Urban School Reforms Don’t Improve Education

Published June 1, 1999

Frederick M. Hess
Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform
Brookings Institution Press, 228 pp., $39.95

“A frenetic search for quick solutions is precisely the kind of leadership unlikely to produce long-term improvement.” [page 54] Frederick M. Hess

While Hess’ comment may bring to mind the unscrupulous broker who “churns” a customer’s account for self-serving gain, that’s not his intended target. His is not just another criticism of American business practices and the short-term focus of CEOs and boards of directors.

Hess is describing the leaders in our urban public schools.

If school boards and school superintendents don’t immediately come to your mind as perpetrators of frequent, ill-planned, short-term fixes, that’s reason enough to buy Frederick M. Hess’s eye-opening new book: You need to know more about the “policy churn” of urban school reform.

Hess is equally critical of the common notion that school board members and superintendents at least intend to improve education.

“Most reform is not a serious attempt to change teaching and learning in the classroom but is intended to bolster the status of the district policymakers,” Hess, an assistant professor of government at the University of Virginia, concludes in Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform. (228 pages, $39.95 cloth, $16.95 paper, Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC, 1999). Hess is an assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia.

Hess presents his findings from a study of district-oriented education reform activity that took place in a nationwide sample of 57 urban school districts from 1992 to 1995. Defining “education reform” as “efforts planned to change schools in order to correct perceived educational problems,” Hess focused his research primarily on reforms that emphasize the introduction of new and different teaching processes, or pedagogical reforms.

Far from resisting education reforms, school boards and school superintendents readily embrace reforms for political reasons, according to Hess. Surprisingly, teacher unions–while vigorously opposing the governance reform embodied by school choice efforts–are not key factors in either resisting or implementing education reforms.

Although parents look to their elected school board members to decide on the best education policies for the district’s schools, it is in fact the superintendents who “get their way 99 percent of the time,” says Hess. Eager to show progress but unsure of how to do it, “amateur board members leave it to the experienced administrators to take the lead on reform.”

And take the lead they do, producing what Hess calls “policy churn”–“an endless stream of new initiatives, with the schools and teachers never having time to become comfortable with any given change.” It is not unusual for a newly elected board to bring in a new superintendent to “shake up the district” . . . which he or she usually does within two years, declares the effort a success, and moves on to another job.

Although reforms should be judged on how much they improve education, school officials are less interested in evaluating the effects of a reform than they are in promoting its mere implementation as the sole measure of its success.

For an industry generally regarded as resistant to reform, Hess’ study reveals an extremely high level of reform activity. In the average district in his study, 11.4 significant reforms were launched between 1992 and 1995–a new reform every three months. But the direction of reform is purely random: “While some districts in the sample were busily working to reform practice A to practice B,” Hess notes, “other districts were ‘reforming’ from B to A.”

“Reform–rather than being the remedy to what ails urban schools–has been a distraction and a hindrance,” concludes Hess. Reform efforts absorbed significant resources of time, money, and energy in endeavors that had little to do with improving urban education.

To stop the spinning wheels, Hess recommends making urban leaders more accountable for academic performance and long-term district improvement. Among his suggestions for increasing accountability is to use school choice as a way to decentralize decision-making and reward or punish the performance of schools.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.