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Restructuring Education: Shirley McCune

Perspectives on Educational Change
Compiled and Edited by Dee Dickinson

Shirley D. McCune, Ph.D.


Education journals, reports, and dialogues among educators are filled with references to the need for and methods of restructuring education. Many different approaches are being implemented in state policies and local schools across the nation. The move toward educational restructuring often seems to be fragmented and unclear in its purpose and direction. It is as if we recognize the need for a new game but still have not quite figured out who the players are, where the game should be played, or by what rules. The following is an effort to identify the forces that require a new game and to outline some perspectives on the rules for the game and the selection of players. The need for the restructuring of education moves beyond the issues of educational reform. Any such restructuring must be grounded in a broad understanding of the basic contract between education and society and the ways that that contract and set of relationships must be changed to meet individual, community, and national needs.

The Need For Restructuring

The basic function of schools in any society is to socialize and prepare children and youth with the knowledge, attitudes, skills, and behaviors that they will need to fulfill their individual and societal roles as adults. Schools must do this by carrying out two paradoxical functions. On the one hand, schools must transmit and conserve the knowledge developed in the past. In this sense, schools are conserving institutions. On the other hand, schools must anticipate the future and the knowledge, skills, and behaviors that youth will need when they assume adult roles and then "backward map" in finding ways to prepare them for a future society. The transmission of past culture is a much easier task than anticipating how to prepare students for a future culture. As a result, many of our educational efforts are unbalanced in that students learn about the past but are not prepared to understand or deal with the needs of a future society.

The contract between schools and society is based on a set of goals fitting society's needs at a specific point in time. The basic structures of today's schools were formulated in the 1880s, when the goals were organized around the needs for developing a national set of values for the Americanization of immigrant groups, for preparing youth with basic skills to participate in work and in democratic activities, and for preparing some children for leadership positions. These basic purposes continue to shape American education more than 100 years later.

Our society has undergone profound economic, demographic, and social transformation-a transformation that impacts virtually every aspect of our individual and collective lives. It is the manifestation of a new era of civilization-one produced by the cumulative build up of technological change. The information age has rapidly moved powerfully into place in the restructuring of the economy and the movement from a national to a global society. Virtually every institution is forced to restructure to meet a changed environment and changed needs. The total society is struggling with a crisis in restructuring.

Education is not immune from the need for restructuring and the pressures for it. In fact, the new society, the information society, places education and training in a position of greater importance. Two primary resources are required for any group or society to succeed in an information age. These are information capital, or the ability to apply and extend information in the development of new or better products and services, and human capital, or the ability to produce citizens who are highly skilled and have the ability to process and apply information. Schools, training programs, and institutions have the basic responsibility for human capital development and, to some extent, the responsibility for information capital or knowledge creation. Thus, critical needs of the society must be met by education and training institutions.

Some people believe societal needs can be met by fixing up or improving present educational structures, programs, and practices. Educational improvement approaches serve a need, but they are insufficient to meet the need for transformed educational systems which match the transformations of the larger society. Only when the basic mismatch between the current industrial-based education system and the new requirements for an educational system designed for an information society are met, will schools be able to prepare children and adults for living productive and fulfilling lives.

Forces For Restructuring

A first step in any educational restructuring is to gain an understanding of societal transformations and the implications raised for the restructuring of schools. Five societal transformations create pressures for change and begin to shape the necessary directions for educational restructuring. These five forces-economic, social demographic, organizational, educational, and individual-help us to establish the context and general directions for restructuring education.

Economic Forces

The most basic change in the economic sector has been the fundamental change in the nature of work. Physical work of the industrial age has been replaced by mind and service work. Employers need people who can solve problems, develop new products and ways of working and providing services, and organize and process information in new ways.

Robert R. Carkhuff has described the shift in industry by pointing out that the basis for productivity has changed. In the 1950s productivity was achieved by working harder-adding to the number of hours of work, involving more people in the task. This approach has some value but it is expensive and often does not result in real productivity increases. By the 1980s we had discovered that productivity gains could best be produced by working smarter. We were forced to find methods of production which used information to increase productivity. In the 1990s, productivity gains will be based on thinking better and being able to process complex information about multiple systems. It will require persons with generalized and specialized knowledge and the ability to think and process across an organization or across multiple levels of systems.

Carkhuff goes on to articulate the need for individual change. He outlines three phases and approaches to education and training. These are outlined as follows:

Development of Educational Goals and Approaches : Chart.

We can see that the work productivity goals of working harder, working smarter, and thinking better are paralleled by the individual goals of limiting responses to increasing alternatives and complete information processing. It is also evident that the goals of education and training activities change dramatically. The industrial age goal of reducing responses was a part of the needs for standardization and synchronization. It was based on the assumption of a stable environment where the task was to ensure the "right" response. In education this was seen in a "one-way" approach-there was one right answer, and classroom activities (including testing) were designed to reinforce the rightness of that approach.

Today, we live in an ever-changing environment. The task of the school must be to help students learn to recognize differences and be able to analyze the situation and make a large number of decisions or discriminations. The basic goal and purpose of education has changed dramatically, as has the complexity of the learning task.

Economic forces require that schools prepare students with more than the memorization of facts. Students must have the ability to understand numerous variables and be able to process data in effective ways. They must be able to work at recognizing relationships and connections among seemingly disparate items and events. This requires a level of cognitive skills that were considerably beyond the goals articulated for education and training efforts.

Social/Demographic Forces

America's population, like other sectors of our society, is being transformed. When we examine the demographic changes in our society, we find that the population is growing older; it is increasingly ethnically/racially diverse, and the numbers of poor children and families continue to increase. Two primary social structures-the family and the community-are fragmented, and the systems for the socialization of youth and community support have deteriorated.

Much of the impact of this deterioration is manifested in schools. Nearly 25% of our children are poor, an estimated 30% of them are sexually, physically, or emotionally abused, the time that parents spend with children has declined, and the numbers of children with permanent drug, alcohol, and other forms of mental and behavioral disorders seem to be increasing.

The schools have taken on some of the emotional and physical problems of children. School nutrition programs, provision of special education programs, increased counseling and psychological services have been established. Much of this is inadequate to meet the needs of the at risk or the average child. What has become apparent is that we can no longer fragment human services for children. Learning is a process which requires basic levels of physical functioning. Teaching must be provided within the frame of reference of the student, and teachers must recognize that the doorway or precondition for learning is the affective climate of the classroom.

Changes in the goals of education and the conditions of children's lives require that schools view children and the teaching/learning process in new ways. Schools must not be bound by bureaucratic and professional boundaries and norms. They must be fully responsive to the range of needs that children are experiencing. The school is moving out of the business of "schooling" into the business of human resource development. Some will question the need for an expanded role for schools. The answers must be found in the need for a holistic approach to growth and learning and the reality that the public schools continue to be the only comprehensive delivery system of services to children.

A related task that must become a part of the public schools is that of early childhood education for three to five year olds. Much of a child's potential for learning and development is determined by the developmental experiences he or she has had between three and five years of age. Developmentally oriented programs that highlight the physical, social, and language growth of young children is essential if American children are to meet the expanded goals of education. A network of public and private early childhood services is essential if we are to meet the early preconditions for learning.

Organizational Forces

Perhaps the most unrecognized transformation within our society has been the restructuring of organizations and ways of work. Most of us perceive the widespread decentralization of organizations, the need for organizational flexibility, and the requirements for participative management. What is not recognized is the impact of these changes on the roles of educators, the need for new organizational values and for new sets of relationships and organizational behaviors.

Many school systems recognize the need for organizational change and renewal, and we see an expansion of strategic planning and site-based management. Appropriate as these efforts are, there is little recognition of the amount of effort required to achieve widespread organizational change. Few site-based management efforts or implementation plans have been successful. There is often an assumption that when people know what to do, they will be able to do it. While there are a comparatively few educators with the knowledge and skills required for working in a network type, organization rather than a bureaucracy, many are unable to function in this new organizational form.

If an organization is to renew itself, it must become serious about supporting and empowering employee and governance development. The organization itself must become a learning and knowledge creation organization. In essence, the organization must play a critical role in individual empowerment and change.

The scope of this task is frequently underestimated. A model of change requirements developed by McCune suggests that the following steps are needed for organization change.

Model of change requirements

The model outlines the ongoing need for information and the processing of information. They may produce or be the result of cognitive dissonance. Efforts must be given to a basic shift in the organizations' and individuals' values. The shift in values is made real only when an ideology specifies the rationale for the shift and the implications for daily operations. The skills development of staff and governance is an essential task if the organization is to change. Ultimately, these steps lead to changed behaviors and a changed organization.

Some of the critical shifts that must take place, as summarized by Hallett, are outlined in the following chart:

Shifts in Organizational Norms and Values

Organizational Elements

Industrial Age

Information Age

Organizational Structure


Connected Networks

Individual's World View

Organization as a source of security and self esteem

Organization as a tool for personal contributions


Bigger is better

Small is beautiful




Individual Worth

Organizational status

Ability to use information and be productive





Competitive internally and externally

Goal oriented, caring, and collaborative


The organizational changes that are essential must be focused in the direction of creating a continually developing learning organization and of continuing the empowerment of staff and governance personnel.

Educational Forces

The restructuring of educational organizations is essential, but this is likely to have little effect unless we understand the need for the restructuring of our teaching assumptions and methods. The most basic form of restructuring is the redefinition of learning within educational practice.

Clarkhuff identifies three basic steps that are essential for learning. These are illustrated below:

Phases of Learning





Where they are

Where they want/ need to be

To get where they need/ want to go


This formulation of the learning process outlines the fact that learning is individualized and must be linked to the frame of reference and associations of the learner. A second feature of this formulation is that all learning culminates in some type of action. This is consistent with the definition of learning as a change in behavior.

Current American education focuses on the understanding phase of the learning process, with comparatively little attention being devoted to the individualization of learning or the application of information. This rote approach to learning results in an emphasis on the mastery of facts with little attention being given to the application of knowledge or the needs of the learner.

Although the goals of education (to prepare children and youth for adult life in an information society) remain the same, the basic values and outcomes must change to fit the needs of a new age. Examples of basic shifts which must be made are provided below.

Educational Values Shifts



  • Schooling
  • Accreditation
  • Schooling as preparation
    for adult roles
  • Limited Achievement
  • Sorting
  • Picking "winners"
  • Measures of factual recall

  • Learning
  • Performance
  • Continuing
  • No limits to learning
  • Opportunity system
  • Developing "winners"
  • Ability to process
    and apply information


These shifts require a thorough restructuring of not only schools but also the learning process. Teaching children how to learn, to process information, and to apply information calls for a more individualized, problem focused, integrated method of instruction. Carnegie units, and tests which basically only measure factual recall, must be replaced by new systems and structures. There are undoubtedly many ways that the classroom experience can be restructured; in any case, some of the key characteristics of restructuring must include:

New Facilities and Equipment

Classrooms should be informal, allowing for multipurpose use. There should be seminar tables, carrels, work areas, and places to spread out for small group work.


The curriculum may be organized in any number of ways-around themes (magnets), special interests, alternative programs, or work in the community. It must develop interdisciplinary relationships and culminate in action or application activities if it is to be relevant to future needs.


The expansion of instructional methodologies is an essential element of restructuring. Instruction must also begin with the frame of reference of the learner, be more explicit in outlining all of the steps necessary for learning, provide for different types of intelligence and learning styles, and focus on the processing of information rather than the memorization of facts.

School Management

School management must provide enough structure to ensure that children are learning and that the broad goals of the district are being met. It must also encourage greater freedom and autonomy for buildings and programs and enable staff and community to develop options at the building level.

These forms of restructuring are essential goals of preparing children and youth for a future society.

Individual Forces

A basic element of the restructuring of schools is that we must produce individuals who function at higher physical, emotional, and intellectual levels than most people do today. Life in a fast-moving technological society requires people who are skilled, flexible, able to tolerate stress and change, able to work collaboratively with others, yet able to maintain a strong sense of self. For persons with these characteristics, the next years are likely to be productive and fulfilling. For persons without these skills, life may be stressful and frustrating.

Our views of the types of competencies or outcomes which schools should produce have, up to now, been quite limited. We have generally focused on the attainment of a body of knowledge. Seldom have these bodies of information been provided to students in ways that would assist them in applying them in real life. Competencies and skills related to their personal life (self concept development, ethical development, life planning), their career development (learning to learn, career management, continuing education, experiential learning), and their knowledge of leadership, systems and groups (organizational structure and growth, working across cultures, interpersonal skills, participative management and leadership), must be an integral part of the teaching-learning process.

Not only must we help children develop their capacities more fully, but also we must find ways of increasing the knowledge, skills, and capabilities of today's adults. While this effort must be based on multiple strategies of individual staff development and special programs, greater attention must be given to organizational development. Organizations influence significant portions of our lives either positively or negatively. Major attention must be given to ways that the structures and operation of organizations may be used for further individual growth and development. If we can achieve this at high levels we will have created a new power, that of organizational capital.

Organizational capital will be achieved not by designating a few schools as site-based management schools, but by an in-depth restructuring of organizations and empowering of staff to provide a better and more satisfying quality of organizational life.

Responses to Restructuring

Many have been aware of the need for the restructuring of schools but have not been clear about how to approach the problem. Three major approaches have been used in restructuring. These are bringing the community to the school; restructuring the bureaucracy; and redesigning students' educational experience. Each is described below.

Bringing the Community to the School

Much of the initial educational restructuring grew out of strategic planning models that had been applied to education. Educators were aware that the support for schools has declined, largely as a function of the decline in households with school age children. In the 1950s, one out of two households had a school age child; today, it is one out of five. This decline has been a factor in the decreased support of schools.

Many looked at the community and began to realize the needs for services that schools could fulfill. New programs for new client groups were established to meet community needs. Some of the most obvious services schools could provide were early childhood education and latchkey programs. Services for senior citizens, adult job training, adult education, and a variety of other activities have opened the school to the community. The extension of this model is a learning community where persons of all ages are interacting in learning programs. The school is not simply a multifunction building but is a center where a wide variety of interactive, intergenerational programs are provided that can extend the learning of all groups.

Variations of this restructuring approach are found in business-partnerships, school without walls, business-based programs, and a number of other approaches.

The basic goals of this form of restructuring are related to the need for:

  • Maintaining a sense of relevance to the needs of the community;
  • Putting the school into the mainstream of the community;

  • Increasing learning resources (human and fiscal); and

  • Expanding the general support base for the schools.

Restructuring the Bureaucracy

A second and perhaps the most commonly understood meaning of restructuring is opening up the bureaucracy and decentralizing by allocating more power and autonomy at the building level. The movement known as site-based management is based on the recognition that a standardized, cookie-cutter approach to schools is not likely to meet student, staff, or neighborhood needs.

Site-based management is one of the needs that must be addressed in restructuring of schools. Too frequently, however, it is approached as a panacea without an overall understanding of the related changes which must be made if it is to be successful.

Site-based management requires a new set of organizational structures and relationships. The role of nearly everyone in the system is changed, and attention must be given to helping people learn new role behaviors. Site-based management inevitably requires a redistribution of power, and people must learn participative and inclusive management skills if it is to be successful.

Some have been encouraged by the initial successes of site-based management demonstrations. In these instances, the success can usually be traced to the knowledge and skills of a gifted principal. There will undoubtedly be a productivity increase when persons with unusual skills (less than 20% of administrators) move into a new freedom. If site-based management is to be an integral and ongoing characteristic of all schools, much work will be needed in individual and organizational development.

Restructuring the Teaching/Learning Process

Many have realized that while bringing the community into the school and redesigning the bureaucracy have many positive values, neither of these processes addresses the restructuring of the teaching-learning process in a direct way. Both approaches could be carried out successfully with benefits to the community and school staff, but little would be changed at the classroom level.

The restructuring at the classroom level must be based on the understanding that high levels of learning require a systematic and intense affective and cognitive interaction between teacher and students. It is the quality and intensity of this relationship that facilitates student learning. If this is to be provided to students, teachers likewise must have higher levels of emotional, physical, and fiscal support. In a sense, it is the task of everyone in the school and community system to support the teaching-learning process in the classroom in productive ways.

Examples of the key principles to be incorporated into the restructuring of the teaching/learning process include the following:

  • All learning begins with the affective; strong interpersonal skills provided to children in an equitable way are necessary preconditions for affective learning;
  • Language development is the essential element for academic and life achievement; all effective teaching must focus on the explicit teaching of vocabulary and conceptual understandings;

  • Instructional methods are culturally and experientially biased; teaching heterogeneous groups of students requires the systematic use of instructional methods that meet the varied needs of children;

  • There is a systematic sequence of instruction that is essential if all children in the class are to learn; this requires a systematic provision of review, overview, presentation, exercise, and summary;

  • Teaching students how to process information requires an interactive, process approach to learning; teaching must help students understand their own thoughts and creativity through speaking and writing; and

  • A major task of educational programs is to extend the world view of the child; this should include a view of careers, of the community, of our nation and our global community.

These principles can be applied in any number of ways-for example, as magnet schools, community schools, ungraded schools, middle schools, alternative schools, or schools within schools. While the structure of the program can be designed in a variety of ways, there must be a core understanding and implementation of the principles outlined above.

Principles for Restructuring

The implementation of any of these three approaches to restructuring is likely to produce positive benefits. There is, however, the consideration that none of the approaches is likely to result in the level of change that is desirable. If schools are truly to be restructured, they must:

  • Be related to changes and needs in the community and society;
  • Include the organizational restructuring of the school system itself; and

  • Focus on the restructuring of the teaching-learning process.

A comprehensive approach to restructuring must involve each of these three areas. The goal of the restructuring is to find a "fit" between the community, the school system, and the teaching-learning process. (See the following illustration).

The Fit for Comprehensive Restructuring

Comprehensive Restructuring

Finding this fit among the three areas of restructuring is likely to ensure that the effort has dealt with three essential components for educational excellence-relevance, effectiveness, and efficiency. Knowing the community and society and responding to the forces for change begins to establish the basis for relevance and for preparing children and youth for a future society. Opening up the bureaucracy and empowering staff and students begins to offer the basis for effectiveness in providing a structure for learning. Lastly, change in the classroom provides the means for ensuring efficiency by increasing the quality and quantity of learning.

Schools may begin the restructuring process in a single area or develop comprehensive plans. Either approach has strengths and problems which must be addressed. What cannot be done is to ignore the need for change and transformation. Change must occur if schools are to achieve their contract with society to prepare children and youth for a future world.

About: Shirley D. McCune

Dr. Shirley McCune's eyes sparkle when she speaks to teachers about their new role in new kinds of educational systems. She travels throughout the United States devoting herself to moving educational organizations forward, as she did in consulting with the Washington Education Association during the drafting of their innovative report, Restructuring Public Education: Building a Learning Community.

Dr. McCune was formerly senior director with the Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory and director of the McREL Center for Educational Equity in Colorado. She was also the president of Learning Trends, a Denver-based research and development firm working to monitor societal and educational trends and identify their implications for educational policies, practices, and programs.

She graduated from the University of Northern Colorado, received her master's degree from the University of Denver, and her doctorate from Catholic University of America. She has been a classroom teacher, university faculty member, educational researcher, educational association manager, and federal executive.

In her monograph, published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, entitled Guide to Strategic Planning for Educators, she describes the focus of strategic planning as "a process powered by the basic human drive to solve problems-to eliminate discrepancies between what is and what must be. A primary value of strategic planning is that it forces people and institutions to reexamine, to refocus, and to seek out or create new means for accomplishing their purposes."

As a catalyst in that process, Dr. McCune has authored or co-authored numerous research reports, articles, and monographs. She is a change agent whose work in training, consulting, and planning conferences has resulted in action on the part of educators, state leaders and legislators, business organizations, and federal agencies. She is currently working with the College of Education at Arizona State University providing technical assistance to the Arizona School to Work system.

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