Alternative Perspectives on School Improvement
reviewed by Eddy J. Van Meter - 1985
During the past few years there has been a great deal of commentary about and numerous studies and reports on issues relating to change and improvement in school settings. For example, since 1980 there have been rather substantial and informative contributions made under such separately defined rubrics as innovation and improvement,1 reform and improvement,2 risk and reform,3 experimentation and change,4 action and improvement,5 and general purpose assistance.6
More important than this diversity of nomenclature, however, is the fact that as the phenomenon evolves, the underlying frames of reference supporting various inquiries, programs, and discussions are becoming at once more distinct and more conceptually complex.7 A case in point is Alternative Perspectives on School Improvement, a collection of thirteen manuscripts written by an internationally diverse group of authors, which raises the issues of power, authority, and control in school improvement efforts.
The editors view school improvement as
a generic term that we use to refer to those developmental efforts which focus on the school. As such, school improvement encompasses topics such as in-service, the professional development of teachers, the implementation of education innovation, school focused curriculum development, organization development, and the roles of administrators, teachers and students in knowledge utilization. (p. 1)
Beyond this definition, however, the editors go on to place their major agenda on the table by suggesting that the book provides an alternative view to the centralized prescriptive mode of school improvement currently maintained in many jurisdictions and prevalent in much educational thought. This, then, is not only a collective treatise about school improvement,8 but also a book setting forth a proposal for greater individual school autonomy: The reins of school improvement, if we buy the message, should be placed in the hands of teachers, students, parents, and administrators at the building level where, after all, the action of school improvement ultimately takes place.
Organized into four major sections, Alternative Perspectives on School Improvement deals respectively with issues having to do with the concept of school improvement (three chapters), the individuals involved in such activities (four chapters), differing approaches to improvement (four chapters), and a concluding call to action (two chapters).
In the first section of the book, David Hopkins reviews the major theme of the book, Richard Schmuck operationalizes the concept . . . by reviewing various themes that give credibility to the school improvement concept and then by describing an ideal model of the autonomous school, and Mats Eckhold grounds the concept in a practical reality, by describing some school improvement initiatives that have occurred in Sweden (p. 3). Several things stand out in these three chapters. First, Hopkins notes the empirical-analytic emphasis that undergirds much of education in North America. He suggests an interest in moving away from this almost exclusive orientation so that phenomenology and critical theory begin to play a larger role, and he mentions some already existing school improvement initiatives of interest, including the Dutch Autonomous School project9 and the International School Improvement Project begun by the Organization for Economic and Cultural Development.10 Next, Schmuck provides a brief interpretive history of events leading up to the current interest in school improvement. He speaks to the issue of staff capacity for problem solving as a major feature needed in improvement efforts, and he attempts to build a case for the Autonomous School, which he describes as a school in which responsibilities are shared between the school management, the teachers, the non-teaching staff, the parents, and the students (p. 26). Finally, Eckholm presents the results of a ten-year study of school conditions in Sweden and speculates on the implications his findingsand those of several othersmight have for school improvement planning and implementation.
The second section of the book focuses on the individuals involved in the school improvement process and is, in my judgment, the most thought-provoking portion of the book. Here, Jean Rudduck argues for the importance of considering the students role in innovation; Lawrence Stenhouse uses the metaphor of the artist to highlight the teachers responsibility for developing and sustaining his or her own competence; Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers describe ways in which teachers can . . . improve . . . their teaching skills through peer coaching; and Michael Fullan examines the role of the principal as a change agent and gatekeeper for school improvement efforts (p. 3).
It is, of course, impossible in a short review to do justice to the ideas presented in more than a dozen well-conceived manuscripts, but several points stand out in the four chapters comprising this second section. In examining the role of students, Rudduck touches on a topic that has not received anywhere near the amount of attention it should. She raises a number of issues, but three seem of particular importance: the need to recognize more clearly that through efforts to reinstate the familiar and comfortable students can at times exert a powerful conservative force on attempts to introduce improvements; the need to be more clear regarding the basis on which innovations are introduced to students; and the need to develop formal procedures whereby students can engage in a critical dialogue with teachers and thus mutually sort out the meaning of an improvement activity. Stenhouse moves from the world of the pupil to the world of the teacher. The heart of his message is perhaps best expressed in the following excerpt:
Good teachers are necessarily autonomous in professional judgement. They do not need to be told what to do. They are not professionally the dependents of researchers or superintendents, of innovators or supervisors. This does not mean that they do not welcome access to ideas created by other people. . . . Nor do they reject advice, consultancy or support. But they do know that ideas and people are not of much real use until they are digested to the point where they are subject to the teachers own judgement. In short, it is the task of all educationalists outside the classroom to serve the teachers; for only teachers are in the position to create good teaching. . . . It is vital that administrators service teaching, not lead it. (pp. 69-70, 75)
Joyce and Showerss contribution to this section focuses on the transfer of acquired skills on the part of teachers to classroom practice; it is a procedure they see as being accomplished much more effectively through a coaching process than through other training methods. Finally, Fullan sets forth a three-part research review and commentary on the role of the principal as an agent of change for school improvement. In this review he examines several large-scale surveys on the overall role of the principal and several research efforts specifically focused on the role of the principal in facilitating change, and concludes by commenting on some possible implications to be drawn from the research examined.
Four papers comprise the third section of the book, and the focus here is on a review of different approaches to school improvement. Included are manuscripts by Ted Aoki, criticizing what he considers the prevailing instrumental approach to curriculum implementation and proposing an alternative view of implementation as praxis: Ken Eltis and three associates, describing an Australian school-focused program for the continuing education of teachers; Viviane M. J. Robinson, describing a school review and evaluation procedure implemented in New Zealand; and Philip Runkel and Richard Schmuck, commenting on the manner in which organization development activities can be incorporated into ongoing school activities.
The final section of Alternative Perspectives on School Improvement consists of two papers, the first written by Philip Runkel and entitled Maintaining Diversity in Schools, and the second written by Marvin Wideen and Ian Andrews and entitled Implications for Practice. In the editors words, these two papers take the themes implicit in the book and consider how they can be made manifest in schools and local situations (p. 165). Runkels paper calls for educational decision makers to do five things in moving schools toward improved adaptability: (1) deliberately maintain diversity in the way we do things in schools; (2) maintain the pool of variety by maintaining actual deviant practices; (3) establish a conscious way of selecting the most suitable ideas for use in dealing with current problems; (4) build channels to more parts of the social environment through which information and influence can reach the school; and (5) accept the discomfort, anxiety, and even fear that comes from harboring deviance (pp. 174-77). Wideen and Andrews attempt to summarize the several theses presented in the book. In so doing they identify four themes as predominant: a need for increased awareness about school improvement; a need for those providing support to buildings and teachers to facilitate but not control; a need to better understand the complexity of the improvement process; and a need for diversity (pp. 190-94).
So after thirteen chapters we have in final form a collective set of manuscripts calling for a new view of school improvement, a view based on greater individual schooland school personnelautonomy. What, then, do we make of this new view, and is it a call to which we should pay attention? I would suggest there is a great deal of provocative thought incorporated within the pages of this volume. To some extent these are academicians talking among themselves, but they do have some important things to say.
I find, however, two disturbing things about this book. The first has to do with ideology. I am confused by the seemingly equivocal nature of the position on emancipation taken by the authors: Is this or is this not in the final analysis a book promoting self-determinationand even liberationfor individual schools? It seems to me the book hedges on this issue. On the one hand there is a tinge of emancipation manifesto to the book, and on the other there is a seeming recognition ofand willingness to work towardsome increased autonomy within the present structure of schools. Perhaps the intent is to have it both ways and thus to promote the practical activist. If so, this is not made clear, nor is it a consistent message. The other problem is related to the issue of ideological equivocation but it has more to do with the practical consequences of promoting the autonomy notion. I am concerned that teachers, administrators, students, and parents as recipients of intrusive information and programs relating to school improvement are once again being given a terribly mixed message about an educational idea currently in vogue. I can see the real possibility of school districts initiating school improvement activities, generally from the central office level and most likely with a certain amount of central office agenda involved, only to find that one of the outside consultants asked to help in the effort is a new convert to the individual-school-autonomy-for-improvement philosophy. I see the potential consequences as one more case in which people at the building level will shake their heads, marvel at what other people want to do to them, wish outsiders would get their collective act together, and amid the confusion and ambiguity go about the task of providing an educational program for students.