Drive-By School Reform

How hit-and-run approaches to reform can turn schools into passive targets of intervention, rather than active partners in change.

By Stan Karp

One hallmark of drive-by reform: initiatives are imposed with little context or connection to a school‘s recent history.

Eight years ago my school district was taken over by the state. It was the second large, urban system seized by the New Jersey Department of Education under the state’s initiative for addressing “educational bankruptcy” in long-failing districts. Today, New Jersey’s three largest school systems, Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson, where I’ve taught high school for two decades, are under state control.

During the same period, advocates for funding equity have won a series of remarkable victories for poor schools. As a result of several state Supreme Court decisions, the poorest urban districts in New Jersey have been guaranteed per-pupil spending equity with the richest suburban districts.

Taken together, these developments opened up a process of urban school reform that has touched many of the “hot- button” issues of the 1990s: testing, standards, governance, funding, school re- structuring, charters, and technology. Following the Court’s decisions on funding equity (decisions which the state fought tooth and nail for 25 years), the state’s commissioner of education has decreed a wave of “whole-school re- form” that will require schools in poor districts to reconstitute their site councils, align their curriculum and budgets with new state standards, choose from a prescribed list of reform models, and “redefine” themselves once more under the close supervision of state monitors.

All this activity has provided a new, close-up look at the prospects for reform in struggling urban districts like my own. It’s provided an equally close look at some of the major obstacles.


While many in Paterson initially opposed the state takeover for various reasons, many others held out hope that space for real change would open up. I counted myself among the latter group and actively sought opportunities to become involved beyond the boundaries of my classroom in the new wave of reform sweeping the district.

Since the takeover began in 1991, I’ve participated in site-based management reforms, school-based restructuring projects, and endless meetings about school reform. For three years I chaired the district’s site-based management (SBM) committee, which attempted to define what SBM would mean in Paterson. I served two terms as a member of the union executive board, an outgrowth of my work on the SBM project. After the SBM project went nowhere (due to ongoing tension over its scope and weak community and parent participation), I began to lead a team charged with expanding the journalism elective program I had been teaching into a theme-based communications “school-within-a-school.” The project was part of a plan to restructure my comprehensive high school of about 2,300 students into smaller units led by interdisciplinary teams of teachers.

As I write, I still hope that the restructuring project will succeed and, in time, provide a more collaborative and productive educational environment for the several hundred kids and the dozen or so teachers who may ultimately be involved. But these hopes, like my earlier hopes for district-wide renewal, remain decidedly guarded. They have been tempered by frustrating experiences with a reform process that repeatedly seems to push schools two steps back for each one forward. It’s a phenomenon I have come to call “drive-by school reform.”


The tell-tale signs of this hit-and-run approach to educational change are pain- fully familiar in urban public schools. Drive-by reform is invariably generated by something outside the school: a new state law, yet another state test, the agenda of a new governor, or a recently hired central office administrator. The school community becomes the passive target of intervention, rather than the initiator of, or active partner in, change.

Because sponsors of reform often want to claim the “investment of the stake- holders,” lip service is frequently paid to “consensus,” “parent/community involvement,” and “teacher input.” But in practice, the experience and concerns of teachers, parents, and even school-based administrators can be marginalized in many ways. They often seem to count only insofar as they serve the agenda imposed from the outside.

One way this is done is by introducing reform with little context or connection to a school’s recent history. Reform trends wash over urban districts in New Jersey like waves on the Jersey shore, frequent- ly erasing all trace of past efforts in order to make room for a few more short-lived footprints(or worse, depositing new forms of debris or toxic waste). Abrupt changes in direction are announced with little attempt to sum up recent experience. This failure to speak directly to the real experience and frustrations schools have had with previous reform projects feeds cynicism and reduces the credibility and prospects for success of new programs.

For example, part of the new state administration’s agenda in Paterson was to seed this long-stagnant district with a scatter-shot dose of reform initiatives. Some were drawn from national reform models such as Comer Schools and Robert Slavin’s Success for All. Others were designed by the newly installed state administrators, such as “Paradigm,” an ill- conceived basic skills program devised to boost test scores by eliminating elective “frills,” such as music, art, even history and science classes.

Many of these initiatives were imposed in a heavy-handed, top-down fashion. Paradigm, for example, was “implement- ed” at my high school in a chaotic few weeks that included massive changes in student schedules and teacher assignments, unmanageably large, poorly planned meetings, and thinly veiled threats against anyone who didn’t “get with the program.” Though the program took several years to collapse under its own weight, bad process and dubious educational policy doomed Paradigm to failure in advance. The experience foolishly squandered energy that might have been more constructively mobilized for change.


Similarly, schools can be set up to fail by the imposition of absurd time lines. Drive-by reform asks school staff to form site councils in a matter of days, asks parents and teachers with little experience to develop school budgets in a few weeks, and asks schools to choose from a grab bag of reform models after a cursory survey and one or two site visits by a small delegation.

My school has created three different site councils in the past several years, each time under the pressure of state deadlines or central office decrees that made a mockery of the school-based, collaborative initiative such councils are supposed to represent. Most recently, the council election had to be held before we had time to answer such basic questions as what the council’s exact responsibilities were and when it would meet. Such bureaucratic procedures and time frames suggest that the “democratic processes” that accompany many reform efforts are designed primarily to create an appearance of legitimacy rather than to create the common ground and painstaking dialogue that reform needs in order to succeed. Such practices especially undercut the prospects for meaningful collaboration among classroom teachers, parents, and community members.

Drive-by reform is also clearly taking place whenever a district allows educational consultants and outside professional experts to lead, rather than support, reform.

In Paterson, the first state-takeover ad- ministration began by sending in teams of state-appointed administrators to eval- uate schools using criteria that the schools and teachers had no role in formulating or even reviewing. Teachers read the results in the local papers, where schools were labeled as “failing,” “adequate,” or “suc- cessful,” without any chance to respond or question the findings.

Schools in the district were then force- fed a process of reform led by professional consultants, hired for amounts and on terms never publicly disclosed. In effect, the consultants became the agents of a reform process decreed from central office. They assumed an inappropriate role as the definers and arbiters of change rather than supporters or facilitators of it. This sent a message about who was in charge that was much more telling than the thick informational packets they left behind with prescriptions for how schools should transform themselves.


The consultants no doubt meant well and sought to promote positive change. But in order for school-based reform to succeed, it’s necessary to create a level of consensus, leadership, and commitment that in most schools and districts does not readily exist. Creating agreement about what reform priorities should be and then building the capacity for leadership, facilitation, team-building, planning, community outreach, troubleshooting—in a word, school-based organizing—is the often unacknowledged missing link in the process of reform. While many initiatives give these tasks token attention, a day-long “retreat” here, an afternoon staff- development session there, few devote sufficient time and resources to them.

Moreover, there is the question of what kind of support is needed from the district in order for school-based reform to succeed — a question that raises implications about the roles of central office administrators, supervisors, principals, vice principals, department chairs, deans, and other non-teaching personnel that are rarely examined. The top-heavy administrative apparatus that exists in many urban districts reflects bureaucratic patterns of organization that have developed over many years. It is often unsupportive of, even incompatible with, school-based initiatives.

District-wide leadership and central office resources are crucially important to sustaining reform and to addressing equity concerns and other issues that may get lost at the level of a single school or project. But real reform also requires a new, collaborative division of labor that is mutually negotiated between schools and central offices in areas such as curriculum planning, staff development, budgeting, and technology. Drive-by reforms typically bridge the gaps with little more than rhetoric, which is one reason they fail.

Inside individual schools, the time- consuming leadership tasks of new re- forms are commonly added to the duties of current administrators, where they may compete or even conflict with existing priorities. The restructuring project in my high school, for example, has not yet addressed the contradictions of creating interdisciplinary teams of teachers with- out overhauling the school’s organization by academic departments, or of encouraging teachers to develop new student-centered, theme-based curriculum while huge chunks of instructional time and curriculum planning remain driven by the state’s standardized tests. Alternately, reform leadership may rely on an unsustainable level of (often unpaid) volunteerism on the part of individual teachers, or be contracted out to consultants. None of these approaches is adequate.

At my school, the university-based consultants came and went with mysterious irregularity. Whether they were over-extended or under-committed was hard to tell, but months would go by without a trace of their “leadership,” followed by a flurry of activity. Meetings (often catered in ways rarely seen at teachers’ meetings) were scheduled and canceled with little notice. When they were held, the meetings tended to be driven by pub- lic relations agendas. Reform teams in the schools were pressured to devote considerable amounts of time to creating elaborate, multi-media presentations for central office administrators and consultants to review. These sessions were not places for frank exchange about the problems and progress of reform projects. They were a kind of trial-by-showcase, in which principals and team leaders were expected to impress the consultants and central office supervisors with upbeat presentations in exchange for a pat on the head and permission to continue. This hollow dialogue only reinforced existing relationships of hierarchy and bureaucracy between school-based reform teams and central offices, instead of developing more collaborative, supportive relationships. Those who seemed to care most about the reform projects — principals trying to sustain the process of change in their buildings or teams of teachers trying to figure out if the restructuring process was for real or a sham — were often the most frustrated.

There was also a kind of “culture clash” at the reform table between participants who came from very different worlds. I remember teachers, skilled at navigating the crowded halls of a huge high school, hustling from one end of the building to the other in the five-minute passing period to get to a restructuring meeting on time, only to cool their heels for 30 minutes until the consultants and central office administrators finally strolled in with- out apology or explanation. Then the consultants would talk about “teacher- driven change” and “bottom-up reform” while teachers bit their tongues.

But the larger problem was that the reform projects were never sufficiently rooted in the real experience of schools and classrooms. They had sprung from the heads of the consultants and received wavering and uncertain support from central office. To be sure, some teachers and principals worked hard to build real programs on this problematic foundation, and there were some hopeful seeds sprout- ing. But the commitment of classroom teachers and the bottom-up participation of school communities remained extremely thin. The majority of teachers still functioned outside of the restructuring projects and were only intermittently engaged by the reform process. Drive-by school reform allowed only passing glimpses of the kind of changes our district and our schools needed to see.


In part, drive-by reform reflects the chronic instability that plagues urban districts. Just as the high school restructuring projects in Paterson were moving from the planning to the implementation stages, both the consultants and the administration that had hired them abruptly disappeared. Their contracts had expired and were not renewed. Instead, the state appointed a new superintendent who brought yet another set of initiatives (and consultants) to the district with him.

In addition to the inevitable time required for another transition period and reassessment of district priorities, the new administration faced steady pressure for a quick fix that would somehow raise test scores and provide a cover for the state to retreat from the responsibilities it had assumed under the takeover law. Short- term, test-driven agendas invariably take precedence over more protracted efforts to fundamentally transform school organization and performance. These shifting and, at times, competing agendas naturally were disorienting for those involved in restructuring projects that had gotten under way, but were far from finished or even fully formed. The cycle and uncertainties of drive-by reform continue, sapping valuable time and energy and under- mining even the best intentions.

But instability is not the only source of this fitful approach to school change. At bottom, this problematic syndrome reflects serious contradictions at the core of many reform efforts. The bad process, half-hearted support from the top, token community and staff participation, con- fused and competing agendas, the avoidance of hard issues, and absence of stay- ing power are the expressions of a contradictory reform impulse that lacks the vision and will to tackle more seriously the deeply political questions of democracy and power that lie at the heart of school reform. New Jersey’s state take- over law is just one example of many attempts at reform that are long on political posturing about school failure and decidedly short on the commitments need- ed to reverse it.

The truth is that there is much about the apparent consensus on the need to reform and improve our urban public schools that is, in the final analysis, illusory.

Reform in urban districts often shares a common rhetoric: “all children can learn,” “high standards for all,” “no child should be left behind.” These high-minded sentiments resonate with all who care about schools and children. But like support for motherhood and apple pie, rhetoric about school reform can be em- braced by constituencies with sharply different interests and political agendas.

Under the banner of reform, there are some, like New Jersey’s Whitman ad- ministration, who want to sharply limit the high costs of quality education even in the face of court mandates and press- ing need. Others seek to dismantle the public system, and replace it with a mix of charters, private schools, and vouchers. Still others seek to circumvent the difficulties of transforming school communities by reducing the process of re- form to administrative decrees or prefabricated models. All of these approaches can come wrapped in glossy rhetoric, but they ultimately generate superficial, half-hearted, even counterproductive efforts.

In the struggle to remake themselves, schools must wrestle with a host of complicated issues. The choices they make invariably push them toward either promoting educational equity and social justice or reinforcing the status quo. Should curriculum reflect mainstream consensus and traditional values, or should it promote a multicultural pluralism and critical thought? Are standards being raised to bar the door to some or to assure better outcomes for all? Should parents and classroom teachers have as much say about what schools do as governors and corporate executives have? Will reform create new enclaves of privilege or credible models of experimentation whose benefits are equitably distributed throughout the system? At every turn, the gap between the promises and pitfalls of reform creates a tension. Whether any particular step will move things forward, backward, or into a dead end often depends on how clearly the big picture is kept in focus. Where it isn’t, quick fixes and quack remedies abound.

Drive-by approaches to reform will never take schools where they need to go. Until educational leaders find the political will and vision to put democracy, equity, and social justice at the heart of the debate about public education, school reform will continue to be an exasperating tug-of-war with limited lasting impact.

Stan Karp ( is an editor of Rethinking Schools and teaches English and journalism in Paterson, NJ.