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Starting School Reform from the Inside


Teachers and principals know their schools best, which is why they need to take the lead in school reform, says author Roland S. Barth. Only when everyone in a school commits to lifelong learning will education change. Included: What to look for in starting school reform.

In Learning by Heart, author Roland S. Barth urges educators to start their own school reform movement -- in their own buildings. For reform to work, says Barth, all educators need to be committed to teaching, learning, and leadership. Otherwise, many schools will remain places where educators and students come just to pass the time.

Roland S. Barth

A consultant to schools, school systems, state departments of education, universities, foundations, and businesses in the United States and abroad, Barth is a former teacher and principal. He also is the author of the widely-read book Improving Schools from Within.

Barth shared with Education World his thoughts about school reform, and how to get it started.

Education World: What should be the goal of school reform?

Roland S. Barth: I believe the goal of school reform should be to transform schools into communities characterized by continuous experimentation and improvement of practice so that the accomplishment of adults and students alike will flourish. Any "fix" we do this year, any desk we screw to the floor today, will have to be changed and unscrewed next year. So a culture of continuous reflection on practice and improvement of practice is my goal.

EW: How do you help schools change their atmosphere or approach?

Barth: When I work with schools wishing to change their cultures into ones hospitable to profound levels of human learning, I look for promising signs. Among those are signs that:

  • Many within the schoolhouse are no longer satisfied and want change.
  • Leadership is widely distributed and exercised.
  • Adults are leading the way as role models for learning.
  • Teachers and administrators are learning from one another.
  • A democratic school culture is pervasive.
  • The focus is on the accomplishment of all students, especially those who are under-performing.

When I don't see one or more of those signs, I try to help develop those qualities; I see them as preconditions for school improvement.

EW: Why is it so important for school reform to start from within?

Barth: School reform must start from within for several reasons:

  • School people are, and will continue to be, gifted and talented at finding ways to subvert and resist the good intentions of those outside the school to reform them.
  • The educators within each school know more about what's right and wrong with that school and how to go about strengthening the school than do those in distant places. Each school is idiosyncratic and needs an "individual education plan' designed by local architects.
  • When change begins within, it is more likely to be sustained after the change agent vanishes.
  • Educators who are change agents of their own school become owners, not renters. That's a big difference.

EW: What are the biggest obstacles to school-based reform?

Barth: The biggest obstacles I see to school-based reform are ourselves -- that is, the educators within the schools. Many have been betrayed along the way and have given up hope. Many have great ideas, but confine them within their own classrooms. Many have great leadership potential and choose not to exercise it. Many have craft knowledge to share with their colleagues and do not. Many believe in a better way, but continue along old paths. When the teachers and administrators and students and parents come together as a community -- especially as a community of learners and leaders -- those obstacles vanish and they blow our socks off!

EW: Why and when, do you think, did the time-honored approach of "sit'n'git" (teachers lecturing to students) start to lose its hold in the classroom? Do you think students are harder to engage now than they used to be?

Barth: Alas, I don't believe "sit 'n git", that is, didactic instruction from teachers who talk to students who (presumably) listen and learn, has lost its hold. Much research suggests that about 85 per cent of the time that's precisely what goes on in K-12 classrooms; that, despite the fact that research suggests that in six weeks we remember, at best, about 5 per cent of what we hear and are told.... A year from now -- forget it! "Sit 'n git" is like using a V-12 engine that gets three miles to a gallon in an oil crisis!

I think students have raised the bar for educators. They have experienced and enjoyed other forms of learning and seen how powerful methods other than "drill and kill" can be in promoting profound levels of learning. They have experienced the Internet, television, computers, complex games, and the power of learning from their peers, from family, from mentors. "Sit 'n git" no longer does it...if it ever did. But now students are giving us strong feedback that it doesn't work very well.

"Educators who are change agents of their own school become owners, not renters. That's a big difference," says author and consultant Roland S. Barth.

EW: What would your ideal school look like?

Barth:I believe that a good school, even more than getting students to "perform," imbues within students a commitment to lifelong learning. I see many schools that succeed in getting kids to jump higher and higher hoops, but when the hoop jumping is over, the kids burn their books -- figuratively and sometimes literally. Getting students to test in the 80th percentile is small potatoes compared to equipping them [with the tools] to develop the ability to pose and solve their own problems, and the resourcefulness, dedication, perseverance, and joy characteristic of a lifelong learner.

To help with the transition from school to work and to life, my ideal school would have permeable walls, so students could learn from the whole world, not just within those 40 by 40 boxes called classrooms. There is much to learn from rich experiences out there...about the environment, about politics, about history, about math and science and art. Why restrict ourselves to manipulating abstractions, worksheets, and workbooks in the schoolhouse? Look at the remarkable work of, for example, Expeditionary Learning and Outward Bound.

This e-interview with Roland S. Barth is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

Originally published 04/01/2004; updated 02/16/2006