Understanding The State’s Role in School Reform
School reform is a process that occurs on many levels and involves several layers of responsible parties. While the U.S. government is the largest entity involved in school reform, state government often spearheads local decision-making. The role of states in school reform is in two main areas:
1. First Phase: Results-Centered
In the 1980’s, states’ education reform actions were focused on straightforward policies and practices that could be easily be implemented and measured to determine effectiveness. Policies for teacher qualifications and the introduction of testing models fit into what can be described as “results-centered” initiatives. Nevertheless, problems—perceived or real—resulted from the first phase of reforms. Despite the desire of many groups to move away from homogeneity, the end result was a move toward standardization. Another setback of first-phase reforms was due to the reward system offered for high test scores. One example of this involved a teacher who had given students questions on an upcoming test to learn. Other teachers were instructing students with test questions from past exams or giving students similar tests to complete as student activities. Instead of teaching to educate their students, teachers were providing materials that would enable themselves to achieve highly. This meant that students were deprived of a holistic education, exposed to limited knowledge, and provided simply with means to pass the tests.
Despite these problems, reform efforts continued, and many associated problems were largely ignored by the governors of the states. Education reform was so important that governors during the 1980’s strived for the label of “education governor.” This honor was so highly regarded that, following their tenure as governor, many “education governors” ended up in top-rank political positions. And during the 1980s, states were also taking regulatory power away from the federal government. Although conservatives suggested this shift would help reduce regulatory burden, in time, states were perceived as being just as bad at placing demands and directives on local educational units as the federal government. During this same period, federal funding was also more restricted. States now had more power over how funding would be spent but a lot less funding to disperse.
2. Second Phase: Relieving the Regulatory Burden
The second phase of state school reform involvement took place in the latter part of the 1980s. States’ actions were in response to discontent that had arisen from first-phase involvement in the early to mid-1980s. The states’ main goal was to liberate schools from an overabundance of regulation and control from higher authority. Discontent emerged, however, as this reformed model of school administration was short-lived, lasting only a decade and then losing all support.
The method used to reduce regulatory burden was to increase management at the school level. Administration and organization were now the school’s responsibility. This promoted decentralization, as opposed to the top–down, centralized model. The power to make decisions passed predominantly to those on the ground (e.g., teachers and parents). As a working model, it gathered much support from education professionals and was seen as a model of inclusion where power shifted from bureaucratic decision makers to immediate stakeholders.
This site-based model was still centered on the leadership and direction of the school principal. From a state perspective, decentralization was apparent, but on a working level, the inclusive model was merely a shift of responsibility from one layer of administration to another, without providing adequate personnel support. An additional flaw in the model also surfaced. The personnel support was intended to come from staff working under the principal, even though these individuals already had duties and engagements that were not alleviated to allow them participate effectively in the process. Teachers viewed the model as infringing on time they needed to plan and teach. The end result of this lack of coherent, well-communicated reform was that this reformed model of school management received as much criticism and resistance as the previous model with burdensome regulation. Consequently, the site-based model was discontinued in most districts within a decade.