Reforms come and go, Fuhrman warns

As the city and state continue to butt heads over the future of Philadelphia’s public schools, the dean of the Graduate School of Education had a thing or two to say about the history of urban school reform.

In an Oct. 24 talk titled “Urban Education Challenges: Is Reform the Way?” Susan Fuhrman said that the reflexive need to look towards reform as the answer to failing schools must end.

This year’s speaker for the GSE’s Constance E. Clayton Lecture, Fuhrman talked about the prevalence of “disappointing” reforms.

Fuhrman, who is also the George and Diane Weiss Professor of Education, said part of the problem is rooted in politics. “It is easier to propose a reform than to implement it,” she said. Frequently, reforms aren’t coherent but opportunistic since the careers of school superintendents are built on “eye-catching reform.” If superintendents wish to rally support, they can’t work quietly. Fuhrman added that the frequent turnover of school superintendents can also cripple reform measures, which require extended periods to generate substantive results.

Moreover, she said that the sorts of reforms which tend to be adopted are overly focused on the structural, such as those involving the decentralization of school management. Giving more control to teachers and/or school administrators doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily work harder, she said. “Motivation is just one part of effectiveness,” said Fuhrman. More crucial is giving teachers more knowledge and skills.

But politics shouldn’t shoulder all of the blame. The academic community is also responsible for the plethora of ineffective reforms. Fuhrman pointed out that the way academicians get credit is by pushing new ideas on policymakers.

And yet some of the research conducted isn’t rigorous enough because inappropriate research designs are undertaken. There needs to be a closer match between the research question and research design, said Fuhrman. She warned against stretching results to answer questions which can’t be addressed by one particular study.

Given that piling reform upon reform has done little to alleviate the problem, Fuhrman suggested focusing on improvement as an alternative. She said that meeting the challenges of urban schools shouldn’t be “a matter of policy swooping down.” Instead, investments should be made in “thoughtful, intensive professional development [that is] focused on curriculum.”

While helping teachers develop solid curricula may not be as “glamorous” as far-reaching reforms, Fuhrman said that this is the sort of crucial work which must be done.

Originally published on November 8, 2001