning, the heart of schooling, is slow, unending, not particularly
glamorous, and hard work. It's not a matter of policies coming in
from the outside, swooping down. It's a matter of continued attention
to the basics and what matters in teaching and learning.
It involves deep investment
in teacher quality and knowledge, through recruiting, compensating
and developing teachers. It involves thoughtful, well-funded professional
development. Professional development must be intensive, extensive
(over a period of time), focused on the curriculum the teachers
are teaching, followed up by coaching and other on site support.
At the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, we surveyed
elementary school mathematics teachers in California who had taken
a variety of kinds of professional development in mathematics. Some
of them took content focused units based on the curriculum that
the students were learning on fractions. Some of them took equally
worthy courses that were disconnected from the curriculum - collaborative
learning, diversity training, things that we think of as important
but that weren't directly connected to the 4th grade mathematics
curriculum. What we found that was the teachers who took the curriculum
related professional development, provided that it was intense enough
and had enough follow up and support, changed their practice in
ways that were envisioned by the reforms, and also had gains in
student achievement that the other teachers engaged in other kinds
of professional development did not have (Cohen & Hill, 2001).
When I tell this story to a lay audience, the story that professional
development focused on curriculum that students are learning has
a bigger effect than professional development that is disconnected
from what the students are learning, they look at me strangely,
thinking, "you were paid to have that study done?" The
answer is so common sensical. In fact, that kind of intensive curriculum
related professional development is not what we do in education.
We know that we do scatter-shot workshops. We teach about lyme disease
and Right-to-Know with chemicals and all things that are important
for the safety of our kids, but that don't influence student learning.
If we want to influence student learning, if we want to improve
students' knowledge of subjects and skills, then we have to think
seriously about the professional development in which we engage.
At Penn GSE, in programs like the Penn Literacy Network and the
Philadelphia Writing Project, and the Penn-Merck Collaborative for
the Enhancement of Science in Education, we have content focused
professional development and we need to promote that force.
Improvement over the long
run and steady work involves good curriculum design. We don't make
enough time for teachers to collectively develop curriculum. We
also don't provide adequate choices through the web or other means
if they don't want to make their own curriculum. We have this enormously
romantic notion that teachers want to teach all day and come home
and write curriculum all night. The teachers that we studied in
our research that are implementing the various reforms that we are
studying do not want to do that. They'd like to have good curricula
available to them so that they can make wise choices about what
to use. Improvement involves developing leaders-administrators and
teachers-who know good instruction, and can evaluate and support
it. It means developing a collective vision for and responsibility
for good instruction, overcoming the norms of isolation and building
communities in which teachers are accountable to one another for
good instruction. This is much like what we're starting at the new
Penn-Assisted School where teachers are in each others' classrooms
all the time and where they talk about their practice regularly.
Granted, the school has only been open for two months, but so far
it is a model; we hope that this kind of teamwork continues.
Steady improvement involves
changing the culture of low expectations surrounding urban schooling.
As we at CPRE have examined instruction in many settings across
the nation, we see countless examples of teachers "protecting"
their students by not presenting more challenging material. Believing
that the students they teach from "disadvantaged" backgrounds
need discipline, order and basic skills, even teachers who try to
teach more complex material, even those who may be better prepared
than others in terms of their own knowledge and skills, even those
with supportive principals and other factors in their favor, doubt
that poor and underprepared students can reach challenging and complex
understandings. Encouragingly, experience-through professional development,
observing experts teach their classes, seeing their own children
engage in problem solving and more complex activities - can change
these beliefs. In Kentucky, in 1994, only 35% of teachers agreed
with the Kentucky reform principle that all children can learn and
most at high levels. By 1999, 68% agreed. How did this change occur?
In the context of a stable reform environment, which Kentucky had
over all these years, teachers made incremental changes in their
practice and student performance, even in the most disadvantaged
settings, improved. Teachers could see that as they changed their
practice, the students were learning.
Some of the efforts that
I have described can be done by reallocating resources, some will
require new money, but while certain structural reforms might make
them easier, they don't necessarily require structural change. We
can see schools and classrooms undertaking such efforts with more
central direction, like District #2 in New York City, or San Diego,
or with less central direction and more flexibility from district
operating procedures such as we see in our own Penn Assisted School.
The tough work of improvement
must be separated from the glamour of reform. It requires steady
work. It requires realism rather than romanticism. It requires the
efforts of all of us.
on this article
Cohen, D., & Hill, H. (2001). Learning policy: When state
education reform works. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Elmore, R., & McLaughlin, M. (1988). Steady work: Policy,
practice, and the reform of American education. Washington,
DC: Rand Corporation.
Fuhrman, S. (2000). Education
policy: What role for research? Division L Vice Presidential
address at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research
Association, New Orleans, LA.
Hening, J., Hula, R.,
Orr, M., & Pedescleaux, D. (1999). The color of school reform:
Race, politics, and the challenge of urban Education. Princeton,
New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Hess, F. (1999). Spinning
wheels: The politics of urban school reform. Washington, D.C.:
Brookings Institution Press.
Stone, C., Henig, J.,
Jones, B., & Pierannunzi, C. (2001). Building civic capacity:
The politics of reforming urban schools. Lawrence, Kansas: University
of Kansas Press.
on this article