December 30, 2009

When a Bureaucratic System Can't Sustain Successful Reform, Shouldn't We Change the Bureaucracy Rather Than End the Reform?

Carroll Andrew Morse

The transition of Hope High School in Providence back to city control, reported on most recently by Linda Borg in today's Projo, illustrates the premises that animate both charter school and site-based management school reform movements.

Rhode Island's State Commissioner of Education took a direct role in operating Hope High in 2005; after educational results showed some improvement, Hope was returned to full city control this past February. However, the school administration in Providence has announced its intention to undo some of the changes that have helped Hope improve…

Beginning in September, Hope will move to a six-period day like all of the other high schools in the city. The high school currently has a so-called “block” schedule composed of four 90-minute periods a day, a schedule that teachers say allows them enough time to delve more deeply into subjects.

The new schedule will also reduce or eliminate Hope’s various common planning periods that teachers say are vital to revamping the school’s academics, creating individual learning plans and developing student advisories.

The reasons cited for the changes are increased costs associated with the differently structured school-day…
According to [Providence Superintendent Tom Brady], this model requires 20 to 30 additional teachers at a cost of roughly $2.5 million a year. well as a desire by Providence's school administrators to make Hope's school day uniform with the rest of the district.

But suppose there was an organization, either an outside school operator or a homegrown group of teachers and administrators, that said it believed it could find a way to make the new schedule work within a more standard budget, if various regulations and mandates were relaxed. Would trying to figure out how to make a program like that work be worth trying? Or should the highest goal of an educational bureaucracy be to impose a uniform structure on everyone's school-day, and on other aspects of school management, whether that uniform structure provides the best education or not?

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

Are you seriously asking if a bureaucracy can reform itself?

Posted by: smitty at December 30, 2009 9:01 PM


All fine in theory, but:

Have you ever been inside Hope High?
Have you ever talked to any Hope students?
Have you ever talked to any Hope teachers?
Have you ever talked to any of Hope's leaders?
Have you talked to Brady about it?
Have you talked to Gist about it?

In short, what do you actually know about Hope and what goes on there, and what would be good for Hope and the students who attend there?

Posted by: Thomas Schmeling at December 30, 2009 11:01 PM

In order for any high school to succeed, the first year (freshman) student needs to arrive at school at grade level. This isn’t happening in Providence unless you go to a school like Classical where the student body is culled out from the masses.
How can you judge the progress of a high school if a sizable percentage of students arrives one, two or even three grade levels below where they should be academically. So much energy goes into raising the lowest performers to grade level, never mind just getting students to attend classes, the middle to high achievers are left adrift.
The way most high schools are judged is by the percentage of students that perform at grade level. Administrators and teachers start every year with the deck stacked against them. Unless students enter high school better prepared to do high school level work no high school will have success.
Hope High School’s current “block” schedule is probably the best and most flexible solution to educate under these very difficult conditions.
We need to have a good look at elementary and middle schools first if we really want to improve what high schools are doing.

Posted by: concerned parent at December 30, 2009 11:44 PM


There's two separate concerns you've raised...

1. It is possible to at least start to make an assessment of student progress that takes into account non-schooling related factors by looking at the change in student performance over time, i.e. if a high school's seniors get to 50% proficient when they were only 30% proficient as freshmen, it may be doing as well as a another school that got to 70% proficient starting from 60%.

2. On the other hand, attaching consequences to an overly simplified metric, such as percentage-of-students proficient creates problems that may not be easily overcome, for the reasons that you cite of placing too much focus on making everyone average, when nothing is rewarded by the system except for crossing that "average" line.

But the main point I'd like people to ponder is, if block scheduling or even more "radical" reforms like a longer school day might work, but can't be implemented under existing bureaucratic rules, should that mean that the reforms be abandoned, or that the bureaucratic structures be changed?


Are you saying that there's some set of conditions at Hope High that elevate bureaucratic uniformity to a more important position than educational outcomes? Because that's what your questions imply, in the context of the original post.

Posted by: Andrew at December 31, 2009 12:08 PM

Professor Schmelling,

It is comments like the one you made above, just dripping with condescension and utterly unconstructive, that will cause me to cheer when your pension check bounces.

Just remember how you brought that day closer by your comments.

Posted by: John at December 31, 2009 9:15 PM


I don't have a pension. As far as I know, no faculty in the any of the public higher education institutions in RI have pensions.

I thought you would like to know.

Posted by: Thomas Schmeling at January 1, 2010 6:09 PM

Let me add...

I admit I found Andrew’s post somewhat annoying. I would explain the reasons for that, but I doubt that it would be productive. In any case, I agree with John that my comments were not constructive, and I apologize for that.

By the way, John….I use my real name here because it matters to me as a matter of personal integrity. However, I did not post my comment in my professional capacity. Rather, I posted it as someone who has worked for a number of years inside Providence schools, trying to make them better. (Supporting, by the way, and working hard for, several initiatives that have actually been achieved, and which have been praised- at least in the abstract- by the main contributors of this blog).

You have convinced me of the wisdom of anonymous commenting here.

Posted by: Thomas Schmeling at January 1, 2010 9:03 PM


If you claim to know so much more about school reform than anyone else here can possibly know, then you should know there are elementary and secondary educational programs that claim that scheduling that is different from the traditional 8-to-2 or 9-to-3 in one-hour-blocks is a major part of their success.

Hope High School, as reported in the Projo, has made improvements in recent years using block scheduling, yet it will be changing away from that schedule, in large part, to achieve a standard of uniformity set by a district-level bureaucracy.

If you don't want to talk about the issue of whether site-based autonomy is important to a school's day-to-day operations, the best ways to achieve that autonomy, and what the impediments are, don't blame anyone else but yourself for not wanting to discuss it.

You've said in the past that you are not interested in left and right, etc. just interested advancing arguments in favor of "what's right". Yet, you suddenly don't want to talk about certain areas that may put you in agreement with some self-described conservatives. This is yet another one of the clues you continually drop (without knowing it, I understand) about the progressive worldview that you hold.

Posted by: Andrew at January 2, 2010 9:10 AM
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