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Abbott History

Section VIII
Conclusion

Successful transformation of urban schools into systems in which issues of inequities are obliterated involves a process that is complex, engaging the commitment of federal, state community and school level actors. In districts such as the Abbott districts, where inequities are historically rooted and attempts at amelioration have been fraught with difficulties, the process of change can become extremely complicated. Yet the New Jersey State Supreme Court in its various rendered decisions has acknowledged the urgency of redressing these problems in order to fulfill the constitutional obligations which the state has to students in these systems. The reform agenda forwarded by the New Jersey Department of Education and endorsed by the Supreme Court represents a bold and significant step towards transforming the Abbott districts. However, evidence of past research has shown that such ambitious and far sweeping reforms are frequently hindered in their outcomes by various problems; which, if left unresolved, can result in the reforms failing to live up to expectations (Berman and McLaughlin, 1978; Mcluaghlin, 1991). Given the backdrop of the vast body of implementation research which has underscored these observations, the present study was motivated by an interest in understanding the issues districts faced in their attempts to institute the process of whole school reform in their schools. The study was deemed to be important for its potential contribution in identifying those pressing issues whose successful resolutions are imperative to these school systems transformation. In light of the preceding thought, the concluding comments presented below attempts to capture the difficulties plaguing the reform process and proffers recommendations for their resolution.

The Issue of Capacity

The concept of capacity within the context of implementation studies is often nebulous with varying interpretations as to its meaning. However, in this study, capacity was examined from two related vantage points. First, from the perspective of the ability of the Abbott Districts to build effective alliances involving a diverse base of constituencies to forward the Abbott reform agenda. Second, from the perspective of the internal capabilities of the districts to successfully meet the challenges of the reform. Thus, capacity was taken to imply not only the existence of a set of internal capabilities but also the existence of a broader arrangement of external linkages that could be used to support the reform. Irrespective of which dimension of capacity we examined, it was patently clear that districts confront several capacity issues that are making it extremely difficult for them to carry out this reform. First, with respect to the issue of civic capacity, that is the degree to which districts enjoy broad base support from their community around Abbott, our findings indicate that while the districts themselves are in philosophical agreement with the spirit and intent of the Abbott reform, some districts find themselves with very little external support.

Many key community groups, such as the business community, private foundations, city government and institutions of higher education have maintained a marginal status with respect to the reform in several of the districts. However, in the poorest districts the problem is more severe. Without a prior history of civic involvement in education and without the organizational resources to engage in community building, these districts have received very little support from groups that would normally be considered part of an education coalition. Although the decentralized structures which the Abbott reform calls for opens up the governance process to community members, it is our contention that this process is not enough to ensure the flow of support which the Abbott districts need. This leads us to conclude that concerted attempts have to be made to systematically create coalitions that can bring to the Abbott districts expertise and resource strengths in crucial areas. Our stance on this point is supported by the research evidence cited in the discussion in Section IV of the report. To recapitulate, the research we allude to showed how the establishment of broad base community support figured prominently in those urban school districts that have been successful in their change efforts. Therefore, if the reforms in the Abbott communities are to be successful, the link between community and school has to be strengthened.

The second dimension of capacity examined in the study addressed the internal capabilities of the districts. These capabilities were framed around issues related to the availability of key sets of resources and their impact during the early stages of implementation. Unequivocally, the absence of strategic resources such as time, funds, personnel, knowledge, and information was severe, as supported by the data furnished earlier in the report. Of the many resource issues that districts struggled with, the most salient was time. Districts felt that they had little time to effectively plan what they were doing. The rushed time table for complying with the state’s directives left the districts with not only very little time to engage in quality planning but also no opportunity to do the kinds of organizational review implied by a reform agenda as encompassing as Abbott. Not surprisingly therefore districts spoke of the tension between the reforms and other organizational needs. For one, in their comments on the surveys districts indicated that individuals in the central office with responsibilities for major aspects of their districts’ functioning had to devote considerable time to the Abbott reforms thus, creating some dislocation in the systems.

What ought to be borne in mind as we address the problems of organizational needs is the fact that although Abbott primarily focuses on school based change, the central office does have the responsibility for helping to co-ordinate the change process. Furthermore, the devolution of responsibility to the building level implies that the central office also has the added burden of assisting schools in developing the range of abilities to effectively assume the tasks which hitherto fell under its domains. Thus, the non-occurrence of any quality review of the Abbott central offices organizational capacities because of the issues we have mentioned represented a serious shortcoming during the first year. The literature is replete with references on the critical role of the central office in school based change and the responsibilities which it has for developing mechanisms that will allow for the smooth transfer of power from central to decentralized structures (CPRE, 1998).

Given the time constraints of complying with the various elements of the reform, districts were also unable to engage in other internal capacity building activities that are implied by this reform. The training of the School Management Teams is most illustrative of this point. As was mentioned previously in the study one of the first decisions that the SMTs had to make centered on their school budgets. Using the process of zero-based budgeting, the SMTs had the responsibility for developing a school- based budget. However when asked how prepared the SMTs were to do this most of the districts answered negatively. Many districts noted that their school management teams had received no training in the zero-based budgeting process. Given the level of unpreparedeness among the SMTs, districts noted that central office personnel had to get involve in a process that was primarily the purview of the teams. Neither were districts during the early stages of implementation able to engage in other kinds of training activities that one would consider to be germane to the school management teams’ abilities to function effectively. The first year of implementation thus can be characterized as a period during which the districts’ efforts were directed at meeting the demands of the reform in a context of constricted and underdeveloped capacity.

The Problem of Information Flow

Perhaps one of the more serious problems that the districts experienced during the early stages of this reform was associated with the communication miscues between themselves and the NJDOE. These problems with the NJDOE were manifested in several different ways. First, information received from the NJDOE was perceived to be unclear thus rendering understanding of what to do problematic. Second, attempts to obtain clarification from the NJDOE were mired with difficulties. Third and most importantly, the timeliness with which the NJDOE either requested information or provided feedback to districts on information submitted was questionable. Consequently, the reform unfolded in an atmosphere of uncertainty and with a pronounced gap between what was understood to be at the nub of the reform as judicially affirmed and the regulations and directives that were devolved by the NJDOE. The net effect of all this was felt in two distinct ways. First, as we stated in Section V, the perceived resource and organizational difficulties were greatly influenced by the information problem. Second, districts developed a lack of faith in the veracity and utility of the NJDOE communications with 73% of them indicating that the NDJOE communications were not helpful as they proceeded in their reform efforts.

In top down external reforms where local actors have minimal latitude in determining the parameters or elements of change the quality of information flow from the external progenitors is important to ensuring successful implementation. Complex school reforms involving multi-layers of actors inevitably give rise to communication problems. In these types of reform models different groups and individuals are likely to hold widely varying interpretations and perceptions as to the meaning of change. In light of this it becomes incumbent on those spearheading the reform to develop communication mechanisms that allow for not only the accurate and timely flow of information but for that flow to occur both ways. As Fullan (1991: 199) states "two-way communication about specific innovations that are being attempted is a requirement of success. To the extent that the information flow is accurate, the problems of implementation get identified. This means that each individual’s personal perception and concerns- the core of change- get aired".

It would therefore seem in the wake of our preceding discussion that the NJDOE and the Abbott Districts will have to collaboratively develop mechanisms to allow for the effective flow of information between them. Further the NJDOE has to find ways of generating guidelines for implementation that are clear, unambiguous and which they do easily lend themselves to misinterpretations.

The Relationship Between the NJDOE and Abbott Districts

The relationship between the NJDOE and Abbott districts during the first year of implementation can best be described as fractious with districts expressing feelings of cynicism towards the department of education and pessimism about the reforms. Many of the issues that we have presented so far help to explain why such feelings existed among the Abbott communities. However, as we alluded to in a previous section, the NJDOE has historically tended to adopt a strong regulatory as opposed to collaborative posture towards the Abbott districts. It has been perceived as being directive exhibiting little sensitivity to the needs of these districts. This viewpoint was reechoed in the open-ended comments provided by the districts on the survey. Overall the districts perceived the NJDOE to be non-supportive of their change efforts. Further, the effectiveness of the School Review and Improvement Team that ostensibly is the NJDOE structure for providing technical support to the districts was not established by the data we obtained in the study. In fact, with the exception of a few, most districts were inclined to rate the teams as being ineffective for a variety of reasons.

Obviously, if the reform is to be successful the tenuous relationship between the NJDOE and the Abbott districts has to address. First, the NJDOE has to work towards fashioning a collaborative rather than directive relationship with the Abbott districts. The literature on the change process has consistently shown that successful change occurs only when all the parties operate in an environment of collaboration and mutual trust. Second, the complexities of the proposed reforms imply that the working relationship between the districts and the NJDOE cannot be reduced to the issuance of guidelines or simply the mere presence of SRI teams. The state has a role in helping districts to develop their capacities, to provide legitimacy to their concerns as well as viewpoints about the reform by engaging in mutually beneficial dialogue, and to work along with the districts to solve the various problems that arise during implementation. However, to accomplish this, the NJDOE has to work towards building its own internal capacity to handle its new role as mangers of urban school change. Although our data on the School Review and Improvement Teams is somewhat limited, there is a further need on the part of the NJDOE to address some of the concerns which the districts have raised in the study, to include the competence of some team members, their familiarity with urban educational issues and their understanding of what their roles are.

As we stated in our concluding comments to Section VI of the report, the NJDOE has to set the tenor of the reform by exhibiting the kinds of behaviors and attitudes, which it expects the districts and their schools to demonstrate. As Lusi (1997), points out one can speak of a pedagogy of policy making from the perspective that States ought to communicate and deliver their expectations to schools in a manner which is congruent with the reform. Thus the concept of school-based change through local and participatory decision making inherent in Abbott looses much of its meaning if the State Department of Education continues to act in a manner which is highly directive and overly regulatory (Lusi, 1997: 168). To argue the case for the NJDOE to be more collaborative with the Districts is not to suggest that the State ought to minimize its oversight role for this reform, but rather to imply that the NJDOE like other state departments can fulfill its statutory obligations in ways that are less fractious and more congruent with what we have learnt about how to make meaningful educational changes that are sustainable particulary within the context of urban education.

The Persistent Problem of Funding and Issues of Policy Discontinuities

We have grouped these two sub-themes together, as there was not enough data for us to provide a more extensive discussion on their implications. However, because of their importance to the districts’ change efforts we felt it was important to address them both in our concluding comments.

Funding remains a persistent and seemingly intractable problem for the districts. The source of funding the various positions and programs in Abbott, has pitted the districts’ position against that of the State. The districts have expressed philosophical opposition towards reallocating funds from existing programs to fund the Abbott remedies. Although, the court decision called for the NJDOE to ensure that adequate funds are available to support the reform it is unclear as to how this is happening. The districts in their responses to the survey indicate that funding remains one of the major obstacles plaguing their implementation effort. However, sufficient follow-up information was not available for us to explore this issue in more depth.

Districts saw some discontinuities in the reform process and the standard based elements of the state’s testing and curricular frameworks as evidenced by the data in Section III of the study. Specifically districts saw little compatibility between some elements of the reforms and their own curricular and assessment responses to the State’s Core Content Standards, which they had initiated prior to Abbott. These discontinuities seem almost inevitable when one is dealing with national models whose curricular and programmatic focus have been developed to have an appeal that is broader than the specific elements of any given state’s curricular and assessment systems. However, one would expect that the model developers in their training and subsequent work with the Districts and the NJDOE would be moving towards fashioning a tighter articulation between their models and NJDOE policies in curriculum and assessment.