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American School Reform: What Works, What Fails, and Why

reviewed by Susan Bush-Mecenas & Julie A. Marsh - November 17, 2014

coverTitle: American School Reform: What Works, What Fails, and Why
Author(s): Joseph P. McDonald & Cities and Schools Research Group
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022612472X, Pages: 208, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

In American School Reform: What Works, What Fails, and Why, Joseph P. McDonald and the Cities and Schools Research Group propose a framework for understanding the adoption, implementation, and ultimate collapse of school reform initiatives. This theoretical model identifies a “theory of action space,” within which resources, professional capacity, and civic capacity interact with arguments in such a way to make reform possible.

Despite the theory’s seemingly ambiguous title, the theory of action space is a distinctive, specific, and practical model for the analysis of district-level school reforms. Drawing on open-systems theory, the authors emphasize the dependence of organizations on their environment and embrace a process orientation. That is, the authors identify three strata of influence on reform action space—encouraging and discouraging beliefs, political influences, and cultural influences—on which the action space is dependent. The strata of influence are analyzed through the transactions among strata and as elements of the input, throughput, and output of the system as a whole. The authors also draw on a broad range of theoretical traditions, including organizational studies, public policy, and political science, in this integrative model of action space.

Interestingly, the theory of action space and its application acknowledge that (a) multiple (potentially contradictory) reforms may result from the same infusion of resources and professional and civic capacity and contradictory strategies may be used to pursue the same argument, (b) action space may span an extended time period and facilitate policies which are related to unrelated, and very different arguments, and (c) all action space at some point will collapse. By divorcing the action space from the policy of interest, the authors also promote a model of policymaking that acknowledges the tenuous relationship between any one reform and its context. This model emphasizes that policymaking is a deeply political undertaking, which relies on resources, capacity, and leadership.

Following its introduction in the early chapters, the theory is then put to use in analyzing the implementation of the Annenberg Challenge in four metropolitan areas (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and the San Francisco Bay Area) over two decades. The Annenberg Challenge was a public/private effort spearheaded by former U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain Walter H. Annenberg in 1993. Representing the largest philanthropic investment in K-12 public schools at the time, the Annenberg Foundation’s $500 million initiative was dedicated to improving schools through locally designed reform projects. McDonald and his contributing authors from the Cities and Schools Research Group—Jolley Bruce Christman, Thomas Corcoran, Norm Fruchter, Milbrey McLaughlin, Gordon Pradi, Gabriel Reich, Mark Smylie, and Joan Talbert—played central roles in evaluating the reforms in these four early grant recipient sites. They share in this book their collective reflections that emerged from what they describe as “cross-city collaborative conversations” and “learning community” supported by the Annenberg and Spencer Foundations that continued even after the Annenberg reforms had formally ended.

Despite the diversity of interventions, the authors artfully trace the threads of the theory of action space throughout these four reform sites, demonstrating how action space functions in the adoption and modification of reform, the role of context in action space, and, ultimately, the process of action space collapse. In addition, the authors highlight how a ‘failed reform’ or collapsed action space may have a lasting impact on a city’s education policy ecology and may yield beneficial results. Authors note, “Such collapse is not tragic. What is tragic is a failure to learn from past experience” (p.9). While focused on four initiatives that no longer exist, American School Reform is by no means a doomsday book. Instead, it offers a hopeful account of school reform, as it is not only a look back, but is also forward thinking and optimistic. Specifically, the authors “pull back for a wider view of the connections that we think can feed thoughtful reinvention and generate reform energy across context, sector, actor, and time. We ask explicitly what might happen if people stopped forgetting, and deliberatively built on others’ expertise and past experience” (p.10). As such, collapse does not mean that reforms have to lose all hope, as it may enable new and promising reforms.

To maintain the reader’s interest in these dense and elaborate case narratives, the authors use clever rhetorical devices, including both thematic analysis drawing on the theory of action and a form of structural analysis emphasizing tone of voice. In contrast to traditional case study reports with each chapter dedicated to one individual site, the cases are organized around the book’s key thematic areas and slices of the cases are presented in pairs. Further, the authors embrace theatrical estrangement, as a rhetorical technique, juxtaposing segments of two cases to a nineteenth-century Russian novel and a made-for-TV movie. Much less dramatic in practice than in concept, this unorthodox approach indeed accelerates the pace and sustains the reader’s interest in the latter half of the book. Although clear and engaging, the cases are sufficiently complex and cover a great deal of ground—tracing reform in these four places for several decades, recounting successive leaders and key stakeholders operating in these action spaces, as well as local, state, and national events shaping its evolution over time. Readers unfamiliar with these reforms may find the material difficult to absorb. In particular, the authors provide limited scaffolding to assist the reader in gleaning key themes from the cases presented. Concluding summaries at the end of previous chapters may have helped the practitioner reader access major takeaways and lessons to be learned from the in-depth analyses of case sites.

While addressed to ‘reformers,’ we were left wondering about the intended audience for this book. The authors offer implications for practice and some important general lessons for policymakers. In particular, the authors highlight the tension between gaining broad-based support for policy adoption and implementation and the problem of maintaining policy coherence and alignment. As more and diverse actors bring their support to a policy, the arguments and programmatic elements of reform initiatives typically expand to address these actors’ interests. Resulting reforms, as in the case of Philadelphia, were comprised of varied and, at times, contradictory components, making implementation difficult at best. The authors recommend that reformers keep an eye on coherence. These lessons, however, do not seem particularly actionable. The authors do provide the useful example of a hypothetical reformer, who might actively engage with colleagues and researchers to gather new ideas, mobilize resources around her reform, and seek to connect action spaces for additional stability, but the authors do not push far enough. Practitioner readers may have benefited from additional examples or specific advice, for example, on what it means to be a ‘connector’ in the action space.

For the research (and particularly, evaluation) community and for students of education policy and reform; however, this book represents an essential example of how research collaboration can function and the fruits of such collaboration. While the case contexts vary greatly, the theory of action space derived from this diverse group of researchers contributes substantially to the literature on school reform. In particular, the authors suggest a way to think about reform with a wide lens that accounts for the broader discourse, resources, and stakeholders at a citywide or metropolitan level that shape school reform. In particular, this book led us to reflect on our experience researching a post-Annenberg urban reform. As we have followed Los Angeles’s portfolio district reform, this book reminded us to attend to previous action spaces, in particular that of LA’s own Annenberg Challenge, the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project (LAAMP). As we reflect on the city’s history and political context, the seeds of the Annenberg Challenge and remnants of its action space—ideas and individuals—are evident in its current education reforms (see Marsh, Strunk, & Bush, 2013).

In sum, McDonald and colleagues make a valuable theoretical contribution to the field of district-level school reform through their integrative framework and nuanced cross-case analysis of diverse school reform efforts. It remains to be seen the extent to which this contribution will be felt beyond the inner circles of academia. This contribution, however, may be most felt by evaluation researchers and students of policy.


Marsh, J. A., Strunk, K. O. & Bush, S. C. (2013). Portfolio district reform meets school turnaround: Early implementation findings from the Los Angeles Public School Choice Initiative. Journal of Educational Administration, 51(4), 498–527.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 17, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17756, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 1:27:38 AM

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About the Author
  • Susan Bush-Mecenas
    Rossier School of Education
    E-mail Author
    SUSAN BUSH-MECENAS is a Provost’s PhD fellow at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. She current serves as a research assistant at the Center on Educational Governance, where she has assisted with a federally funded study of Teacher Incentive Fund-supported human capital reforms in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and served as project manager for the evaluation of LAUSD’s portfolio district reform mechanism, the Public School Choice Initiative. Previously, Ms. Bush-Mecenas assisted with a state-wide descriptive study of California’s alternative education programs. Her research interests include district reform, district and school capacity building, and organizational learning. Recent publications include: “Portfolio district reform meets school turnaround: Early Implementation findings from the Los Angeles Public School Choice Initiative” (Journal of Educational Administration) and, forthcoming , “Democratic Engagement in district reform: The evolving role of parents in the Los Angeles Public School Choice Initiative” (Educational Policy).
  • Julie Marsh
    Rossier School of Education
    E-mail Author
    Dr. Julie Marsh is an Associate Professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. Marsh is currently co-Principal Investigator (PI) of a federally funded study of Teacher Incentive Fund-supported human capital reforms in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and recently completed a study of the district’s efforts to implement portfolio management and turnaround reforms in its Public School Choice Initiative. She was also recently PI of a Spencer Foundation-funded study, Bridging the Data-Practice Divide: How Coaches and Data Teams Work to Build Teacher Capacity to Use Data. Recent publications include: “Trickle down accountability? How middle school teachers engage students in data use” (Educational Policy), “Supporting teachers with data-driven decision making: A framework for understanding capacity-building” (Education Management Administration and Leadership), “Recent trends in intergovernmental relations: The resurgence of local actors in education policy: (Educational Researcher). She has also authored Democratic dilemmas: Joint work, education politics, and community (SUNY Press), and co-edited School districts and instructional renewal (Teachers College Press).
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