Blueprint for School System Transformation: A Vision for Comprehensive Reform in Milwaukee and Beyond
reviewed by Adrianna Kezar - November 08, 2013
Title: Blueprint for School System Transformation: A Vision for Comprehensive Reform in Milwaukee and Beyond
Author(s): Frederick Hess & Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1475804695, Pages: 164, Year: 2013
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As noted in the preface and conclusion of this book, there are many books tackling school reform in the last few decades, and this book is meant to be distinctive in taking a comprehensive view of school reform by examining governance, funding and resources, district policies and leadership, talent development, teacher professional development, data use, and accountability systems. Indeed this book does cover a broad terrain; however, I would say it does so under a single ideology of changea more market-based approach (e.g., privatization, charter schools, vouchers, local control) focused on education as a business. While I very much agree we need more systemic approaches to change in educational institutions, I am wary of a single philosophical approach to such changes. Thus, while it seems there are a multitude of solutions offered, a much more narrow group of ideas is really presented. Petrellis chapter on quality control in a local marketplace is the only chapter that reflects multiple ideologies, even if marketplace is in the title. This chapter includes discussions about the pros and cons of various ideologies and research about practices advocated by proponents within different ideologies. However, the rest of the book adopts a vary narrow ideological perspective.
I think we can learn from and use some market-based approaches, but I am wary of this as a single approachespecially when we have very little data to support that market-based approaches have worked. Throughout the book, authors note that charter schools have generally not performed better than traditional schools. Large scale studies have shown that while there are some exceptional charters, on the whole they perform the same as the traditional options. Lots of work to develop a market based reform, but not much success. Many of the ideas presented also have no research to support their arguments. For example, Horn and Evans argue for decentralizing decision-making from districts to schools and using online learning to create individualized learning for students. However, there is no evidence that students learn better with technology, or that technology will lower costs for delivering education. We also do not have evidence that providing consumers with market data about schools will lead to better decisions, as noted by Petrilli and Fullerton. Chapter authors argue for more competency-based education, but minimal research exists about how to assess competency education well.
That many of the ideas have limited or no data to support them does not mean that they are not compelling and do not deserve some attention. For example, the idea that traditional schools cannot accommodate individual differences well is a significant concern, and technology may be able to play a role. Customizing resource allocation to the needs of students and particular classroom environments, changing class sizes to meet goals, and exploring over-classification into special education also has merit. Might more attention to talent development among teachers, merit pay, and on-going development help professionalize teachers more? It might.
Other ideas are better supported, such as the use of data at the state, district and school level to guide decision-making and policy. Yet, the focus is often on data to support consumers and choice, for which there is less research. The one idea with research behind it is the Recovery School District Model by Kingsland, which provides an important avenue for troubled and underperforming schools to be turned around. But it is important that this model be studied, as it is exported to other areas with different social, economic, and political situations for transferability.
In addition to the ideological narrowness of the book, I worry about the rationalistic attitude, in which change is merely the result of data, planning, control and monitoring. Most research on change suggests it is a political, cultural, cognitive, and human process that involves resistance, conflict, negotiation, discussion of values, articulation of priorities, and training and development, among many other aspects largely ignored in the book. In rare moments these other aspects are alluded to, such as the importance of a strong superintendent within the Recovery School District Model in Kinglands chapter or the chapter by Lemov on teacher professional development.
In some cases, their recommendations mirror non-market based approaches but simply use another name. The chapter on improving teacher professional development largely focuses on the need to focus on day-to-day practice versus one-time and episodic professional development models. Learning communities are staples in many schools, and many approaches from a perspective often labeled improved professionalism utilize this approach. While the authors may disregard professionalism as an approach to reform, some of their ideas do reflect this model but simply use different terms. Also, the chapter by Nair on talent management, though coming from a managerial perspective, focuses on selecting, recruiting, and monitoring teachers as a key reform while using data from studies of improved professionalism to support their arguments. In Singapore, teachers are valued more, paid better, and have strong professional identities, the very argument that supporters of teacher professionalism make. The chapter on the use of technology to create more customized schools within districts also suggests decentralizing more functions down to the school level. In many ways, this can be seen as similar to Spillanes work on distributed leadership. Maybe the ideologies do not matter as much when they overlap on the directionfocusing on teacher day-to-day practice, getting decision-making down to the level where it can be most effectively made, or supporting teaching as a profession, but in the end I think a nuanced read shows that ideology does matter. In this book, the way to achieve the goals for improved practice is largely around more control over teachers via evaluation, performance pay, and firing and decentralization, which is not about empowerment or bottom up changes.
It would seem that a comprehensive approach should entail philosophical diversity in addition to examining various component parts of the system. We certainly need systemic approaches that acknowledge the many complex elements that shape schools and their performance. Hess and Sattan-Bajaj could not be more correct that too often we focus on a very narrow componentteacher training, resources, or accountabilityand think we can create significant reform while ignoring so many other critical elements. I very much appreciate their contribution to the debate on school reform by opening it up to a more systems approach. However, I was disappointed that a single ideology drove the examination of that system. Only certain parts of the system were focused on, such as market-based accountability, decentralization to encourage innovation, technology, and data. We just do not have the research to support the view that market-based principles have delivered important reforms that have improved schools.
With another ideology in mind, the system can look quite different. Through a more democratic and/or professional-based view, the following might be emphasized more: community and civic partnerships, parent engagement, local economic reforms, school culture, teacher empowerment and professionalization, parent empowerment legislation, jointly created stakeholder standards, and partnering with unions. Clearly we need to examine systems reforms from professional, market, and state-based approaches, and take the best they all have to offer.