Mission: Inform Ohioans of effective steps to secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the State.

Fifteen years of school reforms spawned winners, losers and lots of other reforms that either look promising or questionable.

The reform plans, divided into Winners, Losers, Promising and Questionable

This is a review of Richard Whitmire's excellent piece for Gannett News Service, published September 2, 1998. A shorter article raising many of the same points appeared in Washington Monthly, November, 1998, and is well worth looking for at your local library.

The important point to raise, though, is, "Why hasn't every school board member in the nation seen Whitmire's work?" Isn't this just the sort of information they desparately need to act in the public's interest? What Whitmire provides is, in effect, a "Consumer's Guide" to many of the reforms currently being considered throughout the country.

Without Whitmire's work readily accessible, aren't districts at risk of buying a lemon? Or, as E. D. Hirsch would characterize it, engaging in unwarranted experimentation on schoolchildren?

Nothing can give you a better feel for Whitmire's work than an overview and his own words, which you'll find quoted in the following summary. He reports his categorization of 19 reforms is the consensus of experts: academicians and school evaluators.

If possible, find a complete copy for yourself. And your school board members!

The reform plans, divided into Winners, Losers, Promising and Questionable

Journalist Richard Whitmire drew from about one dozen experts on school reform to provide a consensus of what works (and what doesn't) for school improvement.

Winner Reforms

Core Knowledge

University of Virginia English professor E. D. Hirsch designed a curriculum for grades K-8 which remedies the watered-down curriculm many students receive, especially in middle schools.

"In Macon, Ga., Miller Middle School signed on to Core Knowledge two years ago and saw an immediate jump in test scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. 'The only thing we are doing differently is the curriculum,' said principal Martha Jones, 'and it has transformed the school.'"

When Johns Hopkins researcher Sam Stringfield recalled visited a Texas Core Knowledge school, he was confronted by a third-grader eager to share his knowledge about different types of galaxies. "My jaw just dropped," Stringfield recalled.

Success for All

One of "America's hottest school reforms," especially in low-income neighborhoods. "Success for All is most effective with the slowest learners in the class (a comment rarely heard in school reforms); students score about three months ahead of their peers in first grade and 1.1 years higher by fifth grade."

This program requires specially trained tutors, additional reading and writing time, commitment from school and parents, and a full-time facilitator during the first year of the program.

Catholic schools in inner cities

By maintaining focus on student achievement, shaping values, and mutual responsibilities of students and staff, Cathloic schools enjoy high success rates and low cost.

"A 1990 Rand Corp. study looked at New York City Catholic schools, 75 percent to 90 percent black, and found a graduation rate of 95 percent (50 percent in public schools) and average SAT scores of 803 (642 for public school students)."

Early childhood programs

"Several high-quality preschool programs, such as Michigan's Perry Preschool experiment or the North Carolina Abecedarian Project, have shown they can greatly narrow the gap between middle-class students and minority children born into poverty."

These contrast with Head Start, which does not achieve long-term gains. However, the article quotes Diane Ravitch: "In the long run, however, a reconfigured Head Start could dramatically improve the lives of the nation's most vulnerable children."

Advanced placement

"Today, advanced placement is looked upon by school reformers as a well-charted path for high schools to raise standards: The more students who want advanced placement courses, the more advanced courses a school must offer.

"Said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who has taken a leadership role on school reform: 'The beauty of the AP exam is that it's tough, it's widely used and it's standardized. A student who scores a 3 in Las Cruces will score a 3 in Los Angeles and a 3 on Long Island.'"

International baccalaureate diploma

International baccalaureate (IB) diplomas are offered by 252 high schools in 32 states. After two years of instruction specified by a demanding curriculum, student take exams graded by 2,100 examiners around the world. "About 13,500 U.S. students took IB exams last year; only 3,170 IB diplomas were awarded."

Losing Reforms

Middle school 'face lifts'

"The evidence that middle schools represent the true weak link in the U.S. education system has become too painfully obvious to ignore."

"Too many U.S. middle schools allowed themselves to drift away from an academic focus as they implemented the highly regarded recommendations of the Carnegie Corp.'s Turning Points report issued a decade ago. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the schools adopted only the 'face lift' portions of the recommendations, such as breaking schools into interdisciplinary teams, dividing the day into flexible scheduling, and making sure each student has a one-on-one relationship with at least one teacher."

Chapter 1 pullout programs

Pullout programs did not achieve the sustained focus required to remediate at-risk students.

"The Chapter 1 program has been retooled and renamed Title 1. Today, the $ 7 billion-a-year Title 1 focuses more money on the poorest schools and ushering in 'whole school' reforms rather than pulling out children in trouble.

However, one pullout did prove effective, "the HOTS program, or Higher Order Thinking Skills, which uses direct-instruction drills to raise the learning curve for poor children."

State-directed school takovers

Although they can clean up corruption, state takeovers are less effective at improving academics. The takeover of Cleveland schools demonstrated "As states like Ohio are painfully aware, academic takeover is largely a leap into the unknown."

Site-based school management

Although "concepts such as empowering parents and local educators had the ring of a can't-go-wrong reform," site-based management efforts were essentially sabotaged by cnetral administrations and plagued by "weak implementation, resistance, lack of support, and a 'confining task environment'--districts refusing to lift the suffocating thumb of restrictive regulations."

Questionable Reforms

The Annenberg Challenge

Former TV Guide Publisher Walter Annenberg's "gift of $500 million pledged for public school reforms in 1993 somehow has turned into 'one of the saddest things I've seen in 10 years' -- the words of one of the most prominent school reform evaluators in the United States, who asked for anonymity."

One explanation for the mixed results is "the large, unwieldy public school system favors bureaucracy over the needs of children."

Coalition of Essential Schools

This is the effort of one of the nation's most highly regarded school reformers, Ted Sizer, "but other than a handful of Coalition schools where extraordinary leaders have emerged -- leaders who can make any reform come to life -- education researchers say there's no evidence Sizer's philosophy produces academic gains."

"An anecdote from a recent profile in The New York Times Sunday Magazine illustrates the doubts: A student in Sizer's charter school in central Massachusetts is asked about the Civil War and replies, 'I can't tell you all the battles of the Civil War, but I can tell you what it felt like to be a slave.'"

Untracking/Heterogeneous Grouping

Misinterpreted research results were reported by Jeannie Oakes in her book Keeping Track, which failed to distinguish between approriate and inappropriate uses of ability grouping, but received undue attention from liberal educators.

More recently, Harvard researcher Tom Loveless has determined "high-ability students have most to gain when grouped together and given an accelerated" and "the real harm of low tracks come when they are used as holding tanks for behavior problems, and students are given nothing but remedial curriculum."

Promising Reforms


"The outcome studies of children in charter schools are just beginning to arrive; so far, the outlook is positive. A report just released from the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota looked at 31 charter schools, chosen because state education departments said they kept assessment data.

"Of the schools, 21 'had clear evidence that student achievement was improving,' said Center Director Joe Nathan. The other 10 were inconclusive, said Nathan, mostly because of data shortfalls."

Upgrading teacher quality

"Teacher-quality accounts for 43 percent of the testing differences in math and reading, according to a large-scale study in Texas by Harvard researcher Ronald Ferguson."

"The pipelines into the nation's classrooms, the education schools within college and universities, have been attracting sub-par candidates -- then doing a lousy job educating them."

Reducing class size

"The evidence that class size boosts academics is thin. ... The only experiment with any credibility is Tennessee's Project STAR, which involved more than 6,500 students in 71 schools in grades K-3. Children were randomly placed into class sizes of either 13 to 17 or 22 to 25.

"Through the end of first grade, those in the smaller classes fared better in both math and reading. Minority students were the most likely to benefit from smaller classes, said Harvard's Ron Ferguson, who studied the data. But, after first grade, the gains stopped."

Whole school reforms/New American Schools models

"While New American Schools oversees reforms around the country, its most complete 'laboratory' is in Memphis, where 25 schools adopted one of its reform models.

"In June, researcher Sam Stringfield from Johns Hopkins University delivered this evaluation of the Memphis experiment: 'This is the strongest early evidence any (school reforms) have produced.'

"Said John Anderson, president of New American Schools: 'These 25 schools have reshaped their lessons, their instruction, their assessments, their student assignment practices and their professional development based on research-tested ideas.'"


"So far, the data are scarce for publicly funded voucher experiments in Cleveland and Milwaukee. Harvard researcher Paul Peterson, an outspoken advocate of school choice, said there are student gains in both cities, especially in math. That research is disputed by the teachers unions."

Value-added assessment

"One of the breakthroughs on the teacher quality debate came when Tennessee took a 'value-added' look at why some elementary students learned more, regardless of aptitude."

This method allows the improvement of a student to be tracked over time and accurately attributed to individual teachers.

"The single greatest effect on student performance is not race, it's not poverty, it's the effectiveness of the individual teacher."

Also By Richard Whitmire:
Educators rethink middle school reforms

Test results show middle schools still in trouble

Gifted students assigned to regular classes

Inform Ohioans of effective steps to secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the State.