A Study of Whole School Reform Implementation in
New Jersey Abbott Districts
~Policy for Building Organizational Capacity
Advances Systemic Education Reform~
The challenge to improve student achievement in "special needs" districts within the state of New Jersey is captured in the states legislative history. In May 1998, in Abbott v. Burke 153 N.J. 480, the New Jersey Supreme Court adopted a proposal for Whole School Reform (WSR) as a policy to ensure that public school children, including students with disabilities and limited English proficient (LEP) students, receive a "thorough and efficient" system of education as defined by the New Jersey Department of Education (NJ DOE) 1996 Core Curriculum Content Standards (CCCS). This 1998 legislative mandate required the implementation of WSR in the states 30 Abbott school districts.
In April 2001 (in press), A Study of Whole School Reform Implementation in New Jersey Abbott Districts was completed by the Region III Comprehensive Center (R3CC) at The George Washington University (GW). Commissioned by the NJ DOE, this evaluation measures stakeholder perceptions of the implementation progress of WSR in 18 of the 30 districts designated as Abbott districts in the state of New Jersey during the 2000 school year.
The R3CC/GW review of the research on school accountability for improved student achievement identified several core elements of organizational capacity necessary to advance systemic education reform, among these: teacher knowledge and skills; effective leadership; technical and financial resources; and organizational autonomy. Based on their review of literature, study authors posit that survey data are optimally understood when viewed through the lens of organizational capacity.
Three surveys, each using Likert scales, were developed for the study and administered to school, district and state educators and administrators. Telephone protocols were developed and interviews conducted to acquire an expanded perspective on WSR implementation from NJ DOE staff involved in managing the states "roll out" process. Broadly stated, the purpose of the R3CC/GW study was to inform the NJ DOE about:
- The progress of implementation of WSR model programs and strategies in school cohorts 1, 2 and 2 mid-year, and
- The technical assistance needs of district- and school-level stakeholders.
The study centered on four overarching questions focused on WSR implementation:
- What perceptions do members of School Management Teams (SMTs) have of the progress of WSR implementation?
- What perceptions do district staff members have of the progress of WSR implementation?
- How do SMTs assess the quality of the support provided by districts?
- How do SMTs and district administrators assess the quality of support supplied by the state?
Highlights of findings are summarized below:
School Management Teams (SMTs)
Overall, SMTs self-assessment demonstrated members perceptions that "significant progress" had been made in the primary components of WSR implementation (i.e., planning, governance, school-based budgeting, personnel, academic program, training and professional development, integration and alignment of resources and function, school environment, student and family services, and family involvement).
"Significant progress" was not reported in the following areas:
- A sufficient number of faculty/staff to implement fully and support the WSR program;
- Adoption of an academic program that meets the needs of LEP students;
- Training/professional development in the following areas: needs identification of programs and services; alignment of curriculum and instruction to state standards; personnel selection appropriate to the school; and use of zero-based budgeting processes;
- A school-based team that would train parents for volunteer roles (i.e., Student and Family Services); and
- An ongoing effort to involve parents as partners in school-based decision making (i.e., Family Involvement).
In evaluating the quality of support, SMTs rated district support highest in the area of curriculum alignment and weakest in the area of providing performance and demographic data to schools for purposes of planning and decision-making.
District Staff (Central Office Administrators)
"Some progress" was reported in implementing the primary components of WSR.
"Less progress" was reported in the following areas:
- Provision of training and technical support to SMTs;
- Assistance with budgeting issues;
- Professional development of school staff; and
- Provision of data to schools for purposes of planning and decision-making.
SMT/District Administrator Alignment
In post-implementation WSR areas, the state provided "some extent" of support to School Review and Improvement teams.
In examining data in the context afforded by the literature review, study authors note the following changes in institutional structures and individual roles that in combination are necessary to advance WSR:
- Centralized bureaucracies must change to decentralized institutions that manage autonomous schools.
- Categorical programs and budgets must change to consolidated programs
- and budgets.
- A management perspective focused on monitoring program compliance must change to a technical assistance perspective focused on continuous improvement of individuals and institutions.
- Organizations rich in data that are not readily accessible must change to organizations able to help district and school staff organize, analyze and manipulate data in order to permit educators to make meaning about student learning.
Reviewed in tandem with the literature review, the data demonstrate that reform requires technical assistance support if systemic change is to occur. Increased training and technical support to both district and school staff are needed for successful implementation of WSR. Specific areas identified in the study for which technical assistance is required include:
- Budget planning;
- Data warehousing;
- Alignment of curricula, instruction, and classroom assessments to NJ DOE CCCS;
- Accountability system development; and
- Creating partnerships with parents and community organizations.
Study authors argue that in order to advance WSR at the school level and maximize efficiency, effectiveness and job performance, it is necessary to build the institutional and individual capacity necessary to work effectively as a collaborative enterprise.
In sum, major recommendations center on two primary ways in which the NJ DOE may usefully support systemic education reform in Abbott school districts: (1) provide ongoing technical assistance to district and school level administrators and to community organizations that can support WSR, and (2) conduct additional research on the implementation of WSR.