Inventing Better Schools: An Action Plan for Educational Reform
reviewed by Darlene Bruner - 2002
Title: Inventing Better Schools: An Action Plan for Educational Reform
Author(s): Phillip C. Schlechty
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787903396, Pages: 236, Year: 2001
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For the last twenty-five years, American schools have faced the enormous task of school improvement and changing into a system that meets the needs of the 21st century. Like all books about education, Schlechty’s book addresses why what we are doing now is not working. He argues that schools must change or become obsolete.
The first four chapters frame the problems confronting schools. Chapter One, The Never Ending Story, discusses the problems of poor school performance in relation to the failure of leaders to properly frame the tribulations besetting schools. Problems ranging from teachers believing that improvement is largely external to school reformers not fully understanding the relationships of schools and classrooms to the larger system of the district and community.
The second chapter, The Need for Invention, focuses on Schlechty’s belief that if educators do not succeed at school reform efforts that the likely result will lead to more privatization of schools. He is not a proponent of privatization and highlights the need for educators to have a sense of urgency about needed changes.
The Technological Imperative, Chapter Three, discusses the business of schooling as the "transmission, preservation, and processing of knowledge and information" (p. 30) and the technologies of schooling as the "means of doing the job of transmitting, preserving, and processing knowledge and information" (p.31). Schlechty exhorts educators to change and adapt quickly to the new technologies or be bypassed.
The fourth chapter, Producing Knowledge Work, focuses on students as knowledge workers and argues that "…the business of schools is to produce work that engages students, that is so compelling that students persist when they experience difficulties, and that is so challenging that the students have a sense of accomplishment…" (p.58). Schlechty defines quality work as work that "develops the skills, attitudes, understandings, and habits of mind that are valued by adult members of the society" (p. 57). Up to this point in the book, the author sounds like many other school reformers who take the reader through the political and educational world of schools today.
Beginning in Chapter Five, Beliefs, Vision, and Mission, Schlechty states:
Vision without beliefs is nothing more or less than dreams and fictions. Beliefs without a commitment to act are hollow rhetoric. Missions that are unattached to visions are without focus and are meaningless in the long run, for they will fail to inspire action or will get lost in space (p. 67).
He goes on to define restructuring as altering the rules, roles, and relationships that shape, direct, and govern the behavior of groups and organizations. Schlechty envisions a new school system that is governed by a focus on students and their needs, and this requires teachers to have the authority to lead and the time needed to invent meaningful work for the students. He believes that school systems should have a common district level vision based on common beliefs of the community at large. He advocates that superintendents and principals act as leaders of leaders and school boards function as corporate boards and less like political bodies representing only their constituency.
In Assessing District Capacity and Creating the Capacity to Support Change, Chapters Six and Seven, Schlechty identifies ten organizational goals that school district leaders must attend to if they are to create the capacity to support change at the building level. Districts can use the essential questions he provides to assess how well they are meeting the goals. Plans are then made from the profile generated, and results-oriented leaders put the plan into action.
Chapter Eight, Changing the System, addresses the need to include culture as well as structure in any discussion of systemic change and reform. Changing the system also speaks to the needs of schools to have students provided with challenging work that students take pride in and that meets the needs of most parents or the larger community. Schlechty also sets forth 10 critical qualities or attributes of student work that teachers might attend to when inventing student work that is more engaging.
Working on the Work, Chapter Nine, follows through with essential questions to analyze student work systematically. This chapter also includes questions focusing on accessing resources needed to support change efforts. Schlechty advocates discussions among all stakeholders. In Chapter 10, Measuring What Matters Most, Schlechty states that measures of end products are useful for evaluating the health of an organization but useless for improving it. He disagrees with those who advocate using measures of student learning for directing school reform. Instead, he advocates different types of measures for different constituencies.
Leading the Change, Chapter Eleven, is about superintendents, school boards, and teacher leaders who have the means and access to sources of political and economic power to support and sustain serious change efforts at the building level. The author discusses three types of change (procedural, technical, and structural and cultural) and their implications for leaders. He also describes five types of actors who participate in any change effort and the different needs of these actors at different stages in the change process.
The final chapter, Inventing the Future, addresses the primary source of problems for school board members – the dominance of special interest groups. Schlechty offers the alternative of running slates for school boards. Through enabling legislation, these slates would run on a common platform that provided a clear direction for the schools. He purports that this would afford the public more accountability because current school board members elected individually are not accountable to the public since acting individually they do not have power. The board acting collectively can cause something to happen and electing slates would hold all board members accountable for their actions. He acknowledges that a slate of a special interest group might have the ability to win an election and that the first round of elections would be costly and time consuming but that the long-term benefits would be worth it in terms of increased responsiveness and accountability. In the appendix, Schlechty offers two examples of districts that are applying some of the ideas set forth in the book.
In this reviewer’s opinion, the most meaningful parts of the book are the questions put forth by Schlechty to generate conversations about the purposes of schooling, analyzing student work, and the organizational goals. Building community consensus regarding what schools are about and what beliefs should guide them is important. But more important is the dialogue that leads to the consensus. Leaders at all levels could glean valuable insights and ideas about systems thinking at the school and district level from the book. While Schlechty is convincing in his claim that the district is the best means for educational change, it remains to be seen whether or not the large scale restructuring he promotes can actually be carried out.