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The Gritty Truth of School Transformation: Eight Phases of Growth to Instructional Rigor


reviewed by Coby Meyers - December 14, 2018

coverTitle: The Gritty Truth of School Transformation: Eight Phases of Growth to Instructional Rigor
Author(s): Amy Dujon
Publisher: Learning Sciences International, West Palm Beach
ISBN: 194392080X, Pages: 169, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com


Although research makes it increasingly clear that school transformation only occurs when schools are led by effective principals (Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstrom, & Anderson, 2010), practical insights into how to lead such change remain largely absent. Moreover, relatively little scholarly consideration has been given to sustaining the change initiative after the initial stages of transformation have been achieved (Hitt & Meyers, 2018). In The Gritty Truth of School Transformation: Eight Phases of Growth to Instructional Rigor, Amy Dujon combines academic framing with her personal endeavor to lead and sustain school-wide instructional change. She does this by leveraging a number of useful examples to illustrate her school’s instructional growth, however she also misses opportunities to make some important connections for the reader.


The book is divided into two parts, with five phases in the first and three more in the second. Part One, “The Productive Struggle,” details the first year of Dujon’s effort to lead substantial enough instructional change to achieve school transformation. The phases are developed as though they are relatively linear and resemble a long list of business, educational, and organizational leadership self-help books: set the vision, deconstruct the problem, face adversity (or as Dujon calls it, “the mud”), and build the team and the momentum that comes with it. However, the author makes at least two significant departures from that traditional line of writing. First, and perhaps most importantly, she tells her own transformational leadership story in a clear, intuitive way. Dujon is the protagonist of the story and provides compelling justification throughout about why that is, frequently referencing research literature and her own experience to point out how critical the role of school principal is to organizational change. Second, and relatedly, the change process is demonstrated through a practical example that resonates across all schools: the critical importance of improving instructional quality in all classrooms. In her introduction, Dujon emphasizes that student performance is not always indicative of instructional quality, and that despite her school’s traditionally acceptable performance, there remained considerable room to grow.


Unfortunately, the last chapter of Part One and first chapter of Part Two are less compelling for a few reasons. Most notably, the rationale for each chapter lacks the adhesive that the other chapters possess. “Phase Five: The Joy of Teaching is Back” is by far the shortest content chapter. With only about seven pages, including a lengthy case that does not fit well, the chapter appears more of an effort to put a bow on the grueling first year of transformational effort than a clear advancement of the author’s greater purpose. In a similarly jarring way, “Phase Six: Getting Back to the End” insufficiently builds on Part One; it’s the first chapter in the second part of the book but instead seems to be built on assumptions. In particular, Dujon reviews research on student summer learning loss before subtly transitioning to her belief that teachers will have likely reverted to former instructional practice during their time away. Perhaps the reset that the author advocates for at the beginning of the second year of the transformational process was critical to overall success, but no real evidence (empirical, anecdotal, or otherwise) is presented. Instead, the initial phase of the second year seems to involve more of Dujon’s introspection than her leading others in the change process.


Dujon conveys that the second year of the process was about two important steps: establishing systems that would be sustainable and transitioning instructional practice from being student-centered to being student-centered with rigor. She deftly transitions to these core issues in Phases Seven and Eight, where she focuses on digging deeper through data use and distributing leadership practices. More specifically, she thoughtfully addresses the practical issues of data timing (summative, interim, and formative) while detailing how she and her team created new ways forward. In a similarly thought-provoking way, the author makes the important case for distributing leadership, then shares how she planned for and executed the instructional leadership growth of others.


In addition to the timeliness, relevance, and practicality of this book, the author is able to engage the reader in a number of useful ways. Dujon’s singular focus on instructional rigor as the lever to transform her school highlights how important it is for leaders to identify what matters most and focus on it intensely (Duke, 2015; Mintrop & MacLellan, 2002). She also effectively communicates that transformation is not limited to a single process or time, but that sustaining (and planning for sustainment) is imperative for long-lasting change (Hitt & Meyers, 2018). Perhaps more directly relevant for a practitioner reader, Dujon concludes each chapter with a bullet-point summary of key leadership strategies, warnings of pitfalls that often arise and can easily derail transformation, and discussion questions that drive critical self-reflection. In Part Two, she also assesses risks, identifies rewards, and offers reflections to encourage principals to continue to lead aggressively for instructional change. There are many logical, strong pushes for principals to consider how they lead, and many of the tools can easily be (re)applied to other areas of school leadership, not just instructional improvement.


As noted in the introduction, there are some ways that the book could have been more impactful. The provocative book title underscores that the gritty truth is that leading school transformation requires a principal to possess situational understanding and doggedness as well as certain skills, dispositions, and competencies (Chenoweth & Theokas, 2011) in order to drive lasting organizational change (Hitt, Woodruff, Meyers, & Zhu, 2018). In multiple studies, education leadership scholar Kenneth Leithwood has discussed transformation leadership as intentionally fostering capacity development and increasing the commitment of others to meeting organizational goals (e.g., Leithwood & Jantzi, 2006; Leithwood & Sun, 2012). However, such leadership enactment is most frequently embedded in efforts to turn around low-performing schools (e.g., Meyers & Hitt, 2017). Dujon makes the related point that instructional improvement and organizational transformation can be led in any school (i.e., each school needs to be transformed in some way). Nonetheless, the language of the title and some book content presents a bait-and-switch scenario where organizational transformation is occurring in a setting perhaps more primed for such a change than is typically associated with the concept of transformation.


A more significant concern is an insufficient description of the author’s relationship with Learning Sciences International (LSI), for whom she works as a consultant, and Schools of Rigor (SOR), a program or intervention developed by LSI in which her school participated. Neither her relationship with LSI nor her participation in SOR is necessarily problematic, but her transformation and writing are clearly influenced by each. Much of the focus of the book leans upon scholars such as Michael Toth (Founder and CEO of LSI) and Robert Marzano and Dylan Wiliam (whose centers are advertised prominently on the LSI website). In short, the author is clearly influenced by prominent people and organizations directly involved with the partnership between SOR and her school. More problematic is the insufficient explanation of what SOR is, how it operates, and how it worked with Dujon’s school. By not explaining this clearly, it is difficult for the reader to know if the transformation is Dujon’s, SOR’s, or some combination of the two. It is unfortunate, but a constant question I found myself asking throughout my reading of the book was this: Whose content (and story) is this?


References


Duke, D. L. (2015). Leadership for low-performing schools: A step-by-step guide to the school turnaround process. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.


Hitt, D. H., & Meyers, C. V. (2018). Beyond turnaround: A synthesis of relevant frameworks for leaders of sustained improvement in previously low-performing schools. School Leadership & Management, 38(1), 4–31.


Hitt, D. H., Woodruff, D., Meyers, C. V., & Zhu, G. (2018). Principal competencies that make a difference: Identifying a model for leaders of school turnaround. Journal of School Leadership, 28(1), 56–81.


Leithwood, K., & Jantzi, D. (2006). Transformational school leadership for large-scale reform: Effects on students, teachers, and their classroom practices. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 17(2), 201–227.


Leithwood, K., & Sun, J. (2012). The nature and effects of transformational school leadership: A meta-analytic review of unpublished research. Educational Administration Quarterly, 48(3), 387–423.


Louis, K. S., Leithwood, K., Wahlstrom, K. L., & Anderson, S. E. (2010). Investigating the links to improved student learning: Final report of research findings. New York, NY: Wallace Foundation.


Meyers, C. V., & Hitt, D. H. (2017). School turnaround principals: What does initial research literature suggest they are doing to be successful? Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), 22(1), 38–56.


Mintrop, H., & MacLellan, A. M. (2002). School improvement plans in elementary and middle schools on probation. Elementary School Journal, 102(4), 275–300.

 





Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 14, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22602, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 6:23:55 PM

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About the Author
  • Coby Meyers
    University of Virginia
    E-mail Author
    COBY MEYERS is the Chief of Research of the Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE) and Associate Professor of Education in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. Dr. Meyers' research focuses on understanding the role of school system leadership, especially in the context of school turnaround. Recent publications include an analysis of the evidence of educational provider impact on student achievement in the American Journal of Education and multiple articles on school improvement planning and school turnaround leadership.
 
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