Excellence for All: How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America's Public Schools
reviewed by Chad Lochmiller - January 24, 2014
Title: Excellence for All: How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America's Public Schools
Author(s): Jack Schneider
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville
ISBN: 0826518117, Pages: 208, Year: 2011
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In Excellence for All: How a New Breed of Reformers is Transforming America's Public Schools, Jack Schneider offers a thorough discussion of three contemporary education reform initiatives: advanced placement curriculum, small schools, and Teach for America. The author states that the purpose of the book is to examine how history and current events, social conditions and political alignments, leadership and rhetoric collectively shape the education policy-making environment. In pursuing this focus, Schneider situates his discussion of contemporary reforms in a policy orientation, which he characterizes as the "excellence for all era." This era is, according to Schneider, a compelling vision held by the nation's best financed education reformers (p. 30). The vision sought to bring "aspects of elite-level education to distinctly non-elite populations" (p. 39), including inner-city youth and poor children. At the core of the reform vision was the belief that "America's urban public schools could be transformed into college preparatory academies schools that would address the needs of both the nation and the traditionally under-served" (p. 40).
Before describing each of the reforms that define the excellence for all era, Schneider provides an accessible discussion of roughly eight decades of historical events and political shifts that led to the dawn of the excellence for all era. Beginning with a discussion of the struggles that gripped cities at the beginning of the 20th century, Schneider reveals the underlying political shifts that led us to our current worries about the state of our education system and the dominance of current reform paradigms. His discussion reveals the surprising extent to which reformers were largely in agreement about the "means and ends of school reform" (p. 12). He suggests that reformers of this era were focused on professionalizing the nation's schools (i.e., consolidating one-room school houses, introducing teacher certifications, etc.), while also improving the efficiency of the nation's schools to pursue economic, political, and social objectives (i.e., Americanizing immigrants, reducing the number of students repeating grades, creating high school level vocational programs, etc.). Schneider's discussion of these events clearly leads the reader to understand the origins of the current education reform movement. Further, the reader is left understanding the inherent tensions between educational equality (providing similar educational experiences for all children) and educational equity (providing appropriate educational experiences for children given their unique needs). His examination of these concepts considers the unique educational needs of students who reside in urban communities.
In Chapter Two, Schneider describes the small schools movement, the first of three reform efforts discussed in the book. He uses the origins of the modern high school to set a context for the discussion, recalling that the prevailing view was that bigger schools were more apt to provide rigorous, diverse education for the nation's high school students the education needed for students to participate in post-secondary education. Working at cross-purposes with this view, Schneider notes that the increasing diversity of the student population served by large schools has diminished their ability to reach an increasingly diverse student population. Small high schools were thought to provide urban youth with a highly personalized learning environment needed to improve their academic performance. Empirical evidence suggested that these schools achieved results (albeit on a limited scale). Recognizing the potential of the reform, Schneider notes the influence that private investment played in bringing small schools into the popular notion of education reform. Fueled by The Gates Foundation's significant investments in small schools, small schools began spreading across the education system until empirical evidence began suggesting that these schools were not achieving the kind of robust improvements in student achievement.
In Chapter Three, Schneider describes the introduction of Teach for America (TFA). This reform sought to provide urban students with access to classroom teachers traditionally found in "top private schools and sometimes found in cutting edge charter schools" (p. 73). Schneider provides a well-developed history of teacher preparation and licensure before discussing TFA. This background provides context for his discussion of TFA and its association with the excellence for all era. Much like the small schools reforms, TFA sought to bring talented and effective classroom teachers to the nation's poorest performing urban schools. Despite some evidence suggesting that TFA teachers were more effective than other traditionally prepared teachers, Schneider notes that TFA's popularity and permanence as a reform measure was challenged by the relatively short time commitment required of its members. While the overarching goal for TFA was to improve teacher quality and in doing so raise student achievement, the limited amount of time that TFA members remained in the schools to which they were assigned seemed to work at cross-purposes with its goals. As Schneider states, "major swings in teacher licensing reform efforts have responded more to context than to any evolving knowledge about how to develop qualified teachers and keep them in the nation's public schools" (p. 103).
Schneider spends Chapter Four describing the emergence of Advanced Placement (AP) curricula. Much like the previous two reforms, Schneider explains that reformers sought to expand AP offerings to students in under-performing schools in order to improve their academic achievement, and, like the previous two reforms, expand opportunities for them to pursue a postsecondary education. While a straightforward approach to reform, the expansion of AP curricula had unintended consequences for more affluent schools. Expanding AP to less affluent, lower-performing schools made the program appear less elite in the eyes of the colleges and universities. Instead of increasing the number of low-income students who received college credit, Schneider notes that colleges and universities have become increasingly hesitant to confer credit for AP courses. Thus he concludes that, "Those with fewer resources . . . are not precluded from seeking to align themselves with high-status programs. But as less-well-resourced schools slowly turn their ships, the well-off are free to change course once more, leaving the masses behind yet again" (p. 133). Much like the preceding reforms described throughout the text, the success of the program seems contingent on a fixed understanding of excellencean understanding that he implies does exist within the education system, despite the agreement among excellence for all stakeholders and reformers outside the system.
In the concluding chapter, Schneider presents the guiding question for the text: with all of the resources and support at their disposal, why have these reforms not made a bigger impact? His response to this question is deceptively simple: "excellence for all reformers failed to achieve their ambitions because of all that did not change in the fundamentally complicated work of educational improvement" (p.137). He notes that schools are "institutions of notoriously slippery substance" that are swayed by internal and external forces. Thus, the excellence for all era failed "[l]ike many other school reform efforts, [because] the excellence for all era was characterized by - and complicated by - grand ambitions that manifested in top-down and outside-in efforts at system building" (p. 139). In a disappointing conclusion, Schneider seems to conclude what many others have beforeeducation reform is only successful when reform initiatives emerge from within the system and build from the classroom up. Given the flourish with which the excellence for all era was described at the beginning of the text, I had hoped that the author would conclude with a more robust discussion that offered a way forward. Instead, the book concluded with the same rhetoric we've heard so many times before.