NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Has School Reform Really Been Successful?

November 21, 2000

School reform has been the buzzword in education for more than a decade, but some in the education business believe it's time to scale back both claims of success and expectations. Experts report that few if any school systems have achieved and sustained the broad turnaround in performance that claims of reform suggest. Worse, hearing that other cities have fixed their schools, parents and politicians wonder why their principals and teachers can't get it right. Rather, many experts believe:

  • The focus on district-wide policies is wrong, because real innovation happens at individual schools and from the bottom up.
  • What's successful in one district isn't necessarily transferable, because its effectiveness can depend on parental involvement, teacher union rules or the level of public spending.
  • One district may quickly lay claim to success with an initiative, causing others to follow, only to have the first district realize the program didn't work as well as advertised.
  • School leaders need to stop focusing on one program or theory -- or one district's experience with reform -- and instead use a combination of approaches tailored to their city or to particular schools.

Frederick Hess, assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia, studied 57 troubled districts from 1992 to 1995. He reported in "Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform" that none had made sweeping and lasting improvements.

Source: Valerie Strauss (Washington Post), "Experts Reassess Amount of Progress Made in School-Reform Efforts," Dallas Morning News, November 18, 2000.


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