Guest Column

Why Urban School Reform Doesn’t Deliver

The old adage that "everyone complains about the weather but no one actually does anything about it" might as easily be said of public education reform, especially in America’s urban centers.

School superintendents in inner cities are constantly in the spotlight, expected to be charismatic enough, smart enough, savvy enough or something-else enough to turn around school systems. The assumption of many reform advocates is that if the incumbent superintendent disappoints, the school board must search harder for a new hero.

When the district brings in a new superintendent and then is thought to show some improvement, the superintendent and his or her reform agenda are immediately hailed as the long-sought answer.

However, it is simply not true that troubled districts suffer from insufficiently innovative or pro-active leadership. In fact, a 1999 study I published demonstrates that the typical urban district launched at least 12 large-scale reforms between 1992 and 1995--that’s a new reform every three months--despite the fact that empirical examination suggests these reform efforts often are more of a political distraction than a substantive school-improvement initiative.

Policymakers and educators--including boards of education, which, of course, hire and fire superintendents--are driven by professional and community pressures to embrace dramatic-sounding changes. The failure of their efforts often is attributed either to misjudging the optimal activities or to insufficient nurturing of the district’s latest innovation. But the lack of large-scale successes suggests a more fundamental problem.

Getting to the Root
Given the sense of crisis in urban schooling, superintendents are expected to rapidly demonstrate that the district is turning around. Urban boards feel pressured to replace superintendents who do not live up to this expectation, and when a chief administrator does make noticeable inroads he or she is quickly courted by eager school boards in other jurisdictions, as well as increasingly by prestigious positions in government, consulting and academia. In any case, the typical tenure is three years or less--certainly not enough time to make a significant and enduring difference in the schools.

The urban superintendent’s short tenure, visibility and lack of effective short-term control over classroom performance mean that superintendents have little opportunity to prove their value to the school system, nor do they have enough longevity in three years' time for others to assess the impact of new leadership on the school system. The result is a focus on launching change that will jump-start the school improvement process.

A superintendent who focuses on carefully implementing selected initiatives enhances the likelihood of producing significant change but may not satisfy anxious community observers. On the other hand, by initiating an aggressive reform agenda and leaving his or her successors to worry about results, the superintendent can set a district on the right path and entrust to others the thankless task of finishing the job.

Further, because district policymakers are better able to improve the schools if they enjoy community backing, superintendents are propelled into pro-active behavior, if only as a tactic to rally resources and support. The surest way to earn this support is to cultivate a community reputation as a promising innovator. Reformist superintendents are feted and offered a honeymoon in which to reshape troubled school systems.

The irony is that the sheer amount of reform impedes the ability of schools to improve in meaningful ways. Meaningful reform requires time, energy, commitment and focus. The churning of policy distracts administrators, teachers and community members from fostering faculty commitment and expertise--the real keys to school improvement.

Initiatives repeatedly are abandoned midstream, prompting faculty and administrators to become disillusioned and resist further change. Studies of high-performing schools suggest that the best schools are characterized by focus and expertise. School improvement requires time, concentration and the commitment of core personnel.

Urban districts misallocate resources by paying insufficient attention to organizational culture or institutional constraints. Rather than looking for reformer-superintendents promoting "new and improved" remedies, district leaders should increase their emphasis on providing focused, stable leadership that cultivates expertise, professionalism and community. Urban school leaders should cast a much more cautious eye on consultants, academics and program designers even when they are pitching good programs.

Slow and Steady
My message here is not a happy one. But there are no quick fixes to the troubles that plague urban schools, and good-hearted efforts often make matters worse. Unfortunately, simply exhorting school leaders to slow down is unlikely to help because their activity is largely a response to larger pressures.

Convincing community leaders and other observers that slow-and-steady is not weak leadership would help. Most importantly, however, we ought to promote institutional changes that will encourage educators and observers to focus on long-term effects rather than short-term efforts.

Measures such as new accountability systems or choice-based educational arrangements may increase attention to outcomes and make those outcomes easier to assess, reducing the incidence of policy churn. Similarly, longer superintendent contracts, enhanced control over school personnel and practice and less bureaucracy would help encourage and empower system leaders to focus on implementing changes.

Rick Hess is an assistant professor of education and government at University of Virginia, 290 Ruffner Hall, Charlottesville, VA 22903. E-mail: He is the author of Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform (Brookings Institution Press).