Is it Possible to Sustain School Reform Indefinitely?

By Matthew Lynch

The word “reform” comes with the connotation of something with a start and end date. There are reformation eras in history, and policies, and initiatives. The problem with thinking of reform, particularly school reform, on a timeline is that the most successful reform attempts are ongoing.

People involved in the piloting stage of school reform often see what they are doing as something limited by time. Other stakeholders likely share this view, or are of the opinion that the work will stop when the reform money runs out, or that, the new reforms won’t take hold. This generally leads to fragmentation, or a lack of a coherent approach to reform, and as a result, reform efforts often end up sidelined. Unfortunately, this circumstance runs contrary to the realization of in-depth, sustained school reforms.

The cyclical turnover of superintendents and school board members makes it difficult to ensure that others will continue effective systemic reforms begun by one board and superintendent. New superintendents and new school boards often want to make their marks by initiating changes rather than sustaining the strategies created by their predecessors.

This is often the case even when evidence suggests that existing programs are the ones that need to be sustained to meet long-term goals, such as closing the achievement gap or getting all students to proficiency. The new leadership appears to forget that there are no quick fixes or short term reforms that guarantee continuous improvement in student achievement, as they jump to exchange existing efforts for improvement with new ones.

The process of school reform can become very lengthy and on the whole it is expected to stretch across a period of several years. Ironically, school districts are placed under tremendous pressure to turn a new page each year, allowing for only a fraction of the time required for any reform plan to produce results. This is sometimes part of a government ploy when budget cuts are enforced with little notice, or a result of resentful parents streaming to the authorities in opposition to some aspect of the an existing plan.

The process of annual makeovers comes at substantial costs to the states that are likely already operating on limited funds. Cost is not the only issue however. By reinventing the system each year, educators, teachers, and principals alike, have no chance to come to terms with the details of any particular plan before it’s time to implement the next one. As a result, educators are never fully versed on any plan, in effect making the process of reform fruitless.

The role of the school district is to take a long-term approach, define, and articulate the school reform agenda for the district, as they are a crucial source of leadership in implementing and sustaining reform. Their role should be to develop a framework by which sustainable reforms can be measured even if there is a turnover of staff.

A school reform framework should include four key points:

  • improving student achievement
  • fiscal accountability
  • increasing organizational effectiveness
  • building and improving relationships with staff and the broader community.

This framework provides an agenda that the school board and staff can work from and use as a checklist to measure the success of reforms. It also means that when recruiting new staff you should look to hire people whose vision matches the already defined vision of the district, an important factor when it comes to sustaining change over time. Reform then should become a permanent goal of every school system, not something that can be plotted out nicely on a calendar.


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