THE BLOG
01/15/2015 12:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Seeds, Bricks, and Sand: Stages of School-Reform Readiness

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Every school, no matter how effective at improving student outcomes, could probably be even more effective, and some schools have a particularly long way to go. Various proven reform models for whole schools, particular subjects, or specific purposes stand ready to help all of these schools improve. Yet schools vary a great deal in terms of readiness for particular approaches to reform.

A metaphor for three types of schools in terms of readiness for reform is seeds, bricks, sand. The "seeds" metaphor implies an environment so conducive to reform that anything can grow there. The staff and leadership of the school are capable, aware of research, participating in professional development, well-coordinated, cohesive, and unafraid of change. Such a school may be able to create and evaluate its own reform methods and sustain and improve them over time, perhaps with general advice from consultants. "Bricks" schools are also positively oriented toward change, but are unlikely to invent effective reforms themselves. Such schools have committed and hard-working teachers and leaders who have not had the time or resources to become reform experts themselves, but are welcoming to proven models. The "bricks" metaphor implies that if someone brings the bricks and a set of plans to the site, a durable edifice can be built and maintained.

A "sand" school, on the other hand, is one that is not ready for reform, and building on this site is like building a sand castle, which will wash away with the next tide. In such schools the staff and leadership may be at odds with each other, may not believe that children can learn any more than they do now, or may have experienced failure with previous reforms. These schools may need serious restructuring.

The usefulness of the "seeds-bricks-sand" categories is in understanding how to help schools adopt and sustain proven programs. The great majority of Title I schools, in my experience, are "bricks" schools, ready, willing, and able to implement well-defined, research-proven programs, but unlikely to have the inclination to invent their own school-wide approach. Others are clearly in the "sand" category. Yet Title I schools in trouble are frequently given "seeds" advice. Until now, schools receiving substantial funding under the current School Improvement Grants (SIG) have been routinely given consultants to help them work out their own school-wide reform designs, rather than being helped to adopt proven programs. There are schools that can benefit from such strategies, but they are rarely the ones that are persistently low achieving, as all SIG schools are. Recent proposed regulations would offer SIG schools the option of adopting proven, whole-school reform models, a welcome and long overdue change.

Use of proven, well-structured reforms needs to be expanded in all schools. For those in the greatest difficulty, this need is urgent. The new SIG regulations would allow schools capable of implementing (but not inventing) proven, effective reforms a chance to turn themselves around.

Whole-school reform is difficult and expensive, and when it fails, the consequences for children as well as educators can be dire and long-lasting. Failed initiatives not only waste money, but they undermine the belief that high-poverty schools can be saved. We need to get smarter about targeting interventions to specific types of schools to increase the likelihood that investments in reform truly pay off for kids and for our society.