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Is Whole School Reform Poised for a Comeback in ESEA?

Whole school (or comprehensive) reform models are making a remarkable comeback in policy and practice. Popular in the 1990's, with as many as 6,000 schools using whole-school models by 2001, the Bush administration tried to eliminate the approach in the 2000s, despite strong positive effects in evaluations of several of the most popular models.

Recently, whole-school reform has re-appeared in the Senate's proposals for reauthorization of ESEA. Here's the proposed language:

(iv) WHOLE SCHOOL REFORM STRATEGY- A local educational agency implementing a whole school reform strategy for a school shall implement an evidence-based strategy that ensures whole school reform. The strategy shall be undertaken in partnership with a strategy developer offering a school reform program that is based on at least a moderate level of evidence that the program will have a statistically significant effect on student outcomes, including more than 1 well-designed or well-implemented experimental or quasi-experimental study.

This whole-school reform language is much better than the language in the 1997 Obey-Porter bill that greatly accelerated investments in whole-school approaches. Obey-Porter was clear about the nine (later 11) elements that should be included in whole-school plans (instruction, curriculum, professional development, parent involvement, etc.), but it was vague about the evidence requirement. Last week's Senate bill, however, is clear that to qualify, whole school programs seeking to turn around the nation's worst-performing schools will have to meet a specific set of evidence standards. That's a big improvement in itself.

This whole-school reform provision was one of the few aspects of the turnaround portions of the bill to receive broad support. During an often-heated debate, Republicans and Democrats seemed to agree that the evidence was supportive of this approach to turning around low-achieving schools. Senator Burr (R-NC), in seeking to strike the whole turnaround section, acknowledged whole school reform as the model most likely to produce results. Senator Franken (D-MN) cited the addition of whole school reform as an improvement over the four models rolled out by the administration.

Whatever happens with the overall Senate proposal, I very much hope this provision survives. There are far too many persistently low-achieving schools in the U.S. to expect that each of them is going to invent its own successful approach. While the Senate bill does not (and should not) mandate use of whole-school reforms, its mention of the approach and of rigorous standards of evidence are sure to encourage many schools to consider it. And that would lead many organizations to create, rigorously evaluate, and disseminate a wide variety of models that would empower struggling schools to turn themselves around.

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