Three Kinds of Change that Schools Call Reform: Traditional, Moderate, and Restructuring Practices

Valerie Lee and Julia Smith’s 1994 study showed impressive gains in early secondary school students’ achievement when their schools departed significantly from conventional practice. Using the following criteria drawn from the University of Wisconsin’s Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools (and reprinted with WCER’s permission), they divided reform-minded schools into three categories based on what kinds of reforms they had instituted. (Note: the practices appear in descending order of the probability that an average high school engages in them. About 12 percent of the 820 high schools studied reported engaging in none of these practices.) Similarities to certain Essential School ideas-notably those aimed at personalizing the teacher-student connection, at interdisciplinary teaching, at increasing academic quality, and at the flexible use of time-are apparent in the category of “restructuring practices.

Traditional Practices
Departmentalization with chairs
Common classes for same curricular track
Staff development focusing on adolescents
Parent-teacher conferences each semester
Focus on critical thinking in curriculum
Common classes for different curricular tracks
Increased graduation requirements
Recognition program for good teaching
Parents sent information on how to help kids study

Moderate Practices
Parent workshops on adolescent problems
Student satisfaction with courses important
Strong emphasis on parental involvement
Strong emphasis on increasing academic requirements
Student evaluation of course content important
Outstanding teachers are recognized
Emphasis on staff stability
Emphasis on staff development activities

Restructuring Practices
Students keep same homeroom throughout high school
Emphasis on staff solving school problems
Parents volunteer in the schools
Interdisciplinary teaching teams
Independent study, Eng./social studies
Mixed ability classes in math/science
Cooperative learning focus
Student evaluation of teachers important
Independent study in math/science
Teacher teams have common planning time
Flexible time for classes