Core Strategies for Reforming Schooling


Between 1810 and 1920 the American system of public schooling was completely overhauled. Fundamental shifts occurred in the three central elements of schooling--how we think about learning and teaching, how we organize and manage schools and how schools relate to their larger environments. For nearly all of the 20th century, schools built from these 1890-1920 blueprints remained largely unchanged

By the mid-1980s, however, a second revolution in American schooling was being trumpeted. The foundational pillars laid down in the early 1900s in response to the evolution from the agricultural to the industrial world came under scrutiny as we moved from the industrial to the information era.

Emerging from this analysis has been the construction of a different scaffolding on which schooling in the 21st century likely will be built. As with the earlier revolution, this new architecture is a compound of how we think about learning, how we organize schools and how schools relate to the larger world.

New Views on Learning
On the first issue, some evidence exists that a more robust understanding of the education production function is being translated into new ways of thinking about learning and teaching. The strongest theoretical and disciplinary influence on education--behavioral psychology--is being pushed off center stage by constructivist psychology and newer sociological perspectives on learning.

Underlying this change are radically different ways of thinking about the educability of children. Those at the forefront of transforming schools that were historically organized to produce results consistent with the normal curve--that is, to sort youth into the various strata needed to fuel the economy--see education being transformed to ensure equal opportunity for all learners.

At the center of this newly forming vision about learning for tomorrow are fairly important changes in assumptions about intelligence and knowledge. The prevailing conception of knowledge as an external entity is breaking down. A new view, one that holds that knowledge is internal and subjective, that it is closely connected to the learner and the situational context, is receiving serious consideration. Learning is seen as a social phenomenon and considerable attention is devoted to the social origins of cognition.

New views about what is worth learning also characterize emerging perspectives on the core dimension of schooling. The traditional emphasis on acquiring information is being replaced by a focus on learning to learn and on the ability to use knowledge. New perspectives on the context of learning are also being developed, directing attention to active learning. A century-old concern for independent work and competition is slowly receding in favor of more cooperative learning relationships.

Student-centered pedagogy will be more heavily underscored in 21st century schools. The model of the teachers as content specialists who possess relevant knowledge that they transmit to students through telling is replaced by an approach in which teaching is more of a guiding function. The student becomes the primary actor. Substantive conversation replaces conventional classroom talk and didactic instruction. Learning is seen as the construction of understanding, and teaching is viewed as facilitating this development. The focus is on learning, not on the delivery system.

Views of Organization
Increasingly we are realizing that the existing managerial and organizational structures are failing, that the reformers of the last century have produced bureaucratic gridlock. Many conclude that the existing bureaucratic system of administration is incapable of meeting the needs of the public education system in the 21st century.

The current management and governance system has come under sharp criticism from various corners:


  • those who argue that schools are so covered with bureaucratic sediment that initiative, creativity and professional judgment all have been paralyzed;



  • reviewers who maintain that the current administrative structures are distorting the educational process and interfering with learning;



  • analysts who believe that bureaucracy is counterproductive to the needs and interests of professionals within the schools;



  • educators who suggest that bureaucratic management is inconsistent with the sacred values and purposes of education;



  • scholars who view bureaucracy as a form of operation that inherently forces attention away from the core business of schooling;



  • analysts who hold that the existing organizational structure of schools is neither sufficiently flexible nor robust to meet the needs of students in a postindustrial society; and



  • reviewers who believe that the rigidities of bureaucracy impede the ability of parents and citizens to govern and reform schooling.


    This tremendous attack on the bureaucratic infrastructure of schools has led to demands to develop new blueprints and alternative methods of operating that are grounded on new values and principles. Concomitantly, new forms of school organization and management are emerging. The basic organizing and management principles of schooling are giving way to more pro-active attempts to govern educational systems.

    In addition, there is enhanced attention to issues of social capital. The hierarchical, bureaucratic organizational structures that have defined schools over the past 80 years are giving way to more decentralized and more professionally controlled systems that create new designs for school management.

    Inside these new postindustrial educational organizations are important shifts in roles, relationships and responsibilities. Traditional patterns of relationships are altered, authority flows are less hierarchical, role definitions are both more general and more flexible, leadership is connected to competence for needed tasks rather than to formal position and independence and isolation are replaced by cooperative work.

    Furthermore, a traditional structural orientation is being overshadowed by a focus on the human element. The operant goal is no longer maintenance of the organizational infrastructure but rather the development of human resources. Developing learning climates and organizational adaptivity are being substituted for the more traditional emphasis on uncovering and applying the one best model of performance.

  • Environmental Relationships
    Many analysts of the interface of a school with its larger environment argue that the public monopoly approach to education that defined schools for nearly all of the 20th century will not work well for the next century. Many chroniclers of the changing institutional arrangements envision the demise of schooling as a sheltered government monopoly heavily controlled by professionals.

    In its stead, they forecast the emergence of a system of schooling and improvement designs driven by economic and political forces that substantially increase the saliency of the market and the viability of forms of direct democracy. Embedded in this conception are some interesting dynamics, many of which gain force from a realignment of power and influence between professional educators and consumers. The most important is that the traditional dominant relationship--with professional educators on the playing field and parents on the sidelines acting as cheerleaders or agitators or, more likely, passive spectators--is replaced by rules that advantage the consumer.

    Four elements of this emerging portrait of transformed governance for consumers are most prevalent: choice in selecting a school, voice in school governance, partnership in the education of their children and enhanced membership in the school community. Central to all four is a blurring of the boundaries between the home and the school, between the school and the community and between professional staff and lay constituents.

    Collectively, these components suggest that in the 21st century, we will have more locally controlled and market-anchored conceptions of schooling.

    Joseph Murphy is a professor of educational leadership at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, Box 514, Nashville, TN 37203. E-mail: joseph.f.murphy@vanderbilt.edu