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Shaking Up the Schoolhouse: How to Support and Sustain Educational Innovation

reviewed by Arthur R. Greenberg - 2002

coverTitle: Shaking Up the Schoolhouse: How to Support and Sustain Educational Innovation
Author(s): Phillip C. Schlechty
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 078795540X , Pages: 320, Year: 2000
Search for book at Amazon.com

I first became aware of Philip Schlechty when I was researching school university partnerships back in the middle 1980s.  In the late '70s and early '80s Schlechty distinguished himself with outstanding work in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, particularly in the area of the teacher career development plan, an early version of the career ladder system that has been widely adopted throughout the country.  Since then I have been well aware of his accomplishments both in public education and in higher education as a consultant and researcher.  Additionally, like Schlechty, I have moved between the worlds of K-12 and higher education and back again several times during my career. For all these reasons, I was actually quite pleased to be invited to review Schlechty’s latest work.            

As it has turned out, however, my response to Shaking Up the School House is one of disappointment.  This is not to say this book is without its strengths.  Schlechty’s wisdom and experience when brought to bear on testing and accountability, for example, are both enlightened and refreshing, given the prevailing national sentiment on high stakes testing: 

Over the past decade the issue of standards for schools has become as much a political issue as a technical one.  One of the unfortunate consequences is that much of educators’ attention is now fastened on improving test scores, with too little attention being paid to how to ensure that students learn more.  This is akin to business leaders worrying about how to get profits up without worrying about the quality of the products they produce or the customers they serve.  It also has turned debates about standards into debates over which tests to use and which test is best. . . Concern with measures of learning is so great that in some states it is difficult to get any serious consideration of ways to improve student experiences precisely because teachers and administrators feel an urgent need to improve test scores regardless of what students actually learn. (p. 74)

Or consider this statement:

What policymakers also sometimes overlook is that achievement test scores are more useful in identifying the fact that something is amiss than they are in helping school leaders figure out what is amiss and what can be done to correct the situation.  High test scores alone are not sufficient evidence that a school is healthy or doing a good job.  Improving test scores do not necessarily mean the school is doing a better job than it was.  And declining test scores do not mean the school is doing a worse job than it was.  Low test scores do mean, however, that the job is not being done.  The question is, Why is this so and what can be done about it?  For answers to this question we must consider processes, the measurement of processes, and efforts to bring critical processes under control. (p. 75)

Schlechty ‘s section on Quality Work and Improved Performance (see pages 90-91) is also worth reading. In far too many places, however, Schlechty’s analysis of the real issues underlying the persistent problems of public education in the United States seems seriously dated and often limited.

In the first chapter, Social Change in School Reform, Schlechty discusses the several major shifts that have taken place in society that directly have impacted on schools.  A cursory reading of these "seismic shifts" would lead you to believe that Schlechty is on target, but a deeper reading is less assuring.  There is an out of touch quality to many of his references to the past.

Indeed, one is tempted to characterize his backward glances as rosy, if not wishful, as in this passage:  "Put as directly as I know how to put the matter, up until the 1950s, if one knew what parents, teachers, and religious leaders were teaching the young, one could be relatively confident that one knew, in a general way, what the youngsters knew (p. 22).”  Were things ever as simple or as easily explained as that? 

In the same chapter, in talking about adolescents as  “a tribe apart,” Schlechty states “The ‘liberation’ of America's youth began with the invention of the portable recorder and the car radio, which made it possible for young people to listen to Elvis Presley and other ‘forbidden music’ beyond the hearing of parents (the living room Victrola was hard to take to the beach)” (p. 20).  

Elvis, this time benignly cast, makes another appearance on page 36:

The diversion of the Mickey Mouse Club has evolved into the Disney empire and the relatively harmless wiggles and squiggles of Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show have evolved into nihilistic hard rock and rap music that celebrates violence.  Mickey Mouse has become Beavis and Ward Cleaver has become Bart Simpson.

Elsewhere, while postulating that "special teen clubs and gathering places" have fostered adolescent anonymity and distance from adults, Schlechty states: "Of course such special places can have a desirable function; nevertheless, there is a vast difference in the patterns of interaction that occur at a teen oriented site and those that occur, for example, on a slow pitch softball team that includes both adults and adolescents” (p. 20).

Schlechty seems to embrace, too uncritically, for me at least, “ . . .the not too distant past [when] adolescents had a difficult time gaining access to information that had not undergone censorship by adults who were generally known to them and to each other.  Teenagers could assert their distinctiveness (as bobby-soxers, for example), but they could not establish the kind of anonymity required to emerge as a distinct subculture" (p. 22).  While it is hard to disagree that in pre-TV, pre-internet, pre-cell phone times adolescents had much more limited access to media content and communication, at the same time, young adults then and now, have never, without struggle, accepted parents’ and other authorities’ hegemony over their lifestyles and values.

In a similar vein, it is difficult to refrain from speculating about Schlechty’s value stance when he writes:

It has always been the case that many youngsters resisted learning what their elders felt they needed to learn, but the coercive power of traditional adult authority was sufficient to keep this resistance in bounds.  The acceptance of an adolescent subculture, the wide availability of all kinds of information and entertainment, and the erosion of adult authority now threatens those boundaries. (p. 103) 

Schlechty acknowledges elsewhere that we can never return to those days when the world was a less complicated and threatening place for adults in general, and school leaders in particular, but readers are left with the sense that he wishes he, if not we, could go back to those (in his view) more perfect times.

It would not be so bad, one supposes, if Philip Schlechty’s gauzy looks back were at once benign and comprehensive.  However, his elegiac references do not often engage many of the enduring problems of practice that confront the contemporary educator.  There are a few references and less discussion of the inequitable way resources are allocated throughout the United States.  Nor are there many references to the challenge of confronting the products of poverty, or the unlevel playing field faced by people of color, women and recent arrivals to our shores. 

As Schlechty would have it, 21st century schools would largely be left in the hands of professional school leaders who know what is best for their schools and communities.  He advises legislators to “stop trying to solve problems that educators need to solve” (p. 209).  He admonishes local Boards of Education, “You don’t know how to run the schools” (p. 210).  And he warns school administrators, don’t whine for more money, for to do so is “engaging in wishful thinking or excuse making” (p. 85). 

He realizes, of course that the funding issue is a problem, but one that represents a “dramatic opportunity,” and creative, results driven leaders – presumably those who have embraced his WOW framework [see Chapter Seven, if you must] – need not worry so long as they are prepared “to abandon old ways of doing things and are willing as well to invent new ways of doing what they elect to continue to do” (p. 85). 

Certainly sounds simple enough, especially if you are made of the right leadership stuff.  Who are such leaders?  He tells us, on page 38: “What is needed in this time are educational leaders of nearly Churchillian stature, men and women who, when confronted with seemingly overwhelming odds, believe and can inspire others to believe this can be American educators’ finest hour.” 

John Wayne, where are you now that we really need you?

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 5, 2002, p. 978-981
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10859, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 3:23:02 PM

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About the Author
  • Arthur Greenberg
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    Arthur R. Greenberg is Professor of Educational Administration, Department of Administration, Leadership, and Technology, Steinhardt School of Education, New York University. Dr. Greenberg had previously served as Supervising Superintendent for Executive and New School Development, New York City Board of Education, as well as in other senior positions. His research interests include executive leadership development; urban education; relationships between education and income; charter schools and other new school forms, as related to school reform efforts; and school university-partnerships, particularly concurrent enrollment programs.
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