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School Improvement: What's in it for Schools

reviewed by Eliot Larson - 2003

coverTitle: School Improvement: What's in it for Schools
Author(s): Alma Harris
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415249201, Pages: 135, Year: 2002
Search for book at Amazon.com

After more than 20 years as a principal at the middle and high school  levelsprincipal, I have come to believe that there is a fundamental paradox about school improvement in American schools: too many peoplewe 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 investmentsinvestmentsinvestmentsthus curtailing investment in promising initiatives; school administrators aspiringaspiringaspiringaspiringaspiringaspiringaspiring to be superintendents don’t want to and don’t want to make any “mistakes”and work cautiously and without inspiration; teachers wantwantwantwho wantwantwantwant to  to stick with “what works” to avoidavoidavoidtoavoidavoidavoidavoid criticism from parents or administrators; and parents fear subjecting  (delete who)want to insure that their children to are not the test subjects of new teaching strategies that mightmightmightwill adversely affect their post-graduation opportunities.

EffectiveEffectiveEffectiveBut there is another very compelling reason why effective, 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 actually 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 understanding of this second reason and 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 bureaucratic conception of schools, teachers and students are at the “bottom” of the hierarchy, and all these structural 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, approach?)  to school improvementby 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).  

Another example deals with The issues described in this book could have a significant impact on the way principals and teachers should expect totoactually spend their time. Principals in mechanistic schools too often school feel overwhelmed by ‘administrivial’administrivialadministrivial concerns and the expectations of others. But, principals Principals interested in leading a cultural change in their schools must find ways to understand that they will need to spend more time doing classroom observations, and, as Harris notes, developing a climate of trust (p. 13), working with teachers to create a focused 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 issues which points to bear further consideration.in mind.

First, Harris draws extensively on research done in American schools, yether 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 anyschool culture, British and American schools exist within two distinct political and economic environments.traditions. 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.  Second, A second point is thatHarris argues clearly and forcefully in favor of the need to change a school’s culture as the means to effective school improvement. However, given the unique political and economic context of American schools, school leaders have the additional challenge of having to change the broader culture of schooling where the paradox of improvement remains: we favor school improvement as long as the schools stay the same. Without the support of school board members, administrators, teachers, parents, and the community, efforts to change school culture will effectively be negated and the status quo will remain in place. 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). CanEffective schools may have to empower the entire school community as well. Should and should we really afford to expectcontinue to be satisfied anything less?

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 4, 2003, p. 568-570
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11059, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 4:20:06 PM

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About the Author
  • Eliot Larson
    West Chester Area School District, Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    Eliot Larson received a B.A. in history from Hobart College and M.A., M.Ed., and an Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia. He has over 20 years experience as a middle and high school principal in New York and Pennsylvania and has served for the last ten years as a middle school principal in the West Chester Area School District outside of Philadelphia. Recent publications include: “Anatomy of Change: Snapshot from a Building Perspective” in the February 2002 edition of The Pennsylvania Administrator and “School Improvement: Notes from the Parking Lot” in the May 2002 issue of Principal Leadership.
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