Achieving World Class Schools: Mastering School Improvement Using a Genetic Model
reviewed by Scott Thompson - 2003
Title: Achieving World Class Schools: Mastering School Improvement Using a Genetic Model
Author(s): Paul Kimmelman and David Kroeze
Publisher: Christopher-Gordon Publishers Inc., Norwood, MA
ISBN: 1929024452 , Pages: 320, Year: 2002
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If the appearance of the word “genetic” in this book’s subtitle sets off your alarm system, fear not. It does not refer to the academic fate of schoolchildren based on hereditary characteristics. Rather, the authors present the genetic makeup of living organisms as a metaphorical model for reforming public school districts into systems of world-class schools.
The authors argue that six interdependent “chromosomes” are essential to the achievement of world-class school systems. They organize their “chromosomes” into “two categories in a manner similar to how chromosomes are classified as X or Y” (pp. 22-23). The two categories are capacity-building “chromosomes,” comprising leadership, change, and professional development; and teaching-learning process “chromosomes,” comprising curriculum, instructional practice, and assessment.
The authors further suggest that each of these "chromosomes" are composed of both "genes" or fundamental principles and "DNA" or research-based practices. So in the case of the professional development "chromosome," for example, the authors outline six fundamental principles ("genes") essential to the development of this "chromosome":
1. Create a philosophy statement, purpose, and goals
2. Deepen understanding of content knowledge
3. Design and implement a professional development framework
4. Change the organizational culture
5. Implement professional learning strategies that support adult learner needs
6. Assess the effectiveness of the professional development program.
At the organism/organization level, what is essential is the presence of all "chromosomes," their full development, and their continual interaction. According to the authors, "What is frequently missing in districts is a method to integrate these core areas with each other to maximize their impact in the organization. The genetic model is the catalyst to initiate a thorough development of all the areas and can serve as the agent of their integration. It provides the scaffolding for an organization to accomplish what should matter most in schools -- students achieving at high levels of performance in all disciplines" (p. 7).
Achieving World Class Schools offers both a fully fleshed out version of the model – according to the authors’ experience, research, and predilections – and a collection of templates that readers can use to develop their own version. While the authors emphasize the importance of adapting the model to the particulars of a given context, they also insist that “sound research must be a fundamental part of every core area that is developed” (p. 74). From beginning to end, the authors emphasize the indispensability of research-based practice and data-driven decision-making to the achievement of world class schools.
The book also includes seventeen brief guest essays by Michael Barber, Christopher T. Cross, Denis P. Doyle, Paul Houston, Susan Loucks-Horsely, Andrew Rotherham, Dennis Sparks, and others. In “The Standards Paradox,” for example, Rotherham makes this noteworthy observation: “The paradox of standards is that rather than restrict the diversity of schools, standards can unleash it. If we can arrive at a common set of expectations for what students should be able to do, then we can focus on those educational results and less on the particular educational delivery model. . . . [T]his diversity means instructional diversity – different methods suited for different children” (p. 179).
Similarly, Kimmelman and Kroeze note that “the standards movement contains the seeds of its own heresy. Striving for high standards should not be confused with standardizing the teaching-learning process. … teachers must be open to exploring new ways of teaching and learning. If we standardize processes and procedures, we run the risk of locking into the practices of the past, not looking at inquiry for the future” (p. 181). This danger has intensified with an increasing over-reliance on high-stakes tests to measure standards-level academic performance.
I also commend the following observations by the principal authors:
If there were a dominant chromosome in our model, it would unquestionably be instructional practice. You can have effective leadership, consensus about your change process, high-quality professional development, a research-based curriculum, and valid assessment, but if there is not effective instruction for students, world-class student achievement is not possible (p. 196).
To effectively improve teaching, it will be necessary to make a commitment to offer a new form of professional development unlike the plans currently in place. It will require aggressive leadership calling for an improved educational workforce with a plan that is ongoing and linked to the school/district learning goals and curriculum (p. 127).
Assessment and instruction need to be interwoven to meet student needs. Assessment plays a primary role in informing teachers’ next steps in the classroom … it enhances their ability to determine students needs and then differentiate instruction geared toward those needs (p. 235).
Changes in one part of the system must be implemented with thought given to how those changes influence other parts of the system. If not, improvements in one area may produce unintended negative results elsewhere within the system (p. 10).
While the merits of this book far outweigh its demerits, I will mention a few of the latter. As referenced above, the fundamental principles of professional development that the authors identify include “change the organizational culture.” The discussion of this topic, beginning on page 135, is vague and altogether lacking in specific guidance for educational leadership. In other passages, it is the piling on of buzzwords that lead to murkiness: “Building capacity for change means building a culture for continuous improvement” (p. 11). In general, the book would have benefited from more vigilant copy editing so that, for one of a number of examples, a list of subject/skill areas that includes mathematics, science, and social studies would not begin with “reaching” (Figure 5.5, p. 232).
More significantly, there is a dilemma inherent in this book which the authors never acknowledge, much less address. One of the genetic model’s key concepts is that the “development and interaction of the chromosomes must be thorough and rigorous” (p. 79). Yet the authors also point out that “educators can attend to only a few, if not just one, substantive change initiative at one time” (p. 8). This core dilemma of systemic reform in general – the need to thoroughly develop all key areas of the system, while realistically attending to “only a few, if not just one” at any given time – begs not only acknowledgment but meaningful guidance. If it is a matter of sequencing or scaffolding, are there ways to go about this that are more or less strategic?
Finally, it seems to me that two essential questions must be answered in determining the viability of a metaphorical model for organizational change: 1) are the parallels between the metaphor and the actual change process strong enough to make for a coherent model? and 2) does the metaphorical model serve in clarifying and simplifying the change process it is meant to facilitate? The genetic model, as detailed in this book, meets the criteria indicated in the first question, but falls short with respect to the second.
The genetic makeup of a living organism successfully conveys the dynamic, multi-leveled interdependency of the essential areas of a high-performance school system. Where the genetic model falls short is in failing to simplify that complexity. In fact, it could be argued that the process of translating educational features into molecular configurations adds to the complexity of the reformer’s task.
At the same time, it is important to note that if the book was stripped of all genetic references what would remain is a deeply informed and insightful framework for systemically and substantively improving public education in the United States.