Sustainable School Transformation: An Inside-Out School Led Approach
reviewed by Gary Galluzzo - April 11, 2014
Title: Sustainable School Transformation: An Inside-Out School Led Approach
Author(s): David Crossley (ed.)
Publisher: Bloomsbury, London
ISBN: 1780938179, Pages: 304, Year: 2013
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As nations confront the reality that their systems of educating children are trapped between the industrial economy and the information economy, they must also challenge the command-and-control ideology that restricts schools from paths of continuous self-improvement. This is one of the premises of Sustainable School Transformation: An Inside-Out School-Led Approach, edited by David Crossley, a noted education activist in the United Kingdom, which features chapters by authors who detail their work on sustainable transformation of schools, teaching, and learning. Another premise is made even more stark when he boldly asserts if we are to build a truly world-class system it will only be achieved through motivation, engagement, buy-in and resultant efforts of those in all our schools (p. 1), none of which is achieved through the traditional top-down management strategies emblematic of the industrial era.
Similarly, as educators confront the reality that schools are not providing maximum opportunities for students to have the skills, knowledge, and attitudes expected in the post-industrial information economy, they must also confront the traditions that prevent them from reaching more students in more powerful ways. The title of this book indicates a few central themes that are repeated and demonstrated throughout its fourteen chapters. First, that transformation requires a bottom up or inside-out strategy. Second, that the school and the people within it are the unit of change. Third, that if you get the culture right, anything is possible, including the creation of a self-enabling and therefore sustainable school. These are refreshingly key messages for anyone who has tired of the external controls of rewards and sanctions as levers for change.
Crossley lays out these foundations in the first three chapters, where he relies heavily on Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirleys Fourth Way thinking that champions the importance of a school and its personnel subscribing to a shared vision, engaging teaching and learning around that vision, school-to-school and peer-to-peer support, using data-based evidence to remain informed about the schools progress and sustainability, and focused useful evaluation as a continuous process. In addition to their work, Crossley includes the thinking of other modern management thinkers, such as Peter Drucker, Peter Senge, Jim Collins, and Sir Kenneth Robinson, each an advocate for systemic thinking as a contemporary perspective on organizational change.
In Chapters Four through Seven, we encounter case stories of schools and school systems in the US and the UK, and the educators who have undertaken the initial steps to transform their schools, whether through curriculum changes, technology uses, whole school redesign and choice, or shifting school cultures. The value of these chapters is that they allow the reader to peer inside what it takes for each of them to achieve their goals. It is hard not to read these chapters and be reminded that transformation is a process that at the least requires: a shared vision; time to achieve it; and supports for the implementers. In these four chapters, we read about the importance of that shared vision to generate buy-in, optimism, courage, a sense of trustworthy professional autonomy, and fidelity of implementation. These are stories of traditional schools and charter schools in the US or chain schools in the UK, demonstrating that school transformation is an international concern.
In Chapters Eight through Ten, the lens widens a bit, and we encounter more case stories from networks of schools in the UK that are demonstrating just how antiquated the policy levers of external accountability, a one-size-fits-all schooling model and assessment system are. It is helpful to read of educators who are taking charge of their schools, thinking about the students they teach in their school and what they need, setting higher expectations for them, and then designing teaching and learning around these expectations without being slavish to the inspections that use a test score to determine how well a school is performing. Rather, we see the courage in these educators to build the culture that is the right one for the students in their charge. In some instances, there is evidence to show that this approach works, and in other instances, it is still too early to tell. But I found the lack of evidence almost beside the point, because one of the most important themes in this volume is that the journey matters as much as the destination, and that owning a shared vision and long-term goals comprise a north star against which those in the school can measure their progress, which Crossley and James Park outline so clearly in their co-authored chapter on the importance of good data. I came away from these chapters thinking that they see accountability as part of the transformation process, not as its end. That is, they advocate for the judicious use of assessment and evaluation to improve a school, rather than solely to prove how well a school is doing.
In Chapters Eleven through Thirteen, the volume turns more toward those systemic issues that must be addressed, such as most schools are nested within other socio-political organizations, e.g. school systems, governmental agencies, and the like. In Chapter Eleven Jonathan Crossley-Holland and David Carter incorporate multiple examples of school-to-school networks that tell educators that none of them is walking the transformation path alone, that there are new peer relationships to foster continuous learning and improvement, and to remind each other that they are not working in isolation anymore. Any organization of schooling that relies on the industrial model and that wants to shed it for a more contemporary innovative model will need to learn in the company of others who share similar values. Collaboration is part of sustainability.
I found Chapter Twelve by Chris Holmwood particularly helpful in this regard. He details just how important teachers are to the process of school transformation. In a telling section, he describes asking a group of team leaders, what holds us back? He reports being quite surprised by their answer, fear, in many forms including, fear of failing, fear of failing results, fear of change, fear of losing structure (p. 239). This answer explains why so many of the chapter authors emphasize courage as a feature of school transformation. People need courage to overcome their fears. Innovation requires endless faith; courage is needed to keep that faith alive, and collaborative networks and supports maintain their courage. This is an international message about school reform: how can we shed the past and use the same scarce resources in new ways to achieve new outcomes?
The answer is found in the volumes final chapter, where David Crossley outlines what he says are the ways forward. He lists ten, and he makes a good case for each one. For me, though, they can be summarized as: start and remain optimistic; commit to planning and collaborating; stay focused; implement with fidelity; if you get the culture right, anything is possible; bottom up/inside out, and dont be afraid of using good data to chart the next steps.
Many who read books about school change, reform, or transformation look for what the authors did to achieve their goals. Anyone who reads this volume looking for the answer must recognize that commitment to local processes are a piece of the answer. Part of Fourth Way thinking is embracing the local-ness of change. Each of the cases presented in this volume developed its own focus. What is replicable is the local ownership needed for undertaking ambitious change, and perhaps even sustainable transformation. The message is that moving to 21st century education, especially for post-industrial nations, is not the search for the best answer, it is the search for what works best for the children who walk through the schools doors every morning. Holmwood closes his chapter with what I think is the question of the moment, if countries are failing to improve their schools, is it time to allow schools to improve their countries? Thats courage and optimism! And courage and optimism that makes this volume a worthwhile read for anyone interested in moving teaching, learning, and schools into the 21st century.
Hargreaves, A. & Shirley, D. (2009). The fourth way. San Francisco, CA: Corwin.