• by Roy Johnson, MS • IDRA Newsletter • August 1996 • Roy L. Johnson, M.A.

The modern movement to reform public education in the United States was initiated in the early 1980s with the publication of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative of Educational Reform (NCEE, 1983). Nationally viewed as the impetus for the first wave of education reform, A Nation at Risk outlined the failures of our nation’s schools to produce a well educated citizenry for an ever­ expanding competitive global economy. From the mid­1980s throughout the 1990s, commissioned reports have documented education reform initiatives by policy­makers and educators that aimed at the improvement of teaching and learning in our nation’s public schools.

Over a decade since the start of the first wave of education reforms, the quest to improve the quality of public school education is a continuing imperative for the 1990s and into the 21st century. Efforts to improve the quality of teaching and learning in our public schools have come under many titles – e.g., education reform, systemic reform, school restructuring, systemic change, just to name a few. In the literature, these terms are often used synonymously. For the purposes of this article, however, the term school restructuring is used because it denotes the need to reassess, reorder, reassemble and recreate educational systems that work for all children. Restructuring denotes the rebuilding of an educational system that provides quality teaching and learning for students of all races, sexes, economic backgrounds and the varied other student characteristics.

Critics of the first wave of education reforms have concluded that the mostly top­down strategies have had less than satisfactory results in improving teaching and learning. They suggest that many of the initial reform efforts consisted of isolated projects focusing on such issues as governance, block scheduling, integrated curriculum and standardized testing.

Believing that the current educational system was beyond repair and that the first wave of reforms had minimal impact on improving teaching and learning, some reformers have called for a complete overhaul or restructuring of the educational system (Murphy, 1991). Amy Klauke states that “restructuring has become the central issue in the school reform movement” (1989).

Impetus for School Restructuring

Following the publication of the numerous commissioned studies on the quality of education in the early­ to mid­ 1980s, policy­makers and educators, particularly at the state level, “launched the most widespread, intense, public and sustained effort to improve education in our history” (Murphy, 1991). The first wave of education reforms was marked by the passage of state and national omnibus education bills that focused on teacher licensing, graduation requirements, standardized tests and assessments, accountability standards, curriculum development, decentralized control, etc. (O’Neil, 1993).

The impetus for school restructuring came about because many stakeholders, both inside and outside of schools, perceived that the educational system was not working as well as it should. In his book, Restructuring Schools: Capturing and Assessing the Phenomena, Joseph Murphy lists a number of reasons policy­makers and educators were compelled to restructure schools (1991). These motivational reasons for school restructuring include the following:

  • Political theories about the benefits of decentralization;
  • Competitive factors in the world economy;
  • Demands of a changing population – greater diversity in the student population;
  • Concerns with the standards­raising movement;
  • Disgruntlement with the bureaucratization of schools;
  • Crisis in the teaching force;
  • School effectiveness and school improvement research; and
  • Lessons from the corporate world.

Irrespective of the reasons for school restructuring, it is clear that external pressures and demands, coupled with the desire of some policy­makers and educators to improve teaching and learning, have served as important motivators for change. It has also become increasing clear that school personnel alone cannot bring about the desired improvement in the educational system in isolation – the improvement of the educational system will require the active support and involvement of school personnel, parents, business and community organizations, state education personnel, governmental agencies and others.

What is “School Restructuring?”

Generally speaking, the term school restructuring denotes a comprehensive reworking or rebuilding of the educational system for the purpose of improving teaching and learning. Many definitions have been coined for school restructuring. Some of these definitions are presented below.

  • As defined by Phil Schlechty, restructuring is “changing the system of rules, roles and relationships that govern the way time, people, space, knowledge and technology are used” (Brandt, 1993).
  • Glenn Harvey and David Crandall say the goal of restructuring should be “to preserve and build upon what has been successful in educating our children and to rethink and redesign those aspects of the enterprise that have failed (mission and goals; organization; management; instruction; roles, responsibilities and regulations; external involvement; and finances) (1988).
  • According to David Conley, “Restructuring activities change fundamental assumptions, practices and relationships, both within the organization and between the organization and the outside world, in ways that lead to improved and varied student learning outcomes for essentially all students” (1993).

Implications for Future School Restructuring

Fundamental restructuring of the educational system will require the coordinating of top­down and bottom­up strategies for education reform. Marshall Smith and Jennifer O’Day summarize the need for the coordination of restructuring efforts in their statement:

“What is needed is neither a solely top­down nor bottom­up approach to reform, but a coherent systemic strategy that can combine the energy and professional involvement of the second wave of reforms with a new and challenging state structure to generalize the reforms to all schools within a state” (1991).

In addition to employing top­down and bottom­up approaches to education reforms, the school restructuring effort must include the active involvement of all stakeholders, including parents and community organizations.

Education reform experts have identified a number of key steps or stages in the restructuring process. Some of these key steps are presented below. Beverly Anderson has listed six key elements in the restructuring process as the following (1993).

  • Vision: Stakeholders from different groups should be involved in shaping the new educational system. They should be involved in developing a vision and purpose for this new system.
  • Public and Political Support: The support from public and political leadership should be included throughout the restructuring process. Inclusion of diverse populations is critical to building support for the restructuring efforts.
  • Networking: Building networks to study, pilot and support the restructuring process is essential for lasting change.
  • Teaching and Learning Changes: Changes in teaching and learning must be based on the best available research.
  • Administrative Roles and Responsibilities: Classroom and administrative roles and responsibilities must shift from an hierarchical structure to one of support and shared decision making.
  • Policy Alignment: State and local policies must be aligned in areas related to curriculum frameworks, instructional methods and materials, student assessment practices, resource allocation, and inclusion of all types of students (equity).

Ann Lieberman, Linda Darling­Hammond and David Zuckerman suggest the following steps for school restructuring (1991).

  • Rethinking curriculum and instruction in order to promote quality and equality for all students.
  • Developing a rich learning environment for teachers as well as for students.
  • Recreating the structure of the school.
  • Increasing and changing the participation of parents and community.
  • Building partnerships, coalitions and networks.

Michael Cohen suggests the following tasks in the restructuring process (1988).

  • Identify key dimensions of the structure of instruction that affect pedagogical practice and student learning.
  • Consider experience and available research as a starting place for structural change.
  • Develop an understanding of the integration of forces within each school to facilitate change at the various levels.

Glenn Harvey and David Crandall list the following restructuring stages (1988).

  • Creating vision.
  • Establishing goals, priorities and strategies.
  • Determining resources and obstacles.
  • Anticipating policy conflicts and developing agreement procedures.
  • Preparing for and monitoring implementation.

Since the publication of A Nation at Risk, policy­makers and educators have implemented numerous efforts to restructure schools in order to actualize improved teaching and learning in our nation’s schools. Much has been learned from these reform efforts that have been documented in the many commissioned studies on education reform. The first wave of state­led reforms are now being followed by the demands of internal and external forces to comprehensively restructure schools.


Anderson, Beverly L. “The Stages of Systemic Change,” Educational Leadership (September 1993) 51, 1, 14­17.

Brandt, Ron. “On Restructuring Roles and Relationships: A Conversation with Phil Schlechty,” Educational Leadership. (October 1993) 51, 2, 8­11.

Cohen, Michael. Restructuring the Education System: Agenda for the Nineties. (Washington, D.C.: National Governor’s Association, Center for Policy Research, May 1988).

Conley, David T. Roadmap to Restructuring: Policies, Practices and the Emerging Visions of Schooling. (Eugene, Oregon: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management, 1993).

Harvey, Glenn and David P. Crandall. A Beginning Look at the What and How of Restructuring. (Andover, Mass.: Regional Laboratory for Educational Improvement of the Northeast and Islands, 1988).

Klauke, Amy. “Restructuring the Schools,” ERIC Digest Series. (Eugene, Oregon: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management, 1989) Number EA 37.

Lieberman, Ann and Linda Darling­Hammond and David Zuckerman. Early Lessons in Restructuring Schools. (New York, NY: National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Testing [NCREST], Teachers College, Columbia University, 1991).

Murphy, Joseph. Restructuring Schools: Capturing and Assessing the Phenomena. (New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1991).

National Commission on Excellence in Education. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative of Educational Reform (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, April 1983).

O’Neil, John. “Turning the System on its Head,” Educational Leadership. (September 1993) 51, 1, 8­13.

Smith, Marshall S. and Jennifer A. O’Day. Edited by Fuhrman, Susan H. and Betty Malen. “Systemic School Reform,” The Politics of Curriculum and Testing: The 1990 Yearbook of the Politics of Education. (Philadelphia: Falmer Press, 1991).

Roy Johnson is a senior research associate in the IDRA Division of Research and Evaluation. Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail to feedback@idra.org.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]