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How to Change 5000 Schools: A Practical and Positive Approach for Leading Change at Every Level

reviewed by Laura Reimer - August 10, 2009

coverTitle: How to Change 5000 Schools: A Practical and Positive Approach for Leading Change at Every Level
Author(s): Ben Levin
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1934742082, Pages: 250, Year: 2008
Search for book at Amazon.com

Messages are most significant when they leverage actual change. One of the consistent messages from prolific Canadian Ben Levin is that the delivery of education can always be improved through the consistent and uncompromised application of research to practice. In How to Change 5000 Schools: A Practical and Positive Approach for Leading Change at Every Level, Levin provides a window into the reform and rebuilding processes taking place within a large Canadian provincial public education system. For those interested in how politicians and administrators work together within the confines of political agendas to lead educational change the book offers an enjoyable read, though it lacks the practical approach heralded by the title. The book contains examples of both right and wrong priorities pursued by some school systems to tackle their particular challenges, and there are examples of the many distractions to effective reform. Each chapter offers opportunities for empirical research to define how the energized and primarily philosophical change processes outlined within the book will assuredly improve student achievement across the learning spectrum.

Dr. Ben Levin’s commitment to improving education is rooted in a unique career that has alternated between academia and an intimate knowledge of the workings of government as a senior public servant. A dominant theme in Levin’s publications is knowledge mobilization for educational improvement, and in How to Change 5000 Schools Levin shares the premises of school system reform from the broad perspectives of governance and educational theory. The book presents general principles for leading educational change, but leaves details to local decision-makers. The book shares these principles primarily by telling the story of recent educational change in Ontario, Canada based on a strategy that adapted and modified the ongoing British educational reforms initiated by the Tony Blair government in the late 1990s.

Levin defines improvement as “reducing the gaps in outcomes among different population groups,” supporting “positive morale among educators, students and parents,” increasing the “capacity of the school or system to continue to be successful,” and “generating public confidence” (p. 2). Notably, these are definitions of improvements, but they do not define clear goals and will not generate a certain track record of academic outcomes. Levin’s claim that the book will create change at every level may be disappointing to those educational leaders or school board members who misunderstand change to mean that they will find a quick fix to their challenges within the pages of the book.

Through general examples, Levin communicates that educational leaders must set and prioritize goals, manage their organization in order to achieve those goals, and then maintain the discipline or focus required to achieve those goals as well. Levin leaves the goals broadly stated. He says there must be “highly effective teaching practices” (p. 92) and “the right supporting organizational conditions” (p. 92). He defines these as capacity building (p. 83), and in Chapter 10 recaps the central messages of supporting improvement, committing to improvement, designing improvement, and managing for improvement. The difference between the model for educational change in Ontario and in the United Kingdom is in the definition. At great risk to their government, the British measured and defined the state of learning in precise and quantifiable terms, then published them, and then measured again. Progress was slow; risk was great. Levin stresses in his book that education and politics are closely tied, but in England, Tony Blair made his top three priorities “education, education, education” (p. 26) and placed education and democracy (the right to choose leadership) highest on his government’s agenda. The Blair government utilized public opinion as a critical management tool. Knowledge was distributed to the public regarding the genuine state of learning in the schools in order to sustain change within the schools, and this public pressure kept the education system focused on priorities. Importantly, his government invested significant resources to support educational change, but also utilized tests and measures to assure the public that the changes were going in the direction the public intended them to go. Ontario’s triumphs, on the other hand, have remained primarily within the knowledge domain of those inside the education system.

Throughout Levin’s copious contributions to educational literature he has never prescribed local application, and in this book he again reminds his readers that those within the education system are the ones who can address the issue of public confidence (Chapter 7). This he leaves to local administrators, classroom leaders and to school districts. Consistent with his other writing, Levin does not prescribe how improvement must be defined for each school or school district, or how quickly and to what degree it must take place in order to be deemed “effective,” but he does stress that the elements of effective leadership that we know work are not utilized by many leaders (Chapter 8).

Perhaps the most profound element for educational improvement is buried in the middle of the book. Levin states that, “the most important resource decisions concern who is employed” (p. 135). With his broad governance perspective, experiences, and numerous research publications, Levin is in a highly credible position to make this statement. In this brief statement, Levin appeals to the democratic responsibility of voters to choose their school district board wisely, to politicians to choose their public administrations with care, and to all members of educational organizations to ensure that those they employ will be able to embrace and achieve the goals set for their organization, so that “schools can make the biggest difference for those with the greatest need” (p. 54).

Throughout the book, Levin states that he is offering an educational theory that will create change at a level that will include all those in the system (p. 1) and that is intended to provide a practical view of what should be done to create energizing change (p. 3). The chapters can be read consecutively or individually, depending on the interests of the reader. For those who choose to read through the book from cover to cover, Levin’s common themes are apparent and resonate through the book despite the occasional political bias: balance, setting local goals and achieving them, a commitment to constant improvement, resource support for change, and management for improvement. He also says that “increasing success for students must be done in a sustainable way; that is, in a way that can continue indefinitely given reasonable levels of skill, energy, and money for public education” (p. 61).  He concludes the book by stressing that “the time is right” (p. 239) to improve public education systems in positive and sustainable ways.

This book provides academics with opportunities to enhance Levin’s theory of educational change with firm and empirical research, which would delight Levin. For practitioners with clearly defined goals and priorities and for purpose-driven organizations, the book offers additional perspectives and examples from other districts. These readers will find useful reminders about staying focused on which changes matter most, and the book will fuel their already strong and effective leadership. But for those who are willing to sustain mediocrity in their school systems and avoid evidence of real improvement, this book will neither convict them toward excellence nor motivate them to change - but perhaps no book would. Levin’s caution that the most important resource decisions concern who is employed at all levels is a profound contribution for those educators struggling in low-morale environments, for those parents who have lost confidence in public education, and for those in positions of public trust who determine ultimately whether or not we can indeed positively “change 5000 schools.”

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 10, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15745, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 5:38:50 AM

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About the Author
  • Laura Reimer
    University of Winnipeg
    E-mail Author
    LAURA REIMER (B.A., M.P.A., doctoral student) teaches in the politics department at the University of Winnipeg, and shares Ben Levin’s home town of Winnipeg in central Canada. In his capacity as a senior public administrator, Dr. Levin led a large-scale governance change that included the school district in which Laura was a school board member. Laura’s publications are in educational governance and aboriginal learning. She is currently completing a Ph.D in Peace and Justice at the University of Manitoba with a focus on urban aboriginal education. She has several publications in the field of educational leadership and authored Leadership and School Boards, published by Roman and Littlefield Education in 2008. “Reforming Education: A Review of the Contributions of Benjamin Levin, Ph.D.” is forthcoming in July in the Canadian Journal for New Scholars in Education.
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