After more than 20 years as a middle and high school
principal, I have come to believe that there is a fundamental paradox about school improvement in American schools: we all believe that school improvement is vital and necessary as long as schools stay essentially the same. I believe this paradox exists for a variety of reasons: school boards are interested in “trimming the fat” in district budgets curtail investments investments investments in promising initiatives; school administrators aspiring aspiring aspiring aspiring aspiring aspiring to be superintendents don’t want to and don’t make any “mistakes” and work cautiously and without inspiration; teachers want want want who want want want to to stick with “what works” to avoid avoid avoid avoid avoid avoid criticism from parents or administrators; and parents fear subjecting (delete who) their children to test new teaching strategies that might might might adversely affect their post-graduation opportunities.
Effective Effective Effective very compelling , sustained improvement has not occurred in America’s schools: it is very hard, complicated work that takes time and requires a completely different conceptualization about how schools operate and how they can be improved. It deals with school culture not structure. Fortunately, School Improvement: What’s in it for Schools by the British author Alma Harris reflects an ing of offers valuable guidance for school leaders, policy makers, and legislators about how to achieve school improvement that is effective and enduring.
This book is part of a series
of books edited by Kate Myers and John MacBeath that is intended to make educational policy issues relevant to practitioners. In this relatively brief volume, Harris very clearly lays out the conditions, strategies and approaches necessary to promote effective school improvement. The traditional view of schools holds that they are bureaucratic organizations with clearly defined positions of responsibility and hierarchical relationships between the school board, superintendent, principals, and teachers. From this perspective, school improvement has been a function of altering the structures of the organization such as lengthening instructional periods, the school day, the school year or increasing the number and distribution of credits necessary to graduate from high school.
More recently, “high stakes tests” have been adopted as a means to ensure student “proficiency” and to make schools more productive. Within this conception of schools, teachers and students are at the “bottom” of the hierarchy, and all these improvements leave virtually untouched any examination of the quality of the instruction that occurs between teachers and students everyday in classrooms.
Harris argues that for real improvement to happen we must move away from the “mechanistic” view of school and conceptualize schools as “organic” organizations that can construct and define their own meanings (p.20). School improvement, she argues, is the result of a change in culture, not structure (p.10). At the heart of this change in culture is the belief that the “teaching learning process remains the main determinant of educational outcomes and that school leaders must create a learning community for teachers and students that emphasizes collaboration among teachers and sharing of information as part of a commitment to joint enquiry”(p. 1).
Harris goes on to analyze in each chapter the elements that should comprise or affect school culture drawing from the latest theories, research, and practice on such topics as “What works,” “Improving classrooms,” and “Improving teaching”. Taken all together, this book offers school leaders a holistic approach to school improvement, but it does not offer a specific recipe to follow. Instead, Harris believes that every school exists in a unique context and that change must occur using a multi-level
(strategy, ?) by school, by department, and by classroom (p.83). Embedded in each chapter are “points of reflection” and “questions for further exploration” to help guide school leaders in thinking about how to initiate and sustain a school improvement process.
I found this book valuable not only because of the way Harris conceptualizes school improvement, but also because of the insights it provides school leaders about what to expect. For example, during the implementation phase, things may actually get worse before they get better. In a mechanistic view of schools, school leaders could view this “implementation dip” as evidence of failure and discontinue the change effort. Harris asserts that this “dip” is just a normal part of the process as people react to their fear of change or inability to implement the proposed change. According to Harris, “effective leaders support others through the implementation dip by offering technical, emotional, and physical support”(p. 43).
The issues described in this book could have a significant impact on the way principals and teachers to actually spend their time. Principals in mechanistic school feel overwhelmed by ‘administrivial’ administrivial concerns and the expectations of others. Principals interested in leading a cultural change in their schools understand that they will need to spend more time doing classroom observation, developing a climate of trust (p. 13), working with teachers to create a professional community (p. 61) focused, promoting the internal capacity of the staff to improve their instruction through staff development (p. 51), and nurturing a sense of shared leadership with the staff (p. 78).
Harris has provided those working in schools with a wealth of information and ideas about how to approach the improvement process in their own schools. However, there are two
points to bear in mind.
First, Harris draws extensively on research done in American schools, her own frame of reference seems to be the school system in Great Britain. While this cultural difference does nothing to diminish the primacy of the teaching learning process that should be at the heart of school culture, British and American schools exist within two distinct political and economic
environments. In American schools parents and the community play important roles in the operation of schools because of the system of school governance. As a result, American readers may find Harris’s description of school culture somewhat insular as there are is no clearly defined roles for parents or the community in this model of change. Principals in American schools have the additional challenge of finding constructive ways of including parent input into this change process.
Second, while I agree with the need to focus on changing school culture, not structure, there is a fundamental irony in this argument that cannot be ignored; that is, can school board members, administrators, teachers, parents and other members of the public restructure their beliefs and expectations to allow these changes to take place. ( I think you need to clarify this important point. Are you saying that changing school cultures is one thing, but it really means changing the belief systems of all those that surround the educational process? I think this is what you are saying, and it is important, because you are right without that the battle for change is all the harder. But as you say can we really afford to expect anything less? You are implying here and probably rightly so that she understands schools but maybe not the American context as well. A second point is that Harris states that the essence of school improvement lies in building school communities that are collaborative, inclusive, , and ultimately empowering for both teachers and students (p. 119). Can we really afford to expect anything less?