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The School Context

Other than people and facilities, perhaps the most apparent parts of a school system are its organization, curriculum, and instructional materials and technologies. These are obviously interdependent, although decisions regarding them are often made as though they were entirely independent entities. In principle, time, space, and personnel are organized to accommodate students' learning a given curriculum. In practice, a curriculum is constrained by the availability of time, space, and personnel. Similarly, materials and technologies are acquired to serve a curriculum, yet the materials and technologies on hand often determine what the actual curriculum will be. School organization (how time is configured, space allotted, and staff hired and assigned) and instructional technology (what learning materials and instruments of instruction will be used) also have important interdependencies.

These three interrelated aspects of schooling (organization, curriculum, and instructional materials and technologies) share the purpose of promoting learning. But do they actually do so? The fourth component of the school context, assessment, is designed to monitor progress toward desired learning goals so that students, teachers, and families know how to proceed. External assessments, which may or may not be matched to the local curriculum, are intended to find out how well the system is working. If either one of these two types of assessment shows that student performance does not meet standards, something needs changing-the organization and conduct of instruction, the selection and use of learning materials and teaching technologies, or the content and structure of the curriculum. But that is too neat a picture.

For one thing, that picture implies that assessment, curriculum, and school organization function independently. In fact, each is often designed with the other in mind. For example, assessment content usually reflects the curriculum ("fair testing") and over time the curriculum content is modified to reflect the assessment ( "teaching to the test"). And there are other interactions: because assessment takes time (a fixed and enormously valuable resource), a balance must be achieved between the time allotted to assessment at the expense of instruction, and vice versa; the sophistication of curriculum and assessment depends greatly on the number and quality of instructional and support staff; testing materials are often indistinguishable from instructional materials; and so forth.

And of course school organization, curriculum, materials and technologies, and assessment are all subject to local, state, and federal education policies which, in turn, are constrained by budget decisions. The reverse is also true to some substantial degree: policies are set and budgets determined to take into account decisions made on school organization, curriculum, materials and technologies, and assessment. Moreover, the school context is precisely where questions of equity come to the fore, because it is there that inequities play out-whether as biased tests, curricula that serve some groups better than others, higher quality learning materials in some schools than in others, or any number of other ways.

By the same token, what schools can do-or are pressed into doing-with regard to school organization, curriculum, materials and technologies, and assessment depends significantly on the support they receive from families, community leaders (including the media), business and industry, and higher education (especially teacher education and admissions policies), and the availability of trustworthy knowledge to inform decision making. These interactions are addressed in Part III: The Support Structure.

As in Part I, Project 2061 has framed questions related to each chapter. These questions are intended to initiate discussions of the interactions and components of the education system, with some attention to their bearing on the aims of Project 2061.

Chapter 5: School Organization

  1. Are there valid lessons to be learned about the organization of schooling from the organization of business and industry? Are policies dealing with the support given professionals, the utilization of modern technologies, the utilization of time, the assignment of decision-making responsibilities, performance assessment, and incentives transferable to the school context? If so, with what gains and at what costs?
  2. Where should the locus of authority reside with regard to how time, space, and personnel will be deployed? The district or each school in the district? If authority is to be shared among these, can jurisdictional battles be avoided? On whose shoulders should the final responsibility for meeting student learning goals rest?
  3. How can organizational fads be avoided? How can valid organizational reforms avoid being declared fads that will have their day and then go away? What research is needed to guide decisions on proposed organizational changes?
  4. If radical changes in organization are to be considered, at what point should stakeholders and other interested parties be brought into the picture?
  5. How can organizational changes simplify an already complex system and make it more effective? What changes have positive effects on teachers? On students? In what ways?
Chapter 6: Curriculum Connections
  1. What does it take to align curricula with standards? What evidence can be adduced to support alignment claims? What if national standards and state or district frameworks are not themselves in accord?
  2. What should be the balance in the curriculum between core requirements and elective ones (both remedial and for the gifted)? Between discipline-based courses and subjects and those that are interdisciplinary or otherwise integrated? Between traditional courses and non-traditional structures, such as seminars, courses organized entirely around individual and group projects, peer teaching, and independent study?
  3. How can curricula accommodate the recommendations in Science for All Americans for all students to gain understandings and skills that connect science (natural and social), mathematics, and technology? That soften the boundaries among the sciences? That emphasize history, philosophy, and cross-cutting themes? That call for science teaching to be consistent with the nature of scientific inquiry and to reflect scientific values?
  4. How can curricula respond effectively to the recommendations in Benchmarks for Science Literacy for coherence and attention to cognitive development? What steps can be taken to avoid either failing to treat essential material often enough and sequentially enough or having needless redundancy?
  5. If "less is more" means reducing the number of topics covered in order to gain time to invest in greater understanding, on what grounds can decisions be made about what to eliminate? Who makes the decisions? What response can be expected from parents, the media, textbook publishers and test developers, and universities?
Chapter 7: Materials and Technology
  1. How can the claims publishers make to the effect that their textbooks and other instructional materials address National Science Education Standards and Benchmarks be validated? Because publishers respond to the market (often leading to topic-burdened, vocabulary-intensive textbooks) and teachers seem willing to use such books, what can be done to make "less is more" possible?
  2. What needs to be done to realize the promise of computer-based information and communications technologies? What effect will their use have on the gap between the lowest-performing students and the highest-performing? Will the cost of obtaining new hardware, maintaining and updating it periodically, adding and changing software, training and retraining teachers, and paying Internet access charges be justified by the benefits realized? How can such cost-benefit judgments be made?
  3. As computers are introduced, which functions (word processing, calculating, graphing, building and accessing databases, etc.) and purposes (drill, tutoring, testing, etc.) should take precedence? Should it vary by grade level? Subject matter? What computer skills will all teachers need in the future in order to do their job effectively? Are there ways-separate from their use to promote student learning-for computers to serve the professional needs of teachers?
  4. Can teachers be expected to create their own courses? Should schools adopt courses rather than textbooks? In considering whether to adopt a course, no matter who developed it, should school authorities demand evidence from field testing that the course yields the learning outcomes it claims?
  5. Which way will the spread of home computers and Internet access cut educationally? Will learning be enhanced or impeded? Will it depend more on school use or home use? Does loaning portable computers to students improve their learning? Improve communications with their families?
Chapter 8: Assessment
  1. How can schools best deal with the need to assess student performance for a variety of different purposes-to adjust instruction, to report to students and parents on progress, to create a record that will influence employment and college admission, to report on the effectiveness of the curriculum, to compare a district, state or country with other districts, states, or countries-without confusion? When do the time and financial costs of assessment outweigh the advantages?
  2. What are the tradeoffs between relative objectiveness of multiple-choice tests (and their kin) and the relative subjectivity of assessment techniques such as performances? Who decides when to use which kind?
  3. How can educators, parents, and others be sure that the assessment tools and techniques they use measure what they want them to? What components of the education system can and should be assessed periodically, and how?
  4. How should mathematics and science education respond to calls for "first in the world" performance? What assessments or outcomes do we value in making such comparisons or in making important decisions about schooling?


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