Big-City School Reforms: Lessons from New York, Toronto, and London
reviewed by David M. Moss - September 17, 2014
Title: Big-City School Reforms: Lessons from New York, Toronto, and London
Author(s): Michael Fullan & Alan Boyle
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807755184, Pages: 192, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com
There is a long tradition of comparative studies in international education; Big City School Reforms: Lessons from New York, Toronto, and London by Michael Fullan and Alan Boyle (a joint publication of Teachers College Press and the Ontario Principals Council) builds upon that rich body of literature in ways that are conceptually sound and likewise strike a refreshing chord of practicality. Given the vast landscape of urban education reform, policy, and practice, achieving this balance is no effortless task and ultimately yields an altogether readable result. This success is in part due to the frequent acknowledgement of the limitations of the book, including a clear western lens as reflected through the selection of the case studies. But the inclusion of these three cities appears purposeful, and the limitations serve more as necessary boundaries than shortcomings, although I suspect some readers will want more depth of perspective from the concluding chapter than is offered. Be advised, however: there are literally hundreds of notes presented in the concluding pages that may serve to quell some of the need for a more comprehensive narrative.
Although the book focuses on a single decade (2002-2012) of restructuring, redevelopment, and transformation of schooling policies and practices in the three cities, there is a sufficient nod to the longer arc of reform to adequately situate the readers in the admittedly complex systems. The authors not only provide local contexts, but also invite readers to explore their own contexts to better leverage the potential impact of the book. In fact, I found myself doing just that: I consistently reflected upon the unfolding stories and their remarkable similarities and differences, and considered the implications for my own work. Having a more direct connection to both New York and London, I found these cases to be both interesting and insightful. The Toronto exemplar is perhaps no less so, but readers will likely gravitate to the familiar as a way to connect with the lessons learned. Such an urge should be resisted, as ultimately I found the case from Canada to be enlightening. As Fullan and Boyle note, Here we have a district with all the problems of a big city yet [Toronto District School Board] was remarkably successful in relation to the bottom line of instructional improvements and corresponding student achievement (p. 101). This quote highlights the often positive and encouraging tone of this book, which avoids the pitfall of relentlessly bashing elements of public education as a means of revealing what isnt working in urban reform agendas. The book strikes a balanced tone, and discusses both challenges and successes.
In an effort to develop a straightforward framework of factors that may impact big city school reform efforts, the authors apply the notion of what they describe as simplexity. That is, they aimed to identify a small number of key factors while concurrently considering how these factors come together in daily practice. These factors and strategies are framed within what they describe as push and pull actions. Push actions are insistent, relentless, and usually nonnegotiable, while actions that pull are intended to attract people to a process or situation, and to listen and learn from them as well as influence them (p. 10). This balanced conceptual core serves as a useful thread uniting the reform narratives of these great cities. Delving deeper, the key components of their dynamic framework involves six purposeful actions: the push actions of challenging the status quo, having the courage to intervene, and conveying a high sense of urgency using data; as well as the pull actions of creating a commonly owned strategy, attending to sustainability, and developing professional power of capital. This final element of their framework is defined as gathering available resources and purposefully employing them to leverage the most impact.
I found the brief section on teacher recruitment and retention to be a welcome addition to the New York City chapter, as it tackles the contentious issue of paying teachers financial bonuses for meeting school performance targets in students tests scores. Like many sections of the book, it tackles a difficult issue with a no-nonsense approach that will appeal to policy makers and academics alike. The chapter concludes by noting New York City schools have achieved pockets of success by attempting to make accountability systematic, yet the constant restructuring has also worked against the necessary capacity building for sustained improvement. In Toronto, local politics also served up constant distractions, but unlike New York City these issues did not intrude directly into the teaching and learning domain (p. 101). As noted, Toronto serves as an excellent counterpoint to those familiar with reform efforts in New York City in recent decades. Finally, in London, the authors describe how it is indeed possible over the course of a decade to transform a system with rock-bottom morale (p. 137) into a system of achievement committed to continuous improvement.
Within the final passages of the book, Fullan and Boyle seem reluctant to delve into the crystal ball of school reform for the 2014-2024 decade. They explicitly note they have not attempted to address the future yet given the well-presented, rich yet concise cases, I was eager to hear more of what they thought was in store for these cities and beyond. I sense they had much more to say. In the end, they implore that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past and conclude by entreating Lets learn from the good history from the last decade, jettison the bad, and create a brand-new future history that will serve our urban dwellers well! (p. 145). And fruitfully, they offer a starting point for considering just that.