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Advocacy Leadership: Toward an Authentic Post-Reform Agenda in Education

reviewed by Michelle Collay - August 03, 2009

coverTitle: Advocacy Leadership: Toward an Authentic Post-Reform Agenda in Education
Author(s): Gary L. Anderson
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415994284, Pages: 216, Year: 2009
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Gary Anderson’s text Advocacy Leadership is a thought-provoking treatise about the failure of educational reforms and the critical need for educators to advocate for authentic education for the least-served students. Reflecting on a lifetime of teaching, leading, and studying urban schools, he offers multiple examples of conservative ideologies and market forces driving educational reform throughout the last century. He supports his arguments by drawing on historical, cultural, and economic theories, demonstrating that, on one hand, reform efforts go back decades and are rooted in conflicting beliefs about the purpose of schooling. On the other hand, current reforms are more virulent and render education inauthentic to its core.

Anderson argues that leading schools is necessarily a political act and that urban school leaders must be stalwart advocates for the most vulnerable students and families. Advocacy leaders must challenge reform initiatives that benefit private interests rather than truly educating all students for participation in a democratic society. Whether readers embrace Anderson’s recommendations for mitigating the worst effects of privatization and accountability schemes will depend on their beliefs about the purpose of schooling. The old adage “Dewey lost and Thorndike won” comes to mind, as this author grapples with societal abdication of the governance of schooling. Anderson describes the language of shame and punishment promulgated by NCLB policies, the loss of authentic teaching and learning in classrooms as teachers focus exclusively on test items, and legions of commercial providers of materials and programs. Recent reform initiatives shred our belief that schools are the last, best social setting for nurturing citizenship.

The author intertwines two strands throughout the text, the first outlining the complex factors underlying contemporary school reform. Through historical review and critical analysis of current accountability policies, Anderson revisits the long battle over who controls schooling in America. Contemporary reform efforts mirror the sins of the past, as schools serve the marketplace not the democracy. NCLB is not transformative, but devolutionary, codifying achievement and stratifying society. In the first chapter, Anderson states: “We are headed into a period in which the use of school reform language becomes a way to introduce new forms of governance.” He describes the state moving from “being a provider of services to becoming an overseer and regulator of non-profit and for profit private service providers” (p. 29). In a later chapter, New Economy of Schooling, Anderson offers recent examples of corporatized schools and of districts taken over by newly-minted MBAs charged to standardize and economize all aspects of schooling.

The second strand is a well-wrought description of advocacy leadership, beginning with his early experiences as a high school teacher in Harlem. Anderson defines advocacy leadership within the context of current reform enterprise. In Chapter 2, he describes “Advocacy Leadership” as a role, a responsibility, and as a political act, challenging notions of neutral school leadership and governance. In Chapter 4, Disciplining Leaders, the author addresses the necessarily changed role of the principal and other educational leaders who now find themselves beholden to corporate leaders and educrats, perpetuating non-transformative, reproductive schooling practices.

Anderson weaves advocacy leadership and reform critique into a call to action. School leaders can re-shape or redirect reform initiatives and must confront the relentless re-formation of schooling into a market-driven, commercial, and un-democratic venture. Advocacy leaders must understand the pervasive and taken-for-granted ways schooling is shaped by conservative, neo-liberal, and authoritarian values, and engage in establishing and sustaining a different ideology. In the final chapter, Toward a Post-Reform Agenda, Anderson asks educational leaders to interrogate the reform landscape and embrace the work of political activism. In this call to action, Anderson recommends that school leaders strategically challenge the downward spiral of compliance, serving as sentinels of democracy rather than handmaidens of privatization. Strategies include appropriation of language and framing of issues along the line of political campaigns. He refers to policy appropriation rather than policy resistance and outlines approaches to “the new accountability.”

Anderson’s language portrays a vigilant pragmatism, possibly the most optimistic role for school leaders. American reproduction of class stratification may not begin with educational policy, but discriminatory patterns are perpetrated by NCLB and its attendant mandates for oversight, high stakes testing and tracking, and further reducing efficacy of marginalized communities. Accountability systems are designed to discriminate, however, and will not be disrupted by school leaders tinkering with existing machinery. Huge profits resulting from corporatization of schooling provide further disincentive for change at the local level. School-based and community activists must therefore reach beyond their districts and seek change at the upper levels of governance.

Schools and their leaders mirror historic class divisions, however, and I believe few will find adequate purchase in their under-resourced, culturally marginalized schools and districts to stake their claim as advocacy leaders. I appreciate Anderson’s recognition that site leaders are on the front lines of a class war, but as foot soldiers, they are not positioned to challenge the corporate machinery and defend democracy, even with support from their local communities. Aronowitz (2008) in Against Schooling captures the breadth of school leaders’ challenge in this pessimistic analysis:

Fiscal exigency and a changing mission have combined to leave public education in the United States in a chronic state of crisis. For some the main issue is whether schools are failing to transmit the general intellectual culture, even to the most able students. What is at stake in this critique is the fate of America as a civilization—particularly the condition of its democratic institutions and the citizens who are, in the final analysis, responsible for maintaining them. (p. 17)

All citizens, from corporate heads to community activists, must defend public schooling. We are, as Aronowitz states, responsible for maintaining democratic institutions, in spite of the risk. As a professor of educational leadership and a parent in the Oakland Unified School District, I was moved by Anderson’s remembrance of Marcus Foster, a visionary superintendent who was killed outside the district office in 1973. Anderson’s recollection reminds us that those who truly challenge the status quo put their very lives at risk. Political activism by school-based leaders may not be sufficient given the magnitude of the task and the persistent failure of public education to serve the majority of its clients. “The fate of America as a civilization” is in all of our hands, parents, teachers, community members, and scholars. We need powerful leaders to direct us, but they cannot succeed alone.

In conclusion, Anderson states: “A new generation of skilled leaders, able to combine authenticity with advocacy, can be the catalyst for the educational and social transformation that can realize, for the first time, the promise of public education” (p. 185). In concert with positional educational leaders, we must all challenge the converging political forces Anderson describes, accepting the reality that we as a citizenry accept conditions that trample the rights of all citizens, not only the urban poor. Our school leaders cannot act without our support and must not be expected to turn this tide without broad, civic engagement by every citizen.


Aronowitz, S. (2008). Against schooling: For an education that matters. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 03, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15733, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 9:23:17 PM

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About the Author
  • Michelle Collay
    California State University
    E-mail Author
    MICHELLE COLLAY is associate professor of Educational Leadership and is Curriculum Coordinator of the Education Doctorate at California State University, East Bay, Hayward, CA. Her research interests focus on teacher leadership and women leaders of color. Recent publications include: Collay, M. (2009) Leadership identity development of women of color. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, April. Collay, M. & Cooper, J. (2008). The role of self-authorship in developing women leaders. Journal of Research on Leadership Education. 3(2)December; Gagnon, G. & Collay, M. (2006) Constructivist learning design: Key questions for teaching to standards. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press. Collay, M. (2006) Discerning professional identity and becoming bold, socially responsible teacher leaders. Educational Leadership and Administration: Teaching and Program Development. 18(Fall, 2006)131-146.
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