Partnerships for Improving Schools
reviewed by Betty Lou Whitford - 1989
There are so many ideas in this book that choosing a few to highlight here is as difficult as tasting only three items from a smorgasbord after a fast. Mention will be made of a sample of the wide array of the insights, both theoretical and practical, that professors Byrd Jones and Robert Maloy of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have amassed in partnerships for Improving Schools.
The focus is on cooperative activities between teachers and members of outside organizations that are sustained over time through agreements and mutually beneficial projects (p. xiii). Such a definition permits consideration of a wide variety of collaborations. While Jones and Maloy obviously draw on vast experience with collaborative activities, seven partnerships associated with the University of Massachusetts School of Education and various school districts receive special attention through cross-case analyses as their theory building unfolds.
The book is organized into three sections. Part I, A School Improvement Perspective, contains three chapters, each of which provides a layer of the authors perspective. In the introductory chapter, Jones and Maloy emphasize that partnerships can improve educational quality when they involve more than delivering a service and then assessing its success or failure (p. 11). When they locate decision making and problem solving with those most affected by the outcomes (teachers, usually), partnerships with outsiders can change teacher attitudes and/or school behaviors through group processes that share power and enhance the equity of outcomes (p. 18). They argue that successful partnerships will generate new understandings, improve the educational quality of schools, and negotiate means and goals toward a future society (p. 18).
Much of Chapter 2 is a well-organized primer on school culture and the nature of change. They argue that partnerships can overcome barriers to school improvement and professional development since outsiders can encourage reflection to stimulate crucial dialogues about curriculum, climate and educational purposes (p. 27).
In Chapter 3, the authors introduce three broad concepts for reexamining common problems, processes and potentials of partnerships (p. 34). These are multiple realities, ill-structured problems, and reflexive thinking. My interpretation of the argument Jones and Maloy present here and develop throughout the book is as follows.
Multiple realities exist in organizations because individuals attach different meanings to the same events. When meanings conflict, and routines cannot provide solutions, problems become ill-structured; that is, a puzzlement develops that does not imply a solution. Partnerships with outsiders are especially suited to tackling ill-structured problems because they provide a wider range of perspectives than would otherwise be the case. Since no one partner knows the answer, the process of collaboratively developing solutions encourages reflection and the reconstruction of meanings that can enhance the efficacy of individuals and partner organizations. Further, if this problem solving is guided by mutual commitment to equity and fairness of educational services, then partnerships can link school improvement to a better future society.
In Part II, Studies of Partnerships, two chapters focus on examples of collaborations by illustrating the arguments presented in Part One. Chapter 4 is a detailed description of a staff-development agreement between the Roosevelt Union Free School District on Long Island and the University of Massachusetts. It is a story of the processes, outcomes, problems, and potentials of a partnership in which teachers at first presumed university faculty would impart new knowledge but later recognized they [the teachers] had knowledge essential to facilitate school improvements (p. 67).
Jones and Maloy devote Chapter 5 to a discussion of partnerships with agencies other than universities, including parent/community groups, businesses, and human service agencies. They urge that just as outsiders should understand teachers complex roles and the elitism of higher education, educators need to appreciate the voluntaristic nature of parent/community groups, the drive for profits of firms, and the bureaucratic nature of human service agencies (p. 72).
In Chapter 6, Cooperation and Conflict among Partners, Jones and Maloy discuss how cooperation can result from mutual interests and conflicts from partners competing views about the appropriate purposes of schools.
Part III, Evolving Understandings, offers separate chapters dealing with aspects of partnerships from the distinct standpoints of teachers, organizations, leaders, and the larger society (p. xiv). In these four chapters, Jones and Maloy argue that
improvements in schools emerge as teachers explore their professional roles and dilemmas with others, as organizations reframe complex or ill-structured problems, and as leaders support alternatives that encourage experimentation. Over time, interactive processes between schools and outside organizations foster evolving understandings of education and better futures. (p. xiv)
In these latter chapters, Jones and Maloy also suggest helpful strategies and share lessons learned. For example, they found that effective improvement teams involved active support by leadership, viewed change as a systemic issue, encouraged members to play a variety of roles, and conceptualized improvement as a series of doable steps (p. 117). Likewise, they warn leaders not to adopt rational structures and bureaucratic procedures with linear steps for meeting well-understood objectives (p. 140). These and other such comments will prompt knowing nods of the head from most who have experience with partnerships, and they provide starting points for novices serious consideration.
For example, the book raises critical questions about different approaches to partnerships. Should partnerships be primarily grass-roots efforts with little top-down control? If so, what issues are off limits to governance bodies? If partnerships can bring about improvements suggested, should they become a way of life for university-school relations? If so, how can long-term partnerships maintain the insider-outsider perspectives Jones and Maloy argue for so persuasively? Finally, since educational improvements are so necessarily dominated by emergent processes, will testimonial data even in well-crafted case studies be sufficient for a society that still sees improvement only in terms of standardized measurements?
Partnerships for Improving Schools addresses these and many other questions. Most importantly, perhaps, it forcefully and directly reminds us that equity is the central criterion against which to measure educational progress.