Effective Partnering for School Change: Improving Early Childhood Education in Urban Classrooms
reviewed by Megan Wereley - 2004
Title: Effective Partnering for School Change: Improving Early Childhood Education in Urban Classrooms
Author(s): Jie-Qi Chen, Patricia Horsch, Karen Demoss (Contributor), and Suzanne L. Wagner (Contributor)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807744131 , Pages: 173, Year: 2003
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School reform is a messy business! The road to effective change is wrought with success and challenges. So follows this summation of the 11 year university partnership between Chicago’s Erikson Institute and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) known as the “Schools Project.” Jie-Qi Chen and Patricia Horsch, both faculty members at the Erickson Institute and co-directors of the Schools Project, explore the efforts of Erikson to create and maintain a series of evolving partnerships between the university and nine elementary schools struggling with issues of low-school performance as the teachers and administrators responded to state and local reform mandates. Additional contributors to this text include Karen Demoss, Suzanne L. Wagner, and Barbara T. Bowan. Several issues are covered within each of the three main sections: I. The Historical Context and Conceptual Framework; II. A Tapestry of Interventions; and III. Lessons From More Than a Decade of Partnership.
The first section outlines the historical context within which the Schools Project partnership was created and provides an explanation of the overarching philosophy utilized when establishing initial relationships with administrators and teachers within each school. At the advent of this project, many urban public school systems faced a growing level of scrutiny related to the quality of education that was being provided to students. The authors provide background related to efforts of professional organizations to address some of these problems at a national level including the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)’s position statement related to developmentally appropriate practice as well as a recommendation set forth by the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) to create “early childhood units” in each elementary school (pp. 3-5).
The initial phase of the Schools Project was launched in 1981 as a response to these recommendations as part of an Adopt-A-School program establish by the Chicago Public Schools. Such programs were encouraged to provide increased resources and technical assistance to public schools from various organizations within the Chicago community. The project’s initial goal was to work with schools to create “early childhood units.” The text outlines the “enabling approach,” the philosophy by which the Schools Project built these partnerships. This approach assumes that outside educational programs need to be adapted to the context of each individual school, that teachers are more likely to be actively engaged if they play a role in developing goals, and that the quality of the relationship between the school and the university is related to the level of growth or change that occurs (pp. 6, 17-18).
The authors also outline the Schools Project’s efforts to encourage developmentally appropriate practice by exploring and providing professional development opportunities related to effectively using performance based assessment strategies and instructional techniques to meet individual student needs. The authors provide valuable insight related to how Schools Project facilitators and partner-school teachers addressed issues of divergent teaching philosophies. The incorporation of case studies of individual schools proves to be a valuable technique employed by the authors. These real-life examples provide the reader with a more concrete understanding of the abstract issues that the facilitators of the Schools Project encountered (pp. 35-36).
In many instances, the authors also make an effort to include explanations when schools and/or teachers were unsatisfied or when the efforts of the Schools Project did not meet the school’s and/or teachers’ expectations or individual needs. In some cases, it might have been helpful to include additional quotes or clarification directly from these teachers and administrators to provide a fuller understanding of these complex issues from multiple perspectives. While the authors include several quotations from Schools Project participants, most quotations are presented in the context of external evaluation at the close of the project. The majority of these schools remained a part of the project until its closure and therefore, one might conclude, the participants might have been those most satisfied with the partnership process (p. 111).
As partner schools faced increasing accountability requirements, often tied to standardized test results, the Schools Project shifted its focus to address the concerns of administrators and teachers attempting to raise test scores, particularly in schools placed on probation because of low student academic performance. The text includes a brief overview of the Schools Project’s use of the results of test score analysis to inform teaching practice. The text also includes reactions from teachers about the strategies they employed as a response to the findings (p. 45-54).
One venture of the Schools Project outlined in the text includes an effort to seek NAEYC accreditation for 18 early childhood classrooms. The authors offer several clear arguments related to the value of seeking NAEYC accreditation, but they also provide a realistic portrayal of the somewhat intense and lengthy process that teachers and schools experience as they strive to meet the required standards (pp. 61-67). Other projects described include implementing the “Responsive Classroom” approach to addressing social development and academic involvement and responding to requests by schools for training programs that provided guidance for effectively utilizing and integrating technology into the classroom and/or school.
An external evaluation of the eleven year project reveals that its strengths lie in the personal nature of the relationships between teachers and Schools Project staff. The staff members maintained ongoing (often onsite) interactions with teachers that included providing materials, modeling strategies, and offering praise as well as constructive criticism. While teachers praised the personal attention, the final evaluation revealed a desire for even more time spent on-site by Schools Project staff working directly with teachers (p. 114).
The value of this synopsis lies in the fact that the authors are able to convey the message that true school reform efforts (as opposed to theoretical models) may not always succeed as originally expected and may take a variety of turns due to many factors, the most obvious being human nature. Schools Project staff worked with teachers with varying degrees of interest in the partnership, some schools maintained multiple partnerships with other organizations thus requiring cooperation among educators with multiple agendas, and some administrators approached the Schools Projects partnership with varying degrees of commitment. The priorities of the schools also shifted as schools responded to district mandates requiring ongoing reconceptualization of reform strategies in order to be effective and to maintain participant engagement.
Within their chronological retelling of the Schools Project’s development, the authors show that a clear-cut formula for providing effective site-based school reform does not exist. Throughout the eleven partnerships, several schools chose to end or change the nature of their relationship with Erikson, while others chose to join the project. Project facilitators faced issues of responding to district mandates, the effectiveness of working with principals with different administrative philosophies, the nature of involvement by teachers (required vs. volunteer), and issues related to racial and ethnically diverse school communities.
Some specific strengths of the text include the authors’ willingness to be candid about why various reform models did not always succeed as well as to discuss areas where the Erikson Institute staff members were asked to provide guidance beyond their areas of expertise, requiring additional guidance and assistance from outside resources.
This text is a valuable resource for those involved in school-community partnerships. It allows the reader to better understand the complexities of creating and maintaining long-term relationships as well as the necessity to rethink reform strategies as they are applied to multiple settings. A clear underlying message of this text is that what works in one setting may not prove to be effective in another. The reader can easily conclude that effective school partnerships require a great deal of patience, an open mind, and interpersonal skills on the part of all participants.