The Little School That Could: Reforming Schools By Updating the Outdated

Schools like this one are discarding traditions that do not help students learn, turning instead to practices as ancient as Socrates and as modern as the Internet.

July 1, 1997
Credit: George Abe

Among the items on display in the foyer of Millennium School is a red metal school bell. Similar bells ring throughout the day in most American schools, signaling the beginning and end of each class period, much as factory whistles used to mark the start and finish of each work shift. The bell at Millennium, though, has been unhooked and put in a glass case, never again to interrupt the work of teachers and students.

The Millennium bell serves as a constant reminder of how far the school's staff has come in its effort to transform outmoded educational practices that, while well intentioned, actually impeded both teaching and learning. These teachers recognize that children are far too different -- and learning much too complex -- to fit into a rigid, uniform schedule. The thought that a bell could interrupt their work seems absurd to Millennium's staff, which has eliminated most of the ideas earlier schools borrowed from manufacturing, including the implausible notion that every student should learn the same things at the same rate like a slab of steel moving down an assembly line.

Although Millennium is fictional, its story is representative of the hundreds of schools across the country seeking a better way to educate our nation's children. These schools are discarding traditions that do not help students learn, turning instead to practices as ancient as Socrates and as modern as the Internet. In the process, they are inventing new models of schools -- models that can successfully prepare all children to meet life's challenges.

Starting at the School Level

To govern innovative schools like Millennium, local school councils have been created. These groups are composed of administrators, teachers, parents, students, and other community members. They play a significant role in establishing communitywide standards and goals for education, in developing plans to meet those goals, and in monitoring progress toward achieving them.

At Millennium, the council is responsible for overseeing most aspects of the school's operation including budget allocations, personnel matters, issues relating to the integration of technology, and to accountability. Council members also have responsibility for building community support for Millennium's programs and keeping them informed and involved.

The Millennium council started its work by asking its community members to help develop a vision for the school. Modeled along the lines of traditional New England "town meetings," groups of educators, families, students, business people, community leaders, and the principal spent many hours discussing children, education, and the requirements not only to succeed in today's world, but also to participate fully in our democracy. They looked at proven instances of effective educational practices in other schools, poured over the latest research, and investigated intelligent uses of the new technologies.

Local Control and Accountablility

Schools like Millennium may be on the leading edge of education reform, but they got there because of an idea borrowed from the earliest public schools: local control. Under a variety of policies adopted by states and school districts, including school-based management and charter schools, more and more schools are gaining the freedom needed to make lasting improvements. After decades in which decision making was increasingly centralized in state and district offices, authority is now being given back to those who are closest to students, including teachers, parents, principals, and other community members.

As integral members of the school council, teachers at Millennium were able to change outmoded school practices and bring them in line with their instructional innovations. The traditional forty-five-minute class period (and the need for bells) gave way to a flexible schedule with longer blocks of time that allows students to work without interruption.

No more would individual teachers be assigned to a different group of students each year. Instead, they work in teams, over a longer time frame, reaping the benefits of professional collaboration while also developing close relationships with the students in their charge. And with new technologies, students and teachers not only learn from each other, but they are networked to, and interconnected with, a vast array of experts and resources around the globe.

When Millennium's teachers were freed from bureaucratic control and granted the autonomy others found in their professions, they assumed more responsibility for ensuring that their school measured up to high standards. The new schedules allowed them time to work together, enabling them to reflect on their efforts and to constantly help each other improve performance. Teachers with the most knowledge and experience took the role of mentors, sharing responsibility with the principal for reviewing and improving the performance of their junior colleagues -- identifying weaknesses, providing support, and, when necessary, initiating dismissal proceedings.

Periodically, the Millennium staff supplements their internal accountability process by asking for independent reviews by teams of educators from other schools. Additionally, the neighborhood-wide "town meetings" give the community opportunities to discuss and update its vision for the school and review progress and accomplishments.

Principles for School Governance

In a system that educates all students well, a few core principles are:

  • Every child has a right to a high-quality education.
  • Federal, state, and local governments are responsible for ensuring that every school has enough resources to educate children well.
  • State and local policy makers work with educators, parents, and business and community leaders to define educational standards.
  • Decisions about how to help students achieve those standards are left up to communities and educators at each school, who use the most effective strategies available to help each child succeed.
  • Federal, state, and local governments are responsible for establishing a system of accountability that does not infringe upon school-level authority, but does ensure that all students and schools are performing at the highest possible level.

These principles reflect the growing understanding that education is an interconnected system. In order for reform to work, roles, relationships, and responsibilities at all levels must be re-examined. Changes to one part of the system will not work unless other parts also change.

A Supportive System

Allowing schools the flexibility they need to increase student achievement requires a system willing to support change. Consider the following:

  • At the community level, elected officials on local school boards help to ensure adequate funding and resources so each school can carry out its educational program. Giving schools the authority to solicit competitive bids for services creates incentives for districts to maximize efficiencies and eliminate services that are not responsive to the needs of their constituency. School boards monitor compliance with state and federal laws governing health, safety, and equal access to educational opportunities.

  • Districts also support school efforts by helping provide needed professional development opportunities, establishing professional networks, and providing access to other resources. With the aid of advanced technologies, administration is streamlined and district personnel can coordinate services and provide referral information at the school site. Many districts also retain responsibility in areas such as collective bargaining and transportation.

  • When states get out of the business of regulating individual schools, they can focus their efforts on a few key areas: helping to set standards that reflect society's interests in the goals of education, evaluating the adequacy of assessments designed to measure how well students are meeting those standards, working to improve teacher education, and ensuring that all students have equal access to the best educational opportunities. States can also support and disseminate educational research and provide ways for schools to network and collaborate. Some state educational agencies may provide direct services to schools that are geographically isolated or are not meeting agreed-upon levels of performance.

  • The federal government, in turn, provides leadership to help ensure that everyone understands the importance of investing in education. It retains its traditional role of directing resources to the neediest communities and student populations, while allowing local school professionals to determine exactly how those students are to be educated. The idea should be to provide resources without burdening local communities with excess (and often times needless) bureaucracy. The federal government ensures equitable access to high-quality education for all students.

There is a lot of work ahead before this vision can become a reality -- before school bells are only rung for emergencies and policy makers avoid quick fixes that ignore the complexity of learning. Consider another item in Millennium's display case, a yellowing copy of a quote from prominent twentieth-century reformer Ron Edmonds: "We can whenever, and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to accomplish that task. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven't so far."

Robert Peterkin, Ed.D., is director of the Urban Superintendents Program and Francis Keppel Senior Lecturer on Educational Policy and Administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He has held school superintendencies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He also served as a member of the GLEF National Advisory Board.
(As cited in Shades of Brown: New Perspectives on School Desegregation, Derrick Bell, ed. Teachers College Press: New York, NY, 1980, 121.)

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