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Ask Dr. Lynch: School Reform 101

EducationWorld Q&A columnist Dr. Matthew Lynch is an associate professor of education at Langston University. Dr. Lynch provides expert advice on everything from classroom management to differentiated instruction. Read all of his columns here, and be sure to submit your own question.

Dr. Matthew Lynch

This week, reader Clara J. asks:

I am the school board president for a small rural district in the state of Louisiana. The school board and superintendent have decided that our district is in need of reform, but none of us, not even the superintendent, has the experience to lead a school reform effort. Could you shed some light on the school reform process from beginning to end?


Many schools find themselves in need of reform, but do not have the expertise to carry it out. In this column, I will guide you through the reform process, step by step. Remember that because every school district or educational organization is different, this guide may need to be amended in order to meet your district's individual needs.

First, when attempting school reform, district leaders must first assemble a district restructuring team. Groups no larger than seven usually work best, and the team can be made up of a variety of district personnel and staff. Restructuring teams normally consist of a school board member, the superintendent and assistant superintendents, principals, teachers, and other pertinent individuals.

Once the team is created, efforts must be made to assess the district’s capacity for implementing and sustaining school reform. The team must ask itself whether the district has all of the resources needed to implement and sustain a successful school reform campaign. In extreme cases, when the district believes it is unable to coordinate its own reform effort, the team might want to consider contracting an educational consulting firm. There are many well-qualified firms that will be able to either oversee the process or work in conjunction with a restructuring team. It is important to note that this can turn into an enormous job with an enormous price tag.

The restructuring team must be committed to finding and implementing innovative strategies that have the potential to effectively produce educational change. Assembling a top-notch team is simply not enough, however. All of the major administrators, including the superintendent and school board, must fully support the decisions of the district restructuring team.

Remember that parents, community leaders and policymakers must be included in the school reform process. Many parents are involved in their children’s education and simply want to be informed of any changes. The restructuring team will need to decide if parents and community leaders should be included as formal members of the group, or whether their advice and expertise will be elicited only as needed. When selecting individuals to serve on the team, include members with a level of expertise that will be taken seriously within the district.

Involving parents and community members in the restructuring process might provide the restructuring team with a way to engage other members of the community, such as grassroots organizations, local business leaders and area politicians. Community members can also assist the school in choosing the correct restructuring plan. It is vital for the restructuring team to understand the culture of the community, its needs and wants, and the life skills young people need to survive in the community.

The task of choosing the leader and deciding on the roles of each restructuring team member should not be taken lightly. In many instances, the leader of the restructuring team will be the superintendent or someone he or she appoints. The leader does not necessarily need to be the superintendent, but if s/he is not, he or she must have the superintendent’s support. The leader must assume the responsibility of being held accountable for ensuring the success of the entire team as it moves to implement and sustain school reform. The leader’s roles might include, but are not restricted to, determining the areas of expertise the team members bring to the table and how he or she can utilize their expertise.

The leader will need to establish a standing meeting time and develop an agenda to utilize their time to the fullest extent possible. The leader must decide if the team should have mandatory or optional meetings. If the meetings are optional, the leader will need to decide how to disseminate information to members who do not attend.

Prepared agendas are essential for smooth meetings and excellent communication within the team. Preparing agendas is the team leader’s responsibility. The leader of the restructuring team must remain patient, but a sense of urgency must be the catalyst of all meetings. Since the team will be made up primarily of school district personnel and various other community members and parents, having an outsider on the team will add valuable expertise, in addition to an objective lens with which to gauge progress.

It will be helpful to determine what viable options of reform the team is able to utilize. A district-wide plan must be developed, while bearing in mind that each school will need to modify the plan based on the needs of its students. Once the system of reform is created and approved by all team members, the plan will need to be approved by the superintendent before it is presented to the school board. The same rules apply whether reform is needed by one school or by all the schools in the district.

A concern, alluded to in earlier comments, is the need to assess the district’s capacity for implementing and sustaining educational reform. To appropriately assess the abilities of the district or school, the leader will need to complete an inventory of team members’ qualifications and areas of expertise. If the inventory concludes that the district or school does not have the capacity to implement or sustain the plan for reform, state takeover or hiring of outside education consultants may be the only options.

Another concern might be that the team members do not understand the dedication and length of time it will take to carry out the reform. Before the team starts to implement the necessary changes, the leader will need to stress to all team members the enormity and importance of the task, as well as the number of hours the members will need to dedicate to the project.

Once the team’s reform plan has been approved, it will be time to implement the plan. The restructuring team will discuss possible impediments and ensure that it has a contingency plan to deal with these issues as they arise. Next, the group will implement the target goals and timelines. The leader should then appoint a task force to be responsible for continuously collecting, analyzing and interpreting data. The leader will use this information to continuously revise and refine the team’s restructuring efforts, as well as report findings/data to the superintendent and/or the school board.

If your district follows the blueprint I have outlined above, you will begin to see positive results in no time.

About Dr. Lynch

Dr. Matthew Lynch is a Chair and Associate Professor of Education at Langston University and a blogger for the Huffington Post. Dr. Lynch also is the author of the newly released book It’s Time for a Change: School Reform for the Next Decade and A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories. Please visit his Web site for more information.

If you have a question for “Ask Dr. Lynch,” submit it here. Topics can be anything education-related, from classroom management to differentiated instruction.

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