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The Future of Schools: How Communities and Staff Can Transform Their School Districts

reviewed by Maria Mendiburo - September 06, 2006

coverTitle: The Future of Schools: How Communities and Staff Can Transform Their School Districts
Author(s): Merrelyn Emery
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1578863775, Pages: 207, Year: 2006
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Merrelyn Emery contends that despite the rapid development of ideas over the past several decades about the nature of learning and knowledge, educational practice has persisted remarkably unchanged and continuous for the last 100 years or more of mass education. She asserts that although much of the thinking about education has changed, few administrators and legislators have made radical breaks from the past.  Incremental change in education often fails because education is a system, not a collection of parts.  Therefore, her book, The Future of Schools: How Communities Can Transform Their School Districts, is an attempt to talk about how to redesign the entire school system.

Emery’s book can be considered a blend of her many years of experience researching and developing open systems theory with her vision for a new approach towards systemic school district change.  The fundamental idea in open systems theory is that all entities have boundaries that are permeable to the environment.  Emery asserts that because school districts exist within community environments, community development must precede change within the school district. She believes that many of the problems that are encountered by schools are produced because school districts are organized according to the first organizational design principle (DP1) in which the responsibility for coordination and control is located at least one level above the people who are doing the work, the learning, or the planning. Consequently, she advocates for the type of community development that would reorganize the community and eventually the school district under the second organizational design principle (DP2) in which change within the organization is negotiated between groups working as equals regardless of their respective position in the organization.  The reorganization of the community and school district from DP1 to DP2 would eliminate the hierarchy created by bureaucratic supervisory structures and replace it with a flat organizational structure composed of self-managing groups.  Emery suggests that the transition from DP1 to DP2 can be facilitated by the use of the hallmark methods of open systems theory: the Search Conference and the Participative Design Workshop.  Rather than existing as separate entities, these two methods are delivered using a two-stage model.  During the Search Conference, which is the first stage, participants pool their perceptions of change in the social environment and produce a picture of the most desirable future.  During the Participative Design Workshop, which is the second stage, participants are asked to design an effective DP2 organization to carry out the implementation.      


To support her claim that the entire community rather than just the school district must be reorganized from DP1 to DP2, Emery devotes the second chapter in her book to a review of the literature on the power of community, highlighting the importance of community for school districts.  Chapters 3, 4, and 5 outline a detailed plan for using the Search Conference and Participative Design Workshop in the community to facilitate a transition from DP1 to DP2.  The author’s step-by-step instructions in these three chapters include extensive discussion of the preparation necessary before the start of the events, as well as answers to many of the logistical questions and potential problems that might arise, such as how much time to allot for the completion of each task and what materials to provide for participants.  A great deal of emphasis is placed on all participants in the change process having a thorough understanding of their own duties and responsibilities, in addition to a thorough understanding of the goals of the change process.  Throughout the book, the author uses three school districts to illustrate how these methods can be implemented in districts of varying size, but the middle chapters of the book are devoted to examining how these methods can revitalize the community around a school district; it is not until the sixth chapter that the author addresses planning and organizing to improve the school district itself.  The author then concludes the book in Chapters 7 through 9 by using the lens of open systems theory to synthesize a large body of literature related to staff and student structures, teaching and learning, and the achievement gap.

By shifting back to a broad theoretical framework in the final chapters of the book, Emery is able to achieve the outcome she set forth in the first chapter by talking about the whole school system.  However, the transition makes it very difficult to understand the author’s vision of the final outcome of the Search Conferences and the Participative Design Workshops within a school context, especially since the last three chapters of the book are the most directly related to schools.  Compared with Emery’s general discussion of the two main methods of open systems theory, she spends little time outlining specific topics that are directly related to schools.  Common concerns that are sure to arise for educators during the change process—such as how to negotiate with collective bargaining units and the logistics of securing school board approval—are given only cursory mention.  Emery’s vision for school district change includes altering the current teacher pay structure to a pay-for-skills program, democratizing the school board, and implementing progressive education on a classroom level across the district.  Her plan of action, however, does not fully address how difficult it would be to implement any one—much less all three—of these major changes within the school system.  Throughout the book, I found myself constantly wondering about how much power and authority the community participants had and what kind of school district level change they could realistically implement.  Given that the types of changes suggested by the author would take many years to implement, coupled with the fact that she begins the book by stating that incremental change in education fails because education is a system, the reader is left to question whether open systems theory applied to education, according to the plan outlined in Emery’s book, is likewise destined to fail.

Emery could have significantly strengthened many of her arguments by providing a stronger link to schools using either case study analysis or more contextualized descriptions of her vision for school district change.  For example, the author claims that the increased productivity and efficiency of a pay-for-skills program for teacher salaries will more than offset the short-term funds required, yet she never discusses how productivity and efficiency in the classroom translate into more dollars for teachers’ salaries.  She uses a non-school, workplace example to illustrate how self-managing work teams caused an increase in output and quality, but never discusses the correlating output and quality gains in terms of education.  If the author had maintained a broad, theoretical focus throughout, the reader would not necessarily expect answers to such questions.  However, the specific, step-by-step instructions of the middle chapters create an expectation for the author to address the practicalities of the various aspects of the change process at the school, district, and classroom level.  While Emery’s book presents a well-defined conception of how to use open systems theory to inspire change within a community and why open systems theory is an important lens to view education, it ultimately falls short of presenting an equally well- defined vision for systemic school district change.        

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 06, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12699, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 12:46:15 PM

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About the Author
  • Maria Mendiburo
    Vanderbilt University
    MARIA MENDIBURO is an ExPERT fellow in the Leadership, Policy, and Organizations program at Vanderbilt University. Her research interests include school choice and applied statistics.
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