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An UnCommon Theory of School Change

reviewed by Shane Shope & Michael Kessinger - August 29, 2019

coverTitle: An UnCommon Theory of School Change
Author(s): Kevin Fahey, Angela Breidenstein, Jacy Ippolito, & Frances Hensley
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807761249, Pages: 144, Year: 2019
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In An UnCommon Theory of School Change: Leadership for Reinventing Schools, the authors set out to tackle the important topic of school change theory and practice. The authors contend that school leaders often utilize a model, the Common Theory, that rarely improves school performance. To address this, they offer an alternative model as well as practical examples that demonstrate the power of using an UnCommon Theory of school change. The UnCommon Theory of school reinvention is not new to educators, but the authors offer a model of implementation that any school leader can follow. The focus on leadership is not necessarily a new approach to school reinvention, but the authors offer an in-depth look at what variables and situations must be analyzed and addressed to see any change. The book centers on a deep dive into the cultural and individual dynamics of each school and staff member. Key areas of focus include adult development, understanding the organizational culture, and constructing a sense of self-efficacy.


In Chapters One and Two, the authors set the stage by explaining the Common Theory and how it differs from the UnCommon Theory. The Common Theory might involve hiring a consultant or purchasing a program to address the issue of concern quickly. In many cases, however, this approach does not lead to real change. As the authors note, the Common Theory entails four steps: identification of a need; selection of a strategy to address that need; providing professional development for teachers; and having teachers implement this training in their classrooms. Following the implementation, there are two additional steps in the Common Theory that are considered: accountability and measurement. Teachers and administrators are held accountable to carry out the selected strategy. The administration then gathers data to determine its effectiveness in addressing the identified need. As noted, the Common Theory is straightforward and enjoys great popularity with politicians, policymakers, and bureaucrats (p. 6).


In Chapters Three and Four, the authors discuss the first phase of the deep dive: observing the present. The whole idea is to gain an accurate and unobstructed view of what is happening in the school in order to understand its specific culture and needs. As noted by the authors, this also involves getting others in the organization to see what is happening.


In Chapters Five and Six, the second phase of the deep dive is discussed: turning from what is happening to the beginning of the reinvention. The turn is the beginning of changing a schools culture and the way it is operated. According to the UnCommon Theory, the turn involves everyone in the organization; it is not just the third-grade teachers that are doing something new, but an organization-wide change in which everyone has a role, either directly or indirectly. Chapter Six shares stories from the turning stage at two different schools. The discussions include descriptions of two real-life school leaders and the challenges they faced, demonstrating consistent focus that is needed to make a successful turn.


Chapter Eight describes the enacting stage, recounting the story of a project carried out by second-grade students. The project involved students selecting an individual from history and presenting an argument about why they deserved to be featured on a postage stamp. People then cast their votes via social media and a winner was determined. In another case, a school that had the goal of improving the culture and relationships between various stakeholders (teachers, students, parents, and community) eventually arrived at a place where teachers were talking to one another and to school leaders, resulting in "a new school culture" (p. 96).


Chapter Nine, A Book for Activists, provides the reader with suggestions for how to survive the deep dive. The authors reaffirm that the book is for those educators "who are committed to and have a sense of urgency around big change and the reinvention of schools" (p. 105). The authors also indicate that a deep commitment is needed if a true reinvention of the school is to occur. Knowing that change is needed is not enough, and Common Theory will not get the job done. The authors promote the UnCommon Theory and its deep dive as a way for educators to understand adult development, school culture, and organizational change theory (p. 106). Reinventing the school, they argue, demands dedication, open-mindedness, and open communication with a leadership style that promotes a team effort, for it is the team that will reinvent the school.

An UnCommon Theory of School Change: Leadership for Reinventing Schools provides the reader with an alternative to the well-practiced Common Theory of school reform. We identify a problem, consider possible ways to address the issue, place a selected approach into practice, and then evaluate if we have adequately addressed the problem. The UnCommon Theory provides a deep dive, offering the leader and school community a slowed-down approach by considering the culture of the school, past and present (observing); considering various theories of organizational culture (turning); and implementing the changes needed to reinvent the school (enacting). The stories shared in each chapter provide the reader with real-life examples of how the three components of the deep dive can be used to reinvent schools. Moreover, the book offers an approach to change that can make a difference in the way our students are educated.




Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., Grunow, A., & LeMahieu, P. G. (2015). Learning to improve: How Americas schools can get better at getting better. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.


Cooperrider, D., & Whitney, D. (2005). Appreciative inquiry: A position revolution in change. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.


Gergen, K. J. (2014). From mirroring to world-making: Research as future forming. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 45(3), 287308.


Tschannen-Moran, M., & Clement, D. (2018). Fostering more vibrant schools. Educational Leadership, 75(6), 2833.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 29, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23073, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 10:11:36 PM

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About the Author
  • Shane Shope
    Morehead State University
    E-mail Author
    SHANE SHOPE is Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at Morehead State University. Shope earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership from Ohio University and a Master’s Degree in Curriculum from Miami University. Dr. Shope has over 27 years of experience in K-12 and higher education settings, including serving as a high school teacher and district-level administrator. Shope has worked as an educational consultant nationally and in the Middle East. His research has focused on College and Career Readiness, school transitions, rural leadership models, social justice issues, and community capacity building.
  • Michael Kessinger
    Morehead State University
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL KESSINGER retired from public education after 38 years of service in an eastern Kentucky school district. He is currently an assistant professor of education in the Department of Foundational and Graduate Studies at Morehead State University. His research interests are in gifted education, educational technology, and preparing school and district administrators. He is an active member of AERA and the National Association for Professional Development Schools (NAPDS).
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